03 April 2009

Poetry in life and death

Charles David Pipes, my dear father-in-law, died Saturday 28 March. The link below will take you to a tribute page at my domain where you may read the obituary that Steve Sandifer presented at his funeral and download a .pdf slide show, the tribute to his life that was on view at the visitation.

What I'm thinking about today is the comfort that poetry brings to our lives. At the service we were comforted by some biblical poetry--Psalm 42,Psalm 121, Psalm 127, Psalm--and by some hymns, which are really poetry set to music--Take Time to Be Holy, Whispering Hope, and Rock of Ages--and by two poems which had been a part of Charles' life.

The first, Thanatopsis, by William Cullen Bryant, Charles had learned as a school boy. {David and I remember learning it also. I wonder, do students still memorize poetry? Do they still memorize this poem?} David was surprised to find his father already knew the poem and could quote it by memory. The last nine verses were a sort of motto for Charles and he often quoted them. In fact he had quoted them at least once during that last week of his life. The words were a comfort to him as he faced death with the faith he had lived:
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

The second, High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., Charles had framed on his office wall and, after his retirement, in the guest bedroom where some of his other Air Force souvenirs were displayed.

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
I took an Alumni College course at Rice once that was titled How Poetry Saved My Life. I know it has certainly more than once saved mine.

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