January 20, 2011

Cranch: If death be final

On the morning of January 20, 1892, Christopher Pearse Cranch died peacefully at his home in Massachusetts. In his 78 years, he had been a minister, a painter and artist, a poet and author of children's books, a Transcendentalist, a translator, and he maintained his sense of humor throughout. One of his last sketches, "The Grasshopper Burden," reportedly got many laughs from his friends, according to his daughter.

Cranch's contemporaries noted that his poems were sometimes too philosophical, coming from the mind rather than the heart. His skill as a writer of sonnets, however, was universally acknowledged. Some of the more celebrated poems of his lifetime were in a series titled "Life and Death," including:

If death be final, what is life, with all
  Its lavish promises, its thwarted aims,
  Its lost ideals, its dishonored claims,
Its uncompleted growth? A prison wall,
Whose heartless stones but echo back our call;
  An epitaph recording but our names;
  A puppet-stage where joys and griefs and shames
Furnish a demon jesters' carnival;
  A plan without a purpose or a form;
A roofless temple; an unfinished tale,
  And men like madrepores through calm and storm
Toil, die to build a branch of fossil frail,
  And add from all their dreams, thoughts, acts, belief,
  A few more inches to a coral-reef.

Cranch was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, relatively close to Nathaniel Parker Willis, who died the same day 25 years earlier.

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