Life: We Can Only Know Our Own Moment In It

Life: We Can Only Know Our Own Moment In It

admin / January 14, 2019

All poetry is about life, since all of us are in life. However, some poems seem to take a step back and view life as a phenomenon capable of being analyzed, rather than merely responding to the sensations of living. The following poems all take this grander view to some degree.

They comment on and ask questions about what life means, and what significance the events of an individual life, or the life of the human race, possess. Some accomplish this by looking at life from its inception, for example, Our Birth is but a Sleep and a Forgetting, and I Cannot See the End of the Lake. Others examine life from the position of its end, as in The Future, First Fig, and Eternity.

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A few survey the full scope of life in between, as is explicitly done in Jacques monologue from As You Like It. They also achieve this greater perspective by focusing on moments of decision, for example in Just Around the Riverbend, or The Road not Taken. Still others take on life’s times of great stress, as is done in Life is at a Standstill. The uncertainty of life is a constant theme, especially emphasized in Don’t Miss It, and Mystery of Life.

We live in a world filled with all kinds of uncertainty today, and poetry has always hinted at those things which are too terrifying or too confusing to be put into prose. The violence, the change, the threats, as well as the enormous possibilities, that fill the news are easy to project onto all these poems, even those written hundreds of years ago.

Title: Don’t Miss It

Some lives are joyous, bright, and brief,

Some drag to a most welcome end.

Some are sustained by deep belief,

Some by parent, lover, friend.

Life holds mystery past the bend,

Off’ring threats, or honors prized.

Look back to see where we should wend,

So mistakes are not reprised.

Death’s our end, be not surprised;

Best to grasp life right this minute.

Death, embraced, feared, or despised,

Best to live, ‘ere we are in it.

The future is a great unknown,

Whatever ‘tis, it is our own.

(Don’t Miss It 2010)

In this poem, the author reminds us that, whether short or long, pleasant or trying, life is brief. We should learn from our past mistakes lest we repeat them. The poet tells us that life warrants taking advantage of it, since, “it is our own”, rather than letting it waste away worrying about death.

Eternity

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

William Blake

(Blake 2010)

This brief poem cautions us not to become overly attached to anything in this life. We are especially encouraged not to hang on to those peak moments when we become aware of our connection to the universe. This poem reflects a profound understanding of the way we occasionally can feel ourselves at one with the cosmos. These moments are what mystics work towards for a whole lifetime. This is a mystery of life that we can hope for, but never guarantee. The poet reminds us that if we try to make this feeling last, we destroy our chance to appreciate it. “Eternity’s sunrise” is, of course, a contradiction in terms, because eternity lasts forever. However, the image, as paradoxical as it is, is effective. It gets across the promise that the sensation of being immersed in eternity will last longer if one just allows it to happen rather than obsessing about it.

First Fig

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —

It gives a lovely light!

(Millay, First Fig 2010)

The poet’s biography tells us that she was a notoriously independent spirit. Her whole life was very unconventional in many ways (N.A. 2010). She lived as she wished and was very productive artistically, leaving behind hundreds of poems and other works. In this poem, she seems to be challenging anyone who would criticize her for the reckless and rebellious choices she knows she has made. Millay addresses “my foes” first, because they are the ones that gossip, natter, and pass judgment the most. She knows the end of her story – there is no mystery in life ahead for her! She has done more in one lifetime than several other women put together. Her candle, indeed, will burn out, and earlier than necessary. However, she is proud of what she has created before that untimely end. Her art has shed a “lovely light” on those around her flame, and those of us reading many decades later.

I Cannot See the End of the Lake

I cannot see the end of the lake,

Standing here hip deep in the chill water,

The kayak rocking quietly beside me

Sunnies nipping at my mosquito bites

I know it must end,

whether in a dam or a trickle,

Or this would be named a river!

‘Round that curve gouged out and clawed

By ancient glacier shouldering aside the weaker rock,

Is the water flat and studded with the suns of bull-nose lilies?

Has a beaver family drowned the birches and left upright stumps,

Sharp and disturbing as the remnant of a tooth under a cap?

Or is there a cottage filled with the tumult of children

Scampering out to hail me, as I paddle close to their dock?

I cannot see the end of my life,

Standing here in youth

The future lying round the bend

Of years, of hurt, of love, of joy

I know it must end,

must change, must transform,

Or I would not be human

(Olds 2010)

The lake, like life, does not reveal its end from our perspective. Moreover, that life can take many surprising forms. It could be effortless, like the flatwater expanse of lilypads, or difficult to navigate, like the beaver-dammed water, or it could be filled with human joys and love. In any case, the author encourages us to accept that human life will be filled with change and events both happy and sad.

