Post-mortem Poetry

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Post-mortem Poetry
by Mark Twain

In Philadelphia they have a custom which it would be pleasant to see adopted throughout the land. It is that of appending to published death-notices a little verse or two of comforting poetry. Any one who is in the habit of reading the daily Philadelphia LEDGER must frequently be touched by these plaintive tributes to extinguished worth. In Philadelphia, the departure of a child is a circumstance which is not more surely followed by a burial than by the accustomed solacing poesy in the PUBLIC LEDGER. In that city death loses half its terror because the knowledge of its presence comes thus disguised in the sweet drapery of verse. For instance, in a late LEDGER I find the following (I change the surname):


DIED


Hawks.--On the 17th inst., Clara, the daughter of Ephraim and Laura Hawks, aged 21 months and 2 days.

     That merry shout no more I hear,
     No laughing child I see,
     No little arms are around my neck,
     No feet upon my knee;

     No kisses drop upon my cheek,
     These lips are sealed to me.
     Dear Lord, how could I give Clara up
     To any but to Thee?

A child thus mourned could not die wholly discontented. From the LEDGER of the same date I make the following extract, merely changing the surname, as before:


Becket.--On Sunday morning, 19th inst., John P., infant son of George and Julia Becket, aged 1 year, 6 months, and 15 days.

     That merry shout no more I hear,
     No laughing child I see,
     No little arms are round my neck,
     No feet upon my knee;

     No kisses drop upon my cheek;
     These lips are sealed to me.
     Dear Lord, how could I give Johnnie up
     To any but to Thee?

The similarity of the emotions as produced in the mourners in these two instances is remarkably evidenced by the singular similarity of thought which they experienced, and the surprising coincidence of language used by them to give it expression.

In the same journal, of the same date, I find the following (surname suppressed, as before):


Wagner.--On the 10th inst., Ferguson G., the son of William L. and Martha Theresa Wagner, aged 4 weeks and 1 day.

     That merry shout no more I hear,
     No laughing child I see,
     No little arms are round my neck,
     No feet upon my knee;

     No kisses drop upon my cheek,
     These lips are sealed to me.
     Dear Lord, how could I give Ferguson up
     To any but to Thee?

It is strange what power the reiteration of an essentially poetical thought has upon one's feelings. When we take up the LEDGER and read the poetry about little Clara, we feel an unaccountable depression of the spirits. When we drift further down the column and read the poetry about little Johnnie, the depression and spirits acquires and added emphasis, and we experience tangible suffering. When we saunter along down the column further still and read the poetry about little Ferguson, the word torture but vaguely suggests the anguish that rends us.

In the LEDGER (same copy referred to above) I find the following (I alter surname, as usual):


Welch.--On the 5th inst., Mary C. Welch, wife of William B. Welch, and daughter of Catharine and George W. Markland, in the 29th year of her age.

     A mother dear, a mother kind,
     Has gone and left us all behind.
     Cease to weep, for tears are vain,
     Mother dear is out of pain.

     Farewell, husband, children dear,
     Serve thy God with filial fear,
     And meet me in the land above,
     Where all is peace, and joy, and love.

What could be sweeter than that? No collection of salient facts (without reduction to tabular form) could be more succinctly stated than is done in the first stanza by the surviving relatives, and no more concise and comprehensive program of farewells, post-mortuary general orders, etc., could be framed in any form than is done in verse by deceased in the last stanza. These things insensibly make us wiser and tenderer, and better. Another extract:


Ball.--On the morning of the 15th inst., Mary E., daughter of John and Sarah F. Ball.

     'Tis sweet to rest in lively hope
     That when my change shall come
     Angels will hover round my bed,
     To waft my spirit home.

The following is apparently the customary form for heads of families:


Burns.--On the 20th inst., Michael Burns, aged 40 years.

     Dearest father, thou hast left us,
     Hear thy loss we deeply feel;
     But 'tis God that has bereft us,
     He can all our sorrows heal.

     Funeral at 2 o'clock sharp.

There is something very simple and pleasant about the following, which, in Philadelphia, seems to be the usual form for consumptives of long standing. (It deplores four distinct cases in the single copy of the LEDGER which lies on the Memoranda editorial table):


Bromley.--On the 29th inst., of consumption, Philip Bromley, in the 50th year of his age.

     Affliction sore long time he bore,
     Physicians were in vain--
     Till God at last did hear him mourn,
     And eased him of his pain.

