“Wait without hope,” modernist poet T.S. Eliot advised in 1941. Mr. Eliot seems rather grim considering he wrote these words during history’s deadliest war: wait…without hope? Where was the rousing patriotism and “never give in” determination of Winston Churchill?
Though it might seem defeatist to “wait without hope,” waiting isn’t pessimistic— it’s practical. There are times in life— when you lose your life savings, when your mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, when your husband of twenty years leaves you— when waiting is all you can do.
No book is a more comforting companion in despairing times than Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s life-affirming letters to budding young poet, Franz Kappus. Suffering his own dark season of the soul, Kappus wrote seeking counsel. When we are in that morose and melancholy place, when the debilitating drizzle of depression drowns our will to go on, what— he wondered— did it take to live through the horror and the hopelessness to the other side, to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable darkness and find one small slant of light?
For Rilke, the answer was simple: have faith. We have to trust that— no matter how devastating the dark of winter— spring always arrives. If we simply wait, frost will melt, grass will grow, flowers will bloom. Or as Rilke so beautifully writes:
“You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.”
When we feel forsaken in the desolation of the desert, what does it take to go on? Anne Lamott, author of the much beloved classic Bird by Bird, contends we survive the wilderness by seeking shelter from the sweltering heat and searching for sources of water. That means finding comfort in the small things: a cup of chamomile tea, a morning stroll through a picturesque landscape or charming park. Poet of politics Rebecca Solnit urges us to simply do what we can. Rilke offers a similar suggestion. When Mr. Kappus confides he’s lonely and despondent, Rilke tells him to be kind with himself. Like a patient who has fallen ill, he needs to be nursed back to health:
“In you, dear Mr. Kappus, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like someone who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.”
No one is more tortured by this question than those who aspire to make art. In what is perhaps the loveliest book ever written about writing, Letters to a Young Poet, budding young poet Franz Kappus seeks the counsel of the great Rainer Maria Rilke. How, he wondered, could he know he was meant to be a writer? Like many aspiring artists, Kappus wanted validation: validation of his work, validation of his talent. Though over the course of their decade-long correspondence Rilke never confirmed his protege was an “artist” (I doubt the always humble German poet would imagine himself qualified to either grant or deny someone such a title), he did challenge Kappus to uncover answers for himself. How could Kappus know he was meant to put pen to paper? In a passage of elevating beauty and emboldening encouragement, Rilke asserts a writer is simply someone who must write:
“You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you— no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this strong, solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”
In our carrots-and-sticks culture, we’re driven by rewards: we work hard because we want to climb the corporate ladder and one day have a corner office; we diligently study Keats and Shelley— not because we genuinely care about Romantic poetry— but because we want an “A” in our survey literature course. But such extrinsic motivation has no place in art. Being an artist isn’t a job or career— it’s a calling, a fate bestowed upon us by the universe. If we find, as Kappus did, that we must create, we have an obligation to honor our gifts— even if our book never makes the New York Times bestseller list. “No one becomes an artist unless they have to,” the beautiful but murderous poet Ingrid reminds her daughter in the haunting White Oleander. Or as Rilke would say, being an artist is a cross a select few must bear:
“Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from the outside.”
Why do we feel pain? Evolutionarily, pain has been essential to our survival. When our Neanderthal ancestors suffered a brutal wound from a saber-toothed tiger or pricked their finger on a thorn, their pain receptors sent a message straight to their cerebral cortex: “Ouch, that hurts!” The result? Over many millennia, homo sapiens learned to associate pain with high-risk activities like hunting for caribou on the African veldt and chasing rabbits into a rose bush. Pain is a distress signal: when we hear the sudden shriek of its alarm bells, we know to stop. The child who ignores his mother’s warning and touches a hot stove, for example, will learn stove = burn. Pain is our body’s way of protecting us.
But when we’re crushed by the magnitude of a colossal loss like the death of a loved one or a terrible break up, we want one thing and one thing only— for the pain to stop. “When will it end?” is the most common question among the bereaved and brokenhearted. “A month from now? six months from now? a year?” We want to calculate grief with the certainty of a math theorem, to compress it into a manageable slot in our calendar.
