Two Laments

Years ago I used to assign Saturday as either Ranting Day or Poetry Day, depending on my mood. Yesterday I was busy with other things, so this week Sunday will have to serve as Poetry Day.

The first of the two poems below was written by Dymphna. It is possibly her greatest poem. She wrote it in the mid-1990s, a few months after her mother died.

Some context is in order: Dymphna’s mother married a man from a wealthy Irish family when she was young. For reasons I won’t go into here, he abandoned his wife and their two children when the latter were still infants. Dymphna’s mother became destitute, and there was no welfare in Florida at that time, so she had to go off to work. For several years the children were placed with various foster families, where conditions ranged from awful to severely abusive.

The priest at Dymphna’s mother’s church eventually helped her place her son and daughter at separate orphanages, one for boys and one for girls, where they were to remain until they were ten or eleven — i.e. old enough to be latchkey kids.

Her poem describes the moment she and her brother were separated from their mother and from each other to be taken to the orphanages. At the time she wrote these verses, her brother had been estranged from his mother and sister for many years, and no one knew where he was. She assumed he was dead, probably of heart disease, since all her mother’s brothers had died that way when they were relatively young. But he wasn’t dead: her cousin was able to locate him, and Dymphna and her brother began an intermittent correspondence that continued until his death last year.

This, then, was her lament:

Lament for My Brother

It was so long ago
Those who stopped my tears
Then, who could not countenance
My guttural sorrow,
Are no doubt dead
Or disarmed by age and distance.

It was so long ago.
Yet my tears are the solvent
Melting the time between here
And then. I am five again.
The little brother being forced
From my arms is four.
We are crying, in the moment before
We learn it is not allowed.

It was so long ago.
Yet the wrench of grief
Tightens my throat now
Brings me to my knees here.
The void where my little brother
Was is hollowed out still;
I cannot fill it.

It was so long ago.
Yet the loss is as current
As the moment here before us.
The gods to whom all moments are one
Who do not understand
My linear “long ago”
Cannot hear my plea
To protect him.

It was so long ago.
He’s no doubt dead by now.
The men in my family die young
Whether they stay or flee.
The women in my family don’t teach
Them how to use their hearts.
The men succumb when
Flight is no longer possible
And they are overtaken
By feeling.

It was so long ago.

The second poem was written in the early 17th century by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. Fifty years ago I had to study the metaphysical poets intensively for A-level English Literature. I don’t know how they do it nowadays, but in those days a student was expected to quote at length from the assigned poetry at the exam, working entirely from memory. Thus, in preparation for the exam I memorized reams of Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Vaughn, Crashaw, etc.

I memorized three of the five stanzas of the following poem, and they’re still here in my head, intact after half a century. However, we were also required to present them in the original 17th-century spelling, and unfortunately that aspect of the task has largely evaporated (although I do remember that “festival” was spelled “festivall”).

In this poem Donne is mourning the death of his wife, for whom he grieved deeply. The conceit is that he is writing it at midnight on St. Lucy’s Day, the shortest day of the year. Dymphna’s case is the opposite: she, too, died at about midnight, but her death was almost exactly at Midsummer’s.

A technical note: the “Goat” to which the lesser (i.e. weaker) sun has run is the constellation Capricorn, in which the winter solstice falls.

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day
by John Donne

’Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
      The sun is spent, and now his flasks
      Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
            The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
      For I am every dead thing,
      In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
            For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
      I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
      Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
            Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
      Were I a man, that I were one
      I needs must know; I should prefer,
            If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
      At this time to the Goat is run
      To fetch new lust, and give it you,
            Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

9 thoughts on “Two Laments

  1. I did English lit at a level too Baron. Then University, teaching, then social work then all sorts. My life kind of fell apart once I realised that most everything I was taught was a lie. Not that I’m complaining mind you, things have worked out pretty well for me. And in just over three weeks I spend a week in the glorious Yorkshire dales – God ‘s own country. As I know you know.

    • Yes, indeed. The last time I was there, which was ten years ago, the Dales still hadn’t been culturally enriched. I’m afraid to go back now. The last time I was in Skipton (2002), it was still inhabited by English people, but I’ve heard that’s changed in the years since, so I fear the infestation may have worked its way further up Wharfedale. I don’t know about Nidderdale (which was where I lived).

      • I thought you were higher up than Nidderdale – didn’t you go to Barnard Castle school?

        I’m doing a bit of walking with my middle son, we’re based in Dent for a few days then Reeth. I might even manage a couple or three pints.

        • No, I went to the High School in Harrogate, which is in Lower Nidderdale. I took my O-levels and A-levels there.

          • Ah. I know Harrogate well, my eldest daughter and her family live there. It’s a popular (and expensive) place to live, especially with white-flight Londoners. It’s still very English you’ll be pleased to hear.

  2. I wonder whether you know my favourite film, Baron? It’s “A Matter of Life and Death” (Powell and Pressburger, 1946; aka “Stairway to Heaven” in the US; early technicolour, except Heaven is in black and white- to make it less appealing?)

    David Niven plays the RAF bomber pilot/poet, about to jump from his burning ‘plane without a parachute, who falls in love with an American radio operator (Kim Hunter); he quotes Marvell, “To his coy Mistress”:
    “But at my back I alwais hear/Times winged chariot hurrying near
    And yonder all before us lye/Deserts of vast Eternity.”

    No wonder she falls for him! (and of course they’re reunited; excuse the spoiler, anyone who’s not seen it, and why haven’t you?)

    • No, I don’t recall the film, but I know the poem well — it was another one I memorized at least parts of.

      The grave’s a fine and private place,
      But none, I think, do there embrace.

      • Well, Marvell was evidently using his heavy artillery!

        He came from Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire (usually just “Hull”); I used to have friends there, and the people are the friendliest you could meet. Holy Trinity is the largest parish church in England, and quite magnificent; standing in front of the west door, Marvell’s statue is slightly to your right, and the house of William Wilberforce, campaigner for the abolition of slavery, a little further over.

        As an east coast port, Hull received a lot of attention from the Luftwaffe, but much is still intact. I recall my late friend Hilary (a teacher) telling me she went into a bank in Muswell Hill, north London, and the clerk saying “I know that accent: that’s posh Hull”.

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