The pandemic has brought with it the daily intrusion of death into our lives. Recently, the New York Times published a substantial column in which the writer, a physician, urged us to look beyond the obvious perception of death as a combination of negatives, no pulse, no brain waves, or simply no life.
Instead, in some 1400 words, the writer proposes a more positive approach that de-emphasizes these physical facts.
However, the idea of death for most of us, stubbornly focuses on it as an uncompromising negative. That being the case, within the 600 or so word limit of this column, and from a chronological and literary perspective, I offer my response.
In Old English poetry, such as “Beowulf” (ca. 1000), we find an expression of hardheaded realism in the Latin phrase “ubi sunt,” translated as “where are” as an introduction to a melancholy recognition of all those who are now gone, no matter what fame or fortune they might have enjoyed or acquired.
Religious writers, of course, point to a non-physical after life. In “Everyman” a 15th century morality play, the allegorical title character, summoned by Death, first offers a bribe to be spared, then pleads for a little more time, or failing that, to be accompanied by his life’s companions, all of whom decline the invitation. Kinship, for example, claims to have a crimp in his toe. Accompanied by faith and good works, Everyman journeys to his end.
In his “Holy Sonnet 10,” John Donne, writing in the early 17th century, declares that death should not be proud because, in fact, it keeps unsavory company with poison, sickness, war and in the end will itself die.
Skipping ahead to the 19th century, Walt Whitman in his “Song of Myself” expresses a notion espoused by the Times writer, that our physical being does not die. Rather it is transformed, or as an upbeat Whitman explains, after he is gone, just look under your boots where you will find him merged into the growing grass.
Emily Dickinson, a contemporary of the boisterous Walt, writes with some frequency about death, maybe in no more purely idiosyncratic way than the poem that begins, “Because I could not stop for death/He kindly stopped for me.” Like a lover, death picks the speaker up in his carriage, and she thinks she is on a date until she discovers at the poem’s conclusion that the horses’ heads were “toward eternity.”
I’ll break from my chronology to give the last word on this vexing subject to Shakespeare. In “Hamlet,” he provides two statements with a heavy emphasis on the negative facts of physical death, from which the Times writer encourages us to avert our gaze.
The first occurs when Hamlet, who has just accidentally killed Polonius, tells those who are looking for the councilor, that Polonius is “at dinner” where he is the main course for a “convocation of politic worms.”
In the second instance, Shakespeare offers a powerful rendering of physical death. Hamlet interrupts a gravedigger working on what will be Ophelia’s grave. In a shovel full of dirt tossed out of the grave is a skull. Hamlet picks it up and learns it is the skull of Yorick the jester whose job in life was to make people smile. Hamlet expresses his wonder at having in his hands the kind of grim mortal remains everyone faces. Rhetorically, he asks his companion Horatio, if this is not what awaits us all. Horatio, of course, agrees.
No doubt the Times columnist would object, declaring that we should not dwell on this unarguable fact, but in my view, Shakespeare, speaking for most of us, wins this argument.