05 December 2011

A Poem

I had a dove and the sweet dove died; 
And I have thought it died of grieving: 
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied, 
With a silken thread of my own hand's weaving; 
Sweet little red feet! why should you die - 

Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why? 
You liv'd alone in the forest-tree, 
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me? 

I kiss'd you oft and gave you white peas; 
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees? 

- John Keats (1795-1821) 

I want you to notice two things about this poem. First, its all-consuming tenderness. Second, its staunchly (albeit inadvertently) uncompromising realism. So far as I can tell, the narrator had no intention other than to describe exactly what he did, and exactly how he felt. Yet observe how unintended were the results.

I find the effect breathtakingly realistic. We all know how easily, sometimes, what imagines itself to be kindness can turn out to be the reverse: a "care" that's clumsy, confining, even unintendedly stifling of the creature we profess to love. Worst of all, it's the kind of thing that can happen in the most exasperating of moments: even, for instance, when we're doing our best to create what we hope and pray will be a kind of perfect environment, an atmosphere containing the utmost assurance of our care and affection.

So now let's suppose for a moment that human kindness to a mere bird could be something every bit as "cruel," so to speak, as the result described in this poem. Something so estranging from its peculiar paradise;  so exiling, in fact, from everything it calls home. As we all well know it can. Or at least we do in our moments of imagination and poetry, and sanity. But in that case, how much more cruel, I wonder, are those cruelties we humans inflict on each other that we know to be cruel, and yet persist in believing will issue in kindness? I don't mean just those blunders we very discreetly confine to our private homes or private lives. I mean certain very acceptable presumptions that enter into the most visible paths of our public life. Even, every once in a while, into those paths that we positively know - I mean, we're so sure we can practically taste it - will lead to greater profit, greater proficiency, greater progress. My question: If a mere bird's natural paradise be such, that no amount of human tinkering or fretting, worrying or interfering can add to (though it may well subtract from) its stature one inch, then how much more man-impervious, how much more God-dependent, is our paradise? How much more will He clothe us little ones, even despite our little faith?

"It's not that SIMPLE!" you rebuke me roundly and soundly. Fair enough. Certainly if we're to believe our modern dogmas, we humans thrive on limitless complexity; we can never get deep enough into the rat race (no doubt that's why so many Americans dream of endless wealth and early retirement). But what if our wisest modernity is wrong? What if our own Divinely human, lost yet lingering Eden be a place (of body and mind) both immeasurably richer, and unsearchably more complex - and yet simpler - than the simplest yearning of the most irretrievably urbanized pigeon?

I'm not saying we shall have nothing human to do, nothing of our own to contribute - even to those fragments or echoes of Eden yet residual to us in this life. What I'm suggesting, rather, is that even our most strenuous contributions will in no wise conform to our present notions and experiences of strain. What I envision is a kind of "work" so Divinely-natured, as it were - so Word-attuned, and Word-attentive, to the pleasures of even the simplest of that Eden's inhabitants - as to contain in it nothing whatever of a certain Grimness we all know well, having been on both its giving and receiving ends. Nothing whatever of that grimly anxious self-importance which, so often in this present life, makes our attempts at love so heavy and toilsome and tyrannical, both to ourselves and to others. In short, nothing of fret and fuss, of busybodied interference and manipulation.

Of course our own proper Eden may also be technological. In places the City may even seem, by our present puny notions, to be hypertechnological. Yet for all that, I can also imagine it being saturated throughout with a kind of once-and-future, primordially innocent simplicity. One that manages somehow, like the mustard-tree of the parable, to give hospice to living creatures of all sorts. Or even - by some Divine-human feat which for now we can only describe as miracle - to every kind of living thing? Yet without squeezing or straining any of  them (any more than we ourselves would want to be squeezed or strained). A simplicity that would, if anything, be far more trustful, far more childlike, than any such state as known to our first parents. And yet, perhaps for that very reason, all the more exquisitely molded to our original human clay and nature and calling. In short, all the more befittingly characteristic of that Adam who is both once and future: that one greatest, and yet most closely, most intimately God-dependent (Genesis 2:7), of all the visible earthly creatures of God.

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