Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Agency of Death

Text of "Epitaph on a Sailor"One of the most exciting aspects of our collections is the way that Dartmouth students interpret primary sources to create new ideas within the context of the classroom. On Tuesdays this summer, we are publishing posts that were originally written by students in Michael Chaney's Literary History survey course during the Winter 2021 term. Each student essay comparatively examines two poems, one from the Dartmouth student newspaper and the other by a canonical American or British author. Today's poems are "Lycidas" by John Milton and "Epitaph on a Sailor" published in the Dartmouth, the student newspaper, in the 1840s.

An analysis of “Epitaph on a Sailor” through the lens of natural immortality introduced by Milton’s “Lycidas” offers a new reading of the poem. While both works speak of death as a physical phenomenon, “Epitaph” conveys it as a final destination. The farmer is reduced to dust, and all who are dead reduce to sediment “beneath the land and sea” (Anonymous). “Epitaph” conveys multiple dualities – between land and sea, between “remain” and “contain,” between immortality and death. The “urn” represents a duality between earth and aquatics, as it can refer to a vessel “ used by various peoples…to preserve the ashes of the dead” (urn 1) while it can also mean “ an oviform pitcher or vessel for holding water” (urn 4.a). These binaries illuminate the distinctions between life and death as separate entities, suggesting immortality as an impossibility.

In contrast to the stationary description of deaths of the mariner and farmer in “Epitaph,” such as the depiction of dust in an urn or at the bottom of the ocean, Lycidas lives on as an individual through nature. “Lycidas is not dead” Milton says -- he elementally reappears as “in the forehead of the morning sky” and in “groves and other streams” (Milton). He lives on through the lamenting of nature. Milton’s lens of natural immortality provides a reading of “Epitaph” that places it in conversation with “Lycidas,” -- a means to express life beyond death.

Applying the immortal qualities of “Lycidas” illuminates the importance of the order of words in “Epitaph.” The last line, which reads “alike, beneath the land and sea,” suggests potential for the dead to live through earthly phenomena. This line also reverses the order of “mariner first, farmer second,” (the order in which they appear in the poem). Placing the land before the sea suggests concrete life after death. It favors the stable land of the farmer over ethereal vastness of the ocean. Milton’s lens also calls to attention the pattern of verbiage associated with each person. The mariner “remains,” while the farmer is “contained” -- the former being passive and the latter more active. “Remains” means “to continue to belong to a person” (remains 1.a), while “contains,” means “to restrain… to hinder (from an action) (contain 1a). The shift from passive to active verb suggests the Miltonic theme of death taking on more agency in “Epitaph.” There is more life to death, as suggested in “Lycidas,” when the hero collects not just as dust, but as sediment “sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor” (Milton). “Lycidas” provides a lens through which “Epitaph” can be read to have more of an immortal view as opposed to a reading which conveys death as absolute.

Written by Julia Robitaille '23

"Epitaph on a Sailor"

HERE rest in death a mariner’s remains—
That other urn a farmer’s dust contains:Thus Pluto’s dark dominions be Alike
beneath the land and sea.
(Published in the Dartmouth, Volume 2, 1840-1841)

"Lycidas", lines 165 – 177, or 10th stanza

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed, And yet anon repairs his drooping head, And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves;
Where, other groves and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
(Written by John Milton in 1637)