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Bai Juyi: The song of unending anguish

[This poem is the best-known long poem in the Chinese language. It was written more than a thousand years ago about the Tang dynasty emperor Xuanzong, who lost his empire over a woman, Yang Guifei ("Imperial Concubine" Yang; her real name was Yuhuan, Jade Bracelet). When a rebellious protegé of Yang Guifei's seized the capital, the emperor and his army were forced to flee over the mountains. But the soldiers stopped and refused to go farther unless Yang Guifei died. She was garroted with a silken cord at the Mawei Pass. The rebellion cost between 13 and 36 million lives and was one of the most deadly wars in human history. The emperor recovered his kingdom after years of disaster, but he never got over his loss. The Tang dynasty also never recovered.]



At dusk in the palace halls the fireflies shine,
and his thoughts are sad,
alone with the lamp till it burns out,
still not able to sleep.
Slow, slow the bell and drum from the beginning to the end of the night,
Bright, bright the Milky Way as he wishes it were dawn.
The happy-marriage tiles are cold,
the frost-flowers are heavy,
the kingfisher-blue quilt is cold
with no one to share it.
Long and sad, the parting of death as the years pass,
and the soul never once comes into his dreams.

[The emperor called up many magicians to try to talk with Yang Guifei beyond the tomb. A Taoist monk succeeds in bringing her to see him, and she says:]

In the seventh day on the seventh day
in Long-Life Palace Hall,
at midnight with no one around
we told each other privately
that we wanted to fly into the sky
like a bird, with wings,
that on earth we wanted to be linked
like branches.
Heaven is vast, earth is ancient, but some day they will be gone;
this anguish will go on and on
without ever ending.

      --Bai Juyi (白居易) (772-846), one of the greatest poets of China. He is said to have read all his poems to an old peasant woman to be sure she understood them.



夕殿螢飛思悄然, 孤燈挑盡未成眠。
遲遲鐘鼓初長夜, 耿耿星河欲曙天。
鴛鴦瓦冷霜華重, 翡翠衾寒誰與共?
悠悠生死別經年, 魂魄不曾來入夢。

 七月七日長生殿, 夜半無人私語時。
在天願作比翼鳥, 在地願為連理枝。
天長地久有時盡, 此恨綿綿無絕期。

Heinrich Heine: The rabbi of Bacharach: Old and young are weeping


The Rabbi of Bacharach

Break out in loud wails,
you gloomy martyr's song,
that I bore so long
in my mind still as flames!

It drills into every ear,
and through ears to the heart;
I complained mightily
of the thousand-year-old pain.

Old and young are weeping,
even the cold men,
the women and flowers are weeping,
and the stars in heaven!

And all the tears are flowing
to the south, in silent union,
they all flow and pour  out
into the Jordan.

       --Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

Brich aus in lauten Klagen,
Du düstres Martyrerlied,
Das ich so lang getragen
Im flammenstillen Gemüt!

Es dringt in alle Ohren,
Und durch die Ohren ins Herz;
Ich habe gewaltig beschworen
Den tausendjährigen Schmerz.

Es weinen die Großen und Kleinen,
Sogar die kalten Herrn,
Die Frauen und Blumen weinen,
Es weinen am Himmel die Stern!

Und alle die Tränen fließen
Nach Süden, im stillen Verein,
Sie fließen und ergießen
Sich all in den Jordan hinein.

Leo Tolstoy: Prince Andrei stops fearing death

Crop_keats_on_deathbed He dreamed he was lying in the room he actually was in, but that he had not been wounded and was well. A great many people of various sorts, unimportant people of no significance, appear before him. He talks to them, arguing about something trivial. They are preparing to go away. Prince Andrei dimly realizes that all this is of no consequence, that he has other, more serious concerns, but he continues to talk, astonishing them all with shallow witticisms. Gradually, imperceptibly, all these persons begin to disappear, and are supplanted by a single problem: the closed door. He gets up and goes to the door to bolt and lock it. Everything depends on whether he succeeds in locking it in time. He starts toward it, tries to hurry, but his legs do not move and though he knows he will not be in time to lock the door, he frantically exerts all his powers. He is seized by an agonizing fear. And this fear is the fear of death. It stands behind the door. But while he is helplessly and clumsily crawling toward the door, that ominous something is already pressing against it and forcing its way in. Something inhuman-- death-- is breaking in and must be stopped. He lays hold of the door, strains himself to the utmost just to prevent it from opening-- to lock it is no longer possible-- but his efforts are feeble and ineffectual and the door, pushed from outside by that horror, opens and falls shut again.

