DISTANT SAILS

Tomorrow, at sunrise, at the hour the fields pale,
I will depart. You see, I know you are waiting.
I will go through the woods, I will go through the hills.
I cannot stay so far from you any longer.

I will walk, eyes fixed only on my thoughts, 
Without seeing a thing, without hearing a noise,
Alone and anonymous, my back stooped, hands crossed,
And sad – the day for me will be as the night.

I will look at neither the falling gold of evening,
Nor the distant sails going down to Harfleur,
And when I arrive, I will place on your grave
A bouquet of green holly and flowering heather.

The above poem is a translation of an untitled poem by Victor Hugo (1802-1885) victor hugowhich was written to commemorate the death of his daughter, who had died a few years earlier. Hugo addresses his daughter plainly and directly, speaking of the act of devotion he will pay the next day; for the reader, however, especially the reader who reads the poem without knowing what it will be about, the import of these lines, and of the poet’s behaviour does not become apparent until the very last lines, when the destination and the reason for the journey is revealed. Despite the undoubted sincerity of the poem’s sentiment, there is art in this concealment and revelation.Hugo assures his daughter that he will not pay attention to the scenery – but again, for the reader, the very words he uses to do so evoke the landscape which his unseeing figures traverse. We could, if we were so minded, talk of a conflict here between the sincere and simple emotion of the mourner, and the necessary artifice of the poet, the same man, describing his own act of mourning. But this would be to impose the ideas of our own more sceptical age onto Hugo’s world view: 19th Century France, despite the revolution, was still a country of deeply Catholic habits of mind, and we can see that in the importance attached to what is, in effect, a kind of ritual. Such ritual is not only a comfort to the grieving, but helps to bridge the gulf between the living and the dead. For Hugo, this was an enduring preoccupation – in later life, he took an interest in Spiritism, and participated in séances.

Although Hugo is both beautifying and publicising his act of mourning, this is a very personal poem, and there is something in it that remains forever private and hidden. He walks fixed on his thoughts, he tells us, but he does not tell us what these thoughts are. Exactly by alluding to the landscape, he walks through, although he is not looking at it, he is diverting our gaze away from him and his private grief. Those distant sails in the last line fascinate me. Hugo’s daughter died alongside her husband when a passenger boat overturned on the Seine. Hugo must have been painfully aware that this was the very same river on which those sail boats head towards Harfleur and the sea. To me, the boats headed for the sea seem suggestive of souls departing this world, and perhaps, very faintly, of that link between the living and the dead that Hugo wants to make.

The English poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637) left two epigrams about children he had lost.Jonson was seen as the great formalist of his age, especially in comparison to his contemporary William Shakespeare who broke the classical rules of drama that Jonson was eager to cleave to. But despite the great variety of his art, Shakespeare the man remains rather mysterious, while Jonson’s poetry affords us glimpses of his own deepest joys and sorrows. This poem was written about his daughter who died at six months old:

Here lies, to each her parents’ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth:
Yet, all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months’ end she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven’s queen (whose name she bears),
In comfort of her mother’s tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin train:
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth;
Which cover lightly, gentle earth.

The poem starts with a frank and simple admission of his and his wife’s pain at the loss of their daughter, and yet for the English poet Ben Jonson, the certainty of an afterlife mitigates the pain of loss. Jonson was a sincere Christian believer – indeed until the ‘Gun powder Plot’ (which involved friends of friends of the poet) made it awkward to be a high-profile Catholic. Jonson was a practising Catholic. ‘Mary’ was, of course, a very Catholic name to give a daughter, and the Marian imagery he plays with reflects a very Catholic view of the mother of God. He imagines his daughter Mary in the train of Jesus’ mother Mary,‘heaven’s queen’, among all girls who have died virgins. The last lines of the poem need a little explanation: Christians believe that a person consists of a body and a soul, united in life but separated in death –‘severed’ as the poem puts it– so that the body remains on earth, while the soul ascends to heaven. Not until the Day of Judgement, the end of the earthly world, would the body and soul be reunited again, and at the end of the poem, Jonson is asking the earth – not capitalised as a deity ‘Earth’, just plain old soil ‘earth’– to look after his daughter’s body. And yet for all the poem’s great faith, and its acceptance of God’s will in taking a young child, the last lines bring back to mind the sorrowful image of the infants’ dead body. Jonson wrote in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when infant mortality was much higher than it is now – indeed, most married couples would expect to lose babies or young infants. One could ask whether the very regularity of such losses would make them less painful, but the very fact Jonson wrote these poems, and the emotion that comes through them, suggests that the death of an infant was no less a loss to seventeenth century parents than it is to modern couples, even if it was less of a shock. Indeed, repeated grief must have been wearying for the couples involved. Jonson’s poem about his son, who was taken by the plague at seven years old, shows us something of the toll taken on such parents:

