Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Perfect Elegy

It's Poetry Month and I have been remiss, failing to write until today about this annual occasion that gives such joy to so many, including me.

The inspiration that moved me to action is a blog post by New Yorker Editor David Remnick. He was writing about an April 20 memorial he attended for the brilliant Christopher Hitchens. He included a poem written and read by the excellent British poet James Fenton, who was a friend of Hitchens in life.

Fenton has written about Hitchens, for example in this post about why Hitchens chose to become an American. But the poem he read at the memorial service is a deep and touching remembrance he wrote about someone else.

This poem is, to me, exactly what one wants to hear at a memorial service, so I'm posting it here.

For Andrew Wood
by James Fenton

What would the dead want from us
Watching from their cave?
Would they have us forever howling?
Would they have us rave
Or disfigure ourselves, or be strangled
Like some ancient emperor’s slave?

None of my dead friends were emperors
With such exorbitant tastes
And none of them were so vengeful
As to have all their friends waste
Waste quite away in sorrow
Disfigured and defaced.

I think the dead would want us
To weep for what they have lost.
I think that our luck in continuing
Is what would affect them most.
But time would find them generous
And less self-engrossed.

And time would find them generous
As they used to be
And what else would they want from us
Than an honoured place in our memory,
favourite room, a hallowed chair,
Privilege and celebrity?

And so the dead might cease to grieve
And we might make amends
And there might be a pact between
Dead friends and living friends.
What our dead friends would want from us
Would be such living friends.

You can hear James Fenton read this poem in a long but rewarding podcast produced by Oxford's Bodleian Library. This poem starts at approximately 22:10 — but I encourage you to listen all the way through.

Also intriguing and enlightening is Stephen Metcalf's 2007 review of Fenton's Selected Poems in The New York Times Book Review


  1. Thank you for the wonderful poem, links, and thoughts during poetry month. After my beloved younger brother-in-law died leaving young daughters, two of my nieces, and his wife, my younger sister, my devastation surprised me. On my rocky road from grief to understanding forever tinged with sadness and anger that he—so particularly kind, smart, funny, loving—is gone, someone said to me, "Is what you are doing to yourself now in your mourning what he would wish for you?" I was surprised and altered, albeit slowly, by the question. The answer was no. My brother-in-law, my dad, my Aunt Josephine, my friend Michael; all these people who were gone from my life, would want me to go on and to be happy. They'd want me to do for me and others what they could no longer do. We are never finished with the dead we loved. Our conversations go on until we also are no more. And after that? I suspect someone else continues the chain.

  2. I agree, Katherine. As I think you know, I'm a nonbeliever. Among other things, that means the only afterlife I anticipate is whatever memories linger with people who knew me.

    It would be hard to imagine any loving person wanting the ones left behind to remain in mourning forever. Imagine the narcissism that would take. And from what I know of your family, that is the last thing they'd want for you.

    My dad died in 1960. It boggles my mind to think it's been 52 years - that's one year shy of his age when he died - because he's so alive in my thoughts. And that's as it should be.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. That's it exactly: Those we love remain so alive in our thoughts. Some people say or write that they begin to lose the appearance, smell, sound of the person, but for me those things have stayed sharp. I know you've mentioned it before, but I'd forgotten your dad died so young. I'm sorry you lost him at such a young age.