“How long does it take to get over someone?” I surveyed friends and countless advice columns after I broke up with my boyfriend of ten years. Some proposed tired-and-true formulas: “Half the length of the relationship.” “Fuck,” I thought to myself, “that means I’ll be feeling this devastated/inconsolable/not-quite-normal for another five years!” Others offered concrete lengths of time as if grief were an independent rather than dependent variable in an algebra problem: “You just need a year,” several friends reassured me in the desperate dimness of our local dive bar.
Certainly a year was more bearable than five but it still sounded intolerable. How could I withstand another 365 days of pitying glances from concerned family and friends? How could I cope with another 365 mornings of an empty bed? How could I endure another 52 unoccupied weekends where there were once movie nights and day trips and dog walks? In short, how could I go on?
The pain of a breakup is so excruciating because mementos of our former lover are everywhere: on the quiet neighborhood street along our normal walking route, among heads of cabbage at the grocery store. I felt my boyfriend’s absence when I opened the wrinkled pages of a beloved book and found the Rilke poem he wrote inside the front cover, when I chanced upon a mug he bought me in the cupboard. Standing in my kitchen, a peanut butter jar might remind me of an affectionate nickname we had for each other, a bottle of Absinthe might call to mind our first trip abroad. Driving along the jagged cliffs of Highway 1 on a breezy spring day, I’d recall us cruising along the same road and stopping at the beach to watch the sunset on a similar day many years before. The copy of The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway on my bookshelf incited feelings of sorrowful regret (“Would I ever find someone that thoughtful again?” I wondered) while the succulent near my kitchen window reminded me of his passion for the outdoors. At certain times of the week when we had traditionally done things together, there was a tragic disparity between the blissful past and lonesome, loveless present: Friday nights brought back dinners at our favorite Korean restaurant; Saturday afternoons, long, leisurely strolls through the park; weekday nights, reading in the sort of companionable silence only possible when you’re deeply in love.
Sometimes the pain of losing my boyfriend was a dull ache; other times it was a steady, relentless throb. On some days, it was a sudden, sharp twinge; on other days, it was a punch to the gut. Occasionally my pain was only a minor inconvenience like the sting of paper cut; more often, it had the stabbing intensity of a knife through the heart.
During those terrible months, I just wanted the suffering to stop. I was tired of feeling wretched all the time, tired of bursting into tears at the sound of a song. I longed for warm weather, cloudless blue skies, fields of chrysanthemums but I was engulfed in a winter storm. Bitter winds whipped my skin, temperatures dropped. Would I ever again behold the blossoms of spring, I wondered, or was I eternally condemned to this dark season of the soul?
In his 1923 masterwork, The Prophet, poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran suggests spring always arrives even if winter feels interminable. Rather than bolt from pain— or desensitize it with familiar vices such as pills or Pap’s Blue Ribbon or promiscuous sex in cheap motels and grimy bathroom stalls— Gibran advises we accept the lessons it has to teach us. Pain not only enlarges our hearts, it makes joy possible:
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.”
When we experience grief or loss, the first thing we do is feel sorry for ourselves. “Why, oh why,” we cry melodramatically, “is this happening to us?” Shattered and stunned, we look to the cosmos and curse the cruel, sadistic gods. What did we do to deserve such an unfortunate fate? How could life so heartlessly take away our husbands and jobs?
Instead of collapse into self-pity, Gibran asks us to remember that our trials and tribulations are gifts— not punishments— from God:
“Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”
Poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran ponders this puzzling paradox in The Prophet, his 1923 masterwork. Though we often want to escape the pain of distressing emotions— despair, heartbreak, anger, sadness, grief— we have to endure the wilderness to eventually arrive at the promised land of happiness and healing. As Gibran writes, in order to experience the ecstatic elation of joy, we must first experience the despondency of sorrow:
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”
Which is more powerful: joy or sorrow? comfort and calm or angst and anguish? bliss or hell? Gibran contends joy and sorrow are not irreconcilable antipodes— they’re two corresponding, if opposite, halves of the same whole:
“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
Since God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, work has been understood as burdensome toil. Though the nature of work has changed over the centuries, our conception of work has largely remained the same since the Bible. Both the 19th century factory worker and the 20th century accountant understood work as a necessary evil: if they wanted roofs over their heads and food on their tables, they had to work, whether that be for 12 backbreaking hours a day in the wretched conditions of a soot-covered textile mill or for 40 hours a week staring at a screen in the mind-numbing monotony of a cubicle. As positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed in his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, we view work as “an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of our freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.”
