Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Interpretation of Poetry

No Coward Soul Is Mine | Emily Brontë

This poem from Emily Brontë resonates more each time I read it. Here we have a woman of great intellect who daily faced the male-dominance of her generation. Not that things have changed that much. In fact, because dominance can be rather polite these days, it can also be more difficult to maintain a clear female voice.

Dominance doesn’t mean domination. Rather, it’s an invitation to step up to and into full humanity, in full voice, with full right to my own open and informed outlook on things theological.

Saying this is easier than living it. In addition, I don’t know all the ins and outs of Emily’s life. I do, however, know this poem grows more powerful for me every time I read it.

One note on Emily’s use, in the third stanza, of a male pronoun. I suggest this was intentional, given the overall theme of the poem, and her life as the daughter of a clergyman.

No Coward Soul Is Mine

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me has rest
As I Undying Life, have power in thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though Earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And thou were left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou are Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed

From selected poems of Emily Brontë, pp. 40-41
Published in Everyman’s Library by Alfred A. Knopf, 1996
© 1996 by David Campbell Publishers Ltd., sixth printing

Praying for each of you a spirit-animated Sabbath rest, and vision as immense as Emily’s “Almighty, ever present Deity.”

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 18 January 2020
Image found at wikipedia.org; from a portrait of all three sisters, painted by their brother Bramwell

Tell me tell me | Emily Brontë

Here’s a Monday poem from our other Emily. My comments follow.

Tell me tell me

Tell me tell me smiling child
What the past is like to thee?
An Autumn evening soft and mild
With a wind that sighs mournfully

Tell me what is the present hour?
A green and flowery spray
Where a young bird sits gathering its power
To mount and fly away

And what is the future happy one?
A sea beneath a cloudless sun
A mighty glorious dazzling sea
Stretching into infinity

From selected poems of Emily Brontë, p. 28
Published in Everyman’s Library by Alfred A. Knopf, 1996
© 1996 by David Campbell Publishers Ltd., sixth printing

In this little poem, Emily Brontë asks and answers three questions, each from her childhood point of view. Emily was the 5th of 6 children. She was 3 years old when her mother died of cancer. I don’t know what age she had in mind when she wrote the poem.

The first stanza is about her past. I’m surprised she’s smiling. Yes, the answer points to a lovely ending to a beautiful Autumn day. At the same time, she hears the sound of mourning, already in the air. Winter is coming.

The second stanza is about the present (her childhood present). I’m not sure whether the ‘spray’ is water, or the combined effect of leaves and flowers shooting up from the ground. Perhaps she’s in a meadow or beside the sea (which appears in the final stanza). In either case, a young bird is getting ready to leave the nest and fly away. No hint of mourning in the air.

The third stanza is about the future. By now (in the poem), the child is happy. No hints of mourning, regrets, or the agonies of adult life. And yet this seems the most painful stanza of all despite its happy ending. Perhaps it’s a small window into the hoped-for trajectory of Emily Brontë’s life, and a cautionary note?

I identify with this childhood dream. Once I flew the nest, I believed all would be well. Even the ‘small’ bumps in the road would, in the end, seem like nothing. Little did I know….

And yet this poem isn’t morose. It invites me to remember and hold close my childhood dreams. Not all will come true. Yet there’s that “mighty glorious dazzling sea stretching into infinity.” Who knows what yet will be? In life or in death.

Cheers!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 January 2020
Photo found at wickipedia.org

Landscape | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s daily walk around the pond offers a small sermon of sorts. My comments follow.

Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky—as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

c. 1992, Mary Oliver
New and Selected Poems, Volume One, p. 129
Published by Beacon Press

Imagine you’re part of a sheet of moss covering the ground. Often small and unassuming except to students of mosses. Some might say you’re hardly worth noticing, even though the pond and the woods wouldn’t be what they are without your patient presence. Doing what you do best.

Or maybe you’re one of those towering black oaks offering food and shelter, in life and in death, to birds and small animals. Part of an ecosystem as fragile and beautiful as spring flowers.

Does nature have a heart? Mary suggests the crows have been thinking all night about the kind of lives they would like to live. Perhaps imagining “their strong, thick wings” and then bursting into flight at daybreak. Doing with gusto what they’ve already imagined they might do.

Life isn’t simply about the way we imagine ourselves. It’s also about keeping the doors of our hearts open, and going for it every day of our lives. Welcoming each day no matter what it brings. Doing what we do best, with spiritual patience, fragile humility, and hearty gusto.

Looking to the New Year, I want the doors of my heart to be open—no matter what each day brings. I know it’s a tall order. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be worth much, would it?

