When W. B. Yeat died on January 28, 1939, a despondent W. H. Auden wrote, “The day of his death was a dark cold day” It was an instance of how we look to the weather for confirmation of our distress. Because the idea of a dying friend slipping away without leaving a trace is an unsettling one, we may look to the weather to function as a second witness. It helps if the weather metaphorically expresses how we feel.
My good friend Alan Paskow died on Tuesday, prompting me to latch on to the fact that the day began with a tornado alert and that we were lashed by slashing rain for much of the morning. If truth be told, however, the bright spring day that had emerged by the time he died, at 1:10 p.m., was closer to my internal mark. I have been so long battered by Alan’s illness that I felt more quiet than stormy. But the beautiful weather seemed at odds with the tragedy.
A beautiful April day also seemed at odds with my son Justin dying 11 years ago. Because of the contrast, at the time I found myself drawn to a poetic passage that captures nature’s indifference. (In a past post I describe in detail why Mary Oliver’s “Lost Children” was so important to me.) The passage was of a father frantically searching for little Lydia while being serenaded by a thrush. The bird is oblivious—as nature tends to be—of his growing panic:
I’m sorry for the father and his inconsolable
grief, climbing up and down the hillsides,
the edges of swamps, the desolations of the old
forest that ticked and spoke
in the thrush’s gorgeous and amoral voice,
while pain picked him up and held him
in his gray jaw
Today I am drawn to a passage that functions similarly. In Adonais, his famous elegy to John Keats, Percy Shelley notes that nature around him is alive and surging. The irony in both poems captures my sadness better than does a direct equation with freezing temperatures or stormy tempests. Somehow it makes the grieving more private and personal, a particularly human response:
Ah woe is me! Winter is come and gone,
But grief returns with the revolving year.
The airs and streams renew their joyous tone;
The ants, the bees, the swallows, re-appear;
Fresh leaves and flowers deck the dead Seasons’ bier;
The amorous birds now pair in every brake,
And build their mossy homes in field and brere;
And the green lizard and the golden snake,
Like unimprisoned flames, out of their trance awake.
Through wood and stream and field and hill and ocean,
A quickening life from the Earth’s heart has burst,
As it has ever done, with change and motion,
From the great morning of the world when first
God dawned on chaos. In its steam immersed,
The lamps of heaven flash with a softer light;
All baser things pant with life’s sacred thirst,
Diffuse themselves, and spend in love’s delight
The beauty and the joy of their renewéd might.
Shelley goes on to say that, to the extent that they are natural, humans simply follow the rest of nature and therefore do not die. The “merry worm” does not get the last word because “ the leprous corpse exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath.”
What does die is the mind that knows. Shelley describes this mind as a sword encased within a sheath. Death, referred to as “sightless lightning,” manages to destroy the sword first, leaving the sheath (temporarily) behind. Or (shifting metaphors), Keats’s imagination is an intense atom that glowed briefly and then was quenched:
The leprous corpse, touched by this spirit tender,
Exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath;
Is changed to fragrance, they illumine death,
And mock the merry worm that wakes beneath.
Nought we know dies: shall that alone which knows
Be as a sword consumed before the sheath
By sightless lightning? Th’ intense atom glows
A moment, then is quenched in a most cold repose.
In his full mental capacities until he died at 71, Alan did not glow briefly. In that respect he was no Adonais, Aphrodite’s young lover. But the images of sword and atom are as perfect for Alan as they are for Keats. Alan had one of the most probing intellects I have encountered. This was a man who was so determined to get at the truth of things that he once quizzed Martin Heidegger’s widow about her husband’s Nazi past. It didn’t matter that he ran the risk of being tactless or that Heidegger was perhaps the 20th century’s greatest philosopher. As a result, Alan taught me, sometimes a timid soul, how to be more intellectually courageous.
For the moment I am not going to discuss the answers that Shelley arrives at in the course of his exploration. I just want to sit with my sadness, mourning the death of a good friend. Shelley opens his poem with the simplest of declarations: “I weep for Adonais—he is dead.” I weep for Alan Paskow—he is dead.
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