But though the majority of us consider work drudgery, a job can be more than an obligatory occupation done to pay the bills: it can be an act of service, a demonstration of our deepest convictions, an expression of our truest selves.
In his timeless classic The Prophet, poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran argues we should reframe our attitude toward work. Why? Because when we dread Monday mornings at the office, when we spend our days shooting crumbled paper into trash cans and bitterly composing what we think are pointless emails, work feels futile. But when we work with love and devoted attention, when we connect what we do to a higher meaning, our labor— and our lives— seem more worthwhile:
“And all work is empty save when there
And when you work with love you bind
yourself to yourself, and to one another,
and to God.”
What, exactly, does it mean to work with love? For Gibran, working with love is working with a lover’s tenderness and an artist’s attention. Rather than hurry through mundane tasks, we should treat the commonplace chores of life as if they were consecrated. If we’re washing dishes at a restaurant, we should scrub each dish as if it were to be the place setting for a glorious banquet held in our significant other’s honor. If we’re brewing coffee as a barista, we should prepare each cappuccino as if it were a hand-crafted indulgence for our lover. And if we’re at our 9-to-5 office job, we should act as if we’re writing an expressive, heartfelt letter to our beloved— not just another humdrum email. As Gibran writes, working with love is:
“…to weave the cloth with threads
drawn from your heart, even as if your
beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even
as if your beloved were to dwell in that
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap
the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved
were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with
a breath of your own spirit.”
Labor can be a poignant expression of love. Through our work, we serve our fellow man: the farmer sows the seeds and reaps the harvest that feeds nations, the doctor heals the wounded and tends to the sick. Yet most of us begrudge work. Take a school teacher who views herself as a glorified babysitter. She loathes writing lesson plans and resents every Saturday night she has to decline an invitation to grade midterms. Eventually her students get the sense that she doesn’t care and they stop caring altogether. They read her perfunctory comments scribbled in embittered red ink on their terms papers and— rather than really reflect on how they can do better— only put forth the bare minimum of effort on their next paper. After all, why would they want to learn the Pythagorean theorem or Einstein’s theory of relativity, why would they devote the time and energy required to memorizing their timetables or composing a beautifully-crafted, logically sound essay, if their own teacher obsessively monitors the minutes until class is over? In some of the 20th century’s most breathtakingly beautiful prose, Gibran asserts bitterness transforms what could be a noble act of service into obligatory, much despised labor:
Relationships cannot complete us nor can they rescue or redeem. We might imagine love— to borrow the lovely words of Edna St. Vincent Millay— can “clean the blood” and “set the fractured bone”— but love cannot mend the broken soul. Despite prevailing myth, prince charming will never gallop in on a white horse and save us; we have to save ourselves.
And though we romanticize love as champagne and chocolate and roses, love is difficult, at times, unbearably so. For every romantic proposal of marriage, there’s a heart-wrenching divorce; for every declaration of undying devotion, a broken promise; for every tender kiss and affectionate nickname, a spiteful word and slammed door. Love demands we let down our defenses and allow another to penetrate the usually impenetrable fortress of our hearts. When we love someone, we’re essentially lowering a drawbridge so they can sidestep our moats. If we let them infiltrate our castle, we risk being heartbroken when they leave or otherwise betray us. Ultimately, to open ourselves to love is to open ourselves to loss. As the great Rilke once said, “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
The inherent difficulty of loving is what poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran explores in his breathtaking masterpiece The Prophet, a trove of wisdom on such timeless topics as joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, love and work. In one of his most beloved passages, Gibran implores us to obey love, though it always has the capacity to hurt:
“When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to
Though the sword hidden among his
pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he
crucify you. Even as he is for your growth
so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and
caresses your tenderest branches that quiver
in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and
shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred
fire, that you may become sacred bread for
God’s sacred feast.”
Since biblical times, man has imagined himself the almighty ruler of the universe. God, we believed, made us in his likeness and gave us dominion over sea and earth. Unlike the beasts and babes, he endowed us with disproportionately large brains. Over the course of our history, we’ve accomplished extraordinary feats from painting the Sistine Chapel to cloning sheep. Yet despite our impressive artistic and scientific achievements, we’re not all-powerful or all-knowing. No matter how hard we try to unravel the mighty mysteries of love, certain things will always lie beyond our control or understanding: we can never command passion or know why, exactly, we prefer brunettes to blondes. As Gibran reminds us, we’re not at the helm of our own hearts:
“And think not you can direct the course
of love, for love, if it finds you worthy,
directs your course.”
