The 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray offers us a glimpse of a cemetery in the countryside—while urging us to ponder the finiteness of life.
A few days before I developed the rare brain disease that would change my life forever, I was sitting at a family dinner with a song by Trace Adkins stuck in my head:
“You're gonna miss this /
You're gonna want this back /
You're gonna wish these days hadn't gone by so fast /
These are some good times /
So take a good look around /
You may not know it now /
But you're gonna miss this”
By the next week, I was almost dead, and the words came true. By “contemplating the dust,” I have found more meaning in life. But, I take it a step farther than Murray: Death is not the end, but the beginning: of eternity with my Creator.
“O death where is your victory? O death where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)
These articles are my favorite way to begin the end of the weekend. They are free of all the static of the news and cause one to be quite reflective. With Elegy, not only does the author channel Hamlet, but I feel a tinge of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity... Thanks for another wonderful contribution.
As someone who follows American politics closely, I have to say I am not convinced that everyone dies. Some of these assholes appear to be immortal.
I do not hurry on but linger
running a finger along the dusty shelf of mind awakened to the poet’s muse.
For this reason we learned to write and speak, for the exquisite joy of sharing the exquisite, hidden in plain sight.
“Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
I know these lines from the baseball movie “Bull Durham” because I had a son who played in the minor leagues, who had a fine character that greatly exceeded his accomplishments on the field. But in my life it mostly applies to my wife who, when our children were in elementary school, contracted bacterial meningitis and was left a quadrilateral amputee - both legs above the knee and all ten fingers to the first joint. And yet, she refused to be deterred. She appeared every year in our sons classes to teach about disability and difference. She was always the team mom. She was a teacher, a homemaker, a disciplinarian. And because of that our sons had happy childhoods and grew into kind and successful adults. She had, and has, an indomitable spirit, refusing to be defeated by her circumstances. Every Friday I read her Psalm 31 and the verse that always strikes me is, “Her children rise and praise her, her husband and he lauds her”. And yet, when she dies...who will know that greatness is in her grave?
"The comedian Norm Macdonald once said that the only advice an older man can give a younger one is to tell them that it goes fast—so fast. The tragedy is that the younger man never believes the older one."
Not always. I often remind young parents frustrated with the tantrums of a toddler that "this too shall pass" and the toddler will be leaving home for good soon enough. And you will look back on those days with the little ones and miss them desperately.
Thank you again, Mr. Murray (and Bari) for this Sunday gift.
Reminds me of the line we hear every year at Ash Wednesday - Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.
Thank you Douglas, yes, poets can help us to remember how fleeting life is, “how easy it is to come in and out of life, not only without being noticed, but without much noticing it.”
I have never been a fan of poetry. I often find it to be difficult to understand or, when I do understand it, pretentious or overwrought. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is an exception. Since first reading it in high school, it has always spoken clearly to me about the importance of living a life of service to others and the unimportance of wealth, fame and glory. If there is a Creator and we have lived a good life, then “death where is your sting” and if there is no Creator, what does the wealth, fame and glory matter?
THANKS TO DOUGLAS AND TO ALL BELOW
From Alec Guinness
You'll miss the mundane walk from the post office to the store to the house--the dog greeting you; the neighbors waving; the breeze on your face. You'll miss the slow woman who disrupted your pace. You won't know this until the walk is difficult or impossible. There is something to loving the mundane.--Thornton Wilder, I believe, dealt with this, to great and roaring cynicism. Be awake and alive and present, because this is your own great and gilded age, and it's going to slip away with brutal swiftness. People pay small fortunes to see a whale for three seconds or an eagle fly ahead, but they race through their one and only life. "
I remember as a boy walking up the aisle on Ash Wednesday, where my head would be adorned with a black cross applied by a priest uttering the terrifying words, “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand those words not so much as a terrifying reminder that we all “[a]wait[ ] alike th’ inevitable hour,” as Thomas Gray puts it. Rather, I hear those words now as a call to action, an invitation to live my life well and fully and truly even as that life continues its inexorable march towards its own conclusion.
Thanks to Douglas for another lovely Sunday morning reflection.
"The paths of glory lead but to the grave," like "To be or not to be," is one of those unforgettable lines from English literature that not only remind us to live, but to not hold ourselves too high. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust is the common way of expressing the common plight of all regardless of rank.
Gray's Elegy always reminds me of a particular, and oddly pleasant hollow-stomach feeling I used to get as a youngster walking my beagle past the village cemetery in the dark. I knew my grandfather lay just underneath the seventh tree. I used to say to myself, as the world was left to darkness and to me "It's not the dead I need to fear, but the living." No doubt I was an odd child.
Great poem and reminder for us all. “this is not a dress rehearsal”.
Kathleen, thank you for sharing your experiences of poetry and life. Sending you wishes for moments of ease in the midst of all that is happening in your body. May your blessings of love and deep fait sustain you.
What a gift these poems and essays are! Thank you Douglas Murray and The Free Press for publishing these jewels. I am always so moved.