Once more it pushed from outside. His final, superhuman efforts were unavailing, and both halves of the door noiselessly opened. It entered, and it was death. And Prince Andrei died.

But at the very moment he died, Prince Andrei remembered that he was asleep, and at that very moment, having exerted himself, awoke.

"Yes, that was death. I died-- and I awoke. Yes, death is an awakening!"

And his soul was suddenly suffused with light, and the veil concealing the unknown was lifted from before his soul's vision. He felt as if powers that till then had been confined within him were liberated, and from then on that strange lightness did not leave him again.

When, waking in a cold sweat, he moved on the divan, Natasha went to him and asked him what was the matter. He did not answer but looked at her strangely, not understanding.

...With his awakening from sleep that day, there began for Prince Andrei an awakening from life. And compared to the duration of life it did not seem to him slower that the awakening from sleep compared to the duration of a dream.

        --Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), War and Peace (book 4 part 1 ch 16), tr Ann Dunnigan

Ancient Irish poem: The arrows that murder sleep

The arrows that murder sleep,
at every hour in the cold night,
are love-lamenting, by reason of times spent, after day,Girl_cant_sleep
in the company of one from beside the land of Roigne.

Great love for a man of another land
who excelled his peers has taken my bloom
(little color is left);
it allows me no sleep....

Sweeter than all songs was his speech...
glorious flame without a word of boasting.
Slender soft-sided mate....

I have everything good with Gúaire, the king of cold Aidne;
but my mind seeks to go from my people
to the land which is in Irlúachair.

In the land of glorious Aidne,
around the sides of Cell Cholmáin,
men sing of a glorious flame, from the south of Limerick of the graves,
whose name is Dínertach.

His grievous death, holy Christ, torments my kindly heart:
these are the arrows that murder sleep
at every hour in the cold night.

   --Anonymous, Ireland ca 800 A.D. [said to be the lament of Créide, daughter of Gúaire of Aidne, for Dínertach, son of Gúaire of the Ui Fhidgente]. Translated by Gerard Murphy

It é saigte gona súain,
cech thrátha i n-aidchi adúair,
serccoí, lia gnása, íar ndé,
fir a tóeb thíre Roigne.

Rográd fir ala thíre
ro-shíacht sech a chomdíne
ruc mo lí (ní lór do dath);
ním-léci do thindabrad.

Binniu la
ídib a labrad
acht R
íg nime nóebadrad:
án bréo cen bréthir mbraise,
éle tana tóebthaise.

Imsa na
ídiu robsa náir:
í bínn fri dúla dodáil;
ó do-lod i n-inderb n-a
rom-gab mo th
éte togaís.

Táchum cech maith la G
la r
íg nAidni adúaire;
tocair mo menma
óm thúathaib
íath i nIrlúachair.

Canair i n-
íath Aidni áin,
im th
óebu Cille Colmáin,
án bréo des Luimnech lechtach
íanid comainm Dínertach.

Cráidid mo chride cainech,
a Chríst cáid, a fhoraided:
it é saigte gona súain
cech thrátha i n-aidchi adúair.

Jill Ker Conway: Watching the world from the other side of some transparent but impenetrable window

[Jill Ker Conway was raised on Coorain, an Australian ranch. In a time of terrible drought, her father drowned under circumstances that made her suspect he had killed himself. Her family later moved to Sydney. She is now 15. A policeman comes in the middle of the night to tell that her adored older brother Bob, 21, has been killed in a car crash.]

