I woke up this morning – the last of the old year – with two well-known poems going round in my head: one by W.H. Auden and the other by Mary Oliver. I find them both comforting but their sentiments are so opposed that at first I was confused.
“Stop all the clocks,” says Auden in response to the passing of a loved one, “cut off the telephone,” as if death should bring the world to a halt. In the face of such loss, it’s as though nothing else matters:
[S]he was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
When my grief is sharpest, I feel that same admixture of rage, sorrow, and incomprehension. Time stands still; I cry out; our dog Teddy jumps up to nuzzle my face; I hold him and sob until the storm passes. It’s unpredictable; it just happens. It puts me deeply in touch with my love for Chris; it feels entirely natural and I welcome it.
But if Auden’s were the only words we listened to, our grief would make us smaller. And so I turn also to Mary Oliver’s invitation to find salvation beyond ourselves – in the family of things. We may be despairing, but she reminds us:
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I think of these words as I walk with Teddy in the woods and fields near the house that Chris and I shared. I listen to the birdsong; feel the wind on my face; look up at the sweep of the sky and tell myself that I do not have to be diminished by grief and loss. The world goes on and I am a part of it.
Auden’s elegaic Funeral Blues speaks to the agony of personal grief and will no doubt be recited at funerals and commemorations for decades to come, but Oliver’s Wild Geese brings us back to the life that goes on beyond death and despair. By nature, I am a melancholic introvert; yet, beautiful and moving as Auden’s lines are, it’s Oliver’s poetry I would ask for as my one book on Desert Island Discs.
I can imagine Chris telling me that both poems are rather hackneyed now and me replying (a little too forcefully) that they weren’t when we discovered them. Click on the images below of W.H. Auden and Mary Oliver to hear complete readings of Funeral Blues and Wild Geese.