PostedDecember 16, 2004
Farewell poems take an astounding variety of forms: poets have found it necessary, over the ages, to say goodbye not only to lovers, friends, and family, but also to their youth, the courtly life, the twentieth century, a rhinoceros, traffic, even the fairies of England. As in odes, the object admired (and in this case missed) can range from the sublime to the ridiculous. But, as John Donne astutely realized in his poem "A Valediction of Forbidden Mourning," the very act of bidding something goodbye connects the poet intimately to the object of the poem. Donne imagines the object of his affection as the still foot of a compass, making his circles true:
And though it in the centre sit, Yet, when the other far doth roam, It leans, and hearkens after it, And grows erect, as that comes home. Such wilt thou be to me, who must, Like th' other foot, obliquely run ; Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end where I begun.
Farewell poems can carry with them meditations on mortality, as poets come to realize that each earthly farewell is a preparation for the final farewell. Many poets have imagined that they have heard a call from the other side, or, as in Wallace Stevens’s poem "Monocle de Mon Oncle," that the birds are bidding him an early farewell as he enters into middle age:
I am a man of fortune greeting heirs; For it has come that thus I greet the spring. These choirs of welcome choir for me farewell. No spring can follow past meridian.
Frank O’Hara has a similar revelation in "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," a farewell poem to the sun that, in retrospect, portends O’Hara’s own death on Fire Island:
"Go back to sleep now Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem in that brain of yours as my farewell." "Sun, don't go!" I was awake at last. "No, go I must, they're calling me." "Who are they?" Rising he said "Some day you'll know. They're calling to you too." Darkly he rose, and then I slept.
Other kinds of farewell poems seem to register the more subtle changes, marking either the turning points of a life or an age. It was quite common in the sixteenth century for poets to bid goodbye to the fairies of England and that whole lost, fanciful era. Anne Bradstreet wrote "Verses upon the Burning of our House" to mourn not just the loss of the house, but the life she imagined within it. John Pickeryng wrote a poem mourning the loss of courtly life upon the advent of war.
What distinguishes a farewell poem from an elegy or a poem of lost love is the understanding that there might be a natural order in hellos and goodbyes--the tone of a farewell poem might be melancholy, but it can also be celebratory, or sweet, or even silly. One imagines that the goodbye might be temporary, or that the thing lost might not be so bad to lose. In "A Teamster's Farewell," Carl Sandburg says a melodramatic goodbye to Chicago traffic, the "crazy wonderful slamming roar of the street." In John Berryman’s poem, "Farewell to Miles," he critiques the social ritual of the goodbye party, deeming it shallow:
We are to tell one man tonight good-bye Therefore in little glasses Scotch, therefore Inane talk on the chaise lounge by the door.
To say goodbye to a loved one, a time of life, or your favorite rhinoceros, consider the following poems:
"Dream Song 39" by John Berryman
"Farewell to Miles" by John Berryman
"Verses upon the Burning of our House" by Anne Bradstreet
"Farewell to the Highlands" by Robert Burns
"Farewell" by John Clare
"Farewell" by Emily Dickinson
"Grieve not, dear love, although we often part" by John Digby, Earl of Bristol
"A Valediction of Forbidden Mourning" by John Donne
"Sweetest love, I do not go" by John Donne
"To J.G." by Ephelia
"The Green Knight’s Farewell to Fancy" by George Gascoigne
"When we two parted" by George Gordon, Lord Byron
"In The Baggage Room At Greyhound" by Allen Ginsberg
"Good Night" by William Müller
"The Rhinoceros" by Ogden Nash
"A Litany in a Time of Plague" by Thomas Nashe
"A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," by Frank O’Hara
"Farewell False Love" by Sir Walter Raleigh
"Departure" by Arthur Rimbaud
"Remember" by Christina Rossetti
"A Teamster's Farewell" by Carl Sandburg
"Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing" by William Shakespeare
"Monocle de Mon Oncle" by Wallace Stevens
"The Remains" by Mark Strand
"A Farewell to America" by Phyllis Wheatley