Tag Archives: death

Thoughts on “The Angels” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Gustave Dore – artist

They all have weary mouths,
bright souls without a seam.
And a yearning (as for sin)
often haunts their dream.

They wander, each and each alike,
in God’s garden silently,
as many, many intervals
in his might and melody.

Only when they spread their wings
they awaken a great wind through the land:
as though with his broad sculptor-hands
God was turning
the leaves of the dark book of the Beginning.

(translation by C. F. MacIntyre)

I read this poem a couple times and struggled with it. There is a tension here that is tangible but not easy to identify. I did a little research online about Rilke’s ideas concerning angels, and he would go into deeper exploration of the topic in his Duino Elegies.

Throughout the Duino Elegies, Rilke explores themes of “the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition and fractured human consciousness … mankind’s loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet”. Philosopher Martin Heidegger remarked that “the long way leading to the poetry is itself one that inquires poetically”, and that Rilke “comes to realize the destitution of the time more clearly. The time remains destitute not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality.” Rilke explores the nature of mankind’s contact with beauty, and its transience, noting that humanity is forever only getting a brief, momentary glimpse of an inconceivable beauty and that it is terrifying.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So Rilke appears to be grappling with the contrast between the fragmented human condition and our divine nature as manifested in angelic beings. What is particularly interesting in “The Angels” is that the angels appear sad and lost, just as humans are. Additionally, within each angel is the possibility of sin. It is like every angel recognizes that it has the potential to follow the same path as Lucifer.

Like humans, the angels in Rilke’s poem wander aimlessly, lost and searching for meaning in a reality void of meaning.

Finally, we have the image of an angel taking flight, which causes a “great wind through the land.” This image conjures the myth of Icarus, who tried to escape the world but flew too close to the sun. Do the angels also long to escape from their limited existence, to ascend to new heights? In doing so, are they destined to fall, like Lucifer? Are we as humans, trapped in our reality, fettered to this broken world, and if we attempt to transcend, do we have that brief moment of exaltation before we crash into oblivion?

This poem leaves me with more questions than answers, but that is good. It is important to ponder questions about our existence and our place in the universe, and this poem succeeds in eliciting the deep questions which all of us should be asking.

I hope you enjoyed the poem and my thoughts about it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “In a Disused Graveyard” by Robert Frost

Source:Wikipedia

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.

The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’

So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?

It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

I find this poem fascinating on several levels. First, the imagery speaks to me. I have always found graveyards strangely provocative yet comforting. There is a sense of quiet and stillness that somehow soothes my spirit. It also reminds me that Death is the great equalizer, that we all must succumb to the Reaper regardless of status, wealth, power, etc. And it also reminds me that it is important to live each moment of life to the fullest.

The rest of what I find fascinating about this poem are the levels of meaning and the social criticism which Frost weaves in.

We see from the first stanza that the graveyard Frost is describing is no longer used. It is by itself in a rural area and does not appear to be associated with any church or town, and has become but a curiosity for tourists, day hikers looking for a destination. One gets the impression that no one has been buried there for many years.

To me, this speaks of how modern society approaches death as compared with our ancestors. We now inter the dead in manicured memorial gardens, or in hallowed grounds, as opposed to a location close to a homestead. Or even worse, we send or deceased relatives off to some facility where they are industrially incinerated, and the remains are returned in an aesthetically pleasing urn for display on the mantle.

We have denied that death is part of the natural process. In the past, when we accepted death as the natural culmination to life, we would return the dead to the earth close to the home to which there was connection. And this loss, this shift away from our acceptance of death is what Frost sees reflected in the weathered stones of an abandoned graveyard that no longer sees the return of the dead to the earth.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. May you have a blessed day.

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Thoughts on “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare

I like this play a lot, and have read it and seen it performed multiple times. It is such a rich play that one could write volumes on it. Having said that, I decided that I would keep my post short and focus on one of Prospero’s passages that exemplifies the wonder of this play.

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.

(Act IV, scene i)

Reading this gives you the sense of a wise person nearing the end of their life. The revels of youth are over, and one must accept that we are but actors who have a fleeting role in the human drama. We are spiritual beings destined to melt back into the heavens. Our consciousness is but a dream, and when our sojourn is over, we will drift back into the eternal sleep, becoming one with the universal consciousness from which we emanated.

There is nothing I can say that can add to the splendor of this passage. It is, in my humble opinion, perfect in every way.

I hope you enjoyed this post, even though it was short. May it inspire you to make the most of life, before this insubstantial pageant fades away, into thin air.

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“Cymbeline” by William Shakespeare: Fear No More

My first ever exposure to Shakespeare was an excerpt from this play. As a kid, I somehow acquired a copy of a cheap paperback book called Immortal Poems of the English Language. I can still picture the cover. Anyway, the book included a Shakespeare “poem” entitled “Fear No More,” which I would discover many years later was actually just a passage from Cymbeline. But I loved this poem and read it over and over as a kid. So, having just re-read this play, it is that passage that I want to focus on.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

(Act IV: scene ii)

Just a quick note: the above passage is sung by two characters, Guiderius and Arviragus, and in the play they take turns with sections and lines, but I have omitted the names to preserve the flow that was in my old poetry book.

