the pathless night | From a Old Soul
George MacDonald didn’t write Diary of an Old Soul for publication. He wrote it as his private journal, in the form of one sonnet per day of the year. It was his way of thinking and talking daily with and to his Lord.
The collection is held together by MacDonald’s personal struggle with health, money, death and seeming failure.
MacDonald lived with consumption. Chronic tuberculosis. Sometimes it had a dreadful effect on his lungs; other times it was less aggressive.
Though MacDonald was a congenial person, he lived a somewhat lonely life. Frequently he stayed at the seashore, away from his family and hometown. This was considered helpful for persons with consumption. Perhaps it was; it was not, however, a cure.
Financial worries troubled him most of his life. He often wondered how his large family would make it on so little income. As a clergyman he received limited income. It wasn’t easy to find a compatible church because of his health and some of his controversial beliefs.
The images in today’s sonnets are vivid, even unnerving. I wonder what MacDonald’s personal struggle was on these days. Regret? A sense of guilt? Shame? Anger? Perhaps all of this and more.
July 12 and 13
How suddenly some rapid turn of thought
May throw the life-machine all out of gear,
Clouding the windows with the steam of doubt,
Filling the eyes with dust, with noise the ear!
Who knows not then where dwells the engineer,
Rushes aghast into the pathless night,
And wanders in a land of dreary fright.
Amazed at sightless whirring of their wheels
Confounded with the recklessness and strife,
Distract with fears of what may next ensue,
Some break rude exit from the house of life,
And plunge into a silence out of view—
Whence not a cry, no wafture* once reveals
What door they have broke open with the knife.
George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul
Augsburg Fortress Press 1997
*wafture: a scent (for example) dispersed or carried gently (wafted) through the air, usually by a breeze, sometimes with a cupped hand (in cooking or chemistry labs, for example)
Here’s what I think is going on in these two sonnets.
- An unwelcome thought suddenly enters MacDonald’s mind and clouds reality. Doubt seeps in like fog; he can’t think clearly. The eyes of his mind sting, as though from the dust of a sandstorm. A violent explosion reverberates in his ears.
- Can MacDonald remember “where dwells the engineer” in charge of what feels like a run-away train? If so, he knows where to turn. If not, his worst fears may get the better of him; he might bolt right out the door and into “the pathless night.”
- Having bolted, MacDonald’s attention is fixed on his fears and the storms raging in his mind. Even worse, he’s now outside the “house of life,” lost without compass or map, completely on his own.
Imagine being in a vacuum surrounded by nothing but invisible silence. Driven by your fear of what might happen next. Clueless. Wandering in a trackless place, unable to find your way home.
Neither sound nor scent comes wafting through the air to help guide you back to the door broke open when you bolted. In fact, you seem to have run away from your only source of help.
MacDonald doesn’t say he’s jumping ship right now. Yet we know he has done this before because he knows what it feels like. Ironically, this gives me hope. My bolting and your bolting isn’t necessarily the end of everything.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 10 Oct 2015