“Eternity Is Not Length Of Life But Depth Of Life” – how a line on a child’s grave haunted the poet Charlotte Mew…
Charlotte Mew, like any self-respecting Victorian poet, wrote her share of graveyard poems. Although I think of Mew as a modern poet, her life (she was born in 1869, and died in 1928) spanned both the Victorian and the “modern” worlds. Perhaps her funerary poems are a sort of remnant of her Victorian origins (with a touch of Romanticism thrown in).
Before turning to one of Mew’s poems, here is a passage from her essay “The Country Sunday”:
Often on moonlit nights, while from within the church the wheezy voluntary sounded, the moon, to my thought, has touched white headstones, giving them a weird and wakeful prominence — leaving the unmarked mounds bathed in a gentler, more forgetful light. Under the sward they slumbered more securely, those of whom men recorded nothing, leaving their virtues and their names with God; those whom man had remembered seeming to have missed their rest. Still I recall one puzzling line, written on a small marble slab over a child, whose short years numbered only three — ‘Eternity is not length of life but depth of life,’ and I have since many times wondered what was the history of that little child.
Charlotte Mew, “The Country Sunday” (published in 1905), Collected Poems and Prose (edited by Val Warner) (Virago Press 1981), page 371.
It is difficult to top the unknown philosopher who carved “Eternity is not length of life but depth of life” on the child’s grave marker. This rural philosopher may have stolen a march on Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, many years later, wrote: “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311 (Pears/McGuinness translation)).
The following poem (from ‘The Rambling Sailor’ – 1929) by Mew seems appropriate.
On Youth Struck Down
(From an unfinished elegy)
Oh! Death what have you to say?
‘Like a bride — like a bride-groom they ride away:
You shall go back to make up the fire,
To learn patience — to learn grief,
To learn sleep when the light has quite gone out of your earthly skies,
But they have the light in their eyes
To the end of their day.’