While these words are being spoken over a supposedly deceased person in the play, blessing the spirit as it is freed from the suffering of existence, it speaks volumes to the living. “Fear no more.” We spend so much of our lives worrying about things that in the end will amount to nothing. Death awaits all of us and is a part of all life. When we accept this fact, that we will “as chimney-sweepers, come to dust,” our priorities change. We recognize what is truly important in life, and can let go of the senseless worry and fear that burdens the existence of so many individuals, robbing them of the joy to be experienced during our brief sojourn.

Another aspect of this passage that resonates with me is in the second stanza: “The sceptre, learning, physic, must / All follow this, and come to dust.” It does not matter how much political power you amass, how educated you are, or how physically strong you might be; ultimately, you will die, just like everyone else. Death is the great equalizer.

While I focused on my favorite passage from this play, I want to close by saying that this is a really good play, and does not get the attention I feel it deserves. The story is great, the writing is superb, and it has a little bit of everything: history, tragedy, comedy, romance, and philosophy. If you have never read this play, I highly recommend you do so.

Thanks for stopping by, and remember, in these crazy times: Fear No More.

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“She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” by William Wordsworth

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

This poem is classified as one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems. There seems to be a little disagreement on the number of Lucy poems. Online resources claim there are five, but my volume of English Romantic Writers from college asserts there are six, including the poem “Lucy Gray” among them. I guess I will have to go with the scholarly text over Wikipedia. That said, this will be my first in the series of posts covering the six Lucy poems.

All sources agree that there is no record of who Lucy was, or if she even existed at all, so it is pointless to try to speculate. Instead, I will focus on the poems themselves.

This poem for me exemplifies the essence of the nineteenth century English romantic writers from the Lake District. It evokes a sense of bucolic beauty and simplicity. Having been to the Lake District multiple times, I can easily envision a pastoral setting where the rustic Lucy was said to dwell. And you get a sense of her loneliness, living in a home away from townsfolk, tending to the garden.

The third stanza drives this poem home. City dwellers, absorbed in materialism, self-obsessed, and dominated by the ego, think nothing of the value of the life of a single, peasant girl off in the countryside. But as Wordsworth points out, every life has its unique beauty, every soul is a star twinkling in the firmament, every human being brings something of value to this world, and every loss is felt by someone.

I really like this poem a lot. It’s unpretentious and stirs emotion on a visceral level. I hope you enjoy this poem as much as I do. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Thank You, John Lewis

I was sad to hear that the great John Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020. In a time when we are still actively struggling for the rights of black Americans, it was an inspiration to look to him and acknowledge the difference one person can make. He will be sorely missed during these trying times.

I would like to go back and share links to the reviews of his graphic novel series March, which he co-wrote. The books are outstanding and I highly recommend them if you have not read them before. I’m tempted to read them again.

Rest in peace, John, and thank you for your service.

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Thoughts on “The Knight” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The knight rides forth in sable mail
into the stirring world.
Out there is all:
the friend, the foe, the valley, the day,
the meal in the hall,
the maid and the wood and the month of May,
and the Holy Grail,
and God himself many thousand times
is shown in the streets.

Yet, in the armor of the knight,
behind the sinister rings,
Death squats, brooding and brooding:
When will the sword spring
over the hedge of iron,
that strange and freeing blade,
to fetch me from this place
that has cramped me many a day,
so that at last I can stretch myself
and sing
and play?

(translation by C. F. MacIntyre)

I read this poem a couple times, and for me, I see the knight as a symbol for a young and idealistic individual, riding out to explore the world. Everything seems possible, and it is just a matter of going out and seeking one’s goal. It is essentially being on the archetypal quest.

But then the tone of the second stanza changes abruptly. It is the voice of the mature person, likely someone who having spent youth pursuing some lofty goal, has settled into the mundane reality of existence. The mature person feels trapped, stifled, and very aware of mortality. There is a sense of longing for the freedom of youth, the excitement of heading out into the world, and the simple pleasures that one associates with early years.

It is also worth considering the knight’s armor and what it represents. As we mature, we are prone to wrap ourselves in a protective cloak. But this security is an illusion. It is really a slow form of death that steadily smothers our lives.

As we near the end of our lives, we imagine that there is a better world waiting for us beyond the veil, where we can “sing and play” with the same joy and abandon as we did when young. But it is a sad and sobering thought that death would seem a welcome escape from the doldrums of life.

So how does one avoid this dread fate? I feel that by maintaining a sense of wonder and adventure that we can stave off the dreariness and monotony of life in later years. Stay on the quest. Always actively engage in life, for there is always something else out there to experience.

