Tag Archives: death

‘The Fly’ by William Blake

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

I read The Fly today and it reminded me of a line from King Lear, when Gloucester says: “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods,/ They kill us for their sport.” Like that line from Shakespeare, Blake’s poem (from his Songs of Experience) explores the idea that man lives constantly under the shadow of the “blind hand” of death, just as a fly is subject to the whims of the “thoughtless hand” of man.

The way Blake creates a parallel between the fly and the speaker, by likening the fly’s “summer’s play” to his own merriment of dancing, singing and drinking, creates (I think) a powerful sense of the fleetingness and fragility of life. In the face of the ephemeral nature of existence, the fly and the speaker are equal. There is something very egalitarian about this poem, because it seems to suggest that all creatures are equal in the face of mortality.Below is the etching that Blake did for this particular poem, (he created these for all his poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience.) This etching seems to me to fit the poem perfectly. Like the poem, the image of the children and the mother figure seems perfectly innocent, just like the sing-song, nursery-rhyme tone and rhythm to the written piece. However, on closer inspection, the image becomes more sinister, and we can see that the children playing are very fragile; one plays merrily with a racket and shuttlecock, and the other needs the help of the mother as he attempts to walk. The trees that frame the image are bare, skeletal and oppressive, as if to remind us that death is never far away.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Of all the souls that stand create’ by Emily Dickinson

Of all the souls that stand create
I have elected one.
When sense from spirit files away,
And subterfuge is done;

When that which is and that which was
Apart, intrinsic, stand,
And this brief tragedy of flesh
Is shifted like a sand;

When figures show their royal front
And mists are carved away,—
Behold the atom I preferred
To all the lists of clay!

This is a beautiful love poem by Emily Dickinson. I picked this poem today because it is heroic and bold, and about an enduring, spiritual love.

The phrase that really gets me in this poem is “this brief tragedy of flesh”; I think that is just perfect wording. Dickinson is telling us in this poem that of all the souls on earth, she has chosen only “one”. And when the “subterfuge” of the human guise, and the brief tragedy that is out material life, is “shifted like a sand”; when “mists are carved away” and we pass on to a spiritual realm (i.e. when we die?)… “Behold the atom I preferred/ To all the lists of clay!”

I love the tone of triumph in the final two lines. The word “atom” is interesting, here. I suppose what Dickinson is getting at here is that this spirit, or “soul” is something more than the material shell — the “lists of clay” — and cannot be seen or touched physically. I love the poet’s use of the word “lists” here because it delivers a sense of the physical plain of almost being boring; there are lists and lists of physically beautiful, materially rich people, but she has chosen one “soul” — one “atom” — who is all that she could ever want, even when the material realm has passed away.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Spared’ by Wendy Cope

“That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love… ”
Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me,
Up there, two thousand feet above
A New York street. We’re safe and free,
A little while, to live and love,

Imagining what might have been –
The phone-call from the blazing tower,
A last farewell on the machine,
While someone sleeps another hour,

Or worse, perhaps, to say goodbye
And listen to each other’s pain,
Send helpless love across the sky,
Knowing we’ll never meet again,

Or jump together, hand in hand,
To certain death. Spared all of this
For now, how well I understand
That love is all, is all there is.
 

This poem by Wendy Cope is one that she apparently wrote as a response to the atrocities of 9/11. I think it is a really special, beautiful poem and meditation on an unspeakably tragic event.

The poem expresses great sadness, but it is also triumphant; the conclusion of the poet’s musings is that “love is all, is all there is.” I love the inclusion of the quote from Emily Dickinson, as it reminds us that this is not a new revelation, but that the truth that “love is all” is something we have always known. Faced with inhuman acts of violence, we cannot help but feel our sense of love reinforced, because it is our natural reaction to such happenings to feel compassion, and the think about our own loved ones.

I love the way that Cope emphasises the idea of the mortality of each one of us in this poem. In the first stanza she talks about being “safe and free” as a survivor (“It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me”), but then she undercuts this feeling of being “Spared” with phrases such as “a little while” and “for now”; we are all mortal, she reminds us.

What is important in this poem is the love that triumphs over an act of evil. There is a sense of fervent admiration for those who have died, and who continued to love until the end (the “last farewell on the machine” and the “sending helpless love across the sky”, and even those who “Jump together… To certain death”). I also think the poem delivers a strong sense of the desire to make the most of life, particularly with the image of somebody who “sleeps another hour” and so misses a message of love…

I think this is such a touching poem; I hope you enjoy it!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Echo’ by Christina Rossetti

Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.

