By Conrad Geller

Poets demonstrably know nothing about death since it is, in Hamlet’s phrase, “the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.” Yet from the Egyptian Book of the Dead some 4,500 years ago to the latest agony in the current issue of your favorite literary journal, bards and lyricists have persistently speculated about death, called it both soft and bitter names, and expressed distress at its coming to call.

In view of the continuing popularity of that Unmentionable Topic, and for no particular reason, here is my list of the ten best poems about death. In compiling the list, I have restricted myself to short classical poems in English from a little before 1900. I know that such restrictions have necessitated my leaving out the greatest death poem of them all, Dante’s Comedia, as well as some fine twentieth-century poems by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

But to the list:

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10. “Thanatopsis,” by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

This one belongs on the list not only for its own merits but also because it exerted a great influence on American letters, especially on American Romanticism, for several generations. In this poem, the seventeen-year-old Bryant instructs his readers in a little less than a hundred lines of blank verse how to live and especially how to die—cheerfully, he advises. In the meantime, he presents a vivid picture of a corpse’s decomposition and a grand view of an earth filled with the billions of bodies of those who have gone before.

 

William Cullen Bryant

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—
Comes a still voice—

Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,
The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.   The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods—rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glide away, the sons of men,
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

 

9. “Lycidas,” by John Milton (1608-1674)

I know Milton is a gigantic figure and this is one of the greatest of all pastoral odes,  formally an elegy to boot, but I give it a modest place in this list because it is only perfunctorily about the loss of his classmate and more about religion and art in general. Milton clearly used the occasion of Edward King’s death to lecture his readers about the evils of an indifferent Anglican Church and a predatory Catholic Church. In passing he takes a good swipe at his fellow poets, who he says have sold out to commercialism.

milton

John Milton

 

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat’ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.

Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring;
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain and coy excuse!
So may some gentle muse
With lucky words favour my destin’d urn,
And as he passes turn
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud!

For we were nurs’d upon the self-same hill,
Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill;
Together both, ere the high lawns appear’d
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove afield, and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose at ev’ning bright
Toward heav’n’s descent had slop’d his westering wheel.
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Temper’d to th’oaten flute;
Rough Satyrs danc’d, and Fauns with clov’n heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long;
And old Damætas lov’d to hear our song.

But O the heavy change now thou art gone,
Now thou art gone, and never must return!
Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods and desert caves,
With wild thyme and the gadding vine o’ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn.
The willows and the hazel copses green
Shall now no more be seen
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.
As killing as the canker to the rose,
Or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze,
Or frost to flowers that their gay wardrobe wear
When first the white thorn blows:
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd’s ear.

Where were ye, Nymphs, when the remorseless deep
Clos’d o’er the head of your lov’d Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep
Where your old bards, the famous Druids, lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream.
Ay me! I fondly dream
Had ye bin there’—for what could that have done?
What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself, for her enchanting son,
Whom universal nature did lament,
When by the rout that made the hideous roar
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?

Alas! what boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely, slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done, as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neæra’s hair?
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life. “But not the praise,”
Phoebus replied, and touch’d my trembling ears;
“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistering foil
Set off to th’world, nor in broad rumour lies,
But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in Heav’n expect thy meed.”

O fountain Arethuse, and thou honour’d flood,
Smooth-sliding Mincius, crown’d with vocal reeds,
That strain I heard was of a higher mood.
But now my oat proceeds,
And listens to the Herald of the Sea,
That came in Neptune’s plea.
He ask’d the waves, and ask’d the felon winds,
“What hard mishap hath doom’d this gentle swain?”
And question’d every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked promontory.
They knew not of his story;
And sage Hippotades their answer brings,
That not a blast was from his dungeon stray’d;
The air was calm, and on the level brine
Sleek Panope with all her sisters play’d.
It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in th’eclipse, and rigg’d with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.

Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,
His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,
Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
Like to that sanguine flower inscrib’d with woe.
“Ah! who hath reft,” quoth he, “my dearest pledge?”
Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake;
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:
“How well could I have spar’d for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck’ning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw,
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said,
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more”.

Return, Alpheus: the dread voice is past
That shrunk thy streams; return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flow’rets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamel’d eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied showers
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak’d with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well attir’d woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears;
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where’er thy bones are hurl’d;
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world,
Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold:
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of him that walk’d the waves;
Where, other groves and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the Saints above,
In solemn troops, and sweet societies,
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more:
Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.

Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals gray;
He touch’d the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay;
And now the sun had stretch’d out all the hills,
And now was dropp’d into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch’d his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

 

8. “The Conqueror Worm,” by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Poe may be the strangest of all the poets in this list; “The Conqueror Worm” is surely the strangest poem. A group of angels, “drowned in tears,” are watching a play in which various characters chase about the stage, depicting “much of Madness, and more of Sin, and Horror the soul of the plot.” Presently, the horrid figure of a worm appears to eat up all the characters. The poet explains, “. . . the play is the tragedy, ‘Man,’ / And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.”

Edgar_Allan_Poe_by_Samuel_S_Osgood,_1845

Edgar Allan Poe

 

Lo! ’t is a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Wo!

That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

 

7. “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Tennyson on his deathbed requested that this poem end any collection of his work. Its four stanzas present an extended metaphor in which life is a river, flowing endlessly into the “boundless deep” of the sea, and the speaker is a sailor, stoically passing the sandbar that separates the familiarity of the harbor from the unknown realm of the open sea. In the end, the sailor expresses the hope that he will finally meet the “Pilot” that has guided him.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

 

6. “Spring and Fall: to a Young Girl,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

This poem surely belongs on my list, although it is not specifically about human death but about what in the Middle Ages was called “mutability,” the inevitable process by which all material things beneath the lunar sphere must wear down and decay. The falling leaves that appall the child are symbolic of the universal condition. Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, intones the universal truth at the end: “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.”

GerardManleyHopkins.jpg

Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

 

5. “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” by Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

At one time this was thought to be the best known of all English poems.  A meditation about the obscurity of the rural life, the message is that fame or obscurity are matters of chance, and that possibly one of the men interred in this country churchyard might have been a Milton or a Hampden if he had been born in another place or to another fortune. Its most famous line suggests that fame or obscurity don’t matter after all: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9b/PortraitThomasGrayByJohnGilesEccart1747to1748.jpg

Thomas Gray

 

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

THE EPITAPH
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

 

4. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

This strange poem projects an extended metaphor in which a personified Death, as a coachman, takes the poet riding past scenes of life, past a house that evokes a gravestone, and finally, she surmises, toward “Eternity.” The twenty-four lines of this poem  maintain, typically for Dickinson, a  rickety abcb form, with slant rhymes predominating. But like the best of Dickinson, the language here is telling and the images uncannily powerful. For those reasons it is high on my list.

emily dickinson

Emily Dickinson

 

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

 

3.  “No longer Mourn for Me,” (Sonnet 71), by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

In this sonnet the poet imagines his own death and its effect on a loved one left behind. “Forget about me after I’m gone,” he advises, “because otherwise the world might shame you for your relationship with me.”  Of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, this one may be the most intimate,  directed most personally toward a particular reader.

Cobbe_portrait_of_Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

 

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

 

2. “To an Athlete Dying Young,” by A. E. Housman (1859-1936)

I boldly put this above Shakespeare because it is a special favorite of mine. As in all of Housman’s poetry, the language is simple, seeming oddly contemporary for a work written more than a hundred years ago. The comparison between the cheering crowd at the race and the mourners at the funeral present a powerful assertion of the disparate similarity between life and death. And the proposition that dying young is better than growing old brings a modern voice to an idea as old as the Iliad.

http://static.newworldencyclopedia.org/a/a6/Housman.jpg

A. E. Housman

 

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

 

1. “Death Be Not Proud,” by John Donne (1572-1631)

Donne’s bold confrontation with a personified Death  deserves the top spot in this list, almost, I imagine, by acclimation. One of the poet’s Holy Sonnets, it presents a remarkable list of all the ways to die (I can’t think of any additions), and ends with what most of us hope will be a final word: “Death, thou shalt die.”

john-donne-after-miniature-by-isaac-oliver-ca-1616

John Donne

 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

 

So there it is, my Dismal Ten. It is quite possible, Dear Reader, that I have left out one of your favorites, and more likely still that my ordering has not been to your liking. If so, I don’t want to hear from you about it. Make up your own list and post it in the comment section below.

 

Conrad Geller is an old, mostly formalist poet, a Bostonian now living in Northern Virginia. His work has appeared widely in print and electronically.

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11 Responses

  1. Carol Smallwood

    Thank you, Conrad, for the great list. You selected well and especially appreciated the inclusion of Emily Dickinson! I would like to share receiving a postcard today from the local funeral home to hear choices on burial while enjoying free hot pizza. It was sent to Resident so felt it didn’t mean me.

