What Schopenhauer called will to live is the cornerstone of the human condition. Shockingly, this will is sometimes defeated by a longing for death. The most poignant expression of this longing is suicide. And the conjunct for suicide is perfect hopelessness. This hopelessness conceives fear in the human mind. The creeds of men have fought against suicide with supernal prohibitions.
Poets themselves have also examined the subject. Below are some examples of poems that consider the greatest of all maladies.
Suicide In The Trenches by Siegfried Sassoon
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
In this piece Siegfried Sassoon explored the effects of war and fear on a young soldier. Sassoon, like his friend and fellow war poet Wilfred Owen, was disillusioned by the horrors of war and sought to demonstrate its futility and its toll on the human spirit.
You can find the works of Siegfried Sassoon on bidorbuy.
Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical
Lady Lazarus is a brutal poem and one of Plath’s most celebrated. A complex and troubled artist, Plath tragically took her own life at the age of thirty; a tragedy that was perhaps foreshadowed in this verse:
And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
Plath struggled with depression for most of her life, and this was amplified by the split with her partner, the adulterous poet laureate Ted Hughes. In the final lines of this poem she maybe displays her rage towards him… and perhaps all men in general.
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
You can find the works of Sylvia Plath on bidorbuy.
Wanting To Die by Anne Sexton
Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the almost unnameable lust returns.
Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.
In this way, heavy and thoughtful,
warmer than oil or water,
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.
I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.
Anne Sexton was a friend of Sylvia Plath and like her she felt an unnameable urge towards death. Perhaps the greatest of all confessional poets, her poem Wanting To Die is an expression of the relentless, destructive forces within her. Anne was deeply saddened by the passing of Plath, and the two had spoken much of suicide, as reminisced in the poem Sylvia’s Death:
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,
the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,
the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,
the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,
the death we drank to,
the motives and the quiet deed?
Even so Anne was not unaware of the fallout of suicide and the toll it would take on those around her; Wanting To Die ends with the lines:
leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection.
This was a dark chapter in our poetry series. Next time we will look at that traditional muse for poets: Love.