Friday, November 20, 2015

Youth and Calm - Matthew Arnold

'Tis death! and peace, indeed, is here,
And ease from shame, and rest from fear.
There's nothing can dismarble now
The smoothness of that limpid brow.
But is a calm like this, in truth,
The crowning end of life and youth,
And when this boon rewards the dead,
Are all debts paid, has all been said?
And is the heart of youth so light,
Its step so firm, its eye so bright,
Because on its hot brow there blows
A wind of promise and repose
From the far grave, to which it goes;
Because it hath the hope to come,
One day, to harbour in the tomb?
Ah no, the bliss youth dreams is one
For daylight, for the cheerful sun,
For feeling nerves and living breath -
Youth dreams a bliss on this side death.
It dreams a rest, if not more deep,
More grateful than this marble sleep;
It hears a voice within it tell:
Calm's not life's crown, though calm is well.
'Tis all perhaps which man acquires,
But 'tis not what our youth desires.

How do death and youth intersect?  At the start of the poem, Arnold sets up the image of death as peace.  That's a pretty conventional image.  Ease from shame, rest from fear, no more worries to crease a face.  Is that it, though?  As he asks, "Is a calm like this...the crowning end of life and youth?"  In essence, is the height of youth, in all its grandeur, to be reduced to the calm of death?

Youth itself promises repose from the grave with its "hot brow" and firm step and light heart.  Arnold asks if for all of that, its only destination and final repose can be the grave.  Youth makes us feel as though we can fly high forever, even if this is not true.  The poem, too, brings us down from our flight to reality.  "Ah no, " Arnold writes, wistfully, "the bliss youth dreams is one for daylight, for the cheerful sun, for feeling nerves and living breath."  Youth is the dream for the living, from which we wake only to find death, and a final repose.

Still though, the dream of youth is noble and beautiful, and "dreams a rest, if not more deep, more grateful" than the "marble sleep" of death.  I like how Arnold brings the word "marble" back into the poem after he so beautifully used the word "dismarble" to describe how nothing can disturb the calm face of the dead.  As the last two lines perfectly note, calm is the only thing we end up with at our end, though it isn't what our youth desires.

What I like most about this poem is how knowingly Arnold accepts that death is our final destination, and he describes its calm as beautiful, clear, and deep.  And despite that knowledge, despite the certainty of it, the hot blooded dream of youth is more gratifying and satisfying to us, even though, maybe because, we know it is fleeting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Lonely Death - Adelaide Crapsey

In the cold I will rise, I will bathe
In waters of ice; myself
Will shiver, and shrive myself,
Alone in the dawn, and anoint
Forehead and feet and hands;
I will shutter the windows from light,
I will place in their sockets the four
Tall candles and set them a-flame
In the grey of the dawn; and myself
Will lay myself straight in my bed,
And draw the sheet under my chin.

What does it mean to be really, truly alone?  Adelaide Crapsey gives us an account of a lonely death, in which the narrator readies herself for death, from bathing, to confession, to preparation of the funeral bed, before finally laying down to die.  It's a bleak picture, but it is in no way pitiful, as I expected it to be.  Rather, I'm overwhelmed by the narrator's tremendous force of will.  Someone so alone could just lay down and die unwashed, without any sort of dignity, and no one would know.  That's not for this narrator, though.

This narrator is determined to face death head on, unbending, even in solitude.  They will rise, they will bathe.  Will is repeated so many times that's it's certainly no accident that the force of will was impressed upon me.  The repetition of the word "myself" contributes to this as well, best exemplified in the line "myself will lay myself straight in my bed."  No one else but "myself" will do it.  Myself is the actor and myself is the object of action.  It's a solitary figure of solitary strength.

There is dignity in every line of this poem, a constant railing against the knowledge that death finds us all alone.  Yes, death will take me, but on my terms, this poem seems to say.  Loneliness in this poem also means independence.  No one is there to take care of the narrator but no one is needed, because the strength of self is sufficient to conquer death, if only for a moment.  Even though there is no one to discover the passing and none to mourn, the effort is everything.

As a personal aside, I apologize, readers, for being dormant so long.  I've had a number of changes in my role at work which require much more of my time than before.  I work so much that it's difficult for me to find the time or mental effort to devote to writing about poetry.  Given though, how good this return to writing has made me feel, I will strive to make the time as best I can, and I hope you continue, reader, to make the time for poetry and art in your daily life.