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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Top Five Poems for Genealogists

5. Emily Dickinson, "I died for beauty. . ." It always makes me want to recommend techniques for cleaning tombstones.

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth, — the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

4. Elizabeth Jennings, In Memory of Anyone Unknown to Me. A beautiful poem, but the author obviously lacks the curiosity to make a good genealogist.

At this particular time I have no one
Particular person to grieve for, though there must
Be many, many unknown ones going to dust
Slowly, not remembered for what they have done
Or left undone. For these, then, I will grieve
Being impartial, unable to deceive.

How they lived, or died, is quite unknown,
And, by that fact gives my grief purity—
An important person quite apart from me
Or one obscure who drifted down alone.
Both or all I remember, have a place.
For these I never encountered face to face.

Sentiment will creep in. I cast it out
Wishing to give these classical repose,
No epitaph, no poppy and no rose
From me, and certainly no wish to learn about
The way they lived or died. In earth or fire
They are gone. Simply because they were human, I admire.

3. Walt Whitman, With Antecedents, from Leaves of Grass. Not his best work, but certainly relevant.

[Excerpted]
WITH antecedents;
With my fathers and mothers, and the accumulations of past ages;
With all which, had it not been, I would not now be here, as I am:
                .       .       .

With the small shores we look back to from our own large and present shores;
With countless years drawing themselves onward, and arrived at these years;
You and Me arrived—America arrived, and making this year;
This year! sending itself ahead countless years to come.

2. Edgar Lee Masters, Cassius Hueffer, part of his Spoon River Anthology, a collection of free verse epitaphs contributed by the deceased. It was difficult to choose just one.

They have Chiseled on my stone the words:
'His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him
That nature might stand up and say to all the world,
This was a man.'
Those who knew me smile
As they read this empty rhetoric.
My epitaph should have been:
'Life was not gentle to him,
And the elements so mixed in him
That he made warfare on life,
In the which he was slain.'
While I lived I could not cope with slanderous tongues,
Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph
Graven by a fool!

1. Robert Frost, The Generations of Men. He describes well a typical family reunion in New England. (I'll pass up the chance to include in this list his infamous epitaph, "Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I'll forgive Thy great big joke on me.")

[Excerpted]
Someone had literally run to earth
In an old cellar hole in a by-road
The origin of all the family there.
Thence they were sprung, so numerous a tribe
That now not all the houses left in town
Made shift to shelter them without the help
Of here and there a tent in grove and orchard.

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