The power of poetry – Farewell

When a person develops dementia it is a huge challenge for everyone around them. But particularly for the person with the condition.
It is scary; disorientating; exhausting; sometimes a dark road where the signs are invisible. Anxiety can become an every day companion.

My mother has good days and bad days. Some days, – what am I saying? – most days, are a mixture.
Music; pictures; smells; voices can all help to anchor her in her perpetually shifting present.

When I saw her last week I took an anthology of poetry that she had given me. I knew she liked de la Mare, so The Listeners seemed a good place to start.

I was doing the washing up. Mum on drying.
“Is The Listeners one of your favourites Mum?’ I asked. She looked confused. I recited the first two lines. She joined in with the third. Then looked more confused. The words had evidently come to her unbidden; cemented deeper in her memory than her grandchildren’s names.
I knew we were onto a winner.

For a magical half hour I read poems to her while she sat transfixed. Both of us rediscovered poems we had forgotten. Both of us became emotional at certain lines.

I read de la Mare’s Farewell which I had studied at O Level and largely forgotten.
At the end, unthinking, I exclaimed at its power and said I’d like it read at my funeral. Mother agreed, nodding and smiling.
Or at yours, I silently added.


When I lie where shades of darkness
Shall no more assail mine eyes,
Nor the rain make lamentation
When the wind sighs;
How will fare the world whose wonder
Was the very proof of me?
Memory fades, must the remembered
Perishing be?

Oh, when this my dust surrenders
Hand, foot, lip, to dust again,
May these loved and loving faces
Please other men!
May the rusting harvest hedgerow
Still the Traveller’s Joy entwine,
And as happy children gather
Posies once mine.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour. Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days.

24 thoughts on “The power of poetry – Farewell

  1. I do not know this poem, Isobel, but after reading it I can understand your sentiments. At the weekend we visited the souless place where my father-in-laws ashes are and I spent a pretty sleepless night afterwards thinking about death and what I’d like after I dies.

    I’m so pleased that you found such a strong connection with your Mum through reading poetry with

    • Thanks Pseu.
      It’s such an evocative powerful poem. it was wonderful to rediscover it.
      My father’s burial place – well his ashes, is that the same thing? – is completely soulless. I have no sense of him there at all and rarely visit. When I do, I feel almost hypocritical. i think he’d have hated it.
      My mother has always enjoyed poetry and the anthology she gave me had been hers. She encouraged my sister and me to read and enjoy it too. So I suppose it’s a natural connection; a shared voice.
      I am wondering about posting a photo of her, looking happy and relaxed when I saw her last week. Not sure if that is wise or foolish. Your opinion?

  2. Yes, a powerful poem, Isobel. It’s good that it helped you forge a renewed connection with your mum.

    As it happens, my father was a great poetry-lover and could recite Tennyson, Longfellow, etc. by the ream … he was still able to do that when most of his memory for other things was gone.

    • We have recited psalm 23 before, to the surprise of the carers, and when I have taken her to church, she has not needed any help with the responses.
      Some words are deeper than memory.

  3. Glad to hear this, Isobel. And yes, post her picture that would be another connection with everyone.

    My mother was a fan of Emily Dickinson. I don’t believe she ever memorized any of the poems, just fragments of them. However, she took to writing like Dickinson, metaphorically and graphically, so that I would get these cryptic postcards from her written in Dickinson’s handwriting. My brothers and I cast her ashes into the sea, which she would have liked, except for a small jar of them which I kept and later used in an installation I called “Nine poems on the death of my mother.” A photo is here:

    • I enjoyed these Jaime. Especially the one taking an inventory of your mother on the bed.

      Have you ever read “When did you last see your father?’ by Blake Morrison?

      • No, I’m afraid not. But I’ll look for it. I have to mention it was very important for me to do these poems for my mother and to put them into this format. I wasn’t able to read the poems publicly though. Building the installation, which took me months, was a way to express my grief because I couldn’t do it through talking or even through simply writing. Odd the different paths we have to take to show feelings.