Gibran concludes with a list of commandments meant to embolden us to love despite its inseparability from loss. In matters of the heart, he argues, we should resolve:
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Back in November, I was terrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency. Today, I’m even more stumped at how such a man could conceivably win. Bigoted, racist, misogynistic, bombastic, narcissistic. Trump is a fear-mongering demagogue who deals in divisiveness and threatens to destroy the very foundations on which our democracy is built. If you could somehow get past his unconscionable proposals to ban Muslim immigrants and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, if you could somehow ignore his despicable behavior towards women, if you could somehow disregard the countless allegations women have made accusing him of sexual harassment and assault, how could you possibly ignore the fact that he doesn’t have the slightest clue as to how our government works? Trump is a business man, not a politician. While many right-wing nut jobs (looking at you, Sarah Palin) claim that’s his appeal, it’s only logical that a man with no experience in government would have a hard time in the White House. Unlike Clinton who proposed detailed, meticulous plans to reach her objectives, Trump only made vague promises during his campaign…and offered no concrete means of fulfilling them. Terrorism? ‘Ban Muslims!’ Immigration? ‘Build a wall!’ As J.K. Rowling so insightfully noted, Trumpism is synonymous with proposing “crude, unworkable solutions” to complex problems.
So how has this man rallied such passionate, borderline frenzied support? Trump’s ascendancy can no doubt be attributed to a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, a general feeling that the system is rigged against the little guy. Trump sticks an unrepentant middle finger at social niceties: when he’s not calling his opponent a “nasty woman,” he’s telling Access Hollywood how he “grabs women by the pussies.” Though such comments should be appalling, many Americans appreciate Trump’s particular brand of brash frankness. To those disillusioned blue-collar workers in Trump Land, the Republican candidate’s refusal to succumb to modern standards of political correctness is part of his charm. His reviling comments are even a badge of his honesty. “Look what he openly says about minorities and women!” Trump nuts must think, “he won’t pussyfoot around the issues!”
The kinds of people Trump attracts are just one of the many ironies of last year’s election season. Trump is a titan of the 1%, a New York City billionaire, not a self-made man but the product of generational nepotism, yet his campaign won the allegiance of millions of Trump soldiers from the lower middle classes. Why? Trump-of all people-won’t represent their interests; if anything, he’ll proceed to represent his own. In office, you can bet he’ll slash taxes for the rich and continue an onslaught of dangerous economic reforms that will line the pockets of the elite and make the poor poorer. Clinton has been a champion for the lower classes her whole career yet the white lower classes refused to vote for her. She’s “untrustworthy,” “dishonest,” “power-hungry,” they said. How, I wondered last November, how could people be so stupid? How could people so blindly, willingly, enthusiastically vote against their own interests?!?!
Because Trump stands as the master of the most effective political tactic of all: divide and conquer. According to Karl Marx, father of the communist movement, the ruling class protects its power by pitting the lower ranks against each other. Trump has been taking a play from the Hitler playbook all along. Like the infamous furor, Trump capitalizes on the fear and discontent of average men to garner support for his cause. And much like Hitler, Trump has found a convenient scapegoat to blame for all of America’s problems. Whether it’s illegal immigrants or possible terrorist Muslims, Trump exploits the blue collar, white American fear of the foreign other…and the particularly white fear of losing their long-standing power.
Trump campaigned on the promise to “make America great again,” a promise many have interpreted to mean once again make America white, racist and exclusionary. Like many of his conservative predecessors, Trump took advantage of a kind of widespread nostalgia, a yearning to resurrect our former national glory. And like many, he exploited the inherent ambiguousness of the term “America.” What does it really mean to be American? What is America? For the conservative, America is capitalist industry, rugged individualism, free markets; for the liberal, America is equality of opportunity, multiculturalism, diversity. What, exactly, America is remains open to debate: it’s a relative term whose meaning shifts depending on the dictionary.
