Poetry in a Time of Mourning

Robert Reid

[I am postponing “Film Friday” until tomorrow so that I can talk about the film Moneyball in conjunction with the baseball playoffs, especially the remarkable comeback of the Oaklahd Athletics, who are featured in the film.)

Wednesday I was in Gardiner, Maine commemorating my cousin Dan Bates, a favorite cousin who died entirely unexpectedly. (I wrote this post during the long car ride home.) Dan loved the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, who was a Gardiner native son. Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” had a summer home in Gardiner, and her daughter Laura Richards, a noteworthy author in her own right, lived there. It was therefore entirely appropriate that poetry would play a central role in the memorial service.

It began with a Zelda Fitzgerald quotation that Dan’s wife had included in the program. In an irony that is central to much great poetry, Fitzgerald acknowledges the inability of language to express deep feeling, which would include the fullness of our grief: “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.”

Danny Smith, a Gardiner archivist, talked about how Dan had served on the Gardiner Library’s Special Collections Committee and worked hard to raise funds for a library renovation. To capture how much Dan had meant to him, he quoted Richards, “Poets did not grow on blackberry bushes,” noting, “I take that statement to mean that dear Laura Richards was starved for intellectual stimulation in Gardiner and that only Robinson was able to minister to her poetic soul.”

Dan himself, Danny said, had an ancient poetic soul and had once confessed to him that, although a lawyer, if he lived in the middle ages he thought he would have been  a troubadour. “Laugh, if you will,” Danny said,” but there’s a larger truth here. The thought of writing romantic poetry in an age, rightly or wrongly conceived to have been gracious and spacious, spoke volumes about the nobility of Dan’s soul. That noble soul embraced life.”

There was no question that Dan embraced life, but I should say a word about his poetic tastes. Dan would have felt at home in the 19th and early 20th centuries when poetry was published in newspapers and considered necessary for a cultured and civilized life. This would have been poetry where significant nouns were capitalized and noble sentiments were expressed–a time before High Modernism when poets like T. S. Eliot came along and told us that poetry was not democratic but rather the exclusive preserve of people well versed in the great tradition. Interestingly enough, Robinson was on the cusp of this transition, either one of the last traditionalists or the first modernists.

Therefore, when Danny spoke I couldn’t help but think of Robinson’s poem “Minniver Cheever,” about another man who felt out of his time:

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;

He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam’s neighbors. 

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;

He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant. 

“Miniver Cheever” is not an appropriate poem for a memorial service, ending as is does with the line, “And kept on drinking.” In fact, when I talked to Danny after the service, he noted how difficult it had been to choose an appropriate Robinson poem for his remarks. Even ones that start off promising often end on a pessimistic note (e.g., “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,/Went home and put a bullet through his head.”).

Danny ultimately chose “L’Envoi,” which means the detached verse or verses at the end of a poem. Robinson is trying to put into words a strain of “transcendenct music” that he senses all about him but is unable to set down. In our case, Danny hoped the poem would help us get in touch with that special something that Dan meant to us:

Now in a thought, now in a shadowed word,
Now in a voice that thrills eternity,
Ever there comes an onward phrase to me
Of some transcendent music I have heard;
No piteous thing by soft hands dulcimered,
No trumpet crash of blood-sick victory,
But a glad strain of some still symphony
That no proud mortal touch has ever stirred.

There is no music in the world like this,
No character wherewith to set it down,
No kind of instrument to make it sing.
No kind of instrument? Ah, yes, there is!
And after time and place are overthrown,
God’s touch will keep its one chord quivering.

There’s not much religious imagery in Robinson’s poetry, nor was there much mention of God in the memorial service. But after voicing his pessimistic belief that there is no mortal “instrument” that can transcribe the “glad strain of some vast harmony” and keep its “one chord quivering,” Robinson then mentions “God’s touch,” which will keep operating even after “time and place are overthrown.” Robinson may be talking about poetic inspiration here—a sense that there is something beyond us that we can’t wrap our heads around”—but for those of us who were mourning, it was as though the poet was describing Dan’s transcendent love of life, which radiated to all around him.

I decided on the spur of the moment to deliver my own comments and desperately tried to remember lines from Robinson’s mysterious “Luke Havergal,” which Dan had loved and which somehow (I wasn’t sure why) seemed fitting for the occasion. The poem is abut a mysterious rendezvous–we know none of the details–and perhaps I sensed that Dan himself was destined for a strange meeting. If so, the “she” in the poem would be his death:

There is the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There are the crimson leaves upon the wall.
Go, for the winds are tearing them away,—
Nor think to riddle the dead words they say,
Nor any more to feel them as they fall;
But go, and if you trust her she will call.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal—
Luke Havergal.

Instead of choosing a Robinson poem, I resorted to one by Edna St. Vincent Millay. To set it up, I should mention that Dan threw himself utterly and completely into everything he did, whether it was painting or sculpting or gardening or making a great sangria or reading the complete works of Robinson or arguing before a jury or raising money for the library or running for the Maine state legislature (he was well ahead in the polls when he died). Perhaps his full participation explains why his great heart gave out although I should add that our family has a history of heart problems.

Here’s the poem:

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light.

Dan gave a lovely light.

Additional note:

One story told at the service did not involve great verse but nevertheless speaks to the power of poetry. Dan wrote a 65-page doggerel epic, The  Ballad of the Beantowne Bosox, about the legendary comeback of the Red Sox against their hated rivals the New York Yankees in the 2004  playoffs. Only a fanatical Red Sox lover can make it through the poem, which at times is dreadful (I never told Dan this). But Dan was fired up about it and persuaded well-known Maine humorist Gary Crocker, who sports a wonderfully thick New England accent, to record it for him..

Crocker, who emceed the memorial service, told us a story about the book. Apparently Dan convinced Crocker, against his better judgment, to go with him to Boston and hawk the book on the streets. Crocker would read aloud and Dan would sell it to passersby and also to local stores. They loaded up Crocker’s van with ten boxes of books, and although most of them came back unsold, Dan and Crocker had a memorable day.

Yes, Dan, you understood, in a deep way, that poetry should reach out to everyone, just as it reached out to you.

So I honor Dan here with a few verses from his ballad. Crocker read them in his eulogy, changing the words slightly so that they referred not to the Red Sox but to Dan:

Olympus smiled upon these Men
And wished to bear them up
To this Mount of the god’s, and offer them Drink
From Immortality’s Cup.

For they’ve Earned the Things Most Beautiful.
Fought for Something Divine.
Resurrected, from fully three games down
A Life of Grand Design.

For a Hero is he who Battles this Beast
That’s plundered his Homeland for years,
And with Nobleness, brings Home its Heart
As proof for the Balladeers!

This entry was posted in Bates (Daniel), Robinson (Edward Arlington), St. Vincent Millay (Edna) and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete