Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A meditation on death

Don't be alarmed; this isn't going to be gloom and doom. In fact, we're going to talk a little poetry today.

My sister Sue found a copy of William Cullen Bryant's poem "Thanatopsis" in some of Dad's papers yesterday. I think Dad had talked to all of us about this recently. He had mentioned it to my sister Diana a while back, and she printed it out for him; he asked me if I'd ever read it, and I said yes, back when I was in school. He told me he'd been thinking about it a lot lately, and had read it several times. He had the copy with him, and asked me to read it, especially the last few lines. Here is the poem, with a few thoughts afterwards. You don't have to read it if you don't want to, but I do think it is a very nice piece.



by: William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;--
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around--
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--
Comes a still voice--Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourish'd thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock,
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world--with kings,
The powerful of the earth--the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribb'd and ancient as the sun,--the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods; rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, pour'd round all,
Old Ocean's grey and melancholy waste,--
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.--Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound
Save his own dashings--yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep--the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest: and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favourite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men,
The youth in life's green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man--
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
By those who in their turn shall follow them.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged by his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.


As I read this today, I was struck by those last lines all over again. Do I think that my Dad foresaw his own death? Oh, pshaw. We all ponder our own mortality, and when you get to be in your 80's, I'm guessing that you ponder it a little more often! Dad simply knew that he wasn't going to live forever, and I suppose with each passing day, he knew he was one step closer to the Great are we all. I love it that he stayed active up until the very end, and that he stayed sharp and able to appreciate this poem. As my sister Sue said, he lived until he died.

Father and child2 I also love it that he especially liked those last lines. This poem, to me and to my Dad, was not a sad musing on death. Although it speaks of the inevitability of it and how each and every one of us will experience it eventually, it also urges us to live, live our lives well and fully, so that when it comes time for our earthly exit, we can do so knowing that we did the best we could and that it is not only okay to move on, it is simply the way things work. There is nothing to fear, there is only the natural progression of the arc of our life.

I take great solace in knowing that my Dad was comforted by those last lines. I don't believe he feared his death, not one little bit. He was confident in the fact that although he may have made mistakes in his life, he had a good life with many adventures, a lot of fun, and much love. He was one of the Good Guys, and the sentiments I've heard from various people who knew him (including an ex son-in-law who said he still thinks of him as "Dad," even after about 30 years) bear that out. I know my Dad was proud of me for what I've done with my life, because he told me so many times. It makes me smile to say that I am also proud of him as I realize how many people remember him fondly and with love. What a remarkable legacy to leave behind.


  1. "Ashes and Diamonds, foe and friend,
    We were all equal in the end." - Roger Waters

    I had never read that poem before. It is remarkable, and a worthy aim to follow its prescription. It would be a great thing to approach one's death comfortable in the knowledge that one's life was well and truly lived. It sounds like that's what your Dad did. A feat worth emulating.

  2. Very nice. I have not read that poem in years... thank you for sharing it, it would be a lovely addition to your dad's service I bet. I love what you wrote too. You are a wonderful writer, and I am sure that getting the words down in helping you cope. Hugs and love. Your dad was a good guy with an awesome daughter.

    be well

  3. That was beautiful. I have never read that before.

    Your last two paragraphs touched my heart!

    God Bless! Happy you have special memories of your Dad.

    Hugs, Rose

  4. A lovely tribute to your dad. Hope you are doing well. xoxo

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, this is a beautiful tribute to your father and the pleasure he brought to those who encountered him.

    Carly Simon incorporated the following lines into a song that she recorded a few years back: "Life is eternal, and love is immortal,and death is only a horizon;and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight."~Rossiter Worthington Raymond

    The song gave me comfort after the death of my mother.

  6. When I taught 11th grade American Lit, I always enjoyed teaching that poem. It is affirming, and your post summarizes it and what it means to you so eloquently! :-)

  7. What a beautiful poem. I haven't ever read that and I'm glad to find it here. I'm so glad that your Dad told his girls about the poem and his fondness of it. It seems to be just one more gift from a father to his daughters. That would comfort me as I see it has you. And Beth, he would love this post.

  8. This is a wonderful poem. And it could only add, I think, to a survivors comfort to know that these were the kinds of thoughts that a loved one had in mind in their time.

    I think that it is very special that you have this poem and the shared link of appreciation with you Dad to keep you. Be well.

  9. Lovely words.
    And such wonderful tributes to your Dad. I especially liked your sister Sue saying "he lived until he died."
    We should all strive for the same.

  10. He lived until he died. Sounds like my mum. She too doesn't fear death, knowing where she is going, rejoining loved ones who have headed before her. But while mummie is here, she is indeed enjoying her life. And that is a sweet memory and comfort to you during this time.
    Hugs, Laini

  11. It's interesting. One of my biggest fears isn't that I will die, but that I will not be at peace with it when it happens. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  12. I copied and pasted this into a word file I keep. I find great comfort and power in words. Thanks for sharing this.

  13. Beth, what a terrific tribute to your father. You have every right to be proud. Reading your blog, we all get to experience part of his legacy. Adventure, fun, and love, what more could you want from life? Glad you are finding some comfort in memories of him and the memories of those who knew him.

  14. Honey, this post reads like a beautiful eulogy. My experience is that the good death of a good parent is the last great gift from parent to that never goes away, one that we revisit for the rest of our own lives. It's what I hope to be able to give to my kids someday.

  15. I think perhaps that your dear Dad may have a premonition...who knows but it seems strange that he should point out the poem to both you and your sister recently...It is certainly a wonderful poem and one that will give you somthing extra to remember.
    I well remember my dear Mother saying after a particularily horrible operation that it would beat her or she would beat it and she sure was going to live life so would not give in...and oh boy did she...sounds just like your Dad.
    love Sybil xx

  16. What a beautiful tribute to your Dad ~ Memories are with us forever ~ Ally x

  17. "...So shalt thou rest: and what if thou withdraw
    In silence from the living, and no friend
    Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
    Will share thy destiny...." I love those lines. I hadn't read this since high school. I don't believe your dad had a premonition, either, and like you I think that a person in his eighties probably gives some thought to impending death. What I think is wonderful is that he shared it with you recently, asking you to read especially those last lines. This is a beautiful tribute.


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