My thoughts two weeks ago were centred on death; the imminent death, say his doctors, of a man who was once my closest friend. This isn’t a topic I spend much time on; at 79, I know ‘the grim reaper’ (there’s a cheerful cliché) can’t be far round the corner, but there’s the shopping to be done, I do that instead.
Yet death is ever-present in literature, and its solemnity adds weight to language — even if the most-quoted phrase about it may be Benjamin Franklin’s witticism that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes (and he was wrong about taxes, as any crorepati’s accountant today could tell him).
Inevitably, with such a subject, the Church of England’s 1611 Bible and 1662 prayer book have left their marks on English. Some are almost clichés by now. Dead and buried is from the prayer book, at death’s door and the valley of the shadow of death from its versions of Hebrew psalms. The Bible gave us let the dead bury their own dead and O death, where is thy sting, and more. And both sources have been much drawn-upon: even by the anonymous rhymester who saw Queen Victoria’s passing as dust to dust and ashes to ashes, into the tomb the great queen dashes.
Real poets have memorably run riot with death; Shakespeare not least, with his the way to dusty death and death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns, and much, much else. John Donne wrote bravely Death, be not proud, with some dubious reasons why not. Keats was half in love with easeful death. Tennyson’s light brigade rode into the jaws of death. World War I brought Wilfred Owen’s bitter What passing-bells for these who die as cattle. Later came the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s echo of the Bible and death shall have no dominion.
In prose, from the 1600-ish English adventurer and courtier, Walter Raleigh, we have O eloquent, just, and mighty Death! Whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared thou hast done.... and Donne’s no man is an island... any man’s death diminishes me. And from Francis Bacon, at much the same time, Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark. I’ve admired Bacon ever since I met his essays as a 15-year-old (and ludicrously tried to imitate his style). I share his view: I fear the process of dying, not the result.
The image of death that sticks in my memory is from a 1970s’ Italian film, Brancaleone at the Crusades. You’re unlikely ever to see it, and you’ll need subtitles if you do: even if you understand the Christians’ Italian speech, the Saracens speak Sicilian, about as close to Italian as, say, Bengali to Hindi. It’s an allegory, little do with the real crusades, in which Death himself appears, black-cloaked and swinging his scythe. Why did that scene so strike me 40 years ago? I can’t say, but it did.
No such problem with some English words about death that have haunted me even longer than that. Cited in no dictionary of quotations, they’re from the post-1945 Nuremberg trial of leading Nazis. Meticulous German records showed that 203 people died at Mauthausen concentration camp on one day in March, 1945. As it was summed up, They all died of heart disease. They died a few minutes apart. They died in alphabetical order.
I cannot read that last phrase without shivering. OK, I’m from Europe, but can you? I’m told many well-educated young Indians admire Adolf Hitler. They’re not alone: Europe, even Britain, still has its Hitler-groupies. But India? God help them.