My grandmother sent me a book, Laments, by 16th century Polish poet Jan Kochanowski (translated into English by Seamus Heaney and Stanislaw Baranczak). Kochanowski wrote the series of poems after his three-year-old daughter died. The work was not well received at the time, as elegies were acceptable only when aimed at great public figures, and not at one’s own daughter. Yet now, it is widely held that Kochanowski “invented Polish poetry and, through his individual effort, brought it almost instantly to perfection” (Baranczak’s words). Lament 13 in particular speaks to my grandmother, since Heaney read it at the funeral of her own daughter six years ago:
Sweet girl, I wish that you had either never
Been born or never died! For you to sever
All your attachments, take such early leave
What else, what else can I do now but grieve?
You were like one of those recurrent dreams
About a crock of gold, fool’s gold that gleams
And tempts our greed, but when we wake at dawn,
Our hands are empty and the gleam is gone.
Dear daughter, this you did in your own way:
Your light appeared to me but would not stay.
It was as if you wanted to destroy
My very soul by robbing all its joy.
The shock of sudden death tore it in two:
One half stayed grieving, one half fled with you.
Here is your epitaph. Stonecutters, hone
The chisels sharp and cut the words in stone:
“Ursula Kochanowski lies beneath,
Her father’s joy that slipped his loving hands.
Learn from this grave the ways of careless Death:
The green shoot is mown down – the ripe crop stands.”