     That friend whom death from us has torn,
     We did not think so soon to part;
     An anxious care now sinks the thorn
     Still deeper in our bleeding heart.

This beautiful creation loses nothing by repetition. On the contrary, the oftener one sees it in the LEDGER, the more grand and awe-inspiring it seems.

With one more extract I will close:


Doble.--On the 4th inst., Samuel Pervil Worthington Doble, aged 4 days.

     Our little Sammy's gone,
     His tiny spirit's fled;
     Our little boy we loved so dear
     Lies sleeping with the dead.

     A tear within a father's eye,
     A mother's aching heart,
     Can only tell the agony
     How hard it is to part.

Could anything be more plaintive than that, without requiring further concessions of grammar? Could anything be likely to do more toward reconciling deceased to circumstances, and making him willing to go? Perhaps not. The power of song can hardly be estimated. There is an element about some poetry which is able to make even physical suffering and death cheerful things to contemplate and consummations to be desired. This element is present in the mortuary poetry of Philadelphia degree of development.

The custom I have been treating of is one that should be adopted in all the cities of the land.

It is said that once a man of small consequence died, and the Rev. T. K. Beecher was asked to preach the funeral sermon --a man who abhors the lauding of people, either dead or alive, except in dignified and simple language, and then only for merits which they actually possessed or possess, not merits which they merely ought to have possessed. The friends of the deceased got up a stately funeral. They must have had misgivings that the corpse might not be praised strongly enough, for they prepared some manuscript headings and notes in which nothing was left unsaid on that subject that a fervid imagination and an unabridged dictionary could compile, and these they handed to the minister as he entered the pulpit. They were merely intended as suggestions, and so the friends were filled with consternation when the minister stood in the pulpit and proceeded to read off the curious odds and ends in ghastly detail and in a loud voice! And their consternation solidified to petrification when he paused at the end, contemplated the multitude reflectively, and then said, impressively:

"The man would be a fool who tried to add anything to that. Let us pray!"

And with the same strict adhesion to truth it can be said that the man would be a fool who tried to add anything to the following transcendent obituary poem. There is something so innocent, so guileless, so complacent, so unearthly serene and self-satisfied about this peerless "hog-wash," that the man must be made of stone who can read it without a dulcet ecstasy creeping along his backbone and quivering in his marrow. There is no need to say that this poem is genuine and in earnest, for its proofs are written all over its face. An ingenious scribbler might imitate it after a fashion, but Shakespeare himself could not counterfeit it. It is noticeable that the country editor who published it did not know that it was a treasure and the most perfect thing of its kind that the storehouses and museums of literature could show. He did not dare to say no to the dread poet--for such a poet must have been something of an apparition--but he just shoveled it into his paper anywhere that came handy, and felt ashamed, and put that disgusted "Published by Request" over it, and hoped that his subscribers would overlook it or not feel an impulse to read it:


(Published by Request)


LINES

Composed on the death of Samuel and Catharine Belknap's children


by M. A. Glaze

     Friends and neighbors all draw near,
     And listen to what I have to say;
     And never leave your children dear
     When they are small, and go away.

     But always think of that sad fate,
     That happened in year of '63;
     Four children with a house did burn,
     Think of their awful agony.

     Their mother she had gone away,
     And left them there alone to stay;
     The house took fire and down did burn;
     Before their mother did return.

     Their piteous cry the neighbors heard,
     And then the cry of fire was given;
     But, ah! before they could them reach,
     Their little spirits had flown to heaven.

     Their father he to war had gone,
     And on the battle-field was slain;
     But little did he think when he went away,
     But what on earth they would meet again.

     The neighbors often told his wife
     Not to leave his children there,
     Unless she got some one to stay,
     And of the little ones take care.

     The oldest he was years not six,
     And the youngest only eleven months old,
     But often she had left them there alone,
     As, by the neighbors, I have been told.

     How can she bear to see the place.
     Where she so oft has left them there,
     Without a single one to look to them,
     Or of the little ones to take good care.

     Oh, can she look upon the spot,
     Whereunder their little burnt bones lay,
     But what she thinks she hears them say,
     Twas God had pity, and took us on high.'

     And there may she kneel down and pray,
     And ask God her to forgive;
     And she may lead a different life
     While she on earth remains to live.

     Her husband and her children too,
     God has took from pain and woe.
     May she reform and mend her ways,
     That she may also to them go.

     And when it is God's holy will,
     O, may she be prepared
     To meet her God and friends in peace,
     And leave this world of care.


This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.