For a mother, the disappearance of a child signifies a traceless torment, an eternal anguish in which there is no resignation, no consolation, no time for the wound to heal.
—Elena Poniatowska (1932–), Silence Is Strong (translated from Fuerte es el silencio; if you know the translator, or have the original quotation in Spanish, please let me know.)
To you, my father, Fronto, and my mother Flaccilla,
I commend Erotion, my little darling girl,
so that she won't be frightened of the dark shadows
or of the jaws of the great hound of Hell.
It would have been six cold winters
if she had lived six more days.
Let her play happily among these old protectors,
prattling and lisping my name.
Let the turf not lie rough on her tender bones,
nor you, Earth, weigh her down;
she was not so to you.
—Martial (ca 38–ca 104), Roman poet. Erotion was a little slave girl, possibly his daughter by a slave.
Hanc tibi, Fronto pater, genetrix Flaccilla, puellam
oscula commendo deliciasque meas,
parvola ne nigras horrescat Erotion umbras
oraque Tartarei prodigiosa canis.
Inpletura fuit sextæ modo frigora brumæ,
vixisset totidem ni minus illa dies.
Inter tam veteres ludat lasciva patronos
et nomen blæso garriat ore meum.
Mollia non rigidus cæspes tegat ossa; nec illi,
Terra, gravis fueris:non fuit illa tibi.
Photo by Sheila Brown.
Before me the world is a binding seal,
and my home to me is a prison, my son.
After your death I'll go in fear
no more of Time-- for my terror has come.
--By Shmu'el HaNagid, also known as Samuel ibn Naghrilla (993-after 1056) from The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492, edited and translated by Peter Cole (2007). Cole is a poet himself and has won the MacArthur award, among many others.
In the kitchen
I hear the hollow shovel, bleak
against the laughter of the sun
Sun, where shall I go now?
The warmth of the kitchen is cold.
I sense the hand once held in mine
the train discarded in the corner
Train, where will you go now?
The cold of the kitchen is bare.
I hear the gentle laughter, soft
against the silence of the wind
Wind, take me with you now
The silence of the kitchen is forever.
--Áine ní Ghlinn (1955- ) in Sruth na Maoile: Modern Gaelic Poetry From Scotland and Ireland (1993)
I gCuimhne Robbie
Cloisim an tsluasaid lom
meascaithe le gáire na gréine
A ghrian, cá raghad anois?
Tá teas na cistine fuar.
Braithim an lámh a bhí im láimh
an traein caite sa chúinne
A traein, cá raghair anois?
Tá fuacht na cistine lom.
Cloisim an gáire séimh
meascaithe le ciúnas na gaoithe
A ghaoth, beir leat anois mé
Tá tost na cistine buan.
Fathers, mothers, whose soul has suffered my suffering,
everything I felt, did you feel it too?
--Victor Hugo (1802-1885). His beloved eldest daughter Léopoldine and her young husband drowned in the Seine shortly after their marriage. Victor Hugo found out about it in a newspaper while traveling. He never got over her death.
Pères, mères, dont l'âme a souffert ma souffrance,
tout ce que j'éprouvais, l'avez-vous éprouvé?
The messenger you sent to report the death of our little child seems to have missed me on the way as he travelled to Athens; but when I reached Tanagra I learned of it...
Only, my dear wife, in your emotion keep me as well as yourself within bounds....I know what great satisfaction lay in this, that after four sons the longed-for daughter was born.... Our affection for children so young has, furthermore, a poignancy all its own: the delight it gives is quite pure and free from all anger or reproach. She had herself, moreover, a surprising gift of mildness and good temper, and her way of responding to friendship and of bestowing favours gave us pleasure while it afforded an insight into her kindness.... But I do not see, my dear wife, why these things and the like, after delighting us while she lived, should now distress and dismay us as we take thought of them. Rather I fear on the contrary that while we banish painful thoughts we may banish memory as well...But rather, just as she was herself the most delightful thing in the world to embrace, to see, to hear, so too must the thought of her live with us and be our companion, bringing with it joy in greater measure, nay in many times greater measure, than it brings sorrow...and we must not sit idle and shut ourselves in, paying for those pleasures with sorrows many times as great.
