Innocence and Death

When my father was born, in 1909, the infant mortality rate in his borough of London was 124 per thousand. The infant mortality rate of present-day Somalia is about 105.

Two years after my father was born, when the infant mortality rate would not have declined by very much, an anthology titled Innocence and Death, edited by M. V. Dent, was published. It consisted of prose and poems written on the occasion of the death of young children. The editor in his preface wrote:

In the whole gamut of human suffering there is no sorrow so poignant as the death of a little child… There is a certain sad comfort in the fellowship of grief, and the following extracts in verse and prose may, I hope, be of some value to sorrowing mothers.

Throughout the book, there is an unresolved dialectic between personal grief at the loss of a child and consolatory religious acceptance that all is for the best, that death being the common lot of all, it is perhaps a blessing in disguise for a child to have departed this life before having tasted its bitterness:

Weep not because this childe hath dyed so young,
But weepe because yourselves have livd so long…

These are the first lines of Mistress Mary Prideaux by William Strode (1601 – 1645), and they are typical.

Five of the authors in the anthology were doctors, Henry Vaughan (1621 – 1695); Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809 – 1894); John Brown (1810 – 1882), who was buried next to his daughter who died in infancy; Robert Bridges (1844 – 1930) who, as physician to the outpatient department of Great Ormond Street Hospital, must have been well-acquainted with the early death of children; and William Henry Drummond (1854 – 1907), a professor of hygiene and medical jurisprudence in Canada, whose first child died within hours of its birth.

Dr Vaughan’s poem, The Burial of an Infant, is true to the consolatory theme of the book:

Sweetly didst thou expire: thy soul
Flew home unstain’d by his new skin;
For ere thou knew’st how to be foul,
Death wean’d the from the world, and sin.

Dr John Brown writes that the thoughts of a bereaved mother and her dead infant son are:

Not all sad, for well they know
Far above the sky
In the bosom of their God.

Dr Drummond (one of the best-known Canadian poets) writes in his Hymn upon the Innocents:

First sacrifice to Christ you went,
Of offer’d lambs a tender sort;
With palms and crown you innocent
Before the sacred altar sport.

Dr Holmes is slightly more pagan. A dead little girl lies in a graveyard, where her remains support new life:

At last the rootlets of the trees
Shall find the prison where she lies,
And bear the buried dust they seize
In leaves and blossoms to the skies,
So may the soul that warmed it rise!

Only Dr Bridges, with the greatest experience of infant death, is truly pessimistic:

Ah! little at best can all our hopes avail us
To lift this sorrow, or cheer us, when in the dark,
Unwilling, alone we embark,
And the things we have seen and have known and have heard
of, fail us.

In none of the poems is there a sense that anything might one day be different, that such premature death might become a rarity. But then, of course, poets are metaphysical, not epidemiological; they still use the death of children as a subject of meditation.

Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels

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