Unlike Trump who yearns for an America long past, poet Langston Hughes believes America is a dream that has yet to be fulfilled. Though there’s a nostalgic quality to his longing (in the first line, he wistfully pleads, “Let America be America again” in a way that eerily echoes Trump’s campaign slogan), there’s equally a sense that America is an ideal we have yet to achieve. In what will become a pattern in the first third of the poem, Hughes punctuates the end of the first stanza with a parenthetical aside:
“America,” he confesses, “was never America to me” (Hughes 5).
Here “never” poses a logical contradiction: how can America be itself “again” if it “never” existed in the first place?
Hughes may employ the romanticized images of our national history-the dauntless “pioneer,” for example, settling the rugged, untrammeled frontier-but he does so to reveal them as mythos. Just as our history books conveniently rewrite the genocide of millions of Native Americans as the glorious fulfillment of manifest destiny, we cherish the American dream as truth when, for many, it’s nothing more than a fairy tale. Hughes’s parenthetical speaker reminds us of this unsettling fact. Though we pay lip service to democratic notions of tolerance and equality of opportunity, the fact that the speaker is syntactically ostracized by parentheses proves that “liberty and justice for all” ironically only applies to a privileged class.
One of Hughes’s many narrative talents is his ability to shift perspectives. Later in the poem, he adopts the voice of mainstream America, an America who’s shocked-even a little offended-that someone could make such a claim:
“Say who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?” (Hughes 17-18).
Here, the presence of italics indicates the intrusion of another voice, one we haven’t heard before. Because these lines are phrased as questions, we can assume they’re directed at someone. But who? Hughes’s choice of words might provide some insight. The people to whom the speaker refers are not expressing themselves loudly or confidently but “mumble” which suggests they’re silenced and marginalized. “Darkness” furthers this idea as those he addresses are literally rendered invisible by ignorance and denial. If we consider the context of the poem, it makes sense that the voice is responding to our earlier parenthetical speaker:
“There’s never been equality for me
No freedom in this ‘homeland of the free'” (Hughes 15-16).
For most Americans, the realization of their country’s hypocrisy is too devastating to bear. Who, they wonder, would draw such a “veil across the stars?” (Hughes 18). If stars are proud symbols of American patriotism, the fact that such accusations draw a “veil” across them implies America’s legacy of exclusion diminishes the speaker’s national pride. The word itself carries solemn connotations, evoking doleful images of attending a funeral. However, the only thing that’s died is our speaker’s aggrandized portrait of America. Turns out the “dream” he’s treasured so dearly is just that, a dream-it only exists in the abstract.
So “who,” to return to our earlier question, is our speaker addressing? who is “mumbling in the dark”? The answer comes in the following lines:
“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars
I am the red man driven from the land
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek” (Hughes 19-22).
For Hughes, it is the presence of the working-class man, the Indian and African American, that indisputably proves the American dream an enticing but ultimately untrue fiction. His use of Whitman-esque anaphora proves the defining feature of the stanza. Each beginning with the emphatic repetition of “I am” before listing yet another class barred access to the American dream, these lines reflect Hughes’s vision for his homeland. In much the same way that each line originates in the same place but ends in difference, in Hughes’s America, each person is bound by a common identity but permitted the freedom of their own distinct individuality. The poor white man, the Negro, the red man driven from his rightful home: though at the time this poem was published such minority groups were still struggling for self-determination, Hughes believed they had an equal right to sit at the American table. Today in the era of Trump, this same struggle continues. While Hughes’s America is expansive enough to accommodate a multitude of voices, Trump’s America seems terrifyingly restrictive.
But when the future of our nation seems bleak, as it does today, we must not despair. Rather we should remember Hughes’s rousing words: though he says it “plain” that “America never was America to me,” at the end of the poem, he swears a triumphant oath that “America will be!”
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
Prepared a sinister mate
For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
In his cool, philosophical poem “Convergence of the Twain,” Thomas Hardy meditates on the futility of acquiring material wealth. The poem opens in “a solitude of the sea” where the Titanic-Britain’s crowning glory and so-called “unsinkable” ship-came to rest over 100 years ago.