Try to carry yourself back in your thoughts and return again and again to the time when this little child was not yet born and we had as yet no complaint against Fortune; next, try to link this present time with that, as though our circumstances had again become the same. For, my dear wife, we shall appear to be sorry that our child was ever born, if our conduct leads us to regard the state of things before her birth as preferable to the present. Yet we must not obliterate the intervening two years from our memory; rather, since they afforded us delight and enjoyment of her, we should credit them to the account of pleasure; and we should not consider the small good a great evil, nor, because Fortune did not add what we hoped for, be ungrateful for what was given. For reverent language toward the Deity and a serene and uncomplaining attitude toward Fortune never fail to yield an excellent and pleasant return; while in circumstances like these, he who in greatest measure draws upon his memory of past blessings, and turns his thought toward the bright and radiant part of his life, averting it from the dark and disturbing part, either extinguishes his pain entirely, or by thus combining it with its opposite, renders it slight and faint....
...That she has passed to a state where there is no pain need not be painful to us; for what sorrow can come to us through her, if nothing now can make her grieve?
...Consider then that the soul, which is imperishable, is affected like a captive bird:...whereas the soul that tarries after its capture but a brief space in the body, before it is set free by higher powers, proceeds to its natural state as though released....
...The laws forbid us to mourn for infants, holding it impiety to mourn for those who have departed to a dispensation and a region too that is better and more divine....
--Plutarch (ca 46-120), in a letter to his wife Timoxena, after the death of their two-year-old daughter, also named Timoxena. Translator unknown. If you have the original Greek, could you please send it?
He did but float a little way
adown the stream of time;
with dreamy eyes watching the ripples play,
or listening to their chime.
His slender sail
scarce felt the gale;
he did but float a little way,
and, putting to the shore,
while yet 'twas early day,
went calmly on his way,
to dwell with us no more.
No jarring did he feel,
no grating on his vessel's keel;
a strip of yellow sand
mingled the waters with the land,
where he was seen no more;
O stern word, Nevermore!
Full short his journey was; no dust
of earth unto his sandals clave;
the weary weight, that old men must,
he bore not to his grave.
He seemed a cherub who had lost his way
and wandered hither; so his stay
with us was short; and 'twas most meet
that he should be no delver in earth's clod,
nor need to pause and cleanse his feet
to stand before his God.
--Anonymous. Poem in The Children's Anthology (1941), ed. William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943)
The dead wear wings of moss.
The cloudy wind and the clean wind
are two pheasants who fly by the towers
and the day is a wounded boy.
Not a sliver of lark was left in the air
when I met you by the caves of wine
not a crumb of cloud was left in the sky
when you drowned in the river.
A giant of water fell over the mountains
and the valley was whirling with dogs and irises.
Your body, with the dark purple of my hands,
was, dead on the pillow, an archangel of cold.
Todas las tardes en Granada,
todas las tardes se muere un niño.
Todas las tardes el agua se sienta
a conversar con sus amigos.
Los muertos llevan alas de musgo.
El viento nublado y el viento limpio
son dos faisanes que vuelan por las torres
y el día es un muchacho herido.
No quedaba en el aire ni una brizna de alondra
cuando yo te encontré por las grutas del vino
No quedaba en la tierra ni una miga de nube
cuando te ahogabas por el río.
Un gigante de agua cayó sobre los montes
y el valle fue rodando con perros y con lirios.
Tu cuerpo, con la sombra violeta de mis manos,
era, muerto en la orilla, un arcángel de frío.
I grieve for life's bright promise, just shown and then withdrawn.
--William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) in "Waiting by the Gate," Thirty Poems (1864)