Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day Didst make thy triumph over death and sin, And having harrowed hell, didst bring away Captivity thence captive, us to win: This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin, And grant that we, for whom thou diddest die, Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin, May live forever in felicity: And that thy love we weighing worthily, May likewise love thee for the same again; And for thy sake, that all like dear didst buy, May love with one another entertain. So let us love, dear love, like as we ought, Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
Holy Sonnets: Death Be Not Proud
by 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.
As one who, groping in a narrow stair,
Hath a strong sound of bells upon his ears,
Which, being at a distance off, appears
Quite close to him because of the pent air:
So with this France. She stumbles file and square
Darkling and without space for breath: each one
Who hears the thunder says: “It shall anon
Be in among her ranks to scatter her.”
This may be; and it may be that the storm
Is spent in rain upon the unscathed seas,
Or wasteth other countries ere it die:
Till she,—having climbed always through the swarm
Of darkness and of hurtling sound,—from these
Shall step forth on the light in a still sky.
Paris In Spring
by Sara Teasdale
The city’s all a-shining
Beneath a fickle sun,
A gay young wind’s a-blowing,
The little shower is done.
But the rain-drops still are clinging
And falling one by one —
Oh it’s Paris, it’s Paris,
And spring-time has begun.
I know the Bois is twinkling
In a sort of hazy sheen,
And down the Champs the gray old arch
Stands cold and still between.
But the walk is flecked with sunlight
Where the great acacias lean,
Oh it’s Paris, it’s Paris,
And the leaves are growing green.
The sun’s gone in, the sparkle’s dead,
There falls a dash of rain,
But who would care when such an air
Comes blowing up the Seine?
And still Ninette sits sewing
Beside her window-pane,
When it’s Paris, it’s Paris,
And spring-time’s come again.
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!
Sonnets From The Portuguese
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Beloved, my Beloved, when I think
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sate alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink
No moment at thy voice … but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains, as if that so
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand … why, thus I drink
Of life’s great cup of wonder! Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,—nor ever cull
Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote one of the most famous sonnets, a poem written in secret to her husband before their elopement and marriage. Their love story an iconic example of the power of love and poetry to transform lives. It is also a powerful of example of a writer writing for herself and the enjoyment it brought to her life.
Although during her lifetime and well into the 20th Century her husband’s work overshadowed Elizabeth’s in literary circles, if you were to ask someone to quote a Robert Browning poem from memory all but the most astute literary minds would likely come up blank. However, I would fancy a modest bet that almost everyone can complete the first line of one of Elizabeth’s Sonnet’s From The Portuguese, if they hear the title; “How Do I Love Thee.” Elizabeth and Robert met on the basis of her courage to write and publish despite the lack of acceptance of such pursuits by her controlling father. Elizabeth wrote a poem in which she praised work of Robert’s. He returned the favor, sending her a fan letter, telling of his admiration for her work in both poetry and her unique translation of Prometheus Bound. The two proceeded to fall in love through correspondence of a combined more than 500 letters over 2 years, in which Robert slowly helped Elizabeth overcome her reluctance to wed, stemming from her emotional devastation caused by her brother’s tragic death from drowning during a period of Elizabeth’s convalescence seaside to help alleviate the symptoms of lung disease which effected her throughout her life. She blamed herself for her brother’s death through what she felt was her own selfish need for him to be by her side while she was away recuperating and worried what giving her heart to Robert might bring in terms of sorrows as well as joys. Fortunately for both, love prevailed and their marriage proved successful in all facets of their partnership.
As both Elizabeth’s and Robert’s body of work grew and their stature in the literary world became established, she steadfastly maintained her independence. Elizabeth wrote: “I never wrote to please any of you, not even to please my own husband”. Good advice for all writers. Write what pleases you, regardless of whether it is met with ignorance, admonishment or acclaim. Sometimes the best work is written for an audience of one.
by Robert Browning
At the midnight in the silence of the sleep-time,
When you set your fancies free,
Will they pass to where—by death, fools think, imprisoned—
Low he lies who once so loved you, whom you loved so,
Oh to love so, be so loved, yet so mistaken!
