Hope is pushed down/but the angel flies up again
“Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.”
Thomas Hardy’s “In the Time of the Breaking of Nations,” written in 1915 as World War I was breaking Europe, begins with simple images.
“Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.”
Already the theme of timelessness and hope beyond current conditions has entered the poem. It concludes:
“Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.”(1)
In such a time as now, with a pandemic ravaging much of the planet forcing us to limit our activities, it can be hard to find hope. We miss family members we are unable to visit, many of our plans have been cancelled, our libraries and favorite museums are closed, and even a trip to the store for essential provisions can seem like a perilous quest. At such a time, many turn to poetry for consolation. I hereby offer a few examples.
A near contemporary of Hardy, Edward Thomas writes of returning home after a long journey and suddenly feeling that he had always been there:
“'Twas home; one nationality
We had, I and the birds that sang,
They welcomed me.”
Nature in the form of birds is the first sign of home and the poem concludes on a human note:
“Then past his dark white cottage front
A labourer went along, his tread
Slow, half with weariness, half with ease;
And, through the silence, from his shed
The sound of sawing rounded all
That silence said.”(2)
It is not too great a leap to imagine this journey could be the inward one begun in isolation and uncertainty, T.S. Eliot hints at something similar in East Coker:
“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.”(3)
Despite the mystery, despite the complexity we carry on.
Emily Dickinson reminds us that we often underestimate our capacity to survive and even thrive:
“We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies —“
The poem’s cryptic second (and final) stanza implies that we could be heroic at all times if we could only overcome the fear of standing out:
“The Heroism we recite
Would be a normal thing
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King —“(4)
Like Eliot, contemporary American poet Jack Gilbert sees life as sometimes a difficult journey, yet hope continually arises:
“Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods.
Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt.
But there’s music in us. Hope is pushed down
but the angel flies up again taking us with her.”
We struggle, yet
“Our spirit persists like a man struggling
through the frozen valley
who suddenly smells flowers
and realizes the snow is melting
out of sight on top of the mountain,
knows that spring has begun.”(5)
Again, hope awaits us if we persist.
Finally, the father of American poetry, Walt Whitman, suggests that there is hope beyond temporal life:
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”(6)
Something of us remains in the memories and even lives of those that follow us.
I wish my readers health and safety in this difficult time. Take these poems and find your own hope and consolation in your own favorites or new discoveries. The very existence of poems and readers is cause for celebration.