Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Kindertotenlieder

There are few things in life more heart-rending than the death of innocent children.

It happened far more frequently in earlier times, of course. But that only makes it more difficult for us to cope when something like the tragedy in Newtown occurs, with twenty 6- and 7-year-olds gunned down by a madman. One minute they were alive, their eyes bright with eagerness, lives of limitless possibilities ahead of them. The next they were lifeless, lying in pools of blood, irretrievably lost to those who brought them into the world and loved them beyond measure.

But cope we must, each in his own way.

When the great German poet Friedrich Rückert lost two of his children to scarlet fever in the 1830s, he wrote a total of 428 poems called Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”). Five were later set to music by Gustav Mahler, among the greatest of song cycles.

When the coke and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick lost his oldest child, Martha, at age 6, he bore her death with the stoic acceptance that Victorian social mores expected. Afterwards he never mentioned her, except once a year, on her birthday, when he would quietly tell his family, “Martha would have been so-many years old today.” Many years later, when a Pittsburgh savings bank that specialized in accounts for children collapsed, Frick quietly made up the losses of the young depositors. On each of the checks he sent them was engraved the picture of his own irrecoverable loss, Martha.

William Allen White, owner and editor of the Emporia, Kansas, Gazette, was one of the most prominent journalists in the country in the early 20th century, the voice of small-town America. His daughter, Mary, died at age 16 in a horse riding accident in 1921. He personally wrote her obituary for the Gazette, an obituary reprinted throughout the country and anthologized ever since, one of the most famous pieces of American journalism ever written.

Perhaps its last paragraph can give comfort to those twenty families who grieve in Connecticut today:

A rift in the clouds in a gray day threw a shaft of sunlight upon her coffin as her nervous, energetic little body sank to its last sleep. But the soul of her, the glowing, gorgeous, fervent soul of her, surely was flaming in eager joy upon some other dawn.