The remote, dark depths of the Atlantic serve as the setting for the rest of poem where the once magnificent testament to human will now sits at the bottom of the sea. A deeply inhuman environment, the ocean in Hardy’s poem represents mystery and darkness, a place where all things will be forgotten and eventually meet their end. This idea is reinforced in the second line when Hardy describes the sea as a place “deep from human vanity” (Hardy 2). The fact that the ocean is “deep”-or removed- from human vanity suggests pride and appearance have little meaning after death. In the next line, Hardy claims the “Pride of Life” planned the magnificent ship (Hardy 3). The aggressive capitalization of the word “Pride” proves the human belief in our own infallibility; however, our “plans” reveal themselves ludicrous when the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship, flounders and sinks 3 days after it sets off from London’s harbor. By personifying man’s plans to construct an indestructible ship, Hardy mocks the ridiculousness of such an endeavor as man’s ambitions mean little in the face of destiny.
Since her tragic demise in 1912, the Titanic has become a devastating symbol of man‘s hubris, or over-reaching. In the third and fourth stanzas, we witness the futility of man’s worldly power: “Over the mirrors meant/To glass the opulent/The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent” (Hardy 7-9). Here, mirrors-which were “meant” to house “opulent” jewels-now serve as playgrounds for sea-worms. Though they were originally intended to protect something beautiful, mirrors themselves are extremely delicate, which points to human life’s fragility. Both stanzas follow the same structure: in the first and second lines, Hardy outlines an object’s original purpose; in the third, he reveals the uselessness of that purpose now that the Titanic is rotting six feet under. That jewels-emblems of glamor and social status-now “lie lightless” suggests that lavish wealth is meaningless in the face of mortality (Hardy 12).
Syntactically, the poem’s immediate undermining of each object’s original purpose proves two things: 1) man is very intent on being in control and 2) the desire to be in control is not only impossible-it’s pointless. Though these stunning jewels were “designed” to “ravish the sensuous mind,” life interferes with those plans when the Titanic meets her “twin halve” and crashes into an iceberg (Hardy 10-11).
“If you want to make God laugh,” the old saying goes, “make a plan.” Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” is a cruel reminder of our inability to ever be fully in control. In fact, the only thing that seems to possess absolute governance in the poem is God, whom Hardy describes as the “Spinner of Years” (Hardy 31). Man might imagine himself as the subject of his syntactical destiny; however, it is God who appears over and over again as the actual one in power. In the sixth stanza, we see this image of God reinforced grammatically:
“Well: while was fashioning/This creature of cleaving wing,/The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything/Prepared a sinister mate/ For her — so gaily great” (Hardy 16-20).
Interestingly, the first line of the stanza is missing a proper subject. The sentence sounds so odd, in fact, one might think it’s a typo. However, Hardy intentionally drops the subject (man) to imply man is not a subject at all, but rather an object at the mercy of God’s will. Humankind may outwardly appear like a God (for instance, in these lines he fashions “creatures” much like God in the biblical origin story), but he nevertheless remains an object of the “Immanent Will.” God’s status as the only named subject in these lines hints at the overall moral of Hardy’s poem: compared to God, who is mighty and omnipotent, man’s ability to influence fate, it seems, is painfully limited.
Have been beginning my mornings by reading a poem from The 100 Best Poems of All Time, a lovely collection of classics my grandmother gave me years ago. Today, read Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Never been a big lover of Frost: his poems are too monosyllabic, too simple; I much prefer the lyricism of a Plath or Fitzgerald. But just so I don’t spent hours debating which poem to read, I turn to a random page and let the fates decide; today, I landed on page 129, Robert Frost’s classic. I had read this poem once before with a student but my memory was muddled. Reading it again today, I felt the familiar frustration of encountering Frost: the poem seems like the retelling of a man’s brief stop in the woods, nothing more. I feel the same way reading Hemingway. Though I can appreciate the groundbreaking cultural significance of Hemingway’s lean, athletic style, I myself am a traditionalist: a prefer writing to be poetic, lavish, adorned.
But in a way, simplicity is genius: though a piece by Hemingway or Frost may seem forthright and straight-forward, their simplicity usually conceals a far more complex machinery operating underneath. Take Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as an example. Reading it a couple of minutes ago, the poem seemed like an uncomplicated story about a man pausing to admire the beauty of a dark wood; however, upon closer examination, deeper themes revealed themselves.
