March 19, 2011

Aldrich: In spite of it all, I am going to sleep

Suddenly struck with illness and lying in a hospital, 70-year old Thomas Bailey Aldrich turned to a friend and noted, "For myself, I regard death merely as the passing shadow of a flower."  Two days after leaving the hospital, on March 19, 1907, he smiled and said, "In spite of it all, I am going to sleep; put out the lights." He died in his Boston home that night.

Three years earlier, Aldrich (pictured here in 1903) had lost his grown son to tuberculosis. The event left the former "bad boy" devastated — enough that he stopped writing poems (instead, he wrote a play to help him cope). He was convinced to return to poetry, however, for the centennial of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in February 1907. Three weeks after completing it, he wrote a letter to George Woodberry, referring to the poem as the first poem he'd written since his son's death. "I have not known a whole happy day in that time." It is the last poem Aldrich ever completed, and it was read at his funeral:

Above his grave the grass and snow
Their soft antiphonal strophes write:
Moonrise and daybreak come and go:
Summer by summer on the height
The thrushes find melodious breath.
Here let no vagrant winds that blow
Across the spaces of the night
   Whisper of death.

They do not die who leave their thought
   Imprinted on some deathless page.
Themselves may pass; the spell they wrought
   Endures on earth from age to age.
And thou, whose voice but yesterday
   Fell upon charmed listening ears,
Thou shalt not know the touch of years;
   Thou holdest time and chance at bay...

Both Longfellow and Aldrich are buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

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