Several months have passed since I wrote something in this space. There was nothing in particular that held me back other than the routine, ordinary distractions of life but often it is a work of literature or art that, as the Quakers say, "moves one to speak".
Recently a friend and a colleague died at a young age and I had the subject of death on my mind when I came across W.H. Auden's poem "At the Grave of Henry James". How well it expresses the finality of death, the utter despair that even the "great and talkative" Master will forever dwell in eternal silence! A unique mind and his particular novelty gone forever just like all those others under those "rocks named after singular spaces" in that Cambridge municipal cemetery.
While rocks, named after singular spaces
Within which images wandered once that caused
All to tremble and offend,
Stand here in an innocent stillness, each marking
Where one more series of errors lost its uniqueness
And novelty came to an end.
To whose real advantage were such transactions,
When worlds of reflection were exchanged for trees?
What living occasion can
Be just to the absent? Noon but reflects on itself,
And the small taciturn stone, that is the only witness
To a great and talkative man,
Has no more judgement than my ignorant shadow
(excerpt from "At the Grave of Henry James" by Wystan Hugh Auden)
While on the subject of death, I recently revisited one of my favorite Phillip Larkin poems and I would be remiss if I did not share his great but terrifyingly dark poem "Aubade" (pronounced 'o-baad').
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
This past summer's great pop culture anthem has been the Black Eyed Peas' wonderful song "I Gotta Feeling". The catchy track is in their latest album titled "The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies)". Every time I see the title of that album I think to myself: "But it does, it inevitably does".
Photograph: Phillip Larkin