Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems: “Lament,” “Holy Sonnet 10,” and “The Sick Rose.”
This continues the series of columns that highlight a much-loved poem and presents other poems that speak to, or resonate with, that poem. In this column I’m reacting to a nearby tragedy. A poet friend of mine has lost her husband in a bicycling accident, leaving her to finish raising two girls on her own. Because one poem confronts the absence of a spouse head-on, it quickly came to mind: “Lament” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The second related poem is by a sonnet by John Donne; the third concerns how bad things slip into our lives—“The Sick Rose” by William Blake.
The complete Poetry Foundation entry on Edna St. Vincent Millay is available at Poetry Foundation: Edna St. Vincent Millay. In part it states: “Throughout much of her career, Pulitzer Prize-winner Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the most successful and respected poets in America.” Her popularity has ebbed and flowed and seems to be currently on the rise.
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.
For me, that last line really lingers. Here’s a Youtube: Kate Baldwin sings “Lament.”
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Millay’s poem confronts both death itself and the way bad happenings can worm their way into our lives. In perhaps the most well-known poem for confronting death, Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10,” often known by its first words, “Death be not Proud,” the poet tells Death that even those it thinks it has destroyed have not died for eternity, and it has no power to kill him either. The sonnet compares what happens in death to “rest and sleep.” He acknowledges that, although everyone does experience it at some time, death is, in reality, a slave itself to illnesses and accidents. It has no choice or say in whom it takes. Donne ends the sonnet by telling Death in the last two lines that after a brief time of sleep, “we wake eternally, and Death shall be no more.” He then pronounces a final death sentence upon Death itself, for Death is sure to be destroyed once and for all.
It’s helpful to remember that John Donne was a preacher as well as a poet; this sonnet expresses his faith as well as his literary genius.
Holy Sonnet 10
By John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Sir Richard Burton reads this poem here.
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The second poem I’m linking with “Lament” is by William Blake. It is short but not sweet. There seems to be an ongoing question of why bad things happen to good people. This poem acknowledges that this is a fact of life. It is one of the Songs of Experience as opposed to the Songs of Innocence. Blake saw these as the two contrary states of the human soul; this is not a poem for Pollyanna. It acknowledges that bad things, often referred to as evil, can winnow their way into our lives. Stating that the worm exists so coldly creates a powerful poem.
The Sick Rose
by William Blake
O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Blake’s artwork was as illustrious as his poetry. Here’s a YouTube that recites the short poem twice, once with Blake’s original illustration for the poem: The Sick Rose.