Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Poem for Hill Country: TO BRING THE DEAD TO LIFE by Robert Graves

A challenge to family and local history writers

by Terry Thornton

Robert Graves, 1895 - 1985, was an English poet and novelist. His short poem, To Bring The Dead To Life, came to my attention last week when reading the novel, The Girls, by Lori Lansens (click here for my review) where the first five lines were quoted.

I hadn't thought of Poet Graves since my undergraduate days at Ole Miss. Off I went on a quest to find more works by Graves which I could access through the Internet --- and I spent a lazy afternoon reading an online collection of his works.

His poem, To Bring The Dead To Life, appeals to me because of my interest in preserving the local and family history from the Hill Country of Monroe County where I grew up in Parham in the 1940s. Much of the writing of family history is an attempt to put "flesh and bone" on those we are researching --- and the lines from Graves' first stanza jumped off the page.

Those of us who spend part of our efforts writing about individual ancestors long ago dead know the difficulty of accurately telling their story. Much of recorded family history is just a listing of who begat whom, when and where, and where and when they all were buried --- but we all know on occasion some writers can bring the dead to life as those gifted writers produce accounts to show, indeed, that Graves is correct --- that to blow on a dead man's embers can ignite a live flame and from that ignition ancestral history becomes alive. Certainly those of us writing in this field should attempt to ignite those embers --- but that task is much more difficult than merely describing the process.

That is why I've selected Graves' poem, To Bring The Dead To Life, as the poem to start the new year. I think his words, especially those of the first five lines, should be a challenge and an ideal. As I continue my puny attempts to bring life to the family and local history I'm recording, I certainly will keep Graves' words in mind. And I invite you to accept this as a challenge in your family history writing for 2010 --- to bring the dead to life by using words to fan the embers of those long dead bones and let the resulting flame illuminate their life and times.


Robert Graves

To bring the dead to life

Is no great magic.

Few are wholly dead:

Blow on a dead man's embers

And a live flame will start.

Let his forgotten griefs be now,

And now his withered hopes;

Subdue your pen to his handwriting

Until it prove as natural

To sign his name as yours.

Limp as he limped,

Swear by the oaths he swore;

If he wore black, affect the same;

If he had gouty fingers,

Be yours gouty too.

Assemble tokens intimate of him --

A ring, a hood, a desk:

Around these elements then build

A home familiar to

The greedy revenant.

So grant him life, but reckon

That the grave which housed him

May not be empty now:

You in his spotted garments

Shall yourself lie wrapped.

From at the link

See also Robert Graves at Wikipedia (click to read)


Dorene from Ohio said...

What a wonderful many family history bloggers really do try to bring life the memories of those who have passed on...and this post explains it so very well!

Bill West said...

A great challenge,Terry. I'm in!

Jasia said...

Great poem and a thoughtful reminder for all us family historians!

Happy New Year Terry!

Heather Rojo said...

I've never heard this poem before, and I've bookmarked this page. Great story!

Terry Thornton said...

Dorene, Bill, Jasia, Heather,

Thanks for your comments --- I think this poem offers a most unique challenge for us as we write about dead relatives. Certainly Graves' words are inspiring and offers (to me) a most unique view of the dead.

Terry Thornton
Fulton, Mississippi

Vickie Everhart said...

Thanks for sharing this, Terry. I was not familiar with this poem, and I DO like it ... AND your introduction ... back to fanning the embers while reading 19th-century letters and journals. Thanks again!

Lisa said...

A stirring poem and a tremendous challenge, Terry.

My hope is that I can continue to "illuminate the life and times" of those that have gone before us, if even in a small way.

Here's a start: "So grant him life...": Reviving the memory of Patrick Tierney

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