A reader has asked me to explain Anne Ridler’s wonderful little poem, “Nothing is Lost.” In order to do so, I have reprinted her poem here, with stanza numbers added, and put my comments and explanation below it, keyed to those numbers.
Nothing is lost.
We are too sad to know that, or too blind;
Only in visited moments do we understand:
It is not that the dead return ---
They are about us always, though unguessed.
This penciled Latin verse
You dying wrote me, ten years past and more,
Brings you as much alive to me as the self you wrote it for,
Dear father, as I read your words
With no word but Alas.
Lines in a letter, lines in a face
Are the faithful currents of life: the boy has written
His parents across his forehead, and as we burn
Our bodies up each seven years,
His own past self has left no plainer trace.
The cells pass on their secrets, we betray them
Unknowingly: in a freckle, in the way
We walk, recall some ancestor,
And Adam in the color of our eyes.
Yes, on the face of the new born,
Before the soul has taken full possession,
There pass, as over a screen, in succession
The images of other beings:
Face after face looks out, and then is gone.
Nothing is lost, for all in love survive.
I lay my cheek against his sleeping limbs
To feel if he is warm, and touch in him
Those children whom no shawl could warm,
No arms, no grief, no longing could revive.
Thus what we see, or know,
Is only a tiny portion, at the best,
Of the life in which we share; an iceberg’s crest
Our sunlit present, our partial sense,
With deep supporting multitudes below.
Anne Ridler, 1994
We don't begin the day we were conceived, much less the day we were born. That which makes us ourselves can be traced back from generation to generation, all the way to the first. That enduring human legacy, because it includes sin and sin’s dire consequences, robs us of joy and insight. Nevertheless, moments of understanding occasionally pierce our sad blindness: We realize that, in some profound way, the departed have not departed at all. They have not left and then returned to visit. They were here always, though unrecognized.
Our departed loved ones remain with us by many means. Perhaps a quick glance over an old letter, containing a loved one’s favorite Latin quotation, reveals their presence. But it doesn’t seem enough, and regret follows: “alas.”
The mention of lines in a letter brings to mind other lines that reveal the presence of the departed, this time lines in a face: You have your mother’s eyes, your grandfather’s chin, your dad’s forehead, your grandmother’s smile. And even though the cells in our body get wholly replaced every seven years, the physical legacy endures. Passing time not only fails to eradicate the presence of our forebears and their legacy, sometimes the older you get the more the resemblance emerges.
The legacy within us, the legacy that is us, shows up in ways we do not recognize: freckles, an awkward gait, red hair -- and sin, always sin.
I remember traveling to Switzerland for the first time, to the villages of Attelwil and Moosleerau, from where my ancestors came. My relatives there could not help but notice and to remark about how looking at me was like looking again at my grandfather Adolph and my great-grandfather Johannes, whom the oldest ones knew and remembered. “You even walk like them!” they exclaimed. My presence was, at least to them, the presence of my ancestors. “Nothing dies,” Ridler says.
We ourselves are a recapitulation, a slideshow, of all those who came before us, and who remain within us, and who have helped to make us, both good and bad, what we are.
Even if the enduring legacy of our ancestors within our very bodies were to fail, they still would continue in our love, "for all in love survive." And when you see and touch a loved one, you see and touch in that loved one those who came before and those who will come after, even though they feel it not.
Call it “the iceberg principle of life:” Below and beyond the surface that we present to the world, there lies a multitude of lives and persons that lift us up and keep us afloat. It is the natural conservatism of human life that we receive a legacy from our forebears, preserve it, and pass it on.