O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

This is such a hauntingly melancholy poem by Christina Rossetti. It is a beautiful expression of grief and longing to find a loved one again after they have died. My personal feeling is that this is about a dead child (perhaps it’s something about the “soft, rounded cheeks”), though it could be read with any departed loved-one in mind.

I love the repetition of “Come” in the first stanza (“Come to me”, “Come in”, “Come with”, “Come back”), and the rhyme scheme; all of this makes the poem so enchanting, almost like a self-sung lullaby. My favourite phrase in the whole poem, is “eyes as bright/ as sunlight on a stream”. It’s such a gorgeous image, and the sibilance really makes the words sparkle…

Notice that the speaker begs her departed love to “Come back in tears”. I think that she uses these words because she yearns for her child (or whoever it is!) to come back by any means, so long and she comes back. If the only way to keep her connection to her dead child is to be constantly grieving, or “in tears”, then so be it.

I love the description of Paradise, in the second stanza. Rossetti wrote a lot of religious poetry, and I think that an element of her faith almost always shines through all her poems. I just think that the image of the “slow door/ That opening, letting in, lets out no more” is incredibly stunning. What a wonderful image of Heaven. It is the dream of a place where nobody has to depart — nobody has to die.

In the final verse the poet repeats her “Come to me” and “come back”; she is happy that her loved one is in Paradise, but she still longs to be with them, and she cannot help calling for them. She begs them to return, “that I may live/ My very life again, though cold in death.” I think this is a very significant phrase because it shows us how much this person means to the poet — they are everything: “my very life”! She cannot live herself with this consuming grief. I love the way the poem ends on a nostalgic note: “As long ago, my love, so long ago”. The repetition in this final line is really effective, I think, because it delivers the sense that, though this death happened such a long time ago, the speaker continues to be troubled and consumed by it, and by the absence of the loved one.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘My grandmother’s love letters’ by Hart Crane

There are no stars to-night
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
Elizabeth,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.
Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.
And I ask myself:

‘Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?’
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

Hart Crane is a poet I started reading very recently — only about a week ago. He was an American poet and what I have read so far of his work has completely startled me in a way I find so exciting because his work is new (to me), and I can’t wait to read and discover more. 

The opening, “There are no stars tonight/But those of memory” really drew me in to this poem. It is such an evocative phrase, with the idea that there is nothing to guide him but memories… that there is no destiny to be followed save one that leads backwards, into memory. This is what I imagine old age to feel like.

Another thing I would like to point out in this poem is how the poet refers to his grandmother, in the second stanza, as “my mother’s mother,/ Elizabeth”. I think this is very significant, and touching. The poet recognises the family tie to this woman, but he does not call her ‘grandmother’ — he calls her “Elizabeth”. I love the way he gives “Elizabeth” a line to herself. By employing his grandmother’s first name, I get the impression that the speaker is allowing this lady to remain her own entity — Elizabeth — not simply ‘grandmother’, as he had presumably known her.

I love the description of the love letters being, “pressed so long/ Into a corner of the roof/ That they are brown and soft/ And liable to melt as snow”. There is something so American about the way that phrase sounds (to me); it is so deft and uniquely-angled in its beauty. It is like each word is weighed so carefully and spoken so slowly…

I also love the image in the final stanza of the poet leading his grandmother by the  hand through “much of what she would not understand” — and so he stumbles. For me, he stumbles because she does not understand; it makes him hesitate because perhaps she has been a measure for him of what is right. Perhaps he is afraid to tread in places where she has not because she would not understand and perhaps she would not approve.

I think this is such a touching description of the pain of loving one who is frail — one who is at once so aged and yet, in some ways, innocent as a child. And the rain’s “gently pitying laughter” is for the poet (I think), rather than for his grandmother.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Remembrance’ by Emily Bronte

Cold in the earth — and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?

Cold in the earth — and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring;
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion —
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

Here is another of Emily Bronte’s poems. I love this one, and it reminds me a lot of Wuthering Heights, because of the idea of endless, eternal love that defeats even death. Emily was very preoccupied with this subject, and it is no wonder, because her life was so full of death from her earliest years. The oldest Bronte sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died while they were still children, from consumption. Emily Bronte had to live with that awful memory until she was also taken by the disease… Something I always find so inspiring in Emily Bronte is the way in which she held on to the idea of love, even though she was painfully aware of her own — and her family’s — mortality.

This poem understands how grief can be a “rapturous pain” — something addictive and necessary to the griever. Emily calls it a “divinest anguish”, and acknowledges that very human phenomenon whereby we become attached to our grief, because it is the only chord that sill connects us to our loved-one who has died. As always, Bronte displays an incredibly intimate understanding and knowledge of the deepest undercurrents of human nature and psychology. I love this one!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh