This week’s poems are about the human conception of immortality.
We start with Edmund Spenser’s meditation on the nature of literary immortality “Amoretti LXXV” and William Shakespeare reinforces this in “Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” and Alfred, Lord Tennyson writes about the fate of “Tithonus”.
The last word on this subject can fairly be given to Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”
Poem 124. Amoretti LXXV: ‘One day I wrote her name upon the strand’
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,Edmund Spenser (1552/53—1599)
And in the heavens write your glorious name
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
‘Vain man,’ said she, ‘that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.’
‘Not so,’ (quod I); ‘let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.’
This 16th century poem tells us of the transitory nature of human existence and shows us that the only immortality we can hope for is our reputation as reported by others.
The first four lines emphasise that human existence is fleeting by the metaphor of the tide continually washing away words written in the sand. The object of the poet’s affections upbraids him, saying that she will herself decay and be forgotten in time (“For I myself shall like to this decay”) like her name written on the sand (“and eke my name by wiped out likewise”).
The poet demurs, saying that lesser creatures can’t hope to be immortalised but he will make her eternal by the recitation of her good points (“My verse your vertues rare shall eternize”) so that even when the whole word is conquered by death, their mutual love will survive and foster new life.
I like this poem because it echoes something that the late Sir Terry Pratchett expressed very well in his book Going Postal: “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?” This seems to me a profound thought: your fame lives for as long as people remember your name and deeds.
- Read about the Amoretti poem cycle on Wikipedia.
Poem 125. Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,William Shakespeare (1564—1616)
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
This is perhaps Shakespeare’s best-known sonnet and is the source of the title for the first book in H.E. Bates’s series of novels about the Larkin family, “The Darling Buds of May”.
Shakespeare compares the object of his affections to a summer’s day, with the summer’s day coming second. From the rough winds of May to the heat of the sun, he asserts that nothing that is fair retains its beauty except for his beloved and that as long as this sonnet is read, her beauty will rest eternal. It’s a very similar idea to Spenser’s poem but expressed with Shakespeare’s marvellous command of the language.
Poem 126. Tithonus
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809—1892)
Immortal age beside immortal youth
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man—
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, tho’ even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?
A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renew’d.
Thy cheek begins to redden thro’ the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosen’d manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.
Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek.
Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears,
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt,
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true?
"The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts."
Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch if I be he that watch'd
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimson'd all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss'd
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.
Yet hold me not for ever in thine East;
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.
Tennyson tells us the story of Tithonus from Greek myth. Tithonus fell in love with the dawn goddess Aurora and she with him: she asked the gods to make him immortal but neglected to ask for eternal youth and so Tithonus continued to age though he could not die while his lover remained young and beautiful.
The film Highlander tells a similar story: Connor McLeod is destined for immortality but his wife Heather is mortal and she ages and eventually dies while McLeod shows no sign of the passing years. The Queen song “Who Wants to Live Forever” accompanies this sequence:
There’s no chance for us
It’s all decided for us
This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us
Who wants to live foreverQueen, “Who Wants to Live Forever”
Who wants to live forever