Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Toward Eternity


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My dear husband has been humoring me for a long time.  At our otherwise very traditional wedding, I insisted that one of my friends read from a poem by Michelangelo about death.  (Said poem really had no place in a nice Southern wedding.)  Gus expressed a few concerns about the inclusion of the poem in the service but wisely deferred.  We celebrated 20 years of marriage yesterday! I continue to dig in my heels on some things, and certain eccentricities may even be a little more pronounced.  Thank you, Gus, for continuing to put up with me – generally with good cheer!

I would like to note that I’m in good company, dwelling on death. Charles Wright, a Tennessean recently named Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks a lot about mortality, too. It’s hard to know where to begin in his work, as he has written more than 20 collections of poems.  I asked Nathan at Parnassus, who knows a thing or two about poetry, to choose one of his books for me. Nathan kindly selected a beautiful if voluminous 362-page collection, Bye and Bye: Selected Late Poems.  I cannot say that I read every page, but perhaps enough to have a feeling for his work – and to choose a poem to share today.  (Nathan would be delighted to help you find a smaller collection!)9780374533175_p0_v1_s114x166

Wright was born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, and has been a professor at UVA for many years now.  In interviews I’ve read, he seems an awfully agreeable and modest sort.  In his conversation with NPR correspondent Craig Morgan Teicher, Wright said that as Poet Laureate he would probably “stay here at home and think about things.”  Teicher says that this is “in keeping with the personality of Wright’s poems, which match a certain notion of what poetry ought to sound like: ‘wise,’ first and foremost, tackling big ideas such as spirituality and life and death.  They tend to approach the spiritual in an open-ended way, as though someone smart were writing a kind of improvisational Bible with a Southern twang… in which God and nature are mostly interchangeable.”

Here is to my mind one of Wright’s loveliest poems from Bye and Bye:



Just for fun, I’ll also share the poem read at my wedding. I learned the lyrics singing them: the Radcliffe Choral Society commissioned composer Robert Kyr to set Michelangelo’s words (translated by Elizabeth Jennings) to music.  Apologies for any wrong spacing in the poem; I am looking at the score.  Imagine modern, very dissonant music which gradually resolves and reaches heavenward.

From Toward Eternity:

When to my inward eyes both weak and strong
the idol of my heart appears,
I know that always in between us death will go;
It frightens me as it drives me along.
Yet strangely such an outrage gives me hope and I take courage from so rare a fate.
Indomitable love moves in great state and thus it puts its strong defences up;
Dying, It says, can never happen twice nor is one born again.
If you die by fire when you already are aflame with burning love
then death can do no harm.
Such love’s the magnet of all burning hearts,
which purged returns to God from where it starts.


  1. Jen! You tell that Gus of yours happy anniversary and that I still celebrate the Death poem! I hope my recitation of it was not too dramatic for the wedding day. I love that poem still.

    I’m glad you featured a poetry collection. Poetry gets us right in the heart, it’s soul stuff, and it doesn’t take eons to express its truths. I think we all should read something beautiful every day, whether a haiku, a verse from sacred text, a sonnet, something. I wasn’t even aware of Wright so I will check him out.

  2. Lyn, you were the perfect person to read that poem, and you conveyed it perfectly! It makes me very happy to think of you reading it. I think you are so right about poetry, and I love your idea that we should read something beautiful each day. Thank you so much for the warm anniversary wishes!

  3. I love love this post. The poem is such a gift to me. Thank you !!! Gorgeous.

  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and the poetry, Betsy!! Thank you for your continued enthusiastic support of everything Bacon-related, my dear Blogmaster!

  5. I LOVE that you included that Michelangelo poem at your wedding, Jennifer! Haywood and I had a traditional Catholic mass, but we also had a special width-spanning bumper sticker made for our honeymoon bus– an ancient Volkswagen camper we lived in during the two-month camping trip we took after the wedding– that was a line from James Dickey’s “Cherrylog Road”:

    Wild to be wreckage forever.

    Margaret Renkl, Editor *Chapter 16*, a publication of Humanities Tennessee 4000 Dorcas Dr. Nashville, TN 37215 or 615/594-7863

    • Oh, Margaret – what a brilliant way for you and Haywood to begin your lives together!! And you’ve just given me such a wonderful idea. I wonder what Gus would think if I had a special width-spanning bumper sticker made for our cars now?! Thank you so much for your comment.

  6. Wow! Congratulations to you and Gus and I wish you both many more special moments and memories together.

    So – when I read your post, I closed my eyes to see if my brain can conjure up the words or the music of “Toward Eternity” from our RCS days. And…I think I’ve got it – the music had some dissonant parts and in places matched the intensity of certain words and phrases. Can’t believe you still have the score! I wonder if they still perform the piece.

    • Thank you so much for the good wishes, Victoria! I actually had to track down the score online. I should probably check youtube and see if I can catch RCS performing it! I’ll let you know if I find anything! Thank you for being in touch. All good wishes to you and your family in Basel, and please keep the Facebook posts coming!

  7. Happy anniversary my dear friend!! Love this post and the poem. Gus is one lucky guy! xo

  8. Thank you for your very kind message, my dear Carolyn!! I’m so glad you liked the post and the poem. xo

  9. Every bit of this is just delightful!! Especially the smile on your face: “yep. Check out MY man!” Love to you both and congratulations!

  10. Laughing!! That was a pretty big smile on my face, wasn’t it? Thanks, Kate!

  11. Jennifer, Happy Anniversary! What a tremendous and happy milestone! Your poem bring to mind the Jewish wedding tradition of breaking a glass to remind us that no joy comes without some sorrow and that we will need to know both to create a life together. So neat that you brought that same thoughtfulness in just the most meaningful way to you!

  12. Hi Jessica! Thank you so much for the good wishes! Thank you also for reminding me of that very evocative, beautiful, and wise tradition. I hope your construction project is bringing only joy!!

  13. I remember the poem being read but could not tell you a word or thought in it. Glad you shared it with us so now I can reflect on it. Actually, in retrospect, I think it was quite apropos. Life and death, good and bad, ups and downs, valleys and mountains march hand in hand on this beautiful earth. Hope your anniversary brought back many happy memories!

  14. I am so happy for you and Gus! You seem to be perfectly matched – thoughtful souls should travel with a partner (so they can compare notes).

    I can see how both Wright’s and Michelangelo’s poems could be filed under “poems contemplating death.” But, then again, we sometimes use images of death or permanent separation to describe how unfathomable it would be to be parted from someone we love. That seems like a pretty reasonable concept to cover on a wedding day.

    I loved the post and the poems.

    • Thank you so much for your incredibly kind comment, Joelle. Gus and I miss spending every waking moment with you and Brant! Highlight of the trip to Scotland: the Phillips. 🙂 So happy that life includes unexpected journeys and new friendships.

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