When you are dead, when all you could not doThis is "Failure" by Laurence Housman, from Green Arras (London, 1899). It is the sixth poem that Lawrence wrote out in Minorities, his pocket book of blank pages.
Leaves quiet the worn hands, the weary head,
Asking not any service more of you,
Requiting you with peace when you are dead;
When, like a robe, you lay your body by,
Unloosed at last, — how worn, and soiled, and frayed ! —
Is it not pleasant just to let it lie
Unused and be moth-eaten in the shade?
Folding earth's silence round you like a shroud,
Will you just know that what you have is best: —
Thus to have slipt unfamous from the crowd;
Thus having failed and failed, to be at rest?
O, having, not to know! Yet O, my Dear,
Since to be quit of self is to be blest;
To cheat the world, and leave no imprint here, —
Is this not best?
This poem might not seem to fit all three of Lawrence's selection criteria: a work by an author who lacks greatness written in a minor key and having a lyric quality which makes it sing. It is certainly dark and it does sing nicely, but this younger brother of A.E. Housman was, in his time and Lawrence's, great in the sense of well-known and widely-respected. However, his greatness as an author derived from his success as a playwright, not poet.
Although Lawrence liked the poem a great deal, he detested the final verse. He wrote to his friend Charlotte Shaw that "it grizzles and mizzles, and is a feeble bleat." (Source: Jeremy Wilson, editor of Minorities)
Minorities, by T E Lawrence; ed. by Jeremy Wilson (London, Cape, 1971).
A.E. Housman (1859 - 1936)
Authors and I, by Charles Lewis Hind (New York, John Lane company, 1921)