After he left, I was overcome by the need to do my grieving privately for a while. Drowning_in_sorrow_by_chocolate_sheep_fl I wanted to sit alone and take it in. I also knew it would be a long time before my mother slept peacefully again, and thought she would need her rest for what was awaiting her tomorrow. I sat in the dark in the living room, thinking very clearly. This time I knew no effort at committing a loved face or voice to memory could arrest the passage of time. There would be a time when I couldn't recall his voice and his laugh at will. I might live on a large part of my life without the laughter and the joy he brought into it. As I took in the facts and imagined the battered thatch of golden hair, I felt a sharp physical loss, as though my own body were mutilated. I was literally glad to have time to take in his death alone. It meant that in my incestuous way I could hold on a little longer to something about him which for the moment was mine alone. He had been like the sun in my universe, and most of my aspirations at school and in my daily life had centered on winning his approval. Now there were not just my father's wishes to be carried out in his absence, but Bob's too. I realized I would always be trying to live out his life for him.

[She wakes her other brother, Barry, and tells him.]

Downstairs, we sat together again, waiting out the night, just as we had waited out the day of our father's death together. As the first light came, it struck me like a blow that the sun would soon rise on a world without Bob....While Barry went to make his phone call, I crept about the kitchen to make us hot tea. When he returned we drank it, our lips chattering against the cups from cold and shock. After he left I settled in to wait, watcing the sun rise, staring at the new day in frozen sorrow. We had thought there could be no greater grief than the loss of our father, but there was and it was upon us. I knew with foreboding how it would affect our mother. mother...looked like a character in a fairy story on whom a sudden spell has been cast. She said in an incredulous voice to no one in particular, "But he was my first baby." We nodded and then they set out.

[Chapter 6]

After my brother Bob's death, it seemed as though I had lost the capacity for emotional responses. Daily life was in black and white, like a badly made film. My trancelike state excluded music, feeling, color, desire. Although on the surface I was doing well, I was actually going through each day like an automaton....I gave up athletic competition because during the practice hours after school I was haunted by the knowledge of my mother, alone at home. I often came in to find her just sitting gazing into space.

Minhoquita_window_from_flickr I never touched the keys of a piano again, nor could I listen to music. When I heard something Bob had played or that we had listened to together I could not manage the feelings of grief that swept over me. Just as with our departure from Coorain, my consciousness had retreated to a great distance. It was hard to bring it back to earth unless I was concentrating every energy on some difficult intellectual effort. I came to love my hours of homework because when I finally sat down alone in my room with my books, I could get my mind and body together again, and escape the discomfort of watching the world from the other side of some transparent but impenetrable window. At school I laughed when people told jokes...but I could not really participate. When we went to the theater, I sat physically in the stalls but was emotionally somewhere up with the lighting tracks and girders of the building....

If we were sad, [our mother] was distraught. I often wondered if it would be better to rend one's garments and tear one's hair to express grief. My mother was quiet, but frozen....

We never spoke about Bob, or about our mother's worrisome state. We enjoyed the quiet, unspoken communication of two inarticulate but devoted people.

   --Jill Ker Conway (1934-), The Road From Coorain

Mark Helprin: Climbing the mountain of grief

Garmisch_1 [Wallich is a photographer in Munich whose wife and son have been killed in a car crash. He takes a train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a small town in the Bavarian Alps, planning to climb the Schreuderspitze. He spends months reading books about climbing, buys rope, and trains intensively for the climb. He falls asleep after a dream in which he saw his family leave him.]

...He was alone in the center of a sunlit snowfield, walking on the glacier in late June, bound for the summit of the Schreuderspitze....His stride was light and long, like that of a man on the moon. He nearly floated, ever so slightly airborne, over the dazzling glacier....

For several hours he climbed over great boulders and up a range of rocky escarpments. It grew more and more difficult....Zugspitze_1

He awoke, convinced that he had in fact climbed the counterfort. It was a strong feeling.....He rejoiced in his bravery in climbing. It had been as real as anything he had ever experienced....

It was early June....Two years had passed....He had not eaten in days, and was not disappointed that even the waking world began to seem like a dream....

On the mountain it was dreadfully cold. He huddled into himself against the wet silver clouds, and yet he smiled, happy to be once again on the summit....

At first he saw just a star or two straight on high. But as the mist departed a flood of stars burst through. Roads of them led into infinity....he saw something which stunned him.

