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Love and Death: Poetry for Weddings and Funerals About Nature

This month's show focused on the theme of nature. I chose songs and poetry that were loosely based on all things in the natural world including trees, plants, landscapes and animals, especially birds! I got a bit obsessed with bird calls and how singers and instruments try to mimic birdsong. Anyway... here are the readings you heard.

In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees

are turning

their own bodies

into pillars

of light,

are giving off the rich

fragrance of cinnamon

and fulfilment,

the long tapers

of cattails

are bursting and floating away over

the blue shoulders

of the ponds,

and every pond,

no matter what its

name is, is

nameless now.

Every year


I have ever learned

in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side

is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

This one speaks for itself really. Doing this show has taught me that poetry about death and loss can sometimes also be the most beautiful love poems too. There's another one on this show that is also like that.

The Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one

Who mowed it in the dew before the sun

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

Before I came to view the levelled scene

I looked for him behind an isle of trees

I listened for his whetstone on the breeze

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown

And I must be, as he had been, alone

As all must be, I said within my heart

Whether they work together or apart

But as I said it, swift there passed me by

On noiseless wing, a bewildered butterfly

Seeking with memories grown dim overnight

Some resting flower of yesterday's delight

And once I marked his flight go round and round

As where some flower lay withering on the ground

And then he flew as far as eye could see

And then on tremulous wing came back to me

I thought of questions that have no reply

And would have turned to toss the grass to dry

But he turned first, and led my eye to look

At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook, the scythe had bared

The mower in the dew had loved them thus

By leaving them to flourish, not for us

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim

The butterfly and I had lit upon

Nevertheless, a message from the dawn

That made me hear the wakening birds around

And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground

And feel a spirit kindred to my own

So that henceforth I worked no more alone

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid

And weary, sought at noon with him the shade

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech

With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach

Men work together, I told him from the heart

Whether they work together or apart

Another celebrant told me about a funeral ceremony where everyone had written notes to the person on butterfly post-its because she had loved butterflies, but there was even more significance because the person's family members had seen butterflies recently and felt visited by their person. This poem is about being alone, but not really being alone because someone is always there to keep you company, even if they come to you in the form of a buetterfly.

The Rose Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

Best and dearest flower that grows,

Perfect both to see and smell;

Words can never, never tell

Half the beauty of a Rose—

Buds that open to disclose

Fold on fold of purest white,

Lovely pink, or red that glows

Deep, sweet-scented.

What delight

To be Fairy of the Rose!

I just really like roses and these cute poems from when I was young! I can imagine this being used in a flower ritual in a wedding ceremony though. Or maybe at a Naming!

Wings of a Dove by Henry Van Dyke


At sunset, when the rosy light was dying

Far down the pathway of the west,

I saw a lonely dove in silence flying,

To be at rest.

Pilgrim of air, I cried, could I but borrow

Thy wandering wings, thy freedom blest,

I'd fly away from every careful sorrow,

And find my rest.


But when the filmy veil of dusk was falling,

Home flew the dove to seek his nest,

Deep in the forest where his mate was calling

To love and rest.

Peace, heart of mine! no longer sigh to wander;

Lose not thy life in barren quest.

There are no happy islands over yonder;

Come home and rest.

The idea that freedom is what people enjoy when actually home and feeling safe is just as valuable. Perhaps in reality they are the same thing, but I like the way this poem subverts those ideas.

Bird-Understander BY Craig Arnold

Of many reasons I love you here is one

the way you write me from the gate at the airport

so I can tell you everything will be alright

so you can tell me there is a bird

trapped in the terminal      all the people

ignoring it   because they do not know

what to do with it   except to leave it alone

until it scares itself to death

it makes you terribly terribly sad

You wish you could take the bird outside

and set it free or   (failing that)

call a bird-understander

to come help the bird

All you can do is notice the bird

and feel for the bird   and write

to tell me how language feels

impossibly useless

but you are wrong

You are a bird-understander

better than I could ever be

who make so many noises

and call them song

These are your own words

your way of noticing

and saying plainly

of not turning away

from hurt

you have offered them

to me   I am only

giving them back

if only I could show you

how very useless

they are not

People who have been together a long time tend to have this other way of romance that is ever more subtle. I always used to be unbelieving when people would say they love their person more and more each day, but perhaps it is the different things you find to love about them that they mean. This poem speaks to the little crazy things people love about each other and how they really all come down to the core of who the person is, in this case, an empathetic, thoughtful person.

The seed shop by Murial Stewart

Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,

Faded as crumbled stone and shifting sand,

Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry -

Meadows and gardens running through my hand.

Dead that shall quicken at the voice of spring,

Sleepers to wake beneath June’s tempest kiss;

Though birds pass over, unremembering,

And no bee find here roses that were his.

In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams;

A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust

That shall drink deeply at a century’s streams;

These lilies shall make summer on my dust.

Here in their safe and simple house of death,

Sealed in their shells, a million roses leap;

Here I can stir a garden with my breath,

And in my hand a forest lies asleep.

This poem is really about how things can grow out of nothing and things that are seemingly ugly. I think it can link to grief, which is not lovely, because out of grief can come a new love and joy for life and the world. This is certainly what your lost one would hope for you.

