artistic immortality

The whole world is talking about Michael Jackson’s death.  Twitter and Facebook and YouTube are full of fans who are mourning, and even people who were not fans, just musing on mortality and celebrity and legacy.  A friend of mine posted a status update on Facebook, wondering if artists ever face their mortality, or if they just think they will live forever, like their work.  I think she was reacting to what Madonna said about Michael Jackson’s death:

I have always admired Michael Jackson. The world has lost one of the greats, but his music will live on forever!

My friend, I know, is a Christian, and to her, I think, it’s a problem that people would not realize their own mortality. However, though I am a Christian, thinking on this statement and its implications, I suddenly realized I was seeing the statement through the eyes of an English major. Didn’t Shakespeare say something similar? Some quick Googling and I found the sonnet I was looking for. Though I’m sure Shakespeare addressed similar themes in other sonnets, the one I was thinking of was Sonnet XVIII, one of his most famous, though it is generally the first half that gets quoted:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Perhaps I’m reaching a bit to pull Shakespeare and Michael Jackson into the same post, but the idea of work living on long after its creator is gone is a longstanding theme in literature and art. And though I believe in an afterlife, and I don’t believe anyone is ever really gone, I also understand that in many ways, legends like Shakespeare and Michael Jackson never really die in the sense that their work, what we loved and knew of them, is always with us. You just have to pop over to YouTube today to see this on display– they have a collection of Michael’s videos on the front page, ready to be clicked by the millions who are mourning the King of Pop. So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, so long live the videos, and they give life to thee.

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