An impossible conversation on loss because, like tears, a quote from some of our favorite writers can wash away our sorrows
I’m on a late-night drive, along an empty street, listening to The Smoking Popes. The 1990s pop punk band from Chicago is bewailing the torture of being away from someone irretrievably gone.
“But I’m gonna feel this way till I’m six feet underground,” they cry. “Crazy as it sounds, I need you around.”
The band’s classicist approach to pop punk and alt-rock, “packed with metric tons of heart and soul,” according to some reviews, opens the discussion in my headspace and, pretty soon, inviting kindred spirits, though my SUV only has room for four passengers, I find it expanding infinitely to accommodate the boundless depths of grief.
First to cut above the punk ululations of yearning is C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia. “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything,” he sighs, referring to his wife, the poet Joy Davidman, and, looking out on the empty stretch of road, he heaves an even deeper sigh, “How often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment?’”
From classical Greece, Euripides echoes Lewis. “Come back, even as a shadow, even as a dream,” the dramatist whispers the words he lent the doomed Megara in Herakles, his Athenian tragedy first played circa 416 BC.
“Deep in earth my love is lying. And I must weep alone,” cries the always despondent Edgar Allan Poe, from his undated one-sentence poem found penciled in the margins of his manuscript for his more cheerful bridal song Eulalie. It was presumed to have been written in the wake of his wife Virginia Poe’s funeral in 1847, just two years before he himself was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, dying one day later.
As if to brush off the intensifying gloom, the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy asserts, “Only people who are capable of loving strongly can suffer great sorrow.” In the early years he was married to Sonya Behrs, 16 years his junior, their life together had been one of mutual support, sexual passion, and great adventure, which produced 13 children. In the end, however, his marriage has been described as among the unhappiest in literary history. It was said that he died trying to escape his wife’s tirades.
“Those who do not weep, do not see,” assents Victor Hugo, the French author of Les Misérables.
Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, nods his head. “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts,” he says.
To which, no less than William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, England’s national poet, responds with a flourish, borrowing from Henry IV, Part I, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
Reciting from his poem On Joy and Sorrow, the American-Lebanese philosopher Kahlil Gibran, a title he rejected, joins the chorus: “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
Sounding irked, perhaps by the crowd of voices, J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, harrumphs, drawing from his book Franny and Zooey, “And I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight.”
To add fuel to the fire, Marcel Proust, author of the monumental French novel In Search of Lost Time, says, “Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more.”
“...The world’s more full of weeping than you can understand,” agrees the poet W.B. Yeats, the Irish idol of C.S. Lewis.
But anything you lose comes round in another form. —Rumi
And so again gloom takes centerstage, dimming the streetlamps, obliterating the glitter of the stars overhead.
The Anglo-American poet and playwright W.H. Auden mouths a passage from his poem Funeral Blues, taken from the play The Ascent of F6 that he co-wrote with lifelong friend and intermittent lover Christopher Isherwood: “He was my North, my South, my East and West; my working week and my Sunday rest; my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.”
The Jazz Age American fictionist F. Scott Fitzgerald is similarly encouraged to wallow in intimations of loss and, reimagining immense grief from his novel A Nice Quiet Place, he throws in a few words: “Suddenly she realized that what she was regretting was not the lost past but the lost future, not what had not been but what would never be.”
Unwilling to concede that we must give in to our sense of loss, Gibran comes up with a metaphor he believes no one could argue with. “When you part from your friend, you grieve not; For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain,” he says, quoting from The Prophet.
He is wrong. The Russian-American novelist, poet, and entomologist Vladimir Nabokov has had enough. To point out the inevitability of loss, and the certainty of death, he retrieves a line from his quintessential novel Lolita and says, “And the rest is rust and stardust.”
And so, as The Smoking Popes end their song of hopeless longing, I drive deeper into the dark night, confident that though I can only see as far as my headlights, there is always the American writer E.L. Doctorow’s promise that I “can make the whole trip that way.”
Note: “Grief is the price you pay for love” is a quote attributed to Queen Elizabeth II, the only one alive in this imagined conversation. The words, though, are of Dr. Colin Murray Parkes, the psychiatrist and author of many publications on grief whom the Queen made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1996 for his services to bereaved people.