Entry 84: (on what would have been) Your 32nd Birthday– Pawn yo’ gold watch/An’ diamond ring./Git a quart o’ licker,/Let’s shake dat thing!/Skee-de-dad! De-dad!/Doo-doo-doo!/Won’t be nothin’ left/When de worms git through/An’ you’s a long time Dead/When you is/Dead, too./So beat dat drum, boy!/Shout dat song:/Shake ’em up an’ shake ’em up/All night long.
This is the middle section of Langston Hughes’ poem Saturday Night. I used the opening and conclusion of the poem to close Entry 82. The exuberant shout against mortality is one response, and one I admire. Here’s another take on the matter from the song Still Gonna Die by Shel Silverstein,
Drink ginseng tonics, you’re still gonna die./Try high colonics, you’re still gonna die./You can have yourself frozen and suspended in time,/But when they do thaw you out, you’re still gonna die.
For a more solemn view, you may wish to visit or re-visit the great elegy by Thomas Gray, Written in a Country Graveyard, which opens, The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,/The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea/The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,/And leaves the world to darkness and to me. There are so many memorable lines in this justly famous poem, but these four lines will serve to illustrate the quality of the whole,
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,/And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,/Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour,/The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
John Donne, in his own inimitable way, defies the grim reaper, DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so. In the sestet of his sonnet, he scorns the power of death and affirms his own adamantine faith,
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.
Ah, the power of poetry, the wonder of words.
Brueghel the Elder’s contemporaneous The Triumph of Death must give one pause, though. Stand, if you will, before this panorama of desolation, painted on panel measuring 117cm x 162 cm and read it from left to right, top to bottom. Two skeletons toll the death of humanity as fires pour out palls of smoke from hills and ships burning in a bay while ashore skeletal figures ride famished horses as they hunt down peasants fleeing in despair.
Bodies hang from trees and gallows while carrion birds wheel above. Skeleton armies swarm in the middle-ground, herding the masses into a false sanctuary marked with a cross as a pair of skeletons frame this section- one on a wagon filled with skulls, plays the hurdy-gurdy while the other beats triumphantly on a pair of timpani.
Along the bottom of the painting a king vainly tries to prevent the looting of his treasury; in the centre a hound chews on the face of a child and a skeletal assassin cuts the throat of a supine man. The feast on the right has been interrupted by the forces of desolation: the stools upended, the cards scattered, the cup overturned.
A fool tries to crawl under the table as a demon empties the flasks of wine; a skeleton grapples with a young woman in a parody of an amorous embrace as, in the lower right corner of the painting, a pair of young lovers, oblivious, sing from a musical manuscript to the accompaniment of a lute. At last! A sign of hope, you gasp…sorry, see that death’s head reading the music over her shoulder?
The dance of death is also depicted in the woodcuts of Hans Holbein and in the music of Saint-Saens whose Danse Macabre, a tone poem written in 1874 in the key of G minor, which, despite initial critical rejection, lives on in the repertoire and in adaptations such as the theme for the TV series Jonathan Creek.
On a more personal level, people give and acquire memorabilia associated with death. In Shakespeare’s time it was not unusual to have memorial rings made to be given to the favoured few- a pity it is not still a widespread custom. We, ourselves, have a score or more memorial cards of those family members and friends we have lost over the years.
Over the past 27 years I have written nine songs specifically in remembrance of my son who died at age 15 years. They take different forms but are all part of an ongoing engagement on my part with him. If we can’t go to the pub or sit out on the back veranda and shoot the breeze, then, at least, I can let him know how things are going, as in this 2005 song where I bring him up to date on what has been happening within the family group.
I started writing it on 19th December of that year and finished it two days later on the summer solstice, his birthday. And, no, I will never get over his death.