    Reply
  2. Profile photo of Dusty Grein
    Dusty Grein

    Conrad,

    I applaud your choices; I think your selections are very astute. True, I may have ordered them somewhat differently, bu rather than post my own list here, I will just laud you on the fact that you have brought many of the darkest works of the masters into the light for fresh eyes to appraise.

    I myself, while fairly well versed in many classics, had never read the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, nor A. E. Housman – and so now have what I anticipate to be many hours of pleasure getting to know them through their legacies. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Durlabh Singh

    Death is A Journey,

    Death is a journey
    That goes across waters
    Sailing in transparent vehicle
    Taking fire from pyre in wrath
    To lighten the darkness of the path.

    Always paths of the departure
    In the night sleep, in body the end
    Undefined dreams, dreams of adventure
    A tale in the mystery, all laws in the censure.

    Durlabh Singh

    Reply
  4. Robert Cooperman

    Not “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”? Not “Adonais”? Poe? Really?

    Reply
    • Conrad Geller

      Thomas’ villanelle would belong in any overall list, I agree, but I have limited myself to poems before 1900 for this one. As for other additions or deletions, as I said, everyone is free to write his or her own list.

      Reply
  5. Conrad Geller

    Someone’s reply included, “Poe? Really? [sniff, sniff].” I admit that Poe’s popularity persists, even among people who know nothing about poetry. Would it help if I say I like Bergman films more than Mel Brooks films? I don’t really, but I want to belong to the club.

    Reply
  6. Profile photo of Lorna Davis
    Lorna Davis

    Such a perfect time of year for this list! I can’t disagree with any of your choices, and am also happy to see Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could Not Stop for Death”. It has long been one of my favorites. It seems to me that all art originates with humanity’s need to remember, from cave art depicting herds and hunts, to heroic epics. The goddess of memory is the mother of the Muses. It follows then that death, and what happens to those we wish to remember, would be a topic of poetry. Thank you for this list. You’ve given me some new poets to look into.

    Reply
  7. Profile photo of
    AMANPREET SINGH MANKU

    This poem by Lord Byron would have been my pick for sure ;
    And thou art dead, as young and fair
    As aught of mortal birth;
    And form so soft, and charms so rare,
    Too soon return’d to Earth!
    Though Earth receiv’d them in her bed,
    And o’er the spot the crowd may tread
    In carelessness or mirth,
    There is an eye which could not brook
    A moment on that grave to look.
    I will not ask where thou liest low,
    Nor gaze upon the spot;
    There flowers or weeds at will may grow,
    So I behold them not:
    It is enough for me to prove
    That what I lov’d, and long must love,
    Like common earth can rot;
    To me there needs no stone to tell,
    ‘T is Nothing that I lov’d so well.
    Yet did I love thee to the last
    As fervently as thou,
    Who didst not change through all the past,
    And canst not alter now.
    The love where Death has set his seal,
    Nor age can chill, nor rival steal,
    Nor falsehood disavow:
    And, what were worse, thou canst not see
    Or wrong, or change, or fault in me.
    The better days of life were ours;
    The worst can be but mine:
    The sun that cheers, the storm that lowers,
    Shall never more be thine.
    The silence of that dreamless sleep
    I envy now too much to weep;
    Nor need I to repine
    That all those charms have pass’d away,
    I might have watch’d through long decay.
    The flower in ripen’d bloom unmatch’d
    Must fall the earliest prey;
    Though by no hand untimely snatch’d,
    The leaves must drop away:
    And yet it were a greater grief
    To watch it withering, leaf by leaf,
    Than see it pluck’d to-day;
    Since earthly eye but ill can bear
    To trace the change to foul from fair.
    I know not if I could have borne
    To see thy beauties fade;
    The night that follow’d such a morn
    Had worn a deeper shade:
    Thy day without a cloud hath pass’d,
    And thou wert lovely to the last,
    Extinguish’d, not decay’d;
    As stars that shoot along the sky
    Shine brightest as they fall from high.
    As once I wept, if I could weep,
    My tears might well be shed,
    To think I was not near to keep
    One vigil o’er thy bed;
    To gaze, how fondly! on thy face,
    To fold thee in a faint embrace,
    Uphold thy drooping head;
    And show that love, however vain,
    Nor thou nor I can feel again.
    Yet how much less it were to gain,
    Though thou hast left me free,
    The loveliest things that still remain,
    Than thus remember thee!
    The all of thine that cannot die
    Through dark and dread Eternity
    Returns again to me,
    And more thy buried love endears
    Than aught except its living years.

    Reply

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