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>Till I End My Song

November 18, 2010

>I said I was finished with the autumn poems this year, and I am, really–but then I saw that someone else had just come along with an anthology of poems about signs of impending death. It’s Harold Bloom, who is now 80 years old; his title is Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems. It’s available from Harper Books, and they sent me a copy so I could tell you about it.

Bloom has lost none of the ability to turn a phrase that made him such a prolific literary critic for so many years; he says, in his preface to the volume, that “lastness is a part of knowing” on the way to explaining that they are not all “death poems” because “we hope to learn from the poets not how to die but how to stand against uncertainty.” The use of such a volume, Bloom says, “is to propound the perpetual possibility of the self, fated to dissolve, living on in the minds and hearts of those remaining.”

He’s chosen some very interesting poems–a hundred of them, one from each poet and at least one poem from each of the major periods of British and American literature. I enjoyed his inclusion of the final monologue from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with the last minute “I’ll burn my books!” immediately before Prospero’s farewell from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ending with “I’ll drown my book.” This theme plays out in many of the poems, including Rudyard Kipling’s seldom anthologized “The Fabulists” with its pessimistic ending (“we are not, nor we were not heard at all”).

There are plenty of devotional and nihilistic last poems–the latter category unexpectedly contributed to by Alexander Pope, with the final section of The Dunciad, and by Walt Whitman’s final lines of “Night on the Prairies”–“O I see now that life cannot exhibit all to me, as the day cannot,/ I see that I am to wait for what will be exhibited by death.”

Another of the themes that particularly struck me is the concentration of the poet’s or character’s power in the extremity of his own end. Milton has the father of Samson Agonistes say “Samson has quit himself/Like Samson.” Jonathan Swift shows characteristic modesty in imagining himself judged as he has judged others in his verse: “Go, go, you’re bit.” A poet Bloom calls “deliberately minor,” Robert Louis Stevenson, might be said to have done this most simply in the famous lines “Glad did I live and gladly die,/ And laid me down with a will.”

The effect of the collection is no more depressing or maudlin than the effect of reading some of the finest poems in the English language can be. A sense of limitation, expressed so wonderfully in Edward Thomas’ poem “Liberty,” does pervade the volume: “There’s none less free than who/Does nothing and has nothing else to do,/Being free only for what is not to his mind,/And nothing is to his mind.” But the limitation of mortality defines the triumph in some of these poems, like Conrad Aiken’s “Tetelestai,” which ends with the lines “This, then, is the one who implores, as he dwindles to silence,/A fanfare of glory. . . . And which of us dares to deny him?”

Stevie Smith’s “Black March” even paints a picture of a welcoming figure who says “I am a breath/Of fresh air for you, a change/By and by.” And Dylan Thomas, in “Poem on His Birthday,” observes “that the closer I move/To death, one man through his sundered hulks,/The louder the sun blooms/And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults.”

Bloom’s introduction to each poem welcomes the novice reader of poetry while it amuses and enhances the enjoyment of more experienced readers.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2010 3:51 pm

    >I don't know. Still sounds too depressing.

  2. November 18, 2010 5:18 pm

    >I really like his verdict on RLS: "deliberately minor." I can only hope to be so described some day.

  3. November 18, 2010 9:10 pm

    >Actually, this sounds kind of good. Is that lugubrious poem, Thanatopsis, in it?

  4. November 19, 2010 1:23 am

    >FreshHell, I'm thinking of giving a copy to my parents this Christmas!Andrew, I'll be happy to start describing you that way…or maybe you should inform your kid's friends and get the next generation going on it.ReadersGuide, nope, no Thanatopsis. Say what you like about Bloom, but it's hard to fault him for literary taste.

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