JAQUES, From As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like a snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(Shakespeare 2010)

Shakespeare carries the listener through the whole of life in this poetic monologue. With his usual flawless observation skills, he describes the physical and behavioral manifestations of our movement from birth to senescence. Of course, not all of us are going to experience all of these stages or roles in the way he outlines, since half of us are female, and many of us will never be soldiers “bearded like a pard”, or judges, “With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances”. Even the sure hand with which he draws the arc of advancing age cannot tell us, however, what events will transpire in our own uncertain lives.

Just Around the Riverbend

Stephen Schwartz

What I love most about rivers is:

You can’t step in the same river twice

The water’s always changing, always flowing

But people, I guess, can’t live like that

We all must pay a price

To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing

What’s around the riverbend

Waiting just around the riverbend

I look once more

Just around the riverbend

Beyond the shore

Where the gulls fly free

Don’t know what for

What I dream the day might send

Jut around the riverbend

For me

Coming for me

I feel it there beyond those trees

Or right behind these waterfalls

Can I ignore that sound of distant drumming

For a handsome sturdy husband

Who builds handsome sturdy walls

And never dreams that something might be coming?

Just around the riverbend

Just around the riverbend

I look once more

Just around the riverbend

Beyond the shore

Somewhere past the sea

Don’t know what for …

Why do all my dreams extend

Just around the riverbend?

Just around the riverbend …

Should I choose the smoothest curve

Steady as the beating drum?

Should I marry Kocoum?

Is all my dreaming at an end?

Or do you still wait for me, Dream Giver

Just around the riverbend?

(Schwartz 2010)

The narrator in this lyric is aware that her future could go in several directions, depending on her own actions, and the chance occurrences just out of sight. She knows that she is different from her fellows in wanting to go farther and see more “round the riverbend”. She asks, “why do all my dreams extend”?. She is at a decision point in her life, and she senses that more is possible for her than the obvious choice would determine. Here the lyricist encourages us to take risks and not take the easy way.

Life is at a standstill

Praveen

it has been never been like this,

not quite sure of what i want

don’t know what more that i need to do,

feels like a soul devoid of life;

one moment my joy knew no bounds,

a new beginning is what i got,

a new meaning to a lonely existence,

i was happy;

as reality dawned on me,

i felt my happiness come crashing down,

all in one big thud, i wondered

if my luck was anything but bad;

i try to find a reason,

i try to find a cure,

i tried all that was possible,

but it feels as if my life has come to a standstill;

i don’t want to give up,

i don’t want to cave in so easily,

so i am desperately plotting my revenge

against a life that has become mundane;

(and take control of it once and for all

before i lose my sanity and question my very existence)

(Praveen 2010)

In this online posting, the author rails against and questions the imponderable and sudden misfortune of her life. She is fighting against not just bad luck but a sense of ennui as well. While this poem may be the complaint of a bored teenager who has just had a social setback, “her happiness come crashing down”, it could just as easily be a response to a truly devastating set of events. In any case, the author is prepared to fight back, “desperately plotting my revenge”.

Mystery Of Life

No one can tell what will happen tomorrow

For life is a journey of joy and sorrow

Where no one gets to sleep on the roses

Where no one sees what life really posses

Because every moment that is due to come

carries in it the mysterious sum

Where things are both good and bad

And things are all painful and glad

Comes in and knocks at your door

Because that’s why in your life is store

And that’s why no one can forsees tomorrow

For life is a mystery has both joys and sorrow.

Seema Chowdhury

(Chowdry 2010)

This poem by an online author reminds us that life’s mystery contains both the sweet and the bitter. The author also makes the point that we are all equally ignorant of the outcome of our lives. While not perfectly grammatical or even properly spelled, it captures the essential truth that we cannot predict how life will treat us. We can try to put two and two together all we want, but we will not come up with the “mysterious sum”.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: (from Ode. Intimations of Immortality)

William Wordsworth

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,

He sees it in his joy;

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended;

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

(Wordsworth 2010)

Wordsworth gives us here a mix of joy and sadness. He suggests that we come into this world accompanied by something spiritual, and connected to something immeasurably far above and beyond our daily routines; the “trailing clouds of glory”. However, he also tells us that as we become adults, we lose this connection with the spiritual” home” we came from. In his imagery, we move, like the sun, from the mysterious and tender dawn to the full “common day” of life and of the spirit. This is actually a very biologically astute insight, since we know that the brain changes and evolves as we grow, and that our understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy develops only after we are several years old. Wordsworth describes the adult mind as a “prison house”. This glorious imagery gives the reader the sense that all around are things unseen, but beautiful; a welcome notion in the face of the terrifying uncertainties of life.

The Future:

Leonard Cohen

Give me back my broken night

my mirrored room, my secret life

it’s lonely here,

there’s no one left to torture

Give me absolute control

over every living soul

And lie beside me, baby,

that’s an order!

Give me crack and anal sex

Take the only tree that’s left

and stuff it up the hole

in your culture

Give me back the Berlin wall

give me Stalin and St Paul

I’ve seen the future, brother:

it is murder.