Verses made the night before he died by Michael Drayton

So well I love thee, as without thee I

Love nothing; if I might choose, I'd rather die

Than be one day debarr'd thy company.

Since beasts, and plants do grow, and live and move,

Beasts are those men, that such a life approve:

He only lives, that deadly is in love.

The corn that in the ground is sown first dies

And of one seed do many ears arise:

Love, this world's corn, by dying multiplies.

The seeds of love first by thy eyes were thrown

Into a ground untill'd, a heart unknown

To bear such fruit, till by thy hands 'twas sown.

Look as your looking-glass by chance may fall,

Divide and break in many pieces small

And yet shows forth the selfsame face in all:

Proportions, features, graces just the same,

And in the smallest piece as well the name

Of fairest one deserves, as in the richest frame.

So all my thoughts are pieces but of you

Which put together makes a glass so true

As I therein no other's face but yours can view.

Another poem about love, but that has that touch of sadness at losing the one you love. 'I can't live without you' becomes less romantic and more full of despair when you've lost someone.

From Philip Sparrow by John Skelton

To weep with me look that ye come 

All manner of birdes in your kind; 

See none be left behind. 

To mourning looke that ye fall 

With dolorous songes funerall, 

Some to sing, and some to say, 

Some to weep, and some to pray, 

Every birde in his lay. 

The goldfinch, the wagtail; 

The jangling jay to rail, 

The flecked pie to chatter magpie 

Of this dolorous matter; 

And robin redbreast, 

He shall be the priest 

The requiem mass to sing, 

Softly warbeling, 

With help of the reed sparrow, 

And the chatteringe swallow, 

This hearse for to hallow; 

The lark with his long toe; 

The spink, and the martinet also; 

The shoveller with his broad beak; 

The dotterel, that foolish peke, 

And also the mad coot, 

With balde face to toot; 

The fieldfare and the snite; 

The crow and the kite; 

The raven, called Rolfe, 

His plain-song to sol-fa; 

The partridge, the quail; 

The plover with us to wail; 

The woodhack, that singeth ‘chur’ 

Hoarsely, as he had the mur; 

The lusty chanting nightingale; 

The popinjay to tell her tale, 

That toteth oft in a glass, 

Shall read the Gospel at mass; 

The mavis with her whistle 

Shall read there the Epistle.

 But with a large and a long 

To keep just plain-song, 

Our chanters shall be the cuckoo, 

The culver, the stockdowe, 

With ‘peewit’ the lapwing, The Versicles shall sing. 

The bittern with his bumpe, 

The crane with his trumpe, 

The swan of Maeander, 

The goose and the gander, 

The duck and the drake, 

Shall watch at this wake; 

The peacock so proud, 

Because his voice is loud, 

And hath a glorious tail, 

He shall sing the Grail; 

Gradual The owl, that is so foul, 

Must help us to howl; 

The heron so gaunt, 

And the cormorant, 

With the pheasant, 

And the gaggling gant, 

And the churlish chough; 

The knot and the ruff; 

The barnacle, the buzzard,

With the wild mallard; 

The divendop to sleep; 

The water-hen to weep; 

The puffin and the teal 

Money they shall deal 

To poore folk at large, 

That shall be their charge; 

The seamew and the titmouse; 

The woodcock with the longe nose; 

The throstle with her warbling; 

The starling with her brabling; 

The rook, with the osprey 

That putteth fishes to a fray; 

And the dainty curlew, 

With the turtle most true.

This poem is a bit deranged, but I love it because it's about birds doing a funeral for their friend the sparrow. At least that's what I understood from it. Like I say in the show, I've become a little obsessed by birdsong and actually just by birds full stop. I think birds somehow connect us to the world of the dead, but I don't really know why. It might be because they seem to fly in from nowhere and it feels like they have the soul of someone we miss. Maybe that's just me!

The Frog Prince by Stevie Smith

I am a frog

I live under a spell

I live at the bottom

Of a green well

And here I must wait

Until a maiden places me

On her royal pillow

And kisses me

In her father’s palace

The story is familiar

Everybody knows it well

But do other enchanted people feel as nervous

As I do? The stories do not tell,

As if they will be happier

When the changes come

As already they are fairly happy

In a frog’s doom?

I have been a frog now

For a hundred years

And in all this time

I have not shed many tears,

I am happy, I like the life,

Can swim for many a mile

(When I have hopped to the river)

And am forever agile.

But always when I think these thoughts

As I sit in my well

Another thought comes to me and says:

It is part of the spell

To be happy

To work up contentment

To make much of being a frog

To fear disenchantment

Says, It will be heavenly

To be set free,

Cries Heavenly the girl who disenchants

And the royal times, heavenly,

And I think it will be.

Come then, royal girl and royal times,

Come quickly,

I can be happy until you come

But I cannot be heavenly,

Only disenchanted people

Can be heavenly.

This one made me laugh a bit, especially because it's older than you might have imagined - Stevie Smith was mostly writing in the 1960s. I like the idea that actually you can be happy and content with your life and when you do fall in love, your life just gets even better!

You can listen back to this month's show on Mixcloud to hear all the fab song selections. Next month's show will link love and death to ritual and tradition. Listen live on Voices Radio 7am-9am Tuesday 13th February 2024.


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