What had I on earth to do
With the slothful, with the mawkish, the unmanly?
Like the aimless, helpless, hopeless, did I drivel
One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break, Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.
No, at noonday in the bustle of man’s work-time
Greet the unseen with a cheer!
Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
“Strive and thrive!” cry “Speed,—fight on, fare ever
There as here!”
“No, when the fight begins within himself, a man is worth something.”
For The Anniversary of my Death
by W. S. Merwin
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
In as much as spring is a season of renewal, it can be equally a season of death. Whether you are a Christian or not, the Lenten season brings reminders of loss in sudden and subtle ways. I was reminded of this the past couple weeks watching a friend process again for the millionth time her connection to the landscape of her childhood home that is wrapped in more than memories. It is land that is spiritual and sacred in all seasons, particularly spring as returning swans and sand hill cranes bring with them connections to springs past. It is a place where both the life and death of loved ones still reside and in that sense of place that is home, they remain very much with her.
Lent has many different meanings to different people, but ultimately each of us are wise to find some measure of hope in reckoning our losses. A retired Catholic priest recently gave good advice to a different friend of mine who tragically lost a loved one much, much to prematurely. He said after months of sadness, “Be careful you don’t fall in love with your grief.” Everyone deals with grief in a different way and there is no right or wrong way or length of time, everyone has to work through it at their own speed.
In processing the death of my Mother’s sudden passing, I came to recognize that for myself, releasing grief was not an act of releasing the very physical presence of my Mother who still resides in my heart. For me it was a process of making sure my grief doesn’t cast a long shadow on the living who still bask in my light that shines among them and in that way, honor my Mother who lit that candle in my soul.
If you are grieving the loss of a loved one this spring, I hope you can find a suitable resting spot that is part of the place you call home to bury a slice of the intensity of that grief, so that you’ll always know where it is, and so that you can safely move on in ways that give you grace and bring renewal.
A Sequence of Sonnets on the Death of Robert Browning
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Among the wondrous ways of men and time
He went as one that ever found and sought
And bore in hand the lamp-like spirit of thought
To illume with instance of its fire sublime
The dusk of many a cloudlike age and clime.
No spirit in shape of light and darkness wrought,
No faith, no fear, no dream, no rapture, nought
That blooms in wisdom, nought that burns in crime,
No virtue girt and armed and helmed with light,
No love more lovely than the snows are white,
No serpent sleeping in some dead soul’s tomb,
No song-bird singing from some live soul’s height,
“On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.”
W. S. Merwin
The Wings of Daylight
by W. S. Merwin
Brightness appears showing us everything
it reveals the splendors it calls everything
but shows it to each of us alone
and only once and only to look at
not to touch or hold in our shadows
what we see is never what we touch
what we take turns out to be something else
what we see that one time departs untouched
while other shadows gather around us
the world’s shadows mingle with our own
we had forgotten them but they know us
they remember us as we always were
they were at home here before the first came
everything will leave us except the shadows
but the shadows carry the whole story
at first daybreak they open their long wings
William Stanley Merwin lived in solitude in Hawaii, living a life of poetry since 1971, reportedly steadfastly refusing to answer the telephone. God bless him for rejecting technology as an unnecessary interference. His poetry spoke with a clarity of a connection to nature and the whim that nature imparts between beauty and tragedy. Merwin’s style can be a bit opaque at times, but I like my poetry on the side of the mystics. I don’t believe that poets should be forced to spell out all their secrets or scribble them down in proper grammar and punctuation, we’ll leave that to novelists and journalists.
A sense of astonishment runs through much of Merwin’s work. It feels genuine and not forced. Astonishment in the force of nature’s beauty, astonishment in love, astonishment in the good fortune that was his life. It is infecticious if you let it.
I have been in a state of astonishment lately. Astonished at the ability of life to change in an instant for the good. Astonishment in the beginnings of a new relationship. Astonishment in the sudden undaunted optimism for the future. I hope to surf that astonishment as a wave as I grow younger by the day, by the year, by the decade….
One of the Lives
by W. S. Merwin
If I had not met the red-haired boy whose father . . had broken a leg parachuting into Provence
to join the resistance in the final stage of the war . . and so had been killed there as the Germans were moving north
out of Italy and if the friend who was with him . . as he was dying had not had an elder brother
who also died young quite differently in peacetime . . leaving two children one of them with bad health
who had been kept out of school for a whole year by an illness . . and if I had written anything else at the top
of the examination form where it said college . . of your choice or if the questions that day had been
put differently and if a young woman in Kittanning . . had not taught my father to drive at the age of twenty
so that he got the job with the pastor of the big church . . in Pittsburgh where my mother was working and if
I would not have found myself on an iron cot . . with my head by the fireplace of a stone farmhouse
that had stood empty since some time before I was born . . I would not have travelled so far to lie shivering
with fever though I was wrapped in everything in the house . . nor have watched the unctuous doctor hold up his needle
at the window in the rain light of October . . I would not have seen through the cracked pane the darkening
valley with its river sliding past the amber mountains . . nor have wakened hearing plums fall in the small hour
thinking I knew where I was as I heard them fall.
Where it begins will remain a question
for the time being at least which is to
say for this lifetime and there is no
other life that can be this one again
and where it goes after that only one
at a time is ever about to know
though we have it by heart as one and though
we remind each other on occasion
How often may the clarinet rehearse
alone the one solo before the one
time that is heard after all the others
telling the one thing that they all tell of
it is the sole performance of a life
come back I say to it over the waters
William Stanley Merwin died four days ago on March 15. Merwin was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize twice, separated by 38 years, the first in 1971 and the second in 2009, putting him in rarefied air among poets with everyone looking up at Robert Frost who received four, a bit hoggish I think, having the inability to write crap for an extended period in his career so someone else could bring home some bling.
Merwin and MacLeish helped balance the scales in the poetry world by showing it is possible to be a poet and live to a ripe old age and not smoke and drink yourself to death prematurely with an anxiety ridden existance as the source of your muse or worse yet, stick your head in an oven like a few other Pulitzer prize winners. Fortunately, the Pulitzer committee does not take into account the theatrical nature of the poet’s self-destruction as a criteria for receiving the award. They only look at the body of work and in both MacLeish’s and Merwin’s cases the body of work is long and substantial. Each lived big lives and expanded the world of poetry through their contributions. MacLeish also a recipient of the Pulitzer in 1933.
The poem below snuck up on me. Preparing for this blog post, I read a number of MacLeish’s better known poems and kept coming back to this poem. I can’t explain why, other than it feels like a poem that is a private conversation between the poet and the reader in the quiet of the moment, a whisper in your ear, a confidence between a favorite uncle and his much younger protege, saying “pay attention, your life is happening, right now.” So pay attention and enjoy, both your life and this poem.
The Rock In The Sea
By Archibald MacLeish (1892 – 1982)
Think of our blindness where the water burned!
Are we so certain that those wings, returned
And turning, we had half discerned
Before our dazzled eyes had surely seen
The bird aloft there, did not mean?—
Our hearts so seized upon the sign!
Think how we sailed up-wind, the brine
Tasting of daphne, the enormous wave
Thundering in the water cave—
Thunder in stone. And how we beached the skiff
And climbed the coral of that iron cliff
And found what only in our hearts we’d heard—
The silver screaming of that one, white bird:
The fabulous wings, the crimson beak
That opened, red as blood, to shriek
And clamor in that world of stone,
No voice to answer but its own.
What certainty, hidden in our hearts before,
Found in the bird its metaphor?
Now for a little I have fed on loneliness
As on some strange fruit from a frost-touched vine –
Persimmon in its yellow comeliness,
Or pomegranate-juice the color of wine,
The pucker-mouth crab apple, or late plum –
On fruit of loneliness have I been fed.
But now after short absence I am come
Back from felicity to the wine and bread.
For, being mortal, this luxurious heart
Would starve for you, my dear, I must admit,
If it were held another hour apart
From that food which it alone can comfort it –
I am come home to you, for at the end
I find I cannot live without you, friend.
“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.”
The Work of Happiness
by May Sarton
I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring,
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.
So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall –
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.
For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.