I recently read a piece in The New Yorker from a British ex-pat who was returning to the UK because of her disillusionment with the Trump administration. One of the things that prompted her to become a US citizen was the poetry of Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass.
I re-read Leaves of Grass and another Whitman piece that speaks to me profoundly – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Lilacs was a paean to Lincoln after his assassination. The 20th Century German composer, Paul Hindemith, set Lilacs to music as an ode to Franklin Roosevelt after his death in 1945.
One of the most striking sections from the Hindemith work is the Death Carol from stanza 14 of Lilacs.
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.
From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.
The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.