The Schreuderspitze was far higher than he had thought. It was hundreds of times higher than the mountains Europe_from_space_daynight represented on the map he had seen in Munich. The Alps were to it not even foothills....Below him was the purple earth, and all the great cities lit by sparkling lamps in their millions. It was a clear summer dawn....

His eye settled quite easily upon Munich....There was Munich, shining and pulsing like a living thing, strung with lines of amber light--light which reverberated as if in crystals, light which played in many dimensions and moved about the course of the city, which was defined by darkness at its edge. He had come above time, above the world. The city of Munich existed before him with all its time compressed. As he watched, its history played out in repeating cycles. Nothing, not one moment, was lost from the crystal. The light of things danced and multiplied, again and again, and yet again. It was all there for him to claim. It was alive, and ever would be.

He knelt on one knee as in paintings he had seen of explorers claiming a coast of the New World. He dared close his eyes in the face of that miracle. He began to concentrate, to fashion according to will with the force of stilled time a vision of those he had loved. In all their bright colors, they began to appear before him....

[He wakes up, and takes the train back to Munich.]

As they pulled into the great station...he remembered that he had climbed the Schreuderspitze, by its most difficult route. He had found freedom from grief in the great and heart-swelling sight he had seen from the summit. He felt its workings and he realized that soon enough he would come once more into the world of light. Soon enough he would be with his wife and son. But until then (and he knew that time would spark ahead), he would open himself to life in the city, return to his former profession, and struggle at his craft.

        --Mark Helprin (1947-), "The Schreuderspitze", in Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981)

Joan Didion: Marriage is memory, marriage is time


Marriage is memory, marriage is time. "She didn't know the songs," I recall being told that a friend of a friend said after an attempt to repeat the experience. Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age....

       --Joan Didion (1934-)  in The Year of Magical Thinking, about the year after the death of her husband

Alfred Tennyson: Mourning his friend Arthur Hallam

From In Memoriam


I sometimes hold it half a sinCrop_angel_at_pere_lachaise
to put in words the grief I feel;
for words, like Nature, half reveal
and half conceal the Soul within...

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
like coarsest clothes against the cold:
but that large grief which these enfold
is given in outline and no more.


One writes, that "Other friends remain,"
that "Loss is common to the race"--
and common is the commonplace,
and vacant chaff well meant for grain.

That loss is common would not make
my own less bitter, rather more:
too common! Never morning wore
to evening, but some heart did break...


Tears of the widower, when he sees
a late-lost form that sleep reveals,
and moves his doubtful arms, and feels Crop_bed_for_one_4
her place is empty, fall like these;

which weep a loss for ever new,
a void where heart on heart reposed;
and, where warm hands have pressed and closed,
silence, till I be silent too. awful thought, a life removed,
the human-hearted man I loved,
a Spirit, not a breathing voice.

Come Time, and teach me, many years,
I do not suffer in a dream;
for now so strange do these things seem...


The lesser griefs that may be said,
that breathe a thousand tender vows,
are but as servants in a house
where lies the master newly dead...

"It will be hard," they say, "to find
Another service such as this."

My lighter moods are like to these,
that out of words a comfort win;
but there are other griefs within,
and tears that at their fountain freeze;

for by the hearth the children sit
cold in that atmosphere of Death,
and scarce endure to draw the breath, see the vacant chair, and think,
"How good! how kind! and he is gone."


...And is it that the haze of grief
makes former gladness loom so great?
The lowness of the present state,
that sets the past in this relief?

Or that the past will always win
a glory from its being far...?


...I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
't is better to have loved and lost
than never to have loved at all.


With trembling fingers did we weaveChristmas_tree_1850_1
the holly round the Christmas hearth;
a rainy cloud possess’d the earth,
and sadly fell our Christmas-eve.

At our old pastimes in the hall
we gambol’d, making vain pretence
of gladness, with an awful sense
of one mute Shadow watching all...

Then echo-like our voices rang;
we sung, tho’ every eye was dim,
a merry song we sang with him
last year: impetuously we sang:

we ceased: a gentler feeling crept
upon us: surely rest is meet:
"They rest," we said, "their sleep is sweet,"
and silence follow’d, and we wept...


Be near me when my light is low,
when the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
and tingle; and the heart is sick,
and all the wheels of Being slow...