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 December 2019
Photo found at etsy.com

The Work of Christmas | Howard Thurman

This post from 23 December 2017 has had over 1000 visits, most of them this month. It’s as true today as it was back then–perhaps even more so, given the state of our current disunion. I hope you find Howard Thurman’s poem encouraging and challenging. 

This week I received a lovely Christmas note with a poem by Howard Thurman on the front. Howard Thurman (1899 – 1981), was a key figure in the life of the USA during the 20th century. Thurman was an author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was also an early leader and mentor in the nonviolence movement that shaped and included Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here is Thurman’s poem, followed by a few comments.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among all,
To make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman, from The Mood of Christmas, p. 23
Published and copyrighted by Friends United Press, 1985

The work of Christmas isn’t about enjoying or returning gifts we received, feeling good about giving money to charities, getting on with the thankless work of putting away the decorations until next year, or writing thank you notes. In fact, it isn’t even about telling everyone the story of Christmas.

Rather, it’s about embodying it. Being and becoming the good news announced with the birth of Jesus Christ.

  • We, the lost now found, are to find other lost women, men and children. We the broken, the hungry, the prisoners, the residents of war-torn nations, the restless, the aggrieved, the disappeared—we are to pass along what we have received. A reason to hope, and a measure of peace in the midst of strife.

This isn’t about hoarding things for ourselves. It’s about making haste to share peace and hope that passes all understanding. Not with stingy hearts, but extravagantly. Making music in our hearts that spills over into our relationships and communities. Not always happy music, but music that tells the truth, especially when the truth isn’t pretty.

I’m praying I’ll find renewed peace and hope for myself, along with you, and new ways to do the work of Christmas in this coming year.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 23 December 2017, reposted 24 December 2019
Image found at examiner.com.au

Making the House Ready for the Lord | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver makes it simple, true and easy. My comments follow.

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice—it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances—but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

© Mary Oliver 2006
Published by Beacon Press in Thirst, p. 13

Yesterday I was bemoaning wisps of cat hair floating in every corner; cardboard boxes piled high, waiting for old give-away books; kitchen gadgets and pots looking for a new home or sitting in the sink waiting to be cleaned.

Not that I expect the Lord to visit–though that isn’t an impossibility. This is about regular people who come to our door unannounced. Why shouldn’t things be neat and tidy? After all, I’m retired, and have all the time in the world to keep up appearances!

Mary Oliver’s poem makes me laugh at myself. I’m not a collector of vagabond mice, squirrels or lost dogs. However, for years I’ve collected books, kitchen gadgets and small bits and pieces of arty stuff. Which collects its own stuff called dust.

Unannounced visitors put me to the test. Am I ready to receive the Lord? Maybe this is stretching it, but if I’m not ready to receive the Lord just as I am, I’m probably not consciously ready to receive anyone just as I am.

Even so, truth be told, I’m always ready, whether I think I am or not. In fact, when the Lord or any one of you arrives and comes into my house, it will be ready. Living proof of my priorities, my weaknesses, my loves, my memories and my hopes. All of me. What more could you, or the Lord, ask for?

Cheers!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 November 2019
Photo by JSLeesPhotography found at Flickr.com
Red Fox, Alonquin, Canada

When I Am Among the Trees | Mary Oliver

Here’s a Happy Monday poem for everybody. My comments follow.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

© 2006 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Thirst, p. 4

Today it’s sunny, bright, very cool, and breezy. I’m just back from a morning walk beneath and near trees, many towering toward the sky.

If I were an older tree right now, I’d be cowering close to the ground. Hoping no one would notice how many leaves I’ve lost, or how bent and even broken my branches are. And did you see those ugly thick roots protruding farther from the ground when the green grass turns brown?

On the other hand, maybe passersby will see how beautiful my remaining leaves are. Or listen to the music of the wind dancing around my chilly bones. Or notice that more light flows through and from my gnarly branches when those pesky, preening leaves are long gone.

I love this poem. Though it seems to have spring, summer and autumn in mind, it works for winter as well. Especially when the wind whips through iced branches, bouncing off fragile twigs and sturdy green needles. To say nothing of new snow covering everything in a down comforter.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Happy Monday!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 November 2019
Image of Beech Trees in Autumn found at thurmanovich.com

Morning Poem | Mary Oliver

No “orange sticks of the sun” this morning. Just rain, gusty wind, and the nonstop sound of water draining from the gutters. Nonetheless, Mary Oliver’s poem invites me into a world waiting with open arms. My comments follow.

Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches –
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries in it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead –
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging –

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted –

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

© Mary Oliver, 1992, in New and Selected Poems, Vol. One, pp 106-07
Published by Beacon Press

I don’t have to feel happy and upbeat every morning. This poem isn’t about how I feel. It’s about what I’m already being offered, and what I already need no matter how I feel.

