Category Archives: Poetry and Death

Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamas” – A Poem About Old Age

In 1875, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) accepted an offer from the American Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain to speak at his fiftieth reunion at Bowdoin College, Longfellow’s alma mater. There he read his poem “Morituri Salutamus.” (“We who are about to die, salute you.”) The poem begins with a Latin quote by the Roman poet Ovid which reads: “Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis, Et fugiunt freno non remorante dies.” (“The times slip away, and we grow old with silent years, and the days flee unchecked by a rein.”)

The poem expresses his belief that while we cannot stop the inexorable march of time, we can mitigate its effects by learning as we pass through life—for maturity allows for insights unachievable in youth. He also voices his belief that there is much left to do in old age. It is true that most of us won’t do our best work in old age, but perhaps if we have learned something in life we will become better people as we age.  And while many criticized the simplicity of Longfellow’s simple rhymes, I find them comforting.

The final stanzas of Longfellow’s poem exhort his fellows to continue to work and dream even as they age.

But why, you ask me, should this tale be told
To men grown old, or who are growing old?
It is too late! Ah, nothing is too late
Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,
When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
And Theophrastus, at fourscore and ten,
Had but begun his “Characters of Men.”
Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales,
At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
Completed Faust when eighty years were past.
These are indeed exceptions; but they show
How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow
Into the arctic regions of our lives,

Where little else than life itself survives.

As the barometer foretells the storm
While still the skies are clear, the weather warm
So something in us, as old age draws near,
Betrays the pressure of the atmosphere.
The nimble mercury, ere we are aware,
Descends the elastic ladder of the air;
The telltale blood in artery and vein
Sinks from its higher levels in the brain;
Whatever poet, orator, or sage
May say of it, old age is still old age.
It is the waning, not the crescent moon;
The dusk of evening, not the blaze of noon;
It is not strength, but weakness; not desire,
But its surcease; not the fierce heat of fire,
The burning and consuming element,
But that of ashes and of embers spent,
In which some living sparks we still discern,
Enough to warm, but not enough to burn.
What then? Shall we sit idly down and say
The night hath come; it is no longer day?
The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing light;
Something remains for us to do or dare;
Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
Out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn,
But other something, would we but begin;
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” – A Poem About the Passage of Time

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868.jpg

The passage of time steals our youth, our vitality, and any permanence that we might hope for. How best to respond to our situation? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) tried to answer this question in 1838 in his poem “A Psalm of Life.” They contain some of my favorite lines of poetry.

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Epilogue – Still, as I have argued in my recent book on the meaning of life, the wisdom that may come with age makes death even more tragic. The wisdom which took so much time and effort to achieve vanishes with our passing, since it is mostly ineffable—incapable of being transmitted to the young. They have to learn it on their own … as they age.

So for now, until we have eliminated death, the passage of time drives us inexorably toward our end. And this is a reason to lament our fate … and battle to defeat it.

Wilfred Owen: “Dulce Et Decorum Est”

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War. His shocking, realistic war poetry on the horrors of trenches stood in stark contrast to both the public perception of war at the time and to the patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Among his best-known works – most of which were published posthumously – are “Dulce et Decorum est“, “Insensibility“, “Anthem for Doomed Youth“, “Futility” and “Strange Meeting“.

He was wounded in combat in 1917 and wrote many of his most important poems while recovering in the hospital near Edinburgh. He rejoined his regiment in June 1918, and in August, he returned to France. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at Amiens. He was killed on November 4 of that year while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors. He was 25 years old. The news of his death reached his parents one week later on November 11,  Armistice Day, which marked the end of the war. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery.

Of his many great war poems, this is one of the very best. (“Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori,” are the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words, widely quoted at the start of the First World War, mean “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”) Two readings are found below one with actual footage of the Battle of Somme.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

And a newer reading:

 

Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

Yesterday I wrote about Dr. Kalanithi, a thirty-seven year old Stanford physician who died of cancer a few days ago. In the video he recited a poem I had forgotten about—even though I took a class in the Romantic poets forty years ago—Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” I thank the late Dr. Kalanithi for reminding me of the poem. Kalanithi’s use of the poem to express the inevitable decline of our bodies as well as our pretensions to greatness is perfectly placed in his essay. If we really contemplated our impending deaths we might be more humble and wise. Still, I hold death to be a tragedy, and long for the time when we defeat it.

Shelley’s “Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”[1]

The Younger Memnon

The Younger Memnon statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum. Its imminent arrival in London likely inspired the poem.

Philip Appleman: Poem About His Mother’s Dying


A Young Version                                                  Today, in his late 80s

Philip D. Appleman (1926 –  ) is an American poet and Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. I first became acquainted with him when I read his edited collection, Darwin (Norton Critical Editions), which is a classic in the field. Here is a quote from an essay he contributed to that book:

Looking back at a million years of our struggle to be human, at our errant and painful attempts to be a special kind of animal—the animal who thinks, the animal who creates—it seems to me that despite our shortcomings, we have some cause for satisfaction … We are worth keeping because, given our remarkable past, we may continue to hope that we have, as Darwin surmised, “a still higher destiny in the future.”

I recently became aware that Appleman, as he nears the age of ninety, has published a new book: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life.

Here is a quote from the book which exemplifies his beautiful prose, “Religion stalks across the face of human history, knee-deep in the blood of innocents, clasping its red hands in hymns of praise to an approving God.” And here is an exemplar of his deep thinking:

Religion says: console yourself, there will be another chance, another life. Two things are wrong with this. First, there is not a shred of evidence for it and, second, it is a sop, consciously intended to blunt our rage and regret, thus dehumanizing us. Our anger at death is precious, testifying to the value of life; our sorrow for family and friends testifies to our devotion.

I find the final sentence particularly moving. It reveals as noble, not egocentric, the wellspring of the idea that death is a great evil. Appleman’s most moving poem about death and religion concerns his mother’s dying. I’ll let it speak for itself.

“GERTRUDE”
Gertrude Appleman, 1901-1976
God is all-knowing, all-present, and almighty.
— A Catechism of Christian Doctrine

I wish that all the people
who peddle God
could watch my mother die:
could see the skin and
gristle weighing only
seventy-nine, every stubborn
pound of flesh a small
death.

I wish the people who peddle God
could see her young,
lovely in gardens and
beautiful in kitchens, and could watch
the hand of God slowly
twisting her knees and fingers
till they gnarled and knotted, settling in
for thirty years of pain.

I wish the people who peddle God
could see the lightning
of His cancer stabbing
her, that small frame
tensing at every shock,
her sweet contralto scratchy with
the Lord’s infection: Philip,
I want to die.

I wish I had them gathered round,
those preachers, popes, rabbis,
imams, priests – every
pious shill on God’s payroll – and I
would pull the sheets from my mother’s brittle body,
and they would fall on their knees at her bedside
to be forgiven all their faith.