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  • Rhyming with Death December 8, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback


    Death concentrates the mind wonderfully and, at least in the east, a longstanding custom has been to pen a final poem: a last communiqué to the world. This custom stretches far back into the Middle Ages  and perhaps the greatest thing to recommend it is the brevity of the works in question

    So we have Seong Sam-mun (obit 1456) a Korean minister executed for plotting against a tyrant. Seong limited himself to little more than thirty words.

    What shall I become when this body is dead and gone?

    A tall, thick pine tree on the highest peak of Bongraesan,

    Evergreen alone when white snow covers the whole world.

    Or the Japanese Zen monk Ryokan (obit 1831)

    Now it reveals its hidden side

    and now the other—thus it falls,

    an autumn leaf

    By the standards of Seong and Ryokan Kuribayashi (obit 1945) , the Japanese commander at Iwo Jimma was rather prolix.

    Sadness overcomes me as I am unable to fulfill my duty for my country,

    Bullets and arrows are no more

    I, falling in the field without revenge,

    Will be reborn to take up my sword again.

    When ugly weeds run riot over this island,

    My heart and soul will be with the fate of the Imperial nation

    Kuribayashi probably died in the uniform of a Japanese private in a night time attack against the American invaders one or two days later.

    Death poems may have been institutionalised in parts of Asia, but they have also featured in western culture. Those dying in hospital beds or in accidents don’t typically have the energy to spout sonnets: and of the poems above only Ryokan’s was written before a natural end. But the executed or those who have decided on suicide very often have existential angst to work off.

    Take, for example, the histrionic Russian poet Sergei Esenin (1928) who, before hanging himself, wrote a few consoling lines to his friend in his own blood: this kind of melodrama is not given to those who have a tumour growing around their liver.

    Goodbye, my friend, goodbye

    My love, you are in my heart.

    It was preordained we should part

    And be reunited by and by.

    To be honest Beachcombing cannot understand a suicide writing a poem: the typical modus operandi is to say ‘sorry, it is not your fault’ and to be done with it. But Robert Howard (obit 1936), for example, the American pulp fiction author borrowed the following lines from Viola Garvin and slipped them into his wallet. He committed suicide with a pistol in his car when he knew that his mother was slipping towards death.

    All fled – all done, so lift me on the pyre;

    The feast is over, and the lamps expire.

    Sara Teasdale (obit 1933) the poet used her last words to put the knife into a lover who had deserted her. Did he give a damn? Beachcombing doubts it.

    When I am dead, and over me bright April

    Shakes out her rain drenched hair,

    Tho you should lean above me broken hearted,

    I shall not care.

    For I shall have peace.

    As leafey trees are peaceful

    When rain bends down the bough.

    And I shall be more silent and cold hearted

    Than you are now.

    Then still with suicides here are Hunter Thompson’s last words (obit 2005) written to his wife, Anita. OK verse it isn’t. But it is not exactly prose either. It is certainly though difficult to forget, particularly the first four words.

    Football Season Is Over. No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax This won’t hurt.

    Wishful thinking?

    Suicide rates, however, far behind execution in getting the rhymes going. Here there is Timothy McVeigh (obit 2001) quoting Invictus before he was frazzled. Or the murderer, Robert Harris, who had his last breaths in a Californian gas chamber (obit 1995), remembering a scene from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: ‘You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper.’

    Others have been more cerebral and have at least written their own epitaphs. José Rizal, the Philippine patriot composed a poem that has since become one of the national works of the country he helped to create. The last stanza of which is:

    Adios, padres y hermanos, trozos del alma mia,

    Amigos de la infrancia, en el perdido hogar;

    Dal gracias, que descanso del fatigoso dia;

    Adios, dulce extranjera, mi amiga, mi alegria;

    Adios, queridos seres. Morir es descansar.

    Farewell, parents, brothers, beloved by me,
    Friends of my childhood, in the home distressed;
    Give thanks that now I rest from the wearisome day;
    Farewell, sweet stranger, my friend, who brightened my way;
    Farewell, to all I love. To die is to rest.

    At least, in the English speaking world execution poetry seems to have been most important in the Tudor and Elizabethan period. Poor old Anne Boleyn (obit 1536), for example, saw death as a kind of nursery nurse.

    Death, rock me asleep,

    Bring me to quiet rest,

    Let pass my weary guiltless ghost

    Out of my careful breast.

    Toll on, thou passing bell;

    Ring out my doleful knell;

    Let thy sound my death tell.

    Death doth draw nigh;

    There is no remedy.

    Sir Walter Raleigh wrote perhaps his most successful poem The Lie in the shadow of the axe.

    Go, soul, the body’s guest,

    Upon a thankless errand;

    Fear not to touch the best;

    The truth shall be thy warrant:

    Go, since I needs must die,

    And give the world the lie.

    Then there is one of Beachcombing’s favourite poems in any genre and from any time: Chidiock Tichborne’s My Prime of Youth, written to his wife in 1586 before the 28 year old was publicly  disemboweled, for plotting against Elizabeth. For a devout Catholic – the thing that essentially got CT killed – the poem entirely and curiously lacks religious sentiment.

    My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,

    My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,

    My crop of corn is but a field of tares,

    And all my good is but vain hope of gain;

    The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,

    And now I live, and now my life is done.

    My tale was heard and yet it was not told,

    My fruit is fallen, yet my leaves are green,

    My youth is spent and yet I am not old,

    I saw the world and yet I was not seen;

    My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,

    And now I live and now my life is done.

    I sought my death and found it in my womb,

    I looked for life and found it was a shade,

    I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,

    And now I die, and now I was but made;

    My glass is full, and now my glass is run,

    And now I live, and now my life is done.

    Any other death poems: suicide, execution or natural death? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    11/12/2011: Eire writes: ‘Beach you missed out, with the exception of Iwo Jimma, the beautiful poems written by soldiers before they believe they are going to die in battle. What about T.M. Kettle who died in 1stWW just a few days after writing this!  In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown/ To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime/ In that desired, delayed, incredible time,/ You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,/ And the dear heart that was your baby throne,/ To dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme/ And reason: some will call the thing sublime, / And some decry it in a knowing tone./ So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,/ And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,/ Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,/ Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—/ But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,/ And for the secret Scripture of the poor.’ Thanks Eire!

    24, 1, 12: Ricardo sends in this blog on war poetry which is well worth a visit: in fact, Beach just wasted half an hour there. Thanks Ricardo!