Author’s program note. My mother is dead now. But I want you to know that hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of her… not in some idealized fashion either. For she was a vibrant, beautiful creature whose reality, for me, even if flawed, was more compelling than any fairy tale I might make up. And as for charm, why she was a by-word for that; I knew that before I even knew what charm could lead to. Some say that along with her penetrating eyes I inherited my full measure of that charm too. I leave that to you to find out.
This article is being written because it gives me the perfect opportunity to remember her… not just vaguely… but as she was and remains in my mind’s eye, a real woman, my much loved and often argued with mother. Here I am able to indulge myself in the most profound memories, certain that I am writing this article for you… not just for myself. And because the woman is important and the day I am recalling here one of the handful of truly special days of her life (so she often told me afterwards), I savor every word as I think it, write it, consider it, review it — and if not perfect and exactly so, change it. For there is not a word here or even a comma that I can accept in any other way. For you see, this was one of the handful of truly special days of my life… and I want you to share it and know why.
Thomas Gray, treasured poet.
Where did my mother’s love affair with England and her poets begin? I cannot say, but I can recall that wherever we lived its premises were littered with the lyric beauty of the English language… where words mattered, where understanding them mattered, where using them to maximum effect mattered, and where a word was never an obstacle but a friend not yet known well enough, but welcome for all that. As such, books, rarely closed, always open with makeshift book marks were found in every room. We read as effortlessly as we breathed… and the splendor of language surrounded us, shaped us, sustained us… and no one more than my mother for whom poets were accounted special beings well deserving of the veneration they received from her… and in due course from me. And so the profound love between a mother and her first-born son was made manifest in the poems we discovered and shared, the readings of such poems to each other, and the meanings we strove to find… especially for me when she was gone before. Then these bonds mattered most of all.
Thomas Gray, 26 December 1716 – 30 July 1771, just 54 years old.
Thomas Gray was born in Cornhill, London, the son of an exchange broker and a milliner. He was the fifth of 12 children… 11 of whom died in infancy. the smell of death permeated his young world… a constant visitor to his home, a constant reality where birth and mourning seemed inextricably linked and inevitable. And so he grew up wondering whether his own expected demise was nigh, accelerated by his abusive father. This recurring thought shaped his life, his outlook, and his poems. Later in life Gray became known as one of the “Graveyard poets” of the late 18th century, along with Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, and Christopher Smart. But for Gray this was not a pose; he had been to the graveyard too often too early for that. Death and Gray were on intimate terms from the start.
His sense of humor.
For all that Gray’s life was turbulent and difficult, it had moments of unalloyed joy, not least because he had the valued knack of seeing the humorous side of even the most oppressive subjects. It is good to see he skewered the masters of Peterhouse at Cambridge University as “mad with Pride” and the Fellows of this College as “sleepy, drunken, dull, illiterate Things.” It was the kind of thing I wrote to my college friends, too, and I knew the joy of such characterizations.
My mother knew I wrote these kinds of acid word pictures; I sent them to her, and she carefully tied them with ribbons adding her own often equally acid responses. These, too, bonded us; we laughed together. Too, there were other traits which may have made her see me in Gray: he spent his time indoors, voracious reader, avoiding athletics and exercise of any kind. But when the companionship of his friends was offered, he was a crowd pleaser with the apt, devastating mot at the ready. Gray and I might have been siblings; surely Kindred Spirits… she must have seen this… and if so have approved.
“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”.
Thus, my mother traveled to England where I was then working on my first book and asked me to accompany her to the setting of one of her favorite poems, the “Elegy” written slowly, painstakingly between 1742 and 1750. She had waited a lifetime for this excursion… and so she and I on Mother’s Day went hand-in-hand to the ancient village of Stoke Poges, to the churchyard of the Church of England parish church of St. Giles. There great Gray’s remains repose for the numberless ages, his monument weathered, tilted, too much too illegible, special torment for this man of perfect wording.
We had come hence to see, to learn, to venerate…. and in the graveyard to read the “Elegy”, together, in turn, lyrically, each word a pledge to love each other now and forever, though I didn’t know its purpose then.
She had her tattered, well-thumbed Gray in hand, so did I.
So we commenced the reading, the first stanza hers by right to intone:
“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/ The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea/ The ploughman homeward plods his weary way/ And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”
We are borne on these words to the place we most want to be with the person in this sublime moment we both wish most to be with.
Thus we walked and read together from the celebrated words which British General James Wolfe read to his officers September 12, 1759 the day before he was killed in battle, saying “Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec tomorrow.” It was an admission made by thousands of those who have thrilled to these sonorous words and their eternal relevance to struggling mankind.
‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”
Now my mother has gone the way of all flesh, the way we all must trod in time. We know such an end is natural but that does not assuage the bitter grief and finality of the matter, particularly when the dear departed is one’s mother. This loss is bitter indeed at whatever age it occurs.
Thomas Gray knew all this and in his beloved “Elegy”, popular from the moment of publication, popular still, he gave us all the words we need to cope, find hope and resignation — and the words of remembrance and above all of love.
Thus whenever I miss her and want her near me in all her humanity and that dazzling smile I can never forget, I take down from the clutter of my library her copy of Gray’s “Elegy” and read it aloud, as we did that memorable Mother’s Day so very long ago. Whenever possible I go to any search engine and play Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor (published 1738). It was one of Gray’s favorites and perfect accompaniment to his surgically precise words.
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power/ And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave/ Awaits alike the inevitable hour/ The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
But not, with God’s help and with Thomas Gray’s, to the dark void of forgetfulness and oblivion. They have given us the joys of memory and the words we need to summon it –and our loved ones — at will and thus they live again in us.