Poetry and Poets: April 2006 Archives

Theodore Roethke--In a Dark Time


I've been thinking about this poem for much of the afternoon. A friend and I were talking about Paul's "thorn in the flesh" and for some reason, this came to mind. I've probably posed it before, but here it is again.

In a Dark Time
Theodore Roethke

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks--is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

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Little Surprises Everywhere


Reading Eliot's Four Quartets: East Coker prior to reading Howard's study of the East Coker section of the poem. I stumble onto this very interesting, very surprising passage.

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

The entire poem is a meditation on time (among other things). Here is an interesting moment of becoming "unstuck in time." When I first encountered "In daunsinge" I was ready to run for the dictionary again (Eliot can do that to one.) And then I read"signifying matrimonie," and I started to be clued in. With "A dignified and commodiois sacrament" I knew that I had been transported back into time, most likely to the glorious 17th century, the century of Eliot's beloved metaphysical poets.

Eliot can do that to one, can turn one around and deliver new shocks and surprises in the language. It's both the pleasure and the panic of reading Eliot. Is this a new word, is this made up, or does this have some other meaning? The answer might be all three at once. And yet the poetry is tight and strong and far more interesting that those who followed in imitation, because Eliot still had something to say. Most of his imitators do not.

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One Thing I Ask

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Some psalms are so transcendentally beautiful that there is nothing more to be said:

from Psalm 27

There is one thing I ask of the Lord,
for this I long,
to live in the house of the Lord,
all the days of my life,
to savor the sweetness of the Lord,
to behold his temple.

(in the tumid translation of the present Liturgy of the Hours)

One thing have I desired of the LORD,
that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD,
and to enquire in his temple.

4 One thing have I desired of the LORD,
which I will require;
* even that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to behold the fair beauty of the LORD,
and to visit his temple.

One thing I have asked of the Lord,
this will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life.
That I may see the delight of the Lord,
and may visit his temple.

One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD,
and to inquire in his temple.

One thing I ask of the Lord.
this one only favor is the desire of my heart
that all the days of my life
I will live in the house of the Lord, my God,
that I will ever behold His beauty
and linger in the spaces of His temple.

One thing. One thing.
The only One thing--
the one thing that matters.
God and God alone,
my heart, my life,
my hope, in the time
before me and in the time
that is out of time.
Ever to be His,
to attend upon Him in His every desire,
to be the servant of His servants
and to praise Him with glad cries.

Oh my savior God
that you might take me for yourself
and honor me by your Lordship
and accept the nothing I can bring.

One thing I ask,
to be yours forever.

Let me set you as a seal
upon my heart, as a seal
upon my arm,
let my heart know no
other but you.
My Lord and my God.

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Ahem! The Teacher Speaks

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I have noted that while there is great concern with matters of universalism and other such esoteric issues, the masses are curiously silent on the Subject of T.S. Eliot. I get the impression some of you may not have done your homework or may not have been listening closely!

Seriously, though, if you wish to read a very important piece of modern poetry and have a well-versed person to assist you in analysis of it, you need to look up Thomas Howard's book. It will give you an opportunity to drop T.S. Eliot's name in your favorite poetry slam, cocktail party, or office luncheon gathering!

In the silence that ensues drop a sewing pin and test the cliché.

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Being a lunchtime fantasia borne of reading Thomas Howard/T.S, Eliot and listening to Josh Turner at the same time.

Thomas Howard provides a very nice commentary to Eliot's poem, but there are points at which I think things are glossed in such a way as to convey a less full sense of the language in the poem. The following is an excerpt from the first of the Four Quartets, "Burnt Norton."

from Four Quartets
T.S. Eliot

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Hauntingly beautiful lines, that Howard does an excellent job of starting to unpack. (Of course he's writing a commentary to a point he's not going to unpack everything for us. Where I think there is a slight faulting is in Howard's analysis of "smokefall."

from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

And what's this "smokefall"? There is no such word. No: but Eliot, the poet ("makers" is what Aristotle called poets), can make up the word, and none of us need be in any confusion as to what it means. High noon? No. Rosy dawn? No. The quivering heat of mid-afternoon? No. It is twilight, probably the most apt time for this sort of haunting vision.

I think this is partly true. But I think smokefall is also a reference to the timeless eternity of the blessing with incense. Perhaps at twilight, whose very atmosphere conveys the sense of smoke falling, but certainly as the altar is censed, and certainly as the people are censed, and as the Holy Relics are censed, there is smokefall with its blessing of the sense of smell, that momentary transport of eternity--a fragmentary blessing that blesses us even in the recollection of it.

I think smokefall suggests this moment in the draughty Church as much as it suggests twilight. Perhaps I read too much into it, but given the context of the rest of the poem, it fits nicely.

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In the previous entry on Universalism, I made what might be a tactical argument in approaching the argument from the negative side. What I hope to present here is the mirror image. The two are of a piece, but they say things in somewhat different ways and perhaps clarify the point of what I was trying to say.

The beginning of this post is in the three below. When we consider God's Sovereignty, God's emeth and hesed and the "power in the blood," things seem to come together in a pattern. To me the pattern suggests that God is reluctant to let anyone go. That is, rather than the great and unmoved judge (which He also is) He is the God who goes out seeking His people and inviting them back.

When I think about sovereignty and emeth and hesed, I think about a fundamental commitment to all of His people. When I concentrate on these aspects of God, I am left to wonder how many people have the strength to resist God's grace. Yes, it can be resisted, but God is the importunate widow for most of us--He accosts us right and left, day after day, every day, every hour, every minute, until we give in. It takes a great deal of resistance to be able to resist so long.

So what I have is not an argument, although on both sides of this issue one could compile scriptural references and quotes from the Fathers and any number of other "proofs" until the cows come home. Ultimately, we must go on what we know about God. If our vision of God is that of a Father, the father who welcomes the prodigal, we might be hard-pressed to envision how such a father would not go to all extremes to assure the safety and integrity of His children. That is not to say that all people will return the Father's love--I will never deny that it is possible. But when someone is wooing you every day of your life, every moment of every day, when someone is completely interested in every aspect of your life and existence, completely devoted to you and to your salvation, it is going to be difficult to escape Him.

Francis Thompson said it rather well.

from "The Hound of Heaven"
Francis Thompson

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat -- and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet --

"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."

It's a negative way to think about it, but here is the divine stalker, the one who pursues and will not lose the object of His desire. However, this is not stalking as we know it, because the end of this is rapture in eternity. Does the Hound of Heaven capture every fleeing soul? Perhaps not, but given His strength, His knowledge, His power, and His endless self-giving love, it is my belief that it is a very rare and extraordinary soul who manages to escape this much attention.

Hence, we have not so much an argument as an intuition. It could be wrong. But the image it gives me of God is one that allows me to love God more because I see how much care and love He has lavished on me and on all the people around me, all of whom flee--some at a greater rate than others. The God I see in this is one who prizes each one of us so much that the loss of one is unthinkable. It puts me in mind of the Father who sacrificed everything in His Son to bring us back to Him.

Ultimately it puts me in mind of the fact that I am not grateful enough for so generous a God. My love fails, but His does not. And with enough time and with grace, His love becomes my own.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from April 2006.

Poetry and Poets: November 2005 is the previous archive.

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