A Word About Dying: Poems by Tennyson, Dickinson, and Stevenson
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 –1892) was an English poet, who is now widely regarded as the “chief representative of Victorian poetry.” He lived in an age of emerging technologies and pivotal scientific discoveries that challenged people's traditional belief systems regarding their place in nature and the universe. For a sensitive individual prone to bouts of melancholy and deep depression, he seemed to attribute a kind of hope and serenity to the controversial ideas put forth by modern science. Though they scared him on occasion, they also provided a lot of inspiration for his creative endeavors. Tennyson composed “Crossing the Bar” three years before he passed.
“Crossing the Bar” (1889)
Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep, Too full for sound and foam, When that which drew from out the boundless deep Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell, And after that the dark! And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place The flood may bear me far, I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have crost the bar.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was an American lyric poet renowned for her unique and creative approach to composing some of the most emotionally striking and intellectually provoking works of the 19th century. Yet, only 10 of her poems, out of roughly 1800, were actually published in her lifetime. “To make the abstract tangible, to define meaning without confining it, to inhabit a house that never became a prison, Dickinson created in her writing a distinctively elliptical language for expressing what was possible but not yet realized.” This is perfectly illustrated in “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” The personification of Death is a courteous coachman who, on their journey to “eternity,” takes her past different scenes of life.
“Because I Could Not Stop For Death” (1890)
Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves And Immortality. We slowly drove, he knew no haste, And I had put away My labor, and my leisure too, For his civility. We passed the school, where children strove At recess, in the ring; We passed the fields of gazing grain, We passed the setting sun. Or rather, he passed us; The dews grew quivering and chill, For only gossamer my gown, My tippet only tulle. We paused before a house that seemed A swelling of the ground; The roof was scarcely visible, The cornice but a mound. Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each Feels shorter than the day I first surmised the horses' heads Were toward eternity.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) was a famous Scottish novelist and poet, regarded as one of the masters of the Victorian adventure story. Holding a degree in law, but preferring to live the life of someone less constrained by it, he travelled across Europe and worked as a full-time writer. The experience fueled his writing, but led him to feeling hindered by the propriety of the social norms that surrounded him. Being more partial to a bohemian lifestyle, his works often reflect his struggles balancing responsibility with recklessness. In “Death,” he is a maiden waiting for her "Lord," who is death personified, as he longs for the peace and the stability he can provide.
We are as maidens one and all, In some shut convent place, Pleased with the flowers, the service bells, The cloister’s shady grace,
That whiles, with fearful, fluttering hearts, Look outward thro’ the grate And down the long white road, up which, Some morning, soon or late,
Shall canter on his great grey horse That splendid acred Lord Who comes to lead us forth – his wife, But half with our accord.
With fearful, fluttered hearts we wait – We meet him, bathed in tears; We are so loath to leave behind Those tranquil convent years;
So loath to meet the pang, to take (On some poor chance of bliss) Life’s labour on the windy sea For a bower as still as this.
Weeping, we mount the crowded aisle, And weeping after us The bridesmaids follow – Come to me! I will not meet you thus,
Pale rider to the convent gate. Come, O rough bridegroom, Death, Where, bashful bride, I wait you, veiled, Flush-faced, with shaken breath;
I do not fear your kiss. I dream New days, secure from strife, And, bride-like, in the future hope – A quiet household life.