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Mark Twain, Pythagoras, poetry, death . . .

24 Jan

I sometimes imagine that I have the soul of a poet, and I would like to believe that my soul is that of a poet, but I do not have a shred of a poet’s talent. My love for poetry began when I first read the lines placed by Mark Twain on the headstone of the grave of his daughter, Olivia Susan Clemens, dead in 1896 at the age of twenty-four. I first read the epitaph as a Junior High School student—now known as Middle School. I was moved to tears, just as I am now while researching and writing this post.

Those words have for many years been attributed to Mark Twain, but they were borrowed from a poem written by Robert Richardson, Annette, published in 1893, three years before Twain’s daughter died. This is the verse Mark Twain placed on his daughter’s tombstone:

Warm summer sun, shine kindly here,
Warm southern wind, blow softly here,
Green sod above, lie light, lie light,
Good night, dear heart, good night, good night.

While writing his autobiography, Mark Twain said that he could not remember the author’s name, and apparently he was uncertain of the exact wording of the poem.
When Twain learned of the author and his work, he added the author’s name to the tombstone without changing the verse. Richardson’s original words are as follows:

Warm summer sun, shine friendly here
Warm western wind, blow kindly here;
Green sod above, rest light, rest light,
Good-night, Annette! Sweetheart, good-night!

The poem, Annette, also included this beautiful verse:

If that ancient ethic view
Of Pythagoras be true,
Your light soul is surely now
In that bird upon the bough,
Singing, with soft-swelling throat,
To the wind that heeds it not;
Or in that blue butterfly,

Flashing golden to the sun.

The ancient ethic view of Pythagoras, mentioned in the above excerpt from Annette, is explained as follows:

The ancient Pythagoreans believed that souls transmigrated into the bodies of other animals, and because of that belief they practiced vegetarianism, hence the poet’s references to the bird upon the bough and that blue butterfly. However, in Richardson’s ode to his daughter he passionately expresses his love for her, his belief in heaven and his hopes for her in the afterlife, saying that:

Somewhere there beyond the blue,
In the mansions that so many are,
They say, is there not
Any one of all, Annette, for you?

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Posted by on January 24, 2011 in Childhood, death, Family, funeral

 

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