Little Maria Matthiessen died in 1849 at the tender age of 1 year, 4 months, and 13 days. She was laid to rest in Green-Wood in Brooklyn, and her commemorators erected to her a handsome brownstone monument, now speckled with an attractive patina of lichen (figure 1).
The epitaph lies upon a surface in the form of a shield; above the shield lies floral decoration in high relief, and handsome moldings articulate the stone’s base and cornice. A century and more of mowing and the elements have taken their toll on the foundation, though the slab of the stone itself remains beautifully crisp.
The epitaph (figure 2):
IN MEMORY OF
MARIA . M. MATTHIESSEN.
Born January 21st. 1848,
Died June 3rd. 1849,
Aged 1 year, 4 months, 13 days.
Oh! friends, do not weep for me,
When death has laid me low
Forget not there’s a sinless world
Where fadeless flowers grow.
The interwebs do not indicate that this is a well known poem, or part of one. The best line is the last, and the conceit of ‘where fadeless flowers grow’ is obvious enough to have been apparently independently devised by contemporary poets to denote the al di là. So, for example, in John Nelson M’jilton’s collected poems (1840), his Sad when alone (pp. 240-241) concludes with this stanza:
My hopes are shadows of a dream,
That glitter as they fly;
And I am but a fading flower,
To bloom awhile and die.
O when I leave this world of change,
I would that I might go,
Where friends remain in happy crowds,
And fadeless flowers grow.
And in 1848 we find published the collected poems of Sarah Telford, including one relating a child’s technicolor hallucination of heaven (The Child’s Dream, pp. 58-60):
Oh! come to me dear mother,
For much have I to speak:
Undraw the curtains round my bed,
And kiss your daughter’s cheek;
And I will tell you what I saw,
And what I heard as well;
But I feel it is a task too great
For a child like me to tell.
I saw a vast and lovely place,
It’s [sic] splendour was so bright
It shed a halo round my bed,
And fill’d me with delight.
I saw there light and airy forms,
They mov’d with charming grace,
And smiles of sweet benignity
Play’d o’er each joy-lit face.
They look’d at me, and sweetly smil’d,
And asked if I would go
To those lovely regions of delight
Where fadeless flowers grow.
For there ’tis ever spring, said they,
No summer heats are there;
But earthly flow’rs spring but to fade,
Though they be bright and fair.
But I wish’d to take you too, mamma,
And asked that you might go;
But they said mamma must stay awhile,
In the world far far below.
Then I heard sweet music on the air:
So soft the notes did flow
On my enraptur’d ear, that now
I really wish’d to go.
Then I look’d and saw sweet children,
Oh! methinks I see them now,
For a crown of brightest glory
Encircled each fair brow.
And in their hands a palm they held
And harps of shining gold;
And they tun’d their harps, and sweetly sung
Words never to be told.
Then how I wish’d for wings like theirs,
That I might soar away,
And tune with them my golden harp
In those blissful courts of day.
All three poems are iambic; M’jilton’s in regular couplets of a tetrameter followed by a trimeter; Telford follows an interesting pattern of stanzas of two such couplets each with more than occasionally a galloping start with an extra unstressed syllable at front (e.g., “and they tun’d their harps, and sweetly sung”). I presume the child is breathlessly imagined to be trying to get her story out. But the Matthiesson poem seems to me to have suffered a transcription error, for it appears to want to follow the same 4/3 couplet pattern, but the first verse is a wreck:
Oh! fríends, do not wéep for mé,
When déath has láid me lów
Forgét not thére’s a sínless wórld
Where fádeless flówers grów.
I don’t think the poet intended to lapse into 3/4 time, but that a word has been added or left out. How about:
Oh! fríends, weep nót for mé,
or maybe, keeping 4 feet,
Oh! fríends, do nót then wéep for mé,
Oh! fríends, weep nót for mé I bég,
The Matthiessen poem, like M’jilton’s and Telford’s, connects flowers with death through the logical chain that young life is like a fresh spring bloom which as it ages progressively withers and eventually dies. I see this every time I look in the mirror these days. The flower stands, among other things, for the transitoriness of life.
And so our poem uses this metaphor and the carver had the confidence to place a cut rose at the top of the stone (figure 3).
The cutter has his cake and eats it too: the rose has been fresh plucked (killing it), alluding to the young life ended. But there is also a standard symbol of life cut short in the presence of the wilting bud with a broken stem: see how it hangs wilted while the rest of the plucked stem is fresh and tight. For a clearer example of this motif see figure 8 in this post.