Ode Softens Blow of Friend’s Departure

John Oldham

This past Monday I said goodbye to one of my closest friends. After 20 years in the St. Mary’s Religious Studies Department, colleague Bjorn Krondorfer is off to head the Martin-Spring Institute at North Arizona State, where he will pursue what has become his life’s work, which is setting up mediation sessions between groups that have historically been in conflict, most notably Israelis and Palestinians.

For weeks I have been in denial that Bjorn is leaving, but a John Dryden poem has been playing in my mind for much of that time. It is the ode that he wrote to his recently departed friend, the poet John Oldham. I’ve included the entire poem below but the passages that I kept on repeating were the first four lines and the closing four lines:

Farewell, too little, and too lately known,

Whom I began to think and call my own:

For sure our souls were near allied, and thine

Cast in the same poetic mold with mine.

One common note on either lyre did strike,

And knaves and fools we both abhorred alike.

To the same goal did both our studies drive;

The last set out the soonest did arrive.

Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place,

While his young friend performed and won the race.

O early ripe! to thy abundant store

What could advancing age have added more?

It might (what nature never gives the young)

Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue.

But satire needs not those, and wit will shine

Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line.

A noble error, and but seldom made,

When poets are by too much force betrayed.

Thy generous fruits, though gathered ere their prime,

Still showed a quickness; and maturing time

But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.
Once more, hail and farewell; farewell, thou young,

But ah too short, Marcellus of our tongue;

Thy brows with ivy, and with laurels bound;

But fate and gloomy night encompass thee around.

There were ways in which our souls were indeed allied. We were regular tennis partners, we had engaged in “bibliodrama” together (Bjorn helped pioneer a form of Biblical interpretation that involved symbolic reenactment, including role playing, dance, and other forms), we had written an article together (where we applied these techniques to teaching a short story), we had founded a faculty writing group, and so on. We are both deep believers in community, and we worked together to foster a sense of collectivity at St. Mary’s.

But as I reflected on the poem further, I noticed the differences in situation. Paradoxically, this reminded me of our most intimate moment of connection.

In Dryden’s poem, the distinguished older poet has met his young friend only recently—he knew Oldham only three years before Oldham died at 30 of small pox—so my lamenting the departure of someone close to my age who I had known for 20 years didn’t fit.

But Bjorn was also the advisor, teacher, and senior project advisor of my oldest son Justin twelve years ago when Justin drowned. (Feeling exuberant on a lovely spring day, Justin launched himself into the St. Mary’s River at a spot that is normally safe and was grabbed by a freak current.)  Parts of the Oldham description do indeed apply to Justin.

My son was “early ripe” like Oldham and like Oldham was “by too much force betrayed.” He was a passionate young man with an “abundant store” of talent and “quickness” who wasn’t always smooth or elegant as he threw himself into life (as he threw himself into the river). “Young but ah too short,” Justin finished the race ahead of us—much of the horror of a child dying is that the natural order of things is inverted—and now “fate and gloomy night encompass [him] around.”

It’s not just because Bjorn was Justin’s teacher that I conflated losing him with losing Justin, however.  It was Bjorn who was sitting next to me as we watched the divers searching for what proved to be Justin’s body, and it was Bjorn who held me when I finally acknowledged the horrible truth of what had happened and began sobbing hysterically. For years afterwards—every April 30—Bjorn and I picnicked in the spot overlooking the river where we had looked on. In those years when we couldn’t meet, Bjorn always set me a note.

Poetry has a power akin to what, in dreaming, Freud calls condensation: dream images and poetic images speak with other worldly power because they condense or compress multiple associations. Losing a friend, of course, is not the same as someone dying—I know Bjorn and I will always stay in touch—but a gap will open up that will hurt. To paraphrase Wilfred Owen, foreheads of men bleed where no wounds are. So even though Dryden’s words don’t entirely fit, allow me to console myself with them anyway by repeating them once again:

Farewell, too little, and too lately known,

Whom I began to think and call my own:

For sure our souls were near allied, and thine

Cast in the same poetic mold with mine.


 

Added note: I love the extraordinary tact in the poem, incidentally. Dryden can’t pretend that Oldham is a mature and polished poet—he was still learning his craft when he died—but he saw his potential. Furthermore, although Oldham’s lines could be rough, Dryden softens his criticism by noting that roughness is more allowable in satire than in, say, an ode.

Nisus, by the way, is a warrior in the Aeneid who slipped in a pool of blood of sacrificed cattle, which allowed his young friend Euryalus to win the race in which they were competing. Marcellus is the youth that Caesar Augustus was grooming to be his successor but who died at 20. It’s as though Dryden was designating Oldham as his heir—both were satirists—but Oldham finished the race of life first. In the poem, Dryden models how to talk about talented but flawed young people.

 

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  • http://www.letschoosejoy.com Sue

    A beautiful post, Robin. I also appreciated the comments on how poetry works to condense and layer significant moments in our lives. There is a mystery there…

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