When I first encountered the work of Mary Elizabeth Frye, I was at work in central London.
I was installing sensor equipment in an elderly woman’s flat close to Marble Arch. The triggers were there to monitor when she got up in the middle of the night, and track her movements around the building and if she left it. This was because she had started wandering and getting collected by Police during the small hours.
Her dementia was growing more acute. She was in the cruel position shared by thousands: bearing witness to the illness consuming her, but simultaneously losing ground to it. She would parrot sentences, become horrified of herself for doing so, apologise and then continue repeating them afresh. She was like a woman catching glimpses of herself in a mirror and seeing an imposter increasingly take her place.
There was someone else in the flat: the lady’s social worker who was trying to establish a bond by quoting popular rhymes and songs to her. This can often work with people with dementia – it seems to connect to a different part of the brain. Presently, the social worker hit upon the following poem:
(there are versions online with tiny differences in grammar. I run it here without any as the rhythm waives the need for it in any case.)
do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain
when you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight
I am the soft stars that shine at night
do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there I did not die
The woman’s eyes bulged as the last two lines were read out. The muscles that contort eye shape prior to weeping tensed. In the room we were in, the still that followed the reading was a pregnant aftermath. All three of us were transfixed. We shared a moment clasped in the same grip – dementia or not, it had levelled us.
The poem is amateur and all the better for it. It’s rough and unrefined. The artist hasn’t paused to administer each glint of light from the bristles’ point, but gone in roughshod with sweeping brush strokes.
The scansion in some of the lines could be improved, the channel eased.
It doesn’t try and be academic. By this I mean there are no literary references. The ripened grain is mentioned in standard English – not via the hands of Ninkasi, Demeter or Neper.
All of the imagery is basic – it’s the fodder of murals painted along primary school corridors. If this poem rested simply on its imagery, it would end up little more than an algorithm. In fact, there is but a meniscus separating these visual flights from cliché.
The refrains are of the paint by numbers variety. Because of the strict rhyme, each other line could pretty much be guessed by the reader. So it employs tropes of poetry.
Why does it succeed where more professional verse fails?
True prose and poetry are akin to vinegar cutting through fat. How else should I explain it? A stealth arrow shot into your core that bursts into flames once the words start taking affect.
Mary Elizabeth Frye was an American born in 1905. She lived in Baltimore working as a florist. Otherwise, she was just a housewife. That sentence sounds so condescending but I’m typing it with the wonder of something so arresting being achieved by someone who wasn’t trained in the art she is famed for.
“Do not stand at my grave and weep” is one of the most famous pieces written about death. We could compare it to the work of two of her twentieth century contemporaries: Auden and Thomas.
Mary didn’t have the privilege or tutorage of a world-class Cambridge education like W.H Auden (who wrote “Stop all the clocks”), and she never honed her skills by working as a journalist like Dylan Thomas (“Do not go gentle into that good night”).
Mary’s contribution, though amateur, is their equal. Her words incise because the feeling behind them is genuine.
Knowing the circumstances under which the poem was conceived makes it even more poignant: In 1932, a Jewish girl staying with her family – Margaret Schwarzkopf – couldn’t return to Germany to see her own dying mother as rampant nationalism and antisemitism was gripping Europe.
It was composed at a time when the world was on the threshold of being debilitated by one of its darkest convulsions.
Somehow, this poem stands up to it.
Another appeal is that the words remain neutral with regards to religion. We know little about Mary – I don’t know whether or not she had faith but shan’t put my own bias on her. Suffice to say that this poem – that acknowledges that life will be taken – is purposefully transcendent but religiously ambiguous. There is no mention of god. Indeed, reading it puts me in mind of the more organic beliefs of ancient animism; the birds, the weather, the plants.
The last four words of the poem stand proud of everything that precedes them in the other twelve lines and are utterly rebellious. They’re radical – a twist, almost subverting the aesthetic.
In retrospect, it looks the third Reich directly in the eye and robs it of its power. These words have outshone the holocaust in Europe – confronted it head on, burned brighter and outlived an ideology that sought to delete people and their spirit.
There’s a reason this poem is so piercing. It was inspired and built on the fundamental lifeblood of all poetry that stops people in their tracks: emotion. It was born out of fear, loss and the determination to deny them their victory. It stands as unblinking and unashamed today as it did in the 1930s.