Updated: Jun 17, 2019
The children caper Round a sprung moustrap where a mouse lies dead When the soft corpse won’t move they seem afraid
I found a collection of Gwen Harwood’s poems in a bookshop in Fremantle yesterday and was struck again by her wonderful ability to pay attention to tiny details. Harwood’s Suburban Sonnet is a masterclass in everyday tragedy, depicting children confronting death, perhaps for the first time, and a woman whose veins ache as musical longings and family obligations collide inside her. It is heartbreaking. Each small detail in the poem builds an image of flawed humans, big and small, struggling against time and the awareness of their own mortality.
So I was fascinated to find a poem buried in the volume dedicated to another great poet, titled I.M. Philip Larkin. Harwood, one of the finest anatomisers of humanity, writes in her brief and heartfelt euology to Larkin: Sorrow will keep its hour/Surpassing all belief. Her poem betrays a deep pain at the loss of this fellow poet. Like all great artists, Harwood is conscious of death and its inevitability, and yet its ability to blindside us with its vastness and obscenity, surpassing all belief.
Of course, Larkin himself wrote one of the most unique and striking depictions of our awareness of death, refracting our fears through the prism of ambulances. Larkin’s ambulances menace us as they thread loud noons of cities/Giving back none of the glances they absorb. Their presence makes us:
…sense the solving emptiness That lies just under all we do, And for a second get it whole, So permanent and blank and true.
The poem takes an ordinary moment in any of our lives, the passing of an ambulance, and through it lets us glimpse the extraordinary: the solving emptiness of death.
And so we come to Shakespeare: the great poet of life, death and everything in between (and sometimes after). And in a post about death and poetry, how could we not? Last week was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and birth (both on the 23 April). Shakespeare’s birthday is the day after mine, so I often find myself reflecting on the great writer’s words as another year passes – his life and death ever present as my own years slip by.
Time is Shakespeare’s great, recurring theme. The inevitability of decay, death and rebirth is a thread shot through every play and poem he wrote. The most iconic image in his work, indeed in all of dramatic literature, needs no words to be immediately understood: a healthy young man in a graveyard, holding a human skull. Even the most passionate lives in Shakespeare are ultimately brought to heel by Hamlet’s seargant death who is strict in his arrest. In one of the most beloved passages, Jaques tells us all the world’s a stage, an image of life brimming with energetic performances, passion and possibility. Yet in the exact same speech he reminds us that by definition each performance, each life, has an entrance and an exit. Death is always with us.
But it is Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand in The Tempest, viewed by many as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the theatre, that speaks most powerfully of the fleeting nature of life. The illusion of our own permanence is just that:
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, Yea 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.
In his response to the play, The Sea and the Mirror, WH Auden describes the all-consuming ocean in The Tempest as one which misuses nothing because it values nothing. In one sense, the play confronts us with a bleak universe that will swallow everything. All that we think of as permanent, including our own consciousness, will ultimately dissolve.
And yet, the wonderful paradox of life is that an awareness of its briefness can make us more fully, vibrantly alive. All great art is in some way a response to a consciousness of mortality: the artist attempts to observe and to make sense of this world before it passes them by. The result may be tragic, whimsical, confronting, meditative or hilarious, but it is all an act of curiosity, of paying attention, of presence. We are all the children poking the dead mouse in Gwen Harwood’s poem, or Hamlet staring at the skull. And this need not be depressing or macabre. Contrary to popular misconception, Hamlet is one of the funniest characters in all dramatic literature. An awareness of life’s briefness is also an awareness of its specialness, which can be liberating, animating, even joyful. It is only by paying attention that we become fully alive. For an artist the awareness of death makes the expression of life in all its wonderful complexity all the more precious.
And, despite the inevitable death of its creators, great art need not die. The words of Harwood, Larkin and Shakespeare have the ability to go on – to outlive each artist. And with the death of David Bowie, Prince and many other extraordinary artists this year we see vivid examples of how the work of great artists can continue to have a life of its own. Each artist may be only paying attention to their small corner of the world, but by expressing what they see and sharing it with others, their work has the power to endure.
Ben Jonson’s eulogy for Shakespeare contains one of the finest expressions of this idea. Four hundred years later, Jonson’s words are testament to the extraordinary ability of art to transcend death.
Thou art a monument without a tomb, And art alive still while thy book doth live And we have wits to read and praise to give.