By Anne Matthews
December 1, 2008
I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me.
—Sojourner Truth, 1851
The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually one by one I could sense them moving close to Captain Waskow’s body. . . . One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, “God damn it.” That’s all he said, and then he walked away. . . . Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said: “I sure am sorry, sir.” Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.
—Ernie Pyle, “The Death of Captain Waskow,” 1944
I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1951
Sobbing seems to be peculiar to the human species. . . . The grief-muscles are not very often brought into play; and as the action is often momentary, it easily escapes observation. Although the expression, when observed, is universally and instantly recognized as that of grief or anxiety, yet not one person out of a thousand who has never studied the subject, is able to say precisely what change passes over the sufferer’s face.
—Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions, 1872
One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it.
—Abraham Lincoln, condolence letter to the daughter of an old friend, 1862
Always denial. Grief in the morning, washed away
in coffee, crumbled to a dozen errands between
—Denise Levertov, “A Lamentation,” The Sorrow Dance, 1967
When a man is stricken and is finding it most difficult to endure a grievous wound, one must humour him for a while; let him satisfy his grief or at any rate work off the first shock; but those who have assumed an indulgence in grief should be rebuked forthwith, and should learn there are certain follies even in tears. . . . Grief like yours has this among other evils: it is not only useless but thankless.
—Seneca, letter to a bereaved friend, 1st century a.d.
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
Until, in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
—Robert F. Kennedy, quoting Aeschylus’s Agamemnon by heart on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, 1968
I could not sleep for thinking of the sky,
The unending sky, with all its million suns
Which turn their planets everlastingly
In nothing, where the fire-haired comet runs.
If I could sail that nothing, I should cross
Silence and emptiness with dark stars passing,
Then, in the darkness, see a point of gloss
Burn to a glow, and glare, and keep amassing,
And rage into a sun with wandering planets
And drop behind, and then, as I proceed,
See his last light upon his last moon’s granites
Die to a dark that would be night indeed.
Night where my soul might sail a million years
In nothing, not even Death, not even tears.
—John Masefield, Lollingdon Downs and Other Poems, 1917
This last trio records one death three ways.
Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.
Her having gone away
in spirit from me. Hosts
of regrets come & find me empty.
I don’t think I will sing
any more just now; or
—John Berryman, “He Resigns,” 1971
A little over two months later, John did what he had been rehearsing at least as far back as the night of our engagement party: He jumped from a railing, this time of a bridge, with no net and the frozen Mississippi River below . . . that he died “a veteran of life” was thanks to his gift. It had not been the hand coaxing him down from the railing that had brought him back each time . . . but the certainty that there were all those poems still to be written.
—Eileen Simpson, Berryman’s first wife, Poets in Their Youth, 1982
To my surprise, John
I pray to not for you,
think of you not myself,
smile and fall asleep.
—Robert Lowell, 1973
Anne Matthews is a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR.
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