Poetry vs. Death’s Madness

Arnold Bocklin, "Self Portrait with Death"

Arnold Bocklin, “Self Portrait with Death”

In the hours we spent in the hospital room of my dying father, our family members spent a lot of time reading. My mother came across the following poem in a Dorothy Dunnett historical romance (Checkmate) that moved her to the core. The spelling seems to be Old French at times although my grasp of the language isn’t good enough for me to know that for sure and for once my French professor father couldn’t help us. Anyway, it captured for my mother her deep love for him:

Tant que je vive, mon coeur ne changera
Pour nulle vivante, tant soit elle bonne ou sage
Forte et puissante, riche de hault lignaige
Mon chois est fait, aultre ne se fera.

Here’s a rough translation:

Long as I live, my heart will never vary
For no one else, however fair or good
Brave, resolute, rich, of gentle blood.
My choice is made, and I will have no other.

I felt a chill when I read the words. And since I’m currently listening to and reading David Copperfield, it reminded me of Mrs. Micawber’s somewhat comical but still heartfelt assertion, “But I never will desert Mr. Micawber.”

Meanwhile, friends have been sending us poems. Because of language’s limitations in the face of tragedy, poetry is called upon to do the heavy lifting. A Slovene colleague who has a very sick daughter wrote that literature appears more important than it ever did in more carefree times. This poem by the Irish poet Ciaran O’Driscoll captures his parental feelings of vulnerability at the moment:

Life Monitor

This sanctuary I visit still,  
where my son’s body is curved
in the slump of sleep. Such a great spread
beneath the blankets, who was once so small,
I stand and wonder at his girth.
Only occasionally now I call
where I used to go morning and night
and listen, fearful of cot death,
for the certain rhythm of his breath.  

Now he has turned thirteen,  
and knows how to measure a curved line
or determine the volume of 
irregular solids like himself,
gels his hair with American Crew,
and worries about the first spot on his chin.

Morning comes tingling through
along the edges of the blind
and down the hazy spines of shadows. 
Here in the first light is a holy place,
a simple chapel where I still incline
to hear the sermon of the essential:
his breathing’s rise and fall.

My cousin Jim Bates responded to yesterday’s post on silence by sending the following meditation prayer that he uses:


Each morning’s light…a kindness
Washing away the night’s debris
Revealing within the dissipating mist
Always riding upon the still currents of the Mind
The quiet heart’s breath

And Mike Hazard, an old Carleton classmate, sent me this Tom McGrath poem, which notes that light must always have been present for us to “have come so far”:

How could I have come so far?
(And always on such dark trails!)
I must have traveled by the light
Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.

As I noted in a post a while back, Kurt Vonnegut writes in Cat’s Cradle that “without literature we would die like mad dogs.” Poetry stands as a bulwark against the sense of dissolution, chaos and madness that accompanies death.

This entry was posted in Dickens (Charles), Dunnett (Dorothy), McGrath (Thomas), O'Driscoll (Ciaran), Vonnegut (Kurt) 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.

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