TRANSITIONS

          Of all the things man fears, death seems to be the worst. Therefore, when someone dies comes fear and pain. But this is not always so in the natural world. Wild things often die accompanied by paradoxical beauty.

          Consider the dying of a day. Doesn't the splendor of many a dying sun far out-strip the blandness of noon's glaring, prying eye? Might it not be well for many of us to die at such a time–robed in splendor and lulled by the bell-like flutings of the hermit thrush?

          I have never seen a mute swan up close, but legend has it this bird sings only at the moment of its death. What hidden expection does his wild heart know to make him celebrate the end with joy?

          Cyrano der Bergerac, at his moment of death, took inspiration and hope from what he observed in the falling of the autumn leaves:
"Look at the leaves. Look at them fall. Ah, they know how to die.

A little way from the branch to the earth, A little fear of mingling with the common dust, And yet they go down gracefully, A fall that seems like flying."

          And how the leaves are dressed for that last flight! Not draped in somber black, but bravely clad in capes of brilliant hue, they strain and jostle–eager for the air.

          Even certain weeds, withered and frail, white-haired and waiting for the end, scorn death, and in their final hour, toss in his face arms-full of winged seeds that soar up on the lifting winds toward heaven.

          But perhaps the rose best knows the way to die. A few summers ago I made a first attempt at growing roses. One, a climber not supposed to bloom the first year, put forth a beautiful crimson bud.

          I examined it proudly; eager for it to open. But that night a storm rumbled through, and in the morning I found my rose on the ground beneath the arbor. It was dead. But it had finally opened, and the scent of it seemed to me, poised on the margin between sorrow and delight, more beautiful then the scent of any flower I had ever smelled. The experience moved me to write the following lines:

Sweet Rose, sweet crimson miracle
Who even in death still breathes,
So fragrant is your passing soul
That my sad heart believes–
Though surely as the severing wind
Shall clip my blossom from the limb,
My soul shall pass from me—sweetly
As yours flows now to me
.

          Yes, death is awesome, but it is not always ugly. The poet Wallace Stevens in his poem 'Sunday Morning', calls it 'the mother of beauty,' and John Keats, faced with terminal T.B. but enchanted by the passionate loveliness of a nightingale's flood of melody on a summer's night wrote,

"Now, more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain; Whilst thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad, In such an ecstasy."

  Why the grim specter of death prompts forth such beautiful expression by so many facing it, is a perplexing question. I believe that many passing into the next dimension have a joyful sense of a better world awaiting them. Or perhaps they feel a tragic catharsis in the realization that the loveliness ushering them out of this life may indeed be the last encounter with the fleeting and transitory beauty that has evaded us so persistently while we lived–a thing as elusive and rare as the truth itself. Why not say it:
"Beauty is truth; truth Beauty. That is all we know on earth, and all we need to know." Keats: 'Ode to a Grecian Urn.'

Originally written in 1978 for the column, “Where the Wild Thyme Blows,” the last few remarks were added in Feb of 07. (Gene Pinkney)