Be near me when my faith is dry...

be near me when I fade away,
to point the term of human strife,
and on the low dark verge of life
the twilight of eternal day.


Oh yet we trust that somehow good
will be the final goal of ill...

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
that not one life shall be destroy’d,
or cast as rubbish to the void,
when God hath made the pile complete...

So runs my dream: but what am I?
an infant crying in the night:
an infant crying for the light:
and with no language but a cry.


I cannot see the features right,
when on the gloom I strive to paint
the face I know; the hues are faint
and mix with hollow masks of night...


I leave thy praises unexpress’d
in verse that brings myself relief,
and by the measure of my grief
I leave thy greatness to be guess’d...

Thy leaf has perish’d in the green,
and, while we breathe beneath the sun,
the world which credits what is done
is cold to all that might have been....

        --Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892). Arthur Hallam was Tennyson's close friend, and the fiancé of his sister Emily. Hallam died young in Vienna in 1833. The 132 poems of In Memoriam were written over the next seventeen years. More of the poem can be found here. The full text can be found here.

Fulke Greville laments his best friend, Sir Philip Sidney, who died young in the wars

Silence augmenteth grief, writing increaseth rage,
staled are my thoughts, which loved and lost the wonder of our age:
yet quickened now with fire, though dead with frost ere now,
enraged I write I know not what; dead, quick, I know not how.Crop_text_sir_philip_sidney

Hard-hearted minds relent and rigour's tears abound,
and envy strangely rues his end, in whom no fault she found.
Knowledge her light hath lost; valour hath slain her knight.
Sidney is dead; dead is my friend; dead is the world's delight.

Place, pensive, wails his fall whose presence was her pride;
Time crieth out, "My ebb is come; his life was my spring tide."
Fame mourns in that she lost the ground of her reports;
each living wight laments his lack, and all in sundry sorts.

He was (woe worth that word!) to each well-thinking mind
a spotless friend, a matchless man, whose virtue ever shined,
declaring in his thoughts, his life, and that he write,
highest conceits, longest foresights, and deepest works of wit.

He, only like himself, was second unto none,
whose death (though life) we rue, and wrong, and all in vain do moan.
Their loss, not him, wail they, that fill the world with cries,
death slew not him, but he made death his ladder to the skies.

Now sink of sorrow I, who live, the more the wrong!
Who wishing death, whom death denies, whose thread is all too long;
who tied to wretched life, who looks for no relief,
must spend my ever dying days in never ending grief.

Heart's ease and only I, like parallels, run on,
whose equal length keep equal breadth, and never meet in one;
yet for not wronging him, my thoughts, my sorrow's cell,
shall not run out, though leak they will, for liking him so well.

Farewell to you, my hopes, my wonted waking dreams,
farewell, sometimes enjoyed joy; eclipsed are thy beams.
Farewell, self-pleasing thoughts, which quietness brings forth;
and farewell, friendship's sacred league, uniting minds of worth.

And farewell, merry heart, the gift of guileless minds,
and all sports which for life's restore variety assigns;
let all that sweet is void; in me no mirth may dwell.Crop_text_fulke_greville_1
Philip, the cause of all this woe, my life's content, farewell!

Now rhyme, the son of rage, which art no kin to skill,
and endless grief, which deads my life, yet knows not how to kill,
go, seek that hapless tomb, which if ye hap to find,
salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind.

      -- Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628), writing on the death from a war wound of his close friend since childhood, Sir Philip Sidney, the most admired man of his time

Another poem written after the death of Sydney was by Henry Constable (1562-1613):

On Sir Philip Sidney

Give pardon, blessed soul, to my bold cries,
if they, importune, interrupt thy song,
which now with joyful notes thou sing'st among
the angel-choristers of heavenly skies.
Give pardon eke, sweet soul, to my slow eyes,
that since I saw thee now it is so long,
and yet the tears that unto thee belong
to thee as yet they did not sacrifice.
I did not know that thou wert dead before;
I did not feel the grief I did sustain;
the greater stroke astonisheth the more;
astonishment takes from us sense of pain.
I stood amazed when others' tears begun,
and now begin to weep when they have done.