03 November 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/45

The Unquiet Grave

"The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.

"I'll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I'll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day."

The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
"Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?"

" 'Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
And that is all I seek."

"You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long.

" 'Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen
Is withered to a stalk.

"The stalk is withered dry, my love,
So will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away."


I thought I'd continue the ghostly poems for another week. I was looking for something suitable for the Día de los Muertos and I thought of this poem, which is not directly about it but is not unsuitable, since it's about the continuing presence of the beloved dead, remembering their spirits, and dealing with the loss in life.

Like The Haunted Oak from two weeks back, this poem is in ballad form: it's a narrative, told in quatrains with a 4-3-4-3 beat and rhymes at the end of the second and fourth lines. Certain phrases get repeated, for emphasis and rhythm, such as "one kiss of your clay-cold lips," which we hear three times. And the vocabulary has some archaic touches: 'Tis, and ere (meaning earlier, before, so that the sense of "the finest flower that ere was seen" is "the finest flower that we saw in the time before this, back when we used to walk together in the garden" – though I wonder if the word is meant to be e'er, the contraction for ever, so that the sense is "the finest flower that ever was seen"?).

This seems like a poem Edward Gorey might have illustrated. It is written by the prolific Anonymous, but feels very Victorian to me, particularly the last two lines, with their sense that:

* you can create your own attitude, sort of an emotional and philosophical way of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps ("make yourself content"),

* the attitude it is wisest to try for is contentment (rather than, say, happiness; it's a reconciliation with life, a way of making the best of things), and

* a presumably benevolent Deity is watching over things and has a plan for you.

There are suitable atmospherics that give a late autumn/wintry feel: the wind, the rain, the cold grave. After the fairy-tale "year and a day" (a year was the length of time assigned to official deep mourning by the Victorians, so the speaker is showing that he will do more than society requires), the dead woman speaks. She has already moved into the kingdom of the dead, and responds to his passionate mourning with dispassionate wisdom: her kiss would mean death; death will come to him eventually, just as it did to the most beautiful flowers they saw on their walks together; he should move on as best he can until the inevitable happens to him. It's kind of a carpe diem poem, with the acknowledgement that the diem can be tough to get through sometimes.

My first assumption was that the speaker was a young man, given the lines "I'll do as much for my true-love / as any young man may," which I took to mean that he will do the utmost possible in mourning, compared to anyone else in his position. But it could possibly be read as "although I am no longer a young man, I will do just as much as any young (implying physically strong, headstrong, passionate) man." The language, she is slippery. I think my first assumption was probably correct, but I find it more poignant to think of this poem as about an old man with not much time left himself, yearning for one more kiss from his life-long and lost love.

I took this from Poems Dead and Undead, edited by Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust. It's a new addition to the excellent series of anthologies available from Everyman Library's Pocket Poets.


Unknown said...

Love the photos. I have a student this year whose family really celebrates Dia de los Muertos in a big way, led by a grandmother. She taught her grandson how to make the tissue paper flowers and he taught me, and we bonded. At one point, I realized I was picturing Grandma as this old woman who has a long gray braid and wears a shawl, and then I realized that it's very likely that Grandma is younger than me. Cultural traditions with crafts...bring it on! This made me more aware of signs of the day in my neighborhood, including your first photo, so thank you. I liked the poem very much, and I think it fits the day well. His love is not telling him to forget about her, just to go on and live his life.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks. Forgetfulness is implied, I think, to a certain extent -- certainly she is not even really aware who it is weeping for her until she asks.