In “Mortality’s Muse: The Fine Art of Dying,” D.T. Siebert, professor emeritus of English at the University of South Carolina, surveys Western attitudes toward death from ancient times to the present. Despite its inordinately high price tag, the book is clearly addressed to the general reader: Siebert writes simply and eloquently, no chapter goes on too long, and the abundant quotations are well chosen. One can read “Mortality’s Muse” for pleasure, even though it addresses that most painful aspect of human existence: our dreadful knowledge that each of us must die.
Note the book’s subtitle, however. Siebert isn’t interested in the physiology of dying or the sociology of hospice care. He focuses instead on how writers, especially poets and philosophers, have thought about mortality and, in particular, the various possible “scripts” for a good life and a good death.
To devout Christians, the starting point has long been one of “contemptus mundi” — rejection of this sinful world — and expectation of an eternal reward in heaven. What matters isn’t this life, but rather the afterlife. Today, the “seriousness, gravity, and contemplation” required by traditional orthodoxy runs counter to modern hedonism, where the new ideal is to be, as the mall store proclaims, “Forever 21.” Siebert justly remarks, “Worshiping the flesh has almost completely replaced that mortification of the flesh recommended once upon a time.”
Siebert himself isn’t a believer in either of these two opposing forms of human desperation. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, he notes that heaven is typically imagined as “an endless church service, even though on earth the average worshiper couldn’t endure attending church more than once a week, and for no longer than an hour or so.” However, a life of ceaseless partying seems ignoble and ultimately dissatisfying: Hangovers and self-contempt are usually the main result.
How then should we deal with what Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life” and James Joyce punningly referred to as “the farce of dustiny”? In classical times, Epicurus advocated moderate pleasures, arguing that a quiet, temperate existence would cause the least pain. We would then slip from a tranquil half-life into nonexistence almost imperceptibly. But should humans live quite so timidly? Strife is somehow essential to our nature. We are, after all, passional animals as well as spiritual and intellectual beings. We need to honor Dionysus as well as Apollo.
Art, Siebert suggests, is our best solution to the problem of death. We can, through effort, shape our final days, creating — or stage-managing — a fitting, even noble end for ourselves. Socrates and Jesus, courtier Walter Raleigh, King Charles I and philosopher David Hume: Each in his own way refused to fuss and whine about his coming demise and instead chose lucidity, dignity and self-control. They all exhibited a kind of existential hauteur. As Albert Camus once wrote, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”
Being a former English teacher, Siebert naturally quotes extensively from poets. In one bravura section, he analyzes three poems by William Ernest Henley, including “Invictus.” I can remember reciting its famous last lines in ninth-grade English:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
Such defiant sentiments are obviously consonant with the heroic stoicism Siebert admires. But he also includes Henley’s “Madam Life’s a Piece in Bloom,” which pictures life as a prostitute and death as her pimp: After the fleeting pleasure in a rented room, we all have to pay “the ruffian on the stair.” Such gallows humor, Siebert notes, provides “a kind of victory over mortal anxiety.”
“Mortality’s Muse” ultimately champions a controlled form of the poet Horace’s philosophy of “Carpe diem”: To seize the day should mean “the conscious choice of embracing life to the fullest now” and recognizing that “mortality — even the dread of mortality — can actually intensify our experience of living completely.” Siebert recognizes that tragic drama and elegiac poetry show us that we are all bound together in suffering, that death is our common lot, and that this harsh knowledge somehow strengthens us: When the end-time comes, we can more bravely go where so many have gone before.
Siebert does analyze several poems of the more traditional “Carpe diem” variety, including Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Edward FitzGerald’s “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” He says of this last: “The ‘Rubaiyat’ achieves its remarkable incantatory effect by expressing the same message again and again in varying ways. The day is dawning, spring is upon us, time is on the wing, the great sages and conquerors of the past have vanished, we will soon be nothing but dust ourselves, there is no wisdom but in enjoying the moment, we are not to blame for being made the way we were, and so let us take our pleasure now and then make way for those who follow us.”
Still, as Siebert points out, this form of “Carpe diem” can be “enjoyed with any warm-blooded fullness” only while we are young. “As we get older we have less and less capacity, or desire, for dancing around maypoles.” Instead, we should then adopt the senior version of Horace’s philosophy, aptly summed up by William Temple: “Old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to converse with, and old books to read.”
This is, in effect, an elegiac sense of life. “The remembrance of things past, and the keen awareness of time quickly passing, and the total uncertainty of what lies ahead, can create a bitter-sweet joy in the very fragility of joy. The elegiac sense is the memory of farewells and the anticipation of having to say good-bye, again and again, and finally forever.”
There’s much else in “Mortality’s Muse,” including a chapter examining what Wilfred Owen called “the old Lie” that war and death in battle are somehow glorious. Siebert also points readers to the work of Ben Jonson and Thomas Gray, to Thomas Hardy and A.E. Housman, as models for how poetry can give death meaning and readers consolation. We can learn from them to live “with full awareness, if hardly full acceptance, of death’s inevitability.”
Although Siebert’s book is altogether excellent, it merely broaches a vast subject. Even his appended “recommended reading” somehow leaves out Philippe Ariès’s magisterial historical study, “The Hour of Our Death.” No matter. “Mortality’s Muse” deserves a wide audience — and a cheap paperback edition.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.