one of those lanterns

Feb 27, 2020 poetry appreciation

It might seem a bit strange to claim “lantern-hood ” for this poem, which insists on the necessity of experiencing the dark “properly”; that is to say, without light. But it’s true. This short piece by Wendell Berry (like a lot of his stuff) shines a light for me, and helps me carry on walking. Read it here.

In some ways it’s a very simple poem. Most of the words are monosyllables. The first two sentences are short and linear, while the relative complexity of the third sentence mirrors the sense of ‘bloom[ing]’, of discovery, which the text describes. The simple aabb rhyme scheme holds the whole lightly together, allowing the ear to anticipate the uplift of ‘wings’ in the final line. Berry uses the word dark five times in four lines. It chimes insistently through the text. The message is clear: as soon as you take any kind of light into the darkness, you’re not experiencing darkness. You’re experiencing light. You can’t fake this one. If you don’t do it thoroughly, you’re not doing it at all.

But ‘know[ing] the dark’ is one of those things which sounds simple yet isn’t easy. In the second volume of his autobiography, Clive James claims that ‘safe danger is always the best kind, if you can get it’. I know what he means. It’s hard to choose real pain, fear, suffering, despair. They’re not fun. You’re really on the line. But Berry offers us an important reminder here: that there are gifts, ‘blooms and s[o]ngs’ in the darkness; that there is movement and life in it— the ‘dark feet and dark wings’—if only we can steel ourselves and cope with our fear long enough fully to encounter darkness. Trust experience, it says, no matter how hopeless it may seem. There’s something deeply positive about this poem, but not at all in a Pollyannish way. It absolutely acknowledges difficulty, but insists that it is not pointless or, ultimately, utterly unredeemed.

How hopeful this poem is. Small but mighty, it keeps me company in the cold; is its own kind of light in the darkness.

2 thoughts on “one of those lanterns”
    1. Yes, I can see why this was brought to your mind. I didn’t know ‘Bavarian Gentians’ – thank you for introducing me to it. I did smile, though – couldn’t be anyone else but Lawrence, could it?!

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