I don’t even have to pray. The gift is already there. Ready and waiting for me to discover it. The answer to what I’ve always wanted. The world re-created overnight. Wild and beautiful. Carrying on with or without me. An answer to a prayer I never even prayed.

I’m encouraged when I think about Mary Oliver’s life. She left everything in order to make a life for herself. One day at a time. Heading upstream. One small observation at a time, plus a few words ‘thrown together.’ Mary Oliver lived what she wrote, and wrote what she lived.

No magic wand or mantra can make it all come out right. Still, each morning we’re offered the gift of another day. Plus imagination to look beyond the heaviness of today, and see that dark pond of water lilies blazing with color.

Praying you’ll have a glimpse of blazing lilies today.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 October 2019
Photo found at etsy.com

A Bitterness | Mary Oliver

This poem by Mary Oliver hooked me a few months ago. I think it’s about her father. In Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary describes what she did in order to have a life of her own. This included taking a different route in life than her father took. In this poem, she describes his life as she understands it after his death.

A Bitterness

I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
I believe music had to be melancholy or not at all.
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.

© by Mary Oliver in 1992; published by Beacon Press in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, winner of The National Book Award; poem found on p. 43

I wonder what Mary Oliver’s father would say about this description. It strikes me as a perceptive and honest lament. This is the father she left in order to save her own one precious life. It’s also the bitter man who never found the comfort he craved.

In the last lines, Mary Oliver points to the strange disconnect between his ‘cold and dreamless’ world (in life and in death), and the beautifully wild yet peaceful flowers now covering the ground above his coffin. The contrast couldn’t be more painful.

As a young girl, Mary Oliver endured brutal mistreatment from her father. Her poem entitled “Rape” leaves no doubt. Nonetheless, Mary Oliver’s relationship with her father didn’t disappear. She comes back to it in several poems in this collection.

In this poem, she points to a sad irony about her father. Here he rests, “cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.” Clueless about what he missed in life and, even more painful, what he missed in his daughter’s life. All because of his undying bitterness.

The poem reminds me of my father, and the circumstances that shaped his outlook on life and on me. What poem might I write about my father? What might be his identifying characteristic? If not ‘bitterness,’ then what? And how does that affect me today?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 September 2019
Photo found at fineartamerica.com

I Worried | Mary Oliver

Here’s a prose poem from Mary Oliver, written in her later years. My brief comments follow.

I Worried

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And I gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

© 2010 by Mary Oliver
Published by Beacon Press in Swan: Poems and Prose Poems

Ironically, I found this poem in the front pages of Katy Butler’s book, The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life. It seemed a strange way to begin a book that helps navigate end of life decisions. Are you tired of working on this or that document, or making choices about things that may or may not happen? Just go out into the morning, and sing whether you think you can sing or not!

Which is exactly what I’m learning to do. No, it doesn’t come naturally. Worry comes naturally, sometimes dressed up as Work I must accomplish today. Not for a paycheck, but perhaps to ensure my peace of mind?

Yet even all the completed medical and other documents duly signed and filed in their appropriate places can never ensure full peace of mind. Sometimes I need to get outside my list-driven environment, enjoy the day and sing.

A calm mind. Most appropriate in a distressed world over which we have limited control.

Happy Monday to each of you, with a prayer for those living in distress this day and night, and calm courage to reach out as we’re able.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 September 2019
Photo found at pixabay.com

The Journey | Mary Oliver

Is Mary Oliver talking about herself in this poem? What do you think? My comments follow.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

© Mary Oliver, reprinted in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 114-15, Published by Beacon Press 1992

The first time I read this poem I was puzzled. Instead of writing directly about herself, Mary seems to be writing to someone else. Or to a past version of herself?

This poem was first published in 1986 in a collection called Dream Work. The current collection includes 18 poems from Dream Work. They focus on Mary Oliver’s personal life. Not a subject she’s particularly thrilled to write about. And yet….

Without her personal story, it’s possible to think Mary Oliver enjoyed a charmed life of wandering in the woods. Visiting ponds and streams. Watching foxes, fish and birds. Lying in fields of Spring flowers. Making notes in her hand-made notepads. Living a magical life in her chosen world that celebrates nature, beauty in the presence of death, and the perfectly sad and glorious ending of each season.

Wrong. Mary Oliver worked hard to ‘save’ her life. She left home. Literally. She walked away from her father’s abusive behavior, and from voices that incessantly cried out for her to mend their lives. Death followed by what? Nothing?

This poem celebrates Mary’s decision to make a clean break. It also celebrates what she found along the way. Something she didn’t even know she had: a life of her own and a voice of her own.

For that alone, I’m grateful. I’m also challenged to keep listening for my own voice in unexpected places.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 August 2019
A Dark and Stormy Night, by Warren Criswell, found at saatchiart.com

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