13 5 mins 14 yrs

Evening all….

I have to admit that this post has been inspired by none other than my favourite UK broadsheet, The Guardian.  (Actually, that’s not an altogether sarcastic comment – mostly, but not entirely! I disagree with most of its editorial politics, yet I do enjoy the quality of the writing). Anyway, The Guardian has been publishing several small booklets of poetry by acclaimed writers such as Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin, over the past week or so.

Now, Larkin was a miserable so-and-so, yet his poetry was undeniably exquisite. Perhaps his best known (or most widely acclaimed) poem was "Aubade", a brutally honest and unflinching look at the concept of death. Larkin seemed horrified by the idea of his own death, and he never quite came to terms with this undefeatable certainty which loomed always before him:

Aubade

I work all day, and get half drunk at night
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light
Till then, I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how,
And where, and when I shall – myself – die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and of being dead,
Flashes afresh, to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse –
The good not used, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this IS what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe: What we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape –
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen, like doctors, go from house to house.

Powerful stuff, if a little bleak, huh? Continuing along this theme, I was interested to read Inayat Buglawala’s recent "Comment Is Free" blog, "Is Death The End?" in which he put forward some thoughts on his ideas about death as viewed from his own religious perspective. I thought he sparked off quite a lively debate there…and I thought I might try and plagiarise continue it here, so to speak.

So, Is death the end? Life is full of mystery – Is it ultimately as bleak and fatalistic as Larkin implies, or is there a hope, either for an afterlife, or for the memory and lessons of our own earthly lives to be passed on and built upon in future generations here? What do you think?

 

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13 thoughts on “Thoughts on death

  1. Ahh. My html tags haven’t worked at all on this post. I’ll have to go back and try to edit them. Excuse me….

  2. That’s better. Sorry, I couldn’t get the post to do the "front" bit with the "click to read more" option. Every time you edit a post, it renews itself on the "Most recent posts" header, thus blanking out the other post titles, so I’ll leave it like this.

  3. Interesting post, Tom. This is one of my favourite poems on this endless subject (you see, even a Jesuit priest can have just as bleak an outlook as an atheist!)

    We are doomed though our evolution to be, alone among the animals, constantly aware of our coming physical end and are as such the most to be pitied.
    I believe this permanent presence of death is greatly underestimated as a cause of aberrant – criminal, sexual – behaviour in people.

    But what are your own views as a Catholic. As you can see from Hopkins, hope and despair are very close. Desperation breeds both.

  4. I’ll go with Woody Allen’s "I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens"

  5. My two favourites

    As the poets have mournfully sung,
    Death takes the innocent young,
    The rolling-in-money,
    The screamingly funny,
    And those who are very well hung.

    W.H. Auden

    And from the great EJ Thribb

    In Memoriam Kenneth Wood

    So. Farewell then
    Ken Wood.

    Inventor of the
    Reversible
    Toaster.

    Reversible the of
    Inventor
    Wood Ken.

    Then farewell
    So.

  6. Being brave
    Lets no-one off the grave.
    Death is no different whined at than withstood.

    Being in hospital a bit ago, I must admit I broke down the night before a lung biopsy. scared shiteless.
    A real Garden of Getsemanie moment for me.

  7. I’m for Seamus Heaney, on this one. I know from yesterday, not many here like him, but I particularly like his poem, Death of a Naturist. It’s about the death of childhood and innocence. Healey’s elegies (where he mourns and memoralises the dead) are the most beautiful of the Derry mans works.

  8. Cait,

    Agree with you about "Death of a Naturalist"—he wasn’t a nudist you know :0)—and it’s one of my favourites too.

    Tom,

    Death, ah yes, Larkin excelled in that. I can’t think of four more terrifying lines in the language than those which conclude his "Next, Please":

    Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
    Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
    A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
    No waters breed or break.

    Aaargh, always causes me to shudder.

    But he could do celebration too. I simply adore his "The Whitsun Weddings", where he’s on a train journey and observing the various nuptial couples and guests en route:

    Yes, from cafés
    And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
    Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
    Were coming to an end. All down the line
    Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
    The last confetti and advice were thrown,
    And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
    Just what it saw departing: children frowned
    At something dull; fathers had never known
    Success so huge and wholly farcical;

    My apologies to the ghost of Philip Larkin if I mistyped something among that lot :0)

  9. Tom, beautiful and thought provoking post, it’s been a while since I’ve seen one of these on ATW. Your talented mind has been missed hereabouts.

    I don’t fear death. I have a soul. I believe I am my soul, which resides in my body and experiences this wonderful life I’ve been given. I don’t feel apprehension over the death I will face, I do fear leaving my small children before they’ve grown up, they need me for awhile yet. I fear leaving my husband unexpectedly – he would suffer so much.

    Having said that, I would like to live as long as possible and I’m sure death won’t be easy. I expect I’ll fight with every breath to hang on as long possible. Leaving the corporeal joy and pain of life should be fought hard, don’t you think? Leaving my people…..that’s emotionally jarring just to contemplate, actually experiencing it must be incredibly hard to accept with serenity.

    I’ve read what the Bible says awaits me and I admit that I don’t believe I’ll live in a literal house of gold in Heaven. I do believe that I’ll go home to the place where my soul originally emanated. I will go home to God and it will be fine.

  10. Everyone seems to turn to the poetry on this topic, so this is one of my favorites:

    Let me die a youngman’s death
    not a clean and inbetween
    the sheets holywater death
    not a famous-last-words
    peaceful out of breath death

    When I’m 73
    and in constant good tumour
    may I be mown down at dawn
    by a bright red sports car
    on my way home
    from an allnight party

    Or when I’m 91
    with silver hair
    and sitting in a barber’s chair
    may rival gangsters
    with hamfisted tommyguns burst in
    and give me a short back and insides

    Or when I’m 104
    and banned from the Cavern
    may my mistress
    catching me in bed with her daughter
    and fearing for her son
    cut me up into little pieces
    and throw away every piece but one

    Let me die a youngman’s death
    not a free from sin tiptoe in
    candle wax and waning death
    not a curtains drawn by angels borne
    ‘what a nice way to go’ death

    – Roger McGough

  11. Noel, you asked "but, what are your own views as a Catholic".
    Well, "on paper" I pretty much accept what the Bible says about life after death, ie, that if I put my trust in what Christ has done, then I get included and "absorbed" in his own death and ressurection, and I will somehow (I don’t understand how it works) find myself united with Christ and a co-heir to all that is his.
    But of course, that’s all very well to say in the abstract! In reality, of course I don’t look forward to experiencing the reality of death. Like Larkin, I try to blank it out of my mind at all times, and I bet that, just like Charles said above, if I came close to death I would probably be scared sh….er, witless for a while.
    It’s going to happen though, at some point. There’s no escaping that. I guess that when that time comes, I shall see just how real my religion really is to me, and to what extent I’ve been fooling myself. (I don’t think that I’ve been merely fooling myself all along though – if I thought that, then I would abandon religion right now. No, I can put my hand on my heart and say that I have experienced very real evidence in my own life that Christ is real, and therefore I can trust what he says about my death, and how it is going to be intimately linked up to His own death. – I’m just saying that even so, I recognise that I’m still thinking of death as something that will happen a long way in the future. Once it is right in my face, it will force me to really face up to it in a way that I can’t do, yet).

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