When times are hard, is it helpful or appalling to read something and realise that times have been hard in the same way before (and therefore probably will be again)? Mostly, as you’ll know by now, I tend to think it’s helpful to read and know you are not alone; but when today’s poem presented itself for duty in my head, seeming apt for the times, resonant and gloomy, I did initially feel a bit droopier than I already had been. So, see what you think: do you feel droopier when you read ‘The Leaden Eyed‘ by Vachel Lindsay? (Note: in versions I’ve seen in print there is a stanza break between lines 4 and 5, which doesn’t appear in this online version.)
‘The Leaden Eyed’ evokes a world without dreams, meaning, hope. As the repetitions in the second stanza insist, it is not so much the matter but the manner of how things are which is so tragic. The poem is full of fear that the world as it is will lead to the ‘smother[ing] out’ of ‘young souls”—a fear much like that at the heart of MacNeice’s magnificent, passionate ‘Prayer Before Birth’ (which you can hear here or read here). ‘The Leaden Eyed’ seems to have been published in the 19-teens (can’t find an exact date, sorry), and ‘Prayer before birth’ was first published in 1944, so given that both were written in the shadow of war it’s perhaps not surprising that they share a mood of dread and ominousness.
And I suppose these poems feel resonant because it is impossible not to know that there are many ‘leaden-eyed’ in the world at the moment: those who have not had a fair crack at things, to say the least—the disenfranchised, the silenced, the unrepresented, the lost, the disillusioned, the powerless… those who have had enough of how things are but may not have energy enough left to protest. Reading the news it’s sometimes hard not to wonder whether there are any dreams left to dream at all.
But as I continued to sit with this poem it came to me that both the Lindsay and the MacNeice are written from outside the “dreamlessness”. They only exist because the authors have a desire for things to be different, and an awareness of what they do not want. Rueing the reality they see, they still retain a sense of how things might be other: the poems themselves carve out that small space in which to stand and from which to look around at what still might be, instead of the grimness of what currently is. And that space, small enough to be sure, is a place where “dreams” and ‘gods” and ‘reap[ings]’ and ‘deeds’ may still exist, blaze brightly… Perhaps this is yet another way that poetry can be a ‘lifeline’ or ’emergency’lantern’, as Libby Purves described in that article we looked at last year.
And, thinking that, I felt less leaden. That is part of the point of art, surely: to make a place for us to remember—to imagine—how things might yet be different.