If we investigate the rather plain title, we notice that the poem’s name immediately situates us in time and place: in the woods on a snowy evening. Taken alone, this doesn’t seem noteworthy; however, if we look closer, we’ll notice Frost doesn’t set his poem on any evening but a “snowy” one. Snow, and more generally the bleakness of a cold winter, universally represents death just as spring points to rejuvenation and renewal.
Though Frost’s poem presents itself as an accessible series of events-a man who craves to escape from the responsibilities of his ordinary life finds peace in a nearby wood-some scholars have theorized this poem carries a more sinister meaning and that the speaker is actually contemplating suicide and meditating on the nature of death. Such a reading finds support in several instances of the text: in the last stanza, for example, the speaker seems hypnotized by the enchanting forest, calling the woods “lovely, dark and deep” (Frost 13). The woods-like death- are made “lovely” by the very fact that they’re “dark” and “deep”, or removed from the commotion of civilization. Throughout the poem, our speaker longs for the quiet peace only death can offer, using soft, lulling words like “easy” and “downy” to describe the sounds of the restful wood beyond the lake.
However in the next line, the contrasting conjunction “but” indicates his affair with the snowy night is only temporary. No matter how enticing it may be to give up and surrender to the tranquility of death, the speaker realizes he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go” before he can metaphorically slumber. The repetition of “and miles” in the final two lines hints at the distance he still has to travel before he can meet death. Such an ending suggests our speaker has had an epiphany of sorts: though life can be disappointing, our speaker realizes the escapism embodied by suicide is ultimately irresponsible.
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.
In “Doing,” 1st century A.D. poet Petronius urges us to restrain our physical desire. The first lines portray “short pleasure” as the dirtiest and most depraved:
“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;/And done, we straight repent us of the sport;/ Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,/ Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:/ For lust will languish, and that heat decay” (1-5).
To put it in more modern terms, Petronius isn’t the guy who’d chug a beer, slur a brash, unromantic “want to have sex?” in your ear before fucking you in the fastest, most unimaginable way. No, he’d be a sensualist-the quieter, more amorous guy that understands seduction begins with mystery, with the withholding of gratification.
Ironically, in “Doing” the “doing” itself offers no lasting pleasure. If “doing” is a present participial verb representing eternal action, the actual consummation of desire (sex) is both “filthy” and “short.” Meaning improper and obscene, “filthy” portrays sex as sinful. But before you go assuming that Petronius was a prude who advocated for celibacy and chastity belts, we should make one thing clear: it is not visceral desire that Petronius so stalwartly rallies against-it’s the ways in which we approach sex. When we simply “do” sex like we would do a homework assignment, we miss the rapture and excitement real intimacy can afford.
“And done,” he laments, “we straight repent us of the sport.” Here, the religious word “repent” indicates such lovemaking is a serious sin against God worthy of profound regret. “Sport” further reinforces this image. Rather than depict sex as a blissful communion of both body and spirit, “sport” trivializes the act as if it were just another means of amusement. Such an attitude toward sex represents a devolution to our lower animal nature: like “lustful beasts” who possess no reason or rationality and simply rely on the impulse of their instincts, the man who sets out to merely fulfill his carnal longings will miss out on a whole other dimension of intimacy-he’ll have sex but no lovemaking.
For Petronius, the problem with lust is it doesn’t last: desire will “languish”; heat “decay”. Both words depict the consummation of sexual longing as intense but ultimately fleeting. To obtain the object of your desire, it seems, is disillusioning. It’s like The Great Gatsby. Though he’s spent years building a fortune in hopes of finally winning back Daisy, the long lost love of his life, when he finally attains her, he feels disenchanted: she was better off as the green light, a hazy, faraway ambition made appealing by its being inaccessible.
The only way for ardor to be sustained over the long-term, then, is for fulfillment to be postponed…at least for a little while:
“But, thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,/ Let us together closely lie and kiss,/ There is no labor nor no shame in this” (Petronius 6-8).
If a holiday is a magical time when one can temporarily vacate their life and take some time off, Petronius is asking his lover to indulge in a brief respite from the world. But their respite is not gratifying their fiery desires-it’s delaying them. Often once you attain the object of your desire, your appetite for them deteriorates; it is only the pursuit of longing that makes sex exciting-not its actual fulfillment. Petronius, the first master of seduction, was well aware of this. By deferring the consummation of their passions, he knows their relationship will remain a blissful honeymoon instead of disintegrate into the all-too-common convention of marriage as hopeless tedium.