Looking to Poetry for Afterlife Evidence

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

Spiritual Sunday

It has finally sunk in with me that my friend Alan will not recover from his cancer, and I find myself wrestling once again with the questions that arose after my son drowned.  The biggest question, of course, is whether death is the end.

Every Sunday in my Episcopal Church I claim that I believe in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” But do I really believe the words of the Nicene Creed? Merely mouthing the words is not the same as believing.

Here’s what I think I believe.Jesus was extraordinary because of the full way he opened himself to God.Few have been able to do as he did. (I say “few.”  Unlike some Christians, I do not think that Jesus was the only one able to open himself in this way–other religious luminaries have also functioned as “the way, the truth, and the life.”) At the same time, Jesus assured us that we all have this capability, that we are all “sons of light.”He was a model for us to follow.

That model was tested when he was crucified.Yet his faith, his connection with the divine, was so powerful that he permeated the membrane between life and death.I believe that, in the month following his death on the cross, he had encounters with his disciples and with certain of his women followers.I do not understand the material nature of those encounters. I do not think he was a ghost or a hallucination (there is a report of him eating fish) or, on the other hand, that he was a normal flesh and blood person (at one point he shows up in a locked room).I do not think that his reported appearances can be  understood from a material point of view.

Whatever truth there is in the reports of Jesus sightings, we do know they had some remarkable effects.   The disciples, previously rather ordinary men, became extraordinary.

I would call these encounters “historical” to differentiate them from a related kind of encounter with Jesus that also produces extraordinary effects.  I have in mind the Jesus experiences, the divine entering material form, that occurs in such works as Michelangelo’s Pieta, Raphael’s Madonnas, Bach’s Ave Maria, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and the poetry of George Herbert.   Taking yet another step, I would argue that something of the divine enters all great works of art, even those with themes that aren’t overtly religious. If the works lift us up, if they get us to feel as though we are touching something holy, then we have a glimpse of the transcendence that Jesus was demonstrating.  I see, in art, a powerful argument for a realm beyond the material.

In the end, though, I can’t argue logically–theologically–for the existence of life after death, even though I have tried to do so in the above paragraphs. There must be emotional conviction. Since literature is what most inspires me, I have chosen two poems that deal directly with the topic. Do they move me to believe—really believe, not just claim to believe—that Justin is not entirely lost to me and that Alan will not be entirely lost to me?

The first, by my favorite religious poet George Herbert, captures my fears but fails to convince me. The second, by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, comes closer to doing so:


By George Herbert

Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
Nothing but bones,
The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we considered thee as at some six
Or ten years hence,
After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
Where we did find
The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Savior’s death did put some blood
Into thy face,
Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
As at Doomsday;
When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
Half that we have
Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.

Part of me sees death as resulting in nothing more than dust and sticks. I remember gazing at Justin’s drowned body and seeing it somewhat as Herbert describes: a shell of a “fledge soul,” the broken shell after the chick/soul has departed. That empty shell did indeed seem “as dry as dust,” even as it extorted tears.

The problem for me with the rest of the poem is that the images don’t convince me emotionally. It’s a little bit like my response to John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud.” I want to have Herbert’s confidence, I want to believe that lying down to die should raise no more anxieties than lying down to sleep, but his words sound in my ears like mere declarations.

I’m willing to believe that they convince Herbert himself—maybe he’s dying as he is writing these poems and has turned the corner into acceptance. (I don’t know the history of the poem.) If that’s the case, maybe the poem will be more meaningful to me at a future time.  It just doesn’t work at the moment.

Rossetti’s poem hits me differently. In her vision of death as an inn at the end of a long journey, I sense a long familiar truth, something that I have always known and now am shown. Deep down I sense that, after I die, I shall meet “those who have gone before,” including Justin. Rossetti is not making a rational argument, and I acknowledge that her poem will not convince skeptics. But for me the simple images, conveyed almost in a childlike way, have an authenticity that I find compelling.


By Christina Rossetti

DOES the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labor you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

Somehow I know that Rossetti is speaking with special insight and that Justin will be there standing at the door.  Alan, if he gets there before I do, will be there as well.

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  1. Robin Bates
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    My father sent me the following comment on Michelangelo’s Pieta:

    A footnote on the photo of the Michelangelo pieta in your Sunday blog: I
    once wrote a small article on that sculpture, for which my main source was
    the monograph by one of our leading art critics, Leo Steinberg, “The
    Metaphors of Love and Birth in Michelangelo’s Pietas” (collected in
    Theodore Bowie’s and Cornelia V. Christenson’s anthology of essays,
    “Studies in Erotic Art,” NY: Basic Books, 1970, pp. 231-350). Steinberg
    states that Michelangelo ran into trouble with the ecclesiastical
    establishment in Rome at the time he carved it because the bishops thought
    it was too erotic: it seems that in Renaissance symbolism, (1) the figure
    of Jesus is not dead but sleeping; (2) Mary is represented as being
    younger than he; and (3) the couple shows “the slung leg motif,” which,
    according to Steinberg, had been used by many artists since the ancient
    Egyptians, mainly in mythological representations of various lovers (he
    even mentions that the motif still exists in Harpo Marx’s moves on pretty
    blondes). Michelangelo defended himself by pointing to the passages in the
    Bible where Jesus is the bridegroom of Mary (or the Church).

  2. Susan
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I agree, Robin, that the Rossetti poem is the most satisfying. Perhaps because an inn brings together several ideas that are appealing: rest after a long and weary trip, protection from the elements, and conversation with companions over a hearty meal.

    I’m reminded of the phrase Jesus uses on the night before he is betrayed. He tells his disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” Picking up on other themes through the gospels, perhaps one could paraphrase and enlarge on that to say: “My Father is a gracious innkeeper and he provides a space for all those who desire rest. One day, when we’ve all arrived, we’ll sit down to a banquet that’s been prepared the likes of which you’ve never seen.”

    Psalm 23 concludes in the same vein with this familiar phrase: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    You are absolutely right, Susan, about the allusions to “my Father’s house” with its many rooms. I’m embarrassed to say that I missed it but it must be one of the passages that inspired the poem.

One Trackback

  1. By Can Art Perform in the Face of Death? on December 31, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    […] later the hurt hasn’t entirely gone away. In that regard, language will always be inadequate. But as I wrote in one post, the mere fact that poetry can take us beyond ourselves means that there is more to reality than […]


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