the wheel of fortune

Feb 18, 2021 poetry appreciation

I just love it when a poem from another time or place “reaches” me: suddenly I’m in relationship with someone from another age or culture, often someone whose bones are long since turned to dust. Ain’t that something? Last week a poetry magazine I read had Robert Southall’s* ‘Times go by Turns‘ printed under the Editorial, and I had just that experience of remote connection: I felt less alone—comforted by being accompanied, by seeing what is common and constant in human experience. See if the poem does it for you, too.

I hear the voice in this poem as so modest, so calmly realistic, so accepting: not uplifted by wild hope, nor downcