Suzanne Fields

Ours is not an era of the classical elegy, of lyrical lamentation for a public figure. We can't weep for Adonais as Shelley did for Keats, or affirm death as a connection to the natural world as Tennyson did for his friend in "In Memoriam." (We're more likely to turn such sentiments into an environmental impact statement.) It's hard to find consolation in poetry that traditionally harnesses grief because fewer people are linked by religious beliefs held in common. Poetry is not a popular art form.

One of the most powerful sonnets about death was written in the 17th century by John Donne, who demanded that "death be not proud." He was armed with faith, as a minister of the Church of England.

Death is the narrator of "The Book Thief," a popular current novel and movie enjoyed by children and adults alike, but the man with the scythe inevitably claims each victim for himself, often as a consequence of war.

The most celebrated elegy aligned with contemporary sensibility was written by Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century poet, who saw the sea of faith ebbing away in a "melancholy, long withdrawing roar." The poet listened to the sounds of death as "ignorant armies clash by night," and urges us with a personal note to be true to one another when we love.

Celebrity death in the age of the Internet can trump the tabloids as the purveyor of bad taste, but like it or not, they're one of the ways we try to tame the universal fear of death. With Lauren Bacall, the natural aging process seemed to be in place for a woman who dies at 89. Robin Williams cut himself off abruptly at 63.

We might join the poet to simply give thanks for the special moments when the sea is calm and the moon lies fair in the embrace of the night, and remember that Everyman, no matter how hard he tries, cannot escape the appointment in Samarra.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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