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Thoughts on “Initiation” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Whoever you are, go out into the evening,
leaving your room, of which you know each bit;
your house is the last before the infinite,
whoever you are.
Then with your eyes that wearily
scarce lift themselves from the worn-out door-stone
slowly you raise a shadowy black tree
and fix it on the sky: slender, alone.
And you have made the world (and it shall grow
and ripen as a word, unspoken, still).
When you have grasped its meaning with your will,
then tenderly your eyes will let it go…

(translation: C.F. MacIntyre)

It dawned on me that up to this point I have not shared my thoughts on any of Rilke’s poetry here, so I am amending that issue right now.

As I read and thought about this poem, two interpretations came to me. The first of these is that the reader is being beckoned to be initiated into the transcendent wonder of Nature. Rilke encourages the reader to leave the sterile and safe domicile and venture out into the wild, creative, and divine realm of the natural world.

The other interpretation I see is that Rilke is describing death as an initiation of sorts, marking the transition when the soul becomes one with the divine source. The house that he mentions is a symbol for the body, which houses the spirit and is the last residence of the soul “before the infinite.” The “worn-out door-stone” represents the tombstone, marking the transition from material to spiritual. Finally, the raising of the “shadowy black tree” that is being fixed in the sky implies that the soul is no longer rooted in this world, but is now being firmly planted in the divine realm.

I really enjoyed this poem a lot, and I will definitely be looking at more of Rilke’s work in upcoming posts. I hope you found this inspiring, and as always, feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section.

Cheers!

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“American Gods: The Moment of the Storm” by Neil Gaiman: Issue #09

This issue concludes the graphic telling of Gaiman’s masterpiece. I followed it from the inception, and enjoyed every issue. In fact, I may reread the entire series at some point.

After going through the trials of exploring the realms of the gods, of going through death and rebirth, of observing the cycles of the various manifestations of the Divine, Shadow is left wondering what to do. He realizes he cannot go back to his old life. Once you have plunged into the mystic, you can never return to your old life. You are forever changed.

Shadow said nothing. He had had enough of gods and their ways to last a lifetime. He would take a bus to the airport, he decided. Get on a plane and go somewhere he had never been. He would keep moving.

As a reader reaching the end of this tale, one feels like Shadow. It is not realistic to think you can just go back to your old ways after glimpsing the mysteries of the gods. You must move on to some place you have never been, and likely, that will be somewhere inside yourself.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading and exploring.

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Thoughts on “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I was searching the tables in a book store a while back, as I am wont to do, and came across this book. I had read The Buried Giant by Ishiguro and loved it, so I decided to give this one a read, especially since it was one of the books that influenced the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.

The story follows a group of friends from a special school, whose students face a grim future. While the main plot of the story is thought-provoking, it is the subtle explorations of humanity that makes this an incredible work of art. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it, but I will say this deserves a spot on everyone’s “must read” list.

OK, let’s take a look at a few passages that stood out for me.

“But that wasn’t all,” Tommy’s voice was now down to a whisper. “What she told Roy, what she let slip, which she probably didn’t mean to let slip, do you remember, Kath? She told Roy that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul.”

(p. 175)

I have always believed this. Art provides a way for an individual to express aspects of their being that cannot be conveyed through standard conversation. And yes, stories and poems are comprised of words, just like common speech, but it is what is unsaid, the cadence of the language, the metaphors and symbolism, which all combine to allow the artist to share something so deep that only a poem or well-crafted story could possibly come close to imparting that hidden part of the self to another human being.

I’ve thought about those moments over and over. I should have found something to say. I could have denied it, though Tommy wouldn’t have believed me. And to try to explain the thing truthfully would have been too complicated. But I could have done something. I could have challenged Ruth…

(p. 195)

In this passage, Kathy is remembering how she participated in the psychological bullying of her friend Tommy by staying silent and not speaking up. It is a painful lesson that too many of us learn the hard way. I learned it when I was quite young. I had a friend named Mason, and one day, a kid who usually bullied me directed his anger and hatred toward my friend instead, and I did nothing, grateful for the respite from my own torment. But the real torment came afterwards, when Mason confronted me for not standing by him. I made some lame excuse, but he was wise enough to see right through it. It’s a memory that haunted me for a long time. But I learned a valuable lesson, that silence is not acceptable when facing injustice. Not taking action makes you just as guilty in the end.

“… You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? So she had to go.”

(p. 268)

This is the ultimate existential dilemma. We all know what’s in store for us. So what’s the point? Why struggle like Sisyphus? For me, it is precisely my lessons, my art, my writing, and my relationships with the people I love that give this life meaning. And in fact, knowing that death is inevitable makes me cherish my limited time here. It inspires me to do things that have lasting meaning and value. It’s not the end that matters. All ends are the same. It’s what you do while on the road that gives life meaning.

To sum up, this book is powerful, disturbing, inspiring, and elegantly written. If you have not read it, I highly recommend doing so. His Nobel Prize is certainly justified.

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