That is the title to a profound poem written by Mary Mapes Dodge, author of children's literature and editor of the children's magazine St. Nicholas.
How heartily do those of us who feel we have glimpsed within our breasts a promise of something beyond this life mortal veil sense that life does have ultimate meaning.
But believing is not knowing. We feel we are faced with two profound mysteries: What is death? and what is life?
Dodge's poem was inspired by an item in the New York Tribune concerning a scene at a wake for the young nephew of poet Walt Whitman.
As the beloved youth lay in his coffin, close by in a great chair, Whitman was holding a young girl in his lap. The girl could not quite comprehend the scene of death before her but looked questioningly into Whitman's face.
"You don't know what it is, do you, my dear?" the poet said. After a pause he added, "We don't either."
How true. And how challenging the words Mary Mapes Dodge wrote:
We know not what it is, dear, this sleep so deep and still;
The folded hands, the awful calm, the cheek so pale and chill;
The lids that will not lift again, though we may call and call.
The strange, white solitude of peace that settles over all.
We know not what it means, dear, this desolate heart-pain;
This dread to take our daily way, and walk in it again;
We know not to what other sphere the loved who leave us go,
Nor why we're left to wonder still, nor why we do not know.
But this we know: Our loved and dead, if they should come this day--
Should come and ask us “What is life?" not one of us could say.
Life is a mystery as deep as ever death can be;
Yet, O, how dear it is to us, this life we live and see
Then might they say--these vanished ones--and blessed is the thought,
"So death is sweet to us, beloved! though we may show you naught;
We may not to the quick reveal the mystery of death--
Ye cannot tell us, if ye would, the mystery of breath."
The child who enters life comes not with knowledge or intent,
So those who enter death must go as little children sent.
Nothing is known. But I believe that God is overhead;
And as life is to the living, so death is to the dead.
I don't know. I honestly don't know. But I do know I could not bring myself to look into the face of a grieving person and offer that this life is it and has no meaning beyond just marking time. The honest answer is that we are faced with two great mysteries.