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Mary Elizabeth Frye: Poetry, Analysis and Bio

Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905-2004) was an American poet who remains known today almost exclusively for a single poema curtal sonnet of just twelve lines―and yet it just may be the most popular poem in the English language!

"Do not stand at my grave and weep" is a consoling Holocaust poem and elegy with an interesting genesis, since it was written by a Baltimore housewife who lacked a formal education and had quite possibly never written poetry before, and certainly none of note. When her mysterious sonnet was named Britain's most popular poem in a 1996 polldespite not having been one of the critics' nominations!an unlettered orphan girl had seemingly surpassed all England's ivory towerists in the public's estimation. Although the poem's origin was disputed for some time (it had been attributed to Native American and other sources), Frye's authorship was confirmed in 1998 after investigative research by Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist better known as "Dear Abby." The version of the poem below was published by The Times and The Sunday Times in Frye's obituaries on November 5, 2004:

Do not stand at my grave and weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

ANALYSIS. Frye's sonnet is a bit of a rule-breaker! Most English sonnets have fourteen lines, but hers has only twelve, making it a curtal sonnet. Most English sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, with ten syllables per line, but hers is written mostly in loose iambic tetrameter, or perhaps irregular meter, with mainly eight syllables per line. Only line seven has the traditional ten syllables. Furthermore, Frye's sonnet is written in unorthodox rhyming couplets―known as heroic couplets―with the rhyme scheme AABBCCDDEEFF. The opening and closing couplets consist of imperatives in eight monosyllables, which give them a note of authority: DO NOT stand at my GRAVE and WEEP, / I am NOT there; I DO NOT SLEEP / ... DO NOT stand at my GRAVE and CRY, / I am NOT there; I DID NOT DIE. The other lines have softer, more consoling sounds, with their images of swirling winds, glistening snow, ripening grain, gently falling autumn rain, birds rising in quiet flight, and stars shining softly at night. The poem seems to function in three distinct parts: (1) I am not in my grave, so don't weep for me there. (2) Here are the encouraging places where you can continue to find me. (3) I reaffirm that I am not in my grave, nor am I dead, so don't weep for me there.

Here is a printable version of the poem: Mary Elizabeth Frye's "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep" which is not copyrighted and is thus in the public domain. Frey never copyrighted the poem because she believed that it "belonged to the world."

Facts about the Poem and Mary Elizabeth Frye
compiled by Michael R. Burch

An earlier version of the poem, believed to be the original or closer to it, appears at the bottom of this page. The poem is sometimes referred to as "I Am" because of the repetition of the biblical phrase within the poem.

A 1996, a Bookworm poll resulted in 30,000 "write in" votes for the un-nominated poem, making it Great Britain's favorite poem, from "out of blue nothing." The poem has been read at funerals and other memorial services, including those for the Challenger space shuttle, the Lockerbie bombing and the 9-11 terror attack on New York's twin towers.

The poet was born Mary Elizabeth Clark in Dayton, Ohio on November 13, 1905. She was orphaned at age three and moved to Baltimore when she was twelve. Although she had had no formal education, she was an avid reader and possessed a remarkable memory. She married Claud Frye in 1927, becoming Mary Elizabeth Frye. He ran a clothing business while she kept house and grew and sold flowers. 

Frye wrote the poem in 1932. As far as we know, she had never written any poetry before, but the plight of a young German Jewish woman, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who was staying with her at the time, inspired her. Her young houseguest had been deeply concerned about her mother, who was too old and crippled and ill to leave Germany, but she was unable to go to her mother's aid because of the rabid anti-Semitism that was erupting into what later became known as the Holocaust. When she received news that her mother had died, the heartbroken young woman told Frye in despair that she had never had the chance to “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear.” Frye found herself composing the poem on a ripped-off section of a brown paper shopping bag. She said that the words “just came to her” and expressed what she felt about life and death. When she showed the poem to her young charge, she prized it greatly, saying that she would keep it forever.

Frye circulated the poem privately. Because she never published or copyrighted it, there is no definitive version. Frye continued to write, often to support animal charities, but none of her subsequent work matched the impact of her first piece. It was her first poem, written in a burst of compassion, that endured and became famous. The poem was first introduced to many Britons when it was read by the father of a young soldier, Stephen Jeffrey Cummins, who had been killed by a bomb in Northern Ireland. The soldier's father read the poem on BBC radio in 1995 in remembrance of his son, after having found it in an envelope addressed "To all my loved ones" in his son's personal effects.

Mary Frye died on September 15, 2004, at age 98. In its obituary The Times wrote: "The verse demonstrated a remarkable power to soothe loss. It became popular, crossing national boundaries for use on bereavement cards and at funerals regardless of race, religion or social status."

There is an illustrated book of the poem with ink drawings for each line.

To coincide with National Poetry Day 1996, the British favorite book program, the BBC's Bookworm, conducted a poll to discover the nation's favorite poems and "Do not stand at my grave and weep" was one of the most favored poems. As Geoff Stephens explained, "In 1996, BBC TV's Bookworm ran a competition to discover the nation's favorite poems, which were published in The Nation's Favourite Poems (BBC Worldwide Books, 1996). Auberon Waugh called it 'the best popular anthology ever printed in Britain.' In the book's preface, 'almost apologetically,' editor Gryff Rees-Jones states: 'the unexpected poetry success of the year from Bookworm's point of view … provoked an extraordinary response … the requests started coming in almost immediately and over the following weeks the demand rose to a total of some thirty thousand … its origins remain a mystery. In some respects it became the nation's favourite poem by proxy and, despite it being outside the competition, we have decide to include it here, in prime, first past the post, poll position.'"

The version immediately below was taken from page 62 of a memorial service document for the United Spanish War Veterans service held at Portland USA, on 11 September 1938 (the '40th Encampment') published by the US Congress in early 1939. The text is:

Do not stand at my grave and weep, 
I am not there—I do not sleep. 
I am the thousand winds that blow, 
I am the diamond glints in snow, 
I am the sunlight on ripened grain, 
I am the gentle autumn rain. 
As you awake with morning's hush 
I am the swift-up-flinging rush 
Of quiet birds in circling flight. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry, 
I am not there—I did not die.

The text below has been said to be the original version of the poem. While it is speculative to suggest that a poem "came from God," the Hebrew name for God, YHWH, is believed to mean something like "I am" or "I am that I am" ...

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am in a thousand winds that blow
I am the softly falling snow
I am the gentle showers of rain
I am the fields of ripening grain
I am in the morning hush
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight
I am the starshine of the night
I am in the flowers that bloom
I am in a quiet room
I am the birds that sing
I am in each lovely thing
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there I do not die

Frye never copyrighted the poem, which leaves it in the public domain. Her explanation: "I thought it belonged to the world; it didn't belong to me. I still feel that way … it was written out of love, for comfort. If I took money for it, it would lose its value ... maybe I'm a nut." Of course the contraction "I'm" is yet another "I am."

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