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions

Won’t be nothing

Nothing you can measure anymore

The blizzard, the blizzard of the world

has crossed the threshold

and it has overturned

the order of the soul

When they said REPENT REPENT

I wonder what they meant

When they said REPENT REPENT

I wonder what they meant

When they said REPENT REPENT

I wonder what they meant

You don’t know me from the wind

you never will, you never did

I’m the little jew

who wrote the Bible

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall

I’ve heard their stories, heard them all

but love’s the only engine of survival

Your servant here, he has been told

to say it clear, to say it cold:

It’s over, it ain’t going

any further

And now the wheels of heaven stop

you feel the devil’s riding crop

Get ready for the future:

it is murder

Things are going to slide …

There’ll be the breaking of the ancient

western code

Your private life will suddenly explode

There’ll be phantoms

There’ll be fires on the road

and the white man dancing

You’ll see a woman

hanging upside down

her features covered by her fallen gown

and all the lousy little poets

coming round

tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson

and the white man dancin’

Give me back the Berlin wall

Give me Stalin and St Paul

Give me Christ

or give me Hiroshima

Destroy another fetus now

We don’t like children anyhow

I’ve seen the future, baby:

it is murder

Things are going to slide …

When they said REPENT REPENT

(Cohen 2010)

This poem deals with much more than just life, or even the mystery of the future, and, in fact, suggests that the entire universe is on the verge of some unknown change or destruction, or as Cohen puts it, “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions … “.

However, the poem offers the reader another way of looking at life’s chanciness, this time as a tiny mote in a whirlwind of huge, cosmic events. He uses religious imagery as well as references to current news to suggest this larger stage for human lives.

This is decidedly not a cheerful poem, but its global scope perhaps gives the individual some sense that they are not alone in their fears for the uncertain future, and that we are all going to experience these events together.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear,

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I marked the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

(Frost 2010)

Robert Frost

This poem conveys the uncertainty of life that we encounter in all our decision making. The quiet, birch-leaf-strewn road, happened upon at the height of autumn, may symbolize full adulthood. Autumn is a good metaphor for the point of life when many decision points are behind us. In adulthood, a person has made many choices: the spring and summer of life are past. The next steps the narrator takes will shape the remainder of his life.

We all choose, just as the poet does, whatever seems best to us, at the moment. We have limited information about our alternatives, no matter how we try to collect information to predict what will happen, just the way the narrator peers ahead, “ To where it bent in the undergrowth”.

The poem offers a subtle message that pursuing the more difficult alternative may have unexpected rewards. Granted, the road “less traveled by” has set the poet on a course about which he has mixed feelings. The narrator acknowledges that he will tell about this “with a sigh”, but he seems happy with the result.

The choice he selected, “has made all the difference”. This poem’s lyrical imagery reassures us to trust our good sense and judgment in the face of life’s uncertainties.

Works Cited

Blake, Willliam. “Eternity.” Poem hunter. 2010. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/eternity/ (accessed November 26, 2010).

Chowdry, Seema. “Mystery of Life.” Poem hunter. 2010. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/mystery-of-life-3/ (accessed November 26, 2010).

Cohen, Leonard. “Analysis: Future.” Leonard Cohen Files. 2010. http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/future.html (accessed November 26, 2010).

“Don’t Miss It.” Unpublished, 2010.

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” Poem hunter. 2010. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-road-not-taken/ (accessed November 26, 2010).

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “First Fig.” Academy of American Poets. 2010. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/160 (accessed November 29, 2010).

N.A. “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Academy of American Poets. 2010. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20233 (accessed November 28, 2010).

Olds, Cynthia. “I Cannot See the End of the Lake.” PostPoetryonline. 2010.
http://www.clickshappen.com/postpoetryonline/poetry.cfm?ID=26183 (accessed November 30, 2010).

Praveen. “Life Is At A Standstill.” Poetry of Life. 2010. http//www.poetryoflife.com (accessed November 26, 2010).

Schwartz, Stephen. “Just Around the Riverbend.” stlyrics. 2010. http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/classicdisney/justaroundtheriverbend.htm (accessed November 26, 2010).

Shakespeare, William. “Jacques.” monologue archive. 2010. http://www.monologuearchive.com/s/shakespeare_030.html (accessed November 26, 2010).

Wordsworth, William. “Our Birth is But a Sleep and a Forgetting.” 2010. (accessed November 26, 2010).

www.poemhunter.com/poem/eternity/
www.poemhunter.com/poem/mystery-of-life-3/
www.leonardcohenfiles.com/future.html
www.monologuearchive.com/s/shakespeare_030.html
www.poetryoflife.com/
www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-road-not-taken/
www.poetry-chaikhana.com/W/WordsworthWi/5Ourbirthisb.htm
www.poemhunter.com/poem/first-fig/
www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/classicdisney/justaroundtheriverbend.htm
www.clickshappen.com/postpoetryonline/poetry.cfm?ID=26183

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