        • Thank-you for getting back to me Jaime.
          What a lovely way to express your grief for your mother.
          All too often, our society seems embarrassed by grief, as though the death of someone we love should not affect us.

  4. Thank you for unveiling and sharing your feelings at the obscure/bright paths of your mum’s heart and mind. Thank you for inviting us to be at your side in the distance.
    Would’nt it be a loving hommage to her and the deep rooted links that keep you together?

  5. I tried to reply to this post by email – but see it hasn’t worked.

    It sounds like it was a very bittersweet moment for you. I can imagine its easy to interact as you had before reality creeps into mind. However, its another phase of your relationship.

    • I hadn’t thought of as bittersweet, but maybe you have a point.
      Like many old people my mother seems quite comfortable talking about death. I certainly don’t think she fears it. There have been times when she would have welcomed it, I know. We have talked about songs that she might like played as her coffin is carried out of the church, Van Morrison perhaps to put a spring in people’s steps. She likes Brown-eyed girl – except hers are blue, and Pride of the County Down, but she’s from Derry.
      Reading the poetry was an entirely positive experience. She was interested and very in the moment. I suppose it’s nice to know that she enjoyed Farewell, and if I should read it at her funeral, when that day comes, I shall have the image of her attentive, appreciative face in front of me.

      • Perhaps it wasn’t like that in reality – it just appeared rather poignant the way you finished the post.

        Its lovely that you’ve found a way that brought her into the present/took her into the past in a good way and that you have this memory.

        I can understand some of your concern about uploading a photograph. Why not think about an old photograph as a stepping stone?

  6. I got things mixed up. I was commenting on your question about what we thought of posting a picture of your mum.

      • I see I completely misunderstood you. I’m sorry.
        But, yes, a picture of the anthology would be meaningful already. It would be like giving official identity to that solid shackle the poem book has prooved to be, wouldn’t it?
        Thank you Isobel for your attention!

  7. First switch on your scanner….. I assume you have one? If you haven’t, I’m sure there must be somewhere in London you’ll be able to have a picture scanned.

    If your aunt can get to grips with a digital photo frame, you have no excuse whatsoever 😛

    • Hello Sprite
      I hope it hasn’t upset you. Was it recognition? That was my feeling when I read your post.
      It’s quite a happy post really I think. Though maybe Sophie was right when she described it as bittersweet.

  8. Isobel and Cat your words resonate. Thank You for the goose pimple moment “Or at yours, I silently added”

    My mother loved Tennyson. The most enduring and abiding memory I have of her is her reciting the poem “lady of the Shalott”, and mentioning her love of the John Millais picture of Ophelia, the lady of the lake. She was a hopeless romantic.

    One of the regular church flower arrangers at a prestigious church in Westminster donated a wreath of woven lilies to her funeral gift. The display truly reference the Ophelia picture and caught the mood.

    The arrangement was breathtakingly beautiful and words failed me at the time. The cost to my father (I mean us, as he never walks alone…) if he had bought them would have been substantial and an expense hard to justify with his means. But when I saw the striking effect and how redolent it was of Millais’s picture, I wished that the idea had occurred to me and I had bought them for my mother as my parting gift.

    My friend sent orchids, as a living tribute, which though unusual to see at a funeral, blended around the lilies well and add vitality. If a funeral could be a triumph this was it. Over 100 people attended we expected 10, as we are estranged from both sides of the family.

    Her ashes were scattered at Kew Gardens, a magical place for her and a place she loved. A place also my father can find her anytime,unlike the empty and “soulless” place you describe is your fathers resting place.

    My Mother like Jaimeatdnmyt’s also wrote poetry. Her poetry usually ended up as verses in cards and was compared to Patience Strong, but occasionally she was more epic. The one I have linked to is called Calvary/End of the Beginning and channels Tennyson. It to captures the bitter sweet mood of entangled loss and hope found in “Crossing the Bar” and the essence of de la Mare’s “farewell”, which is a beautiful poem.

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