If Not For Experience and Knowledge

ON THE DEATH OF FRIENDS IN CHILDHOOD by Donald Justice

We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.

Because it is so dense, I chose only to discuss a few words which I find masterfully chosen by Donald Justice to drive the overarching theme of his strikingly profound, and heartfelt poem. I think “sunning” clearly connotes heat, burning, flame – the fires of the “hell” where the “bald”, or old souls can be found. However, I feel that this poem speaks of the innocence of youth, an innocence that we lose through age and experience. In this light I see “sunning” as having more agreeable connotations – summer beaches, pleasant weather and lazy pleasures – that seem to suggest the innocent spirits of these lost children. We will not find them in heaven, or in hell, because they know not – they care not – of the difference. Children exist with a purity that is often not yet aware of good and evil.

“[T]he bald” speaks to the aged, the worn – the sun chafed, weathered and burned souls who reside suffering in hell. They are the antithesis of the “bearded” spirits who have transcended into heaven. The “bearded” are reminiscent of wise, old, comforting and generous persons. The word “bearded” connotes these qualities, which exist in contrast to the “bald” who seem the subject of humiliation and derision.
The “ring” seems to convey unity, wholeness, sanctity, and primarily, to me, the circular nature of our existence – the unremitting cycle of life and death, which fails to exclude even the youngest of those within its circumference. Justice’s use of the “games” that children play comments on the frivolity, and the pointlessness of life. The term connotes transience and senselessness; and, at the same time innocence, and playfulness, and childhood.

Lastly, I think “memory” and “shadows” work together to remark on the idea that what we experience in childhood, we seem to lose sight of in later life. A “memory” is often an experience past and gone – connoting loss, and sadness, and change; perhaps unsullied qualities of ourselves that we have replaced with the cynicism and jade that the work-a-day world so often imparts, and the sacrifice of morals and ideals that such a place sometimes requires. Our innocence is cast away beyond the “shadows”; clouded, obscured, blinded and darkened; shrouded by the sinister and suspicious; stolen away from us by the villainous character of age and worldly experience.

All of the terms mentioned, I feel, were chosen by Justice to confer the innocence of childhood, and the fact that we too often lose sight of those frolicsome and lighthearted days past. Do children, not yet wise to the cruelties of the world, transcend to heaven, or descend into hell? Do the notions of heaven and hell – of good and evil – even exist if not for experience and knowledge, and a life long-lived?
Best,
Bill E.

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