Reading the emotion-laden and moving interview given by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew to the New York Times and published on the Internet on Saturday about his present life, watching over his comatose wife and talking to her about his day’s activities, I can’t help but be reminded of three poems.
First is Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, second T S Eliot’s Four Quartets and last is Shelley’s Ozymandias.
Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Extracts from Eliot’s Four Quartets:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Extracts from MM Lee’s interview titled:
Days of Reflection for Man Who Defined Singapore
“SO, when is the last leaf falling?” asked Lee Kuan Yew, the man who made Singapore in his own stern and unsentimental image, nearing his 87th birthday and contemplating age, infirmity and loss.
… in these final years, he said, his life has been darkened by the illness of his wife and companion of 61 years, bedridden and mute after a series of strokes.
“I try to busy myself,” he said, “but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days we were up and about together.” Agnostic and pragmatic in his approach to life, he spoke with something like envy of people who find strength and solace in religion. “How do I comfort myself?” he asked. “Well, I say, ‘Life is just like that.’ ”
“What is next, I do not know,” he said. “Nobody has ever come back.”
Always physically vigorous, Mr. Lee combats the decline of age with a regimen of swimming, cycling and massage and, perhaps more important, an hour-by-hour daily schedule of meetings, speeches and conferences both in Singapore and overseas. “I know if I rest, I’ll slide downhill fast,” he said.
And yet, he said, he sometimes takes an oblique look at these struggles against age and sees what he calls “the absurdity of it.”
“I’m reaching 87, trying to keep fit, presenting a vigorous figure, and it’s an effort, and is it worth the effort?” he said. “I laugh at myself trying to keep a bold front. It’s become my habit. I just carry on.”
His most difficult moments come at the end of each day, he said, as he sits by the bedside of his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, 89, who has been unable to move or speak for more than two years. She had been by his side, a confidante and counselor, since they were law students in London.
“She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night,” he said. “She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day’s work, read her favorite poems.” He opened a big spreadsheet to show his reading list, books by Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll as well as the sonnets of Shakespeare.
Lately, he said, he had been looking at Christian marriage vows and was drawn to the words: “To love, to hold and to cherish, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse till death do us part.”
“I told her, ‘I would try and keep you company for as long as I can.’ That’s life. She understood.” But he also said: “I’m not sure who’s going first, whether she or me.”
At night, hearing the sounds of his wife’s discomfort in the next room, he said, he calms himself with 20 minutes of meditation, reciting a mantra he was taught by a Christian friend: “Ma-Ra-Na-Tha.”
The phrase, which is Aramaic, comes at the end of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, and can be translated in several ways. Mr. Lee said that he was told it means “Come to me, O Lord Jesus,” and that although he is not a believer, he finds the sounds soothing.
“The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts,” he said. “A certain tranquillity settles over you. The day’s pressures and worries are pushed out. Then there’s less problem sleeping.”
The stress of his wife’s illness is constant, he said, harder on him than stresses he faced for years in the political arena. But repeatedly, in looking back over his life, he returns to his moment of greatest anguish, the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, when he wept in public.
Younger people worry him, with their demands for more political openness and a free exchange of ideas, secure in their well-being in modern Singapore. “They have come to believe that this is a natural state of affairs, and they can take liberties with it,” he said. “They think you can put it on auto-pilot. I know that is never so.”
The kind of open political combat they demand would inevitably open the door to race-based politics, he said, and “our society will be ripped apart.”
A political street fighter, by his own account, he has often taken on his opponents through ruinous libel suits.
He defended the suits as necessary to protect his good name, and he dismissed criticisms by Western reporters who “hop in and hop out” of Singapore as “absolute rubbish.”
In any case, it is not these reporters or the obituaries they may write that will offer the final verdict on his actions, he said, but future scholars who will study them in the context of their day.
“I’m not saying that everything I did was right,” he said, “but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”
And although the leaves are already falling from the tree, he said, the Lee Kuan Yew story may not be over yet.
He quoted a Chinese proverb: Do not judge a man until his coffin is closed.
“Close the coffin, then decide,” he said. “Then you assess him. I may still do something foolish before the lid is closed on me.”
A version of this article appeared in print on September 11, 2010, on page A7 of the New York edition.