Jonson wrote in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when infant mortality was much higher than it is now – indeed, most married couples would expect to lose babies or young infants. One could ask whether the very regularity of such losses would make them less painful, but the very fact Jonson wrote these poems, and the emotion that comes through them, suggests that the death of an infant was no less a loss to seventeenth century parents than it is to modern couples, even if it was less of a shock. Indeed, repeated grief must have been wearying for the couples involved. Jonson’s poem about his son, who was taken by the plague at seven years old, shows us something of the toll taken on such parents:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy; 
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay, 
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day. 
O, could I lose all father now! For why 
Will man lament the state he should envy? 
To have so soon scaped world’s and flesh’s rage, 
And if no other misery, yet age? 
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, here doth lie 
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such, 
As what he loves may never like too much.

Ben Jonson’s son was named after his father, which explains the ninth and tenth lines. It has become a bit of a cliché, even when sincerely meant, for parents to say to their children, ‘you’re the greatest thing I have ever done’, but it surely counts for a little bit more when your parent is one of the greatest poets of a great poetic age. At the same time, it points to a world-weariness on Jonson’s part. As much as in the first epigram, Jonson is reconciled to God’s will– or, to put it in less religious terms, the irrevocability of death, but he has been left a changed man, a man more spiritual but colder to the world, never again to put too much hope in the world or its inhabitants.

The great Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) also suffered the death of two of his children, a three-year old daughter and a six-year old boy only a few months later. ‘Surprised by Joy’ was written to his daughter:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind 
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom 
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb, 
That spot which no vicissitude can find? 
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind— 
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power, 
Even for the least division of an hour, 
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind 
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return 
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn, 
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more; 
That neither present time, nor years unborn 
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

There is scant consolation in Wordsworth’s poem, of a religious nature or any other. The title, ‘Surprised by Joy’, sounds cheerful – but this joy only comes because he has, momentarily, forgotten that his daughter is no longer with him – he turns to share this moment of happiness or joy, only to remember that she is not there, rather long buried in the silent Tomb, / That spot which no vicissitude can find. That line is like Jonson’s writing his son has scaped world’s and flesh’s rage, but even then it is somehow bleaker in tone. There is something strikingly modern in Wordsworth’s poem – he articulates the same feelings about a child’s death that I think a 20th or 21st century parent might: the sudden absence of joy in life, the guilt and self-reproach when one briefly allows oneself to forget, the pain at never again being able to meet. The poem implies that Wordsworth does not believe in an afterlife in which one is reunited with one’s loved ones. It is a psychologically acute and uncompromising description of the poet’s own grief.

The American poet William Stafford (1914-1993), who lost a grown son to suicide, wrote the poem ‘A Memorial: Son Bret’ to his deceased son. Although he is disturbed by the mystery of his son’s suicide, the poem is not as raw and devastating as Wordsworth’s, and unlike the forlorn Englishman, he allows himself to take pleasure in the memories he has of his child. Like the other poems here, he addresses his dead child directly – he realises, I think, that he can do no other. Early in the poem, he writes:

In the pattern of my life,

you stand Where you stood always, in the center

Jonson, in his poem to his son, lamented O, could I lose all father now! He wishes he could lose all sense of fatherhood, now that he lacks the son on whom he had foisted his paternal affections. This is understandable – but Stafford more calmly realises that this would be impossible: although he cannot, like poets with strong religious convictions, believe that he can meet his son again, or that the child is in some sense ‘still with us’, he realises that the mental habits of fatherhood, specifically the sense of being father to this particular son, will never leave him.


 Credits:

The poem Demaindèsl’aube, à l’heureoùblanchit la campagne is from Introduction to French Poetry, A Dual Language Book, Ed Stanley Applebaum, Dover, New York, 1969.

The translation is my own, though influenced by that provided in the book.

The Jonson and Wordsworth poems are available on the Internet.

‘A Memorial: Son Bret’ is from The Way It Is, William Stafford, Graywolf Press, 1998.



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