When I was a kid, I hated poetry. Too obscure, and too much obsession with rhyming, I thought. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one with no poets pining behind the pine trees.
Over time, however, I’ve come to see poetry’s value. Good poetry is about life, the stuff of universal human experience, but distilled into concrete, specific moments. It is a window into the human heart: what do we believe, feel, long for, fear, crave?
Take, for instance, the most universal of all human experiences: death. What is it like to face death, to know it’s coming next just as surely as an appointment on your calendar? And what does that experience say about what we’re made of, who we really are? Here’s one approach from the poem Invictus by William Earnest Henley.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Don’t speed read it! (Hint: “speed” and “poetry” are words that go together as well as, say, ketchup and peanut butter.) Read it carefully. Let its message bring you up short. You can summarize this poem’s approach to death in one word: defiance. It’s raw; there are no filters on the poet’s words. Master. Captain. Unafraid. Isn’t this one hard-boiled, extreme expression of Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his one way”?
There’s another way, however. Consider the poem Even Such is Time by Sir Walter Raleigh:
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust.
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust!
If Invictus is defiant, Even Such Is Time is dependent. It’s about the same human experience, but Raleigh stands – we might say, kneels – on a totally different viewpoint. The sorrow of death is vividly portrayed – remember, Scripture calls it the last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26) – but rather than despair or defiance, this poem leads to confidence. Earth, grave, and dust do not have the last word. That right belongs to the God who raises the dead.
Two poems. Two diametrically opposed viewpoints. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is only about the end of life. Every human trial, every human struggle, ultimately contains either defiance or dependence at its core. Does God exist for me (whatever gods may be?) Or do I exist for God, whatever the story of my days may be? That is the essence of the moral drama we wake up to each morning. That is the drama you are living out even now. Defiance or dependence. Unbelief or faith. Pride or humility. Which will it be? Perhaps, we might even say:
Two roads diverged ‘neath a cross of wood…
Photo by Lydur Skulason