“It is only through the gates of suffering, either mental or physical, that we can pass into that tender sympathy with the griefs of all of mankind which it ought to be the ideal of every soul to attain.”
“What happened could have happened to anyone, but not everyone could have carried on,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Stoic strategy for turning suffering into strength.
The young poet was born two millennia ago Anne Reeve Aldrich (April 25, 1866–June 28, 1892) attested to this insight with her life, short and soaring, spent writing soulful poems she considered “chiefly in a minor key” — the lyric epitome of “the bittersweet.”
Anne’s father died when she was eight. Anne was just fifteen years old when her first poem was submitted to a magazine. She had been immersed in art and music, as well as a talent for maths. The rejection notice was followed by a note from the editor encouraging her and praising her. She eventually published the poem two years later. Her poems soon appeared in prominent magazines and were often quoted by newspapers.
Midway through her twenties she was struck by an unfailing hand. It was a difficult time for her, but she persevered with fierce dedication to living. Like Beethoven, who vowed to “take fate by the throat” when chance dealt him his own hand of suffering, Aldrich went on composing poems at a feverish pace until the very end, even as she grew too weak to write by hand. She dictated her last poem, “Death at Daybreak,” and died just before dawn on June 18, 1892 — a season after Whitman. She was 26 years old.
public realm), had been posthumously released.| public domain), was posthumously published by summer’s end. Her final poetry collection, Songs about Love, Life and Death (public library Springfield Republican — the first paper to print Emily Dickinson’s poetry in her lifetime — lauded Aldrich as one of “the few who nearest share the moods of Sappho and her talents.” Seven years after her death, a major newspaper was still celebrating her “brief poems of unusual merit,” reprinting from them these “especially pregnant lines” — lines of abiding insight into how often we are the architects of our own suffering, a knowledge we carry with an uneasy awareness that only unmasons us more:
The cross was made by me, and whose weight I also did
I was later placed on him.
As I labor, this thought causes me anguish.
Up life’s steep Cavalry.
She understood that personal suffering — pain on the scale of our individual lives — is the grandest portal to sympathy with universal life; she understood that “we bear a common pain” — the elemental pain that is the price of being alive, pain often invisible and always ineffable, except perhaps through art. She articulated this understanding with uncommon sympathy and splendor of sentiment in an 1890 letter to Emily Dickinson — herself a patron saint of suffering.
Aldrich wrote to Dickinson in the year following the publication of her first book, The Rose of Flame & Other Poems of Love. Dickinson was fifty and her vast body of work has never been published as a book.| public domain), the twenty-four-year-old Aldrich writes to the fifty-year-old Dickinson, whose own immense body of work never appeared as a book in her lifetime:
Dear Miss Dickinson, a life of constant suffering is something I’m sure you are able to relate to.
Those who read Anne Reeve Aldrich’s melancholy poetry speculated that she must be “an invalid” or “a sufferer,” but those who knew her knew a sunny-spirited young woman with a sense of humor and an exceptionally hopeful nature. Upon the posthumous publication of her final poems, she was compared to Elizabeth Barrett Browning — herself an emissary of radiance through inordinate suffering, who saw felicitous perseverance as a moral obligation. “Since Mrs. Browning has died, no sweeter spirit has breathed its life into verse than that of Anne Reeve Aldrich,” declared Atlanta Constitution, noting how difficult it must be to die at the peak of one’s powers and prophesying that her poems would go on to “have a life of their own.” In them, she exalted not suffering itself but the full surrender to suffering, which triumph over it requires:
A bitter throe is what I like to feel
Get to your fullest potential.
Watch a conquering anodyne.
Be soft but assertive.
Simone Weil, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sophie Scholl and Simone Weil discuss the use of suffering. Sophie Scholl is even younger when she dies for her beliefs, suffering, strength and the deepest source of courage. Then, we will return to Dostoyevsky shortly before his execution on what makes it worthwhile to live.
Giving = Being Loving
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