Larkin: Most things may never happen: this one will

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I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

Kurt Deiner Pixabay pixlr blur

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Philip Larkin (1922–1985), "Aubade" from Collected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1988/2003, ed. Anthony Thwaite). Copyright © Estate of Philip Larkin. Reprinted by kind permission of Faber and Faber, Ltd.


Lulu von Strauss und Torney: Once

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And when I myself have long been dead,
my earth will be blossoming again,
and seeds and sickles, snow and the glory of summer
and white day and blue midnight
will pass over my beloved soil.

And there will be days just like today–
the gardens full of the scent of lilacs,
and white clouds gliding into the blue,
and young fields of silken grass-tips
and above it all an endless song of larks!

And children will be laughing at the gate
and breaking green twigs off the hedges,
and girls will be roaming arm in arm
and through the warm, still summer evening
speak of love with their soft lips!

And like today, the young day of earth
will know nothing of any yesterday,
and like today still, every summer breeze
will carry secret sweetness on its wings
from thousands of days that are forgotten!

      –Lulu von Strauß und Torney (1873-1956)

Einst

Und wenn ich selber längst gestorben bin,
wird meine Erde wieder blühen stehen,
und Saat und Sichel, Schnee und Sommerpracht
und weißer Tag und blaue Mitternacht
wird über die geliebte Scholle gehen.

Und werden Tage ganz wie heute sein:
die Gärten voll vom Dufte der Syringen,
und weiße Wolken, die im Blauen ziehn,
und junger Felder seidnes Ährengrün,
und drüberhin ein endlos Lerchensingen!

Und werden Kinder lachen vor dem Tor
und an den Hecken grüne Zweige brechen,
und werden Mädchen wandern Arm in Arm
und durch den Sommerabend still und warm
mit leisen Lippen von der Liebe sprechen!

Und wird wie heut der junge Erdentag
von keinem Gestern wissen mehr noch sagen,
und wird wie heut doch jeder Sommerwind
aus tausend Tagen, die vergessen sind,
geheime Süße auf den Flügeln tragen!


King Xerxes grieves that all his men will be dead in a hundred years

Crossing_the_Hellespont_by_Xerxes_with_his_huge_armyXerxes watches his army cross the Hellespont

When Xerxes [Cyrus] had come into the midst of Abydos, he had a desire to see all the army; and there had been made purposely for him beforehand upon a hill in this place a raised seat of white stone, which the people of Abydos had built at the command of the king given beforehand. There he took his seat, and looking down upon the shore he gazed both upon the land-army and the ships; and gazing upon them he had a longing to see a contest take place between the ships; and when it had taken place and the Phenicians of Sidon were victorious, he was delighted both with the contest and with the whole armament.

And seeing all the Hellespont covered over with the ships, and all the shores and the plains of Abydos full of men, then Xerxes pronounced himself a happy man, and after that he fell to weeping.

Artabanos his uncle therefore perceiving him,–the same who at first boldly declared his opinion advising Xerxes not to march against Hellas [Greece],– this man, I say, having observed that Xerxes wept, asked as follows: "O king, how far different from one another are the things which thou hast done now and a short while before now! for having pronounced thyself a happy man, thou art now shedding tears." He said: "Yea, for after I had reckoned up, it came into my mind to feel pity at the thought how brief was the whole life of man, seeing that of these multitudes not one will be alive when a hundred years have gone by."

Herodotus (ca 484 BCE-425 BCE) in his Histories, Ch. VII, 44-46

ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ἐγένετο ἐν Ἀβύδῳ μέσῃ, ἠθέλησε Ξέρξης ἰδέσθαι πάντα τὸν στρατόν· καὶ προεπεποίητο γὰρ ἐπὶ κολωνοῦ ἐπίτηδες αὐτῷ ταύτῃ προεξέδρη λίθου λευκοῦ, ἐποίησαν δὲ Ἀβυδηνοὶ ἐντειλαμένου πρότερον βασιλέος, ἐνθαῦτα ὡς ἵζετο, κατορῶν ἐπὶ τῆς ἠιόνος ἐθηεῖτο καὶ τὸν πεζὸν καὶ τὰς νέας, θηεύμενος δὲ ἱμέρθη τῶν νεῶν ἅμιλλαν γινομένην ἰδέσθαι. ἐπεὶ δὲ ἐγένετό τε καὶ ἐνίκων Φοίνικες Σιδώνιοι, ἥσθη τε τῇ ἁμίλλῃ καὶ τῇ στρατιῇ.

ὡς δὲ ὥρα πάντα μὲν τὸν Ἑλλήσποντον ὑπὸ τῶν νεῶν ἀποκεκρυμμένον, πάσας δὲ τὰς ἀκτὰς καὶ τὰ Ἀβυδηνῶν πεδία ἐπίπλεα ἀνθρώπων, ἐνθαῦτα ὁ Ξέρξης ἑωυτὸν ἐμακάρισε, μετὰ δὲ τοῦτο ἐδάκρυσε.

μαθὼν δέ μιν Ἀρτάβανος ὁ πάτρως, ὃς τὸ πρῶτον γνώμην ἀπεδέξατο ἐλευθέρως οὐ συμβουλεύων Ξέρξῃ στρατεύεσθαι ἐπὶ τὴν Ἑλλάδα, οὗτος ὡνὴρ φρασθεὶς Ξέρξην δακρύσαντα εἴρετο τάδε. «ὦ βασιλεῦ, ὡς πολλὸν ἀλλήλων κεχωρισμένα ἐργάσαο νῦν τε καὶ ὀλίγῳ πρότερον· μακαρίσας γὰρ σεωυτὸν δακρύεις.» ὁ δὲ εἶπε «ἐσῆλθε γάρ με λογισάμενον κατοικτεῖραι ὡς βραχὺς εἴη ὁ πᾶς ἀνθρώπινος βίος, εἰ τούτων γε ἐόντων τοσούτων οὐδεὶς ἐς ἑκατοστὸν ἔτος περιέσται.»


Homer: Men are as leaves that drop at the wind's breath

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What are the children of men, but as leaves that drop at the wind's breath? 

or

Even as are the generations of leaves, such are those also of men. As for the leaves, the wind scattereth some upon the earth, but the forest, as it bourgeons, putteth forth others when the season of spring is come; even so of men one generation springeth up and another passeth away.

  –Homer in the Iliad, VI, 147. The first translation seems to be by Maxwell Staniforth, as he translated Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, which were written in Greek. The second one is from Oxford University Press's translation of the Iliad by A.T. Murray (1920).

οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ᾽ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ᾽ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ᾽ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη:
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ᾽ ἀπολήγει.


Moshe Ibn Ezra: Let man remember he's on his way towards death

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Let man remember throughout his life
he's on his way toward death:
each day he travels only a little
so thinks he's always at rest--

like someone sitting at ease on a ship
while the wind sweeps it over the depths.

  --By Moshe Ibn Ezra (ca 1055-after 1138) 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.


Sannazaro: Inexorable death lays cities waste...

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And do we complain if the years allotted to our life flee swiftly? Inexorable death lays cities waste...
The Fates carry men away. Time unaided will remove cities and whatever you behold, as the Fates demand.

  --From "In the ruins of Cumae," by Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530), translated by Helen Waddell (1889-1965) in The Wandering Scholars (1927)

Et querimur, cito si nostrae data tempora vitae
diffugiunt? urbes mors violenta rapit...
Fata trahunt homines: fatis urgentibus, urbes, et quodcumque vides, auferet ipsa dies.


Emily Dickinson: After a hundred years

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After a hundred years
nobody knows the place,—
agony, that enacted there,
motionless as peace.

Weeds triumphant ranged,
strangers strolled and spelled
at the lone orthography
of the elder dead.

Winds of summer fields
recollect the way,—
instinct picking up the key
dropped by memory.

    --Emily Dickinson  (1830-1886) 


William Cullen Bryant: Lie down to pleasant dreams

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...Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world,—with kings,
The powerful of the earth,—the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.
...The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom....

As the long train
Of ages glide away, the sons of men,
The youth in life's green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

  --From "Thanatopsis" (meditation on death) by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), who wrote most of it when he was 17.


Confucius: We do not know life, how can we know death?

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Ji Lu asked about the best way to serve ghosts and spirits. The master said, "You have not yet served humans well, how is it you wonder about ghosts and spirits?" Ji Lu ventured to ask about death. The master said, "We do not yet understand life, how could we understand death?"

  --Confucius (ca 551–479 BC), as quoted in The Analects, 先進 (Xian Jin). 

季路問事鬼神。子曰:「未能事人,焉能事鬼?」敢問死。曰:「未知生,焉知死?」