THERE ARE A HANDFUL of poets who are known only for a single line. Take John Burgon, whose collected poems appeared in London in 1885. The name fails to ring a bell? You bet it does. Poor Burgon had just one moment of glory (as a poet) in his entire life. Forty years earlier he had won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford for a long poem called "Petra." It has enjoyed a deserved neglect ever since. All but the 132nd line, which reads:
A rose-red city, half as old as time. That line is still current. It's in zillions of books of quotations. (There are zillions, too. If you think there's just Bartlett, you haven't been looking.) The rose-red city is a real place, a glorious ruin in the Kingdom of Jordan, and tourist ads use the line as part of their come-on.
A somewhat larger number of poets survive through a single work, and the greatest of these is, I think, Henry King, an Englishman born in 1592. His "Exequy to His Matchless Never-to- be-Forgotten Friend" is quite simply one of the supreme laments in our language.
The friend that King promised never to forget was his wife Anne. She died young. She was 24 (and he 32); they had been joyfully married since she was 16. Soon after her death he wrote his great poem.
King was a metaphysical poet, like his friend and fellow clergyman John Donne, and he uses the extravagant language of the metaphysicals throughout "The Exequy." But this one poem would suffice, if it had to, to show that extravagant language and enormous metaphors can coexist with total sincerity and with the deepest of deep feelings.
After a beginning in which King represents himself standing in front of his wife's grave, he begins to address her directly. TDear Loss! since thy untimely fate My task hath been to meditate On Thee, on Thee: Already one sees what a strength the second person singular once was to our language. Poignancy is possible with "you," but it's harder.
He then tells his wife that since she died time has slowed to a crawl. Not because he didn't have anything to do. He had three small children to raise alone, an important job as Archdeacon of Colchester, frequent sermons to preach at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. None of this cheers him. I languish out, not Live the Day, Using no other Exercise But what I practice with mine Eyes. By which wet glasses I find out How lazily Time creeps about To one that mourns.
This is the first of his extravagant metaphors--comparing his tear-filled eyes to wet hour-glasses, which take forever to measure out a single hour of time. It is nothing to what follows. Next he compares his wife to the sun, now gone down, and himself to a man alone on the darkened earth. Thou hast benighted me. Thy set This Eve of blacknes did beget, Who wast my Day, (though overcast Before thou hadst thy Noon-tide past) And I remember must in tears, Thou scarce had'st seen so many years As day tells hours.
There would seem to be a problem with this metaphor, since in reality the sun never sets in the morning, and he has just said that his wife died before reaching the noon of her life. There isn't, though. King deftly takes the metaphor and twists it. His sun didn't set, he now says, it was most unnaturally eclipsed. By what? By the earth--and he is simultaneously talking about astronomy and about the fact that his wife's body is buried in the earth.
Then he begins to wish that the eclipse would pass, and the sun come out again:
I could allow thee for a time To darken me and my sad Clime, Were it a month, a year, or ten, I would thy Exile live till then; And all that space my mirth adjourn, So thou wouldst promise to return.
But of course he knows that she can't promise, that this eclipse will not end, that he will not see her again as long as he lives. He gives the metaphor another twist, and begins to envy the very soil she is buried in. It is nearer to her now than he is. Meantime, thou hast her, Earth: much good May my harm do thee. Since it stood With Heaven's will I might not call Her longer mine, I give thee all My short-lov'd right and interest In her, whom loving I loved best: With a most free and bounteous grief,
% give thee what I could not keep.
A powerful line, that last one.
Now he changes metaphors. In fact, the change took place during the passage I've just quoted. From being the eclipser of his sun, the earth turns into a rival, an almost human rival. And playing daringly with the idea of bodily resurrection (at the Last Judgment he will see her again), he tells the earth that she is not a gift after all, but only a loan. On the last day he will come to reclaim her. When he does, he will hold the earth sternly to account that none of her be lost. He might be a Renaissance banker talking to a client. See that thou make thy reck'ning straight, And yield her back again by weight; For thou must audit on thy trust Each grain and atom of this Dust: As thou wilt answer Him, that lent, Not gave thee, my dear Monument.
Having dismissed his rival, King now turns and speaks again to his wife. Full of the idea that she will rise from her grave warm and breathing, the same young wife that he lost, he begs her to wait for him in the churchyard, by her empty tomb. Stay for me there; I will not fail To meet thee in that hallow Vale. And think not much of my delay I am already on the way.
The tone has changed, and the rest of the poem is a series of variations on the now-triumphant thought that he is sure to join her. Now he uses yet another metaphor: he compares himself to a ship sailing westward--to death and her. Each minute is a short Degree And ev'ry hour a step towards thee. At night when I betake to rest, Next morn I rise nearer my West Of Life, almost by eight hours' sail Than when sleep breathed his drowsy gale. Time has speeded up again.
And so he can end the poem almost happily. I am content to live Divided, with but half a Heart, Till we shall Meet and never Part.
People who enjoy cheap irony might enjoy hearing that a year or two after writing this, Henry King got married again. He was very eligible: young, handsome, and wealthy. Furthermore, remembering those three small children, he had the most practical of reasons to find a new wife. But it didn't happen. He lived on for 45 years, a busy and prominent man. He served as the executor of John Donne's estate. He became Dean of Rochester, then Bishop of Chichester. He died "the epitome of all honours, virtues, and generous nobleness." But he never remarried.
A part of me--the 20th-century part--is a little sad about that. Forty-five years is a long time to live alone. He could have had two or three more nice marriages. But another part of me rejoices that art and life should have come together here; that what Henry King wrote in a great poem should also have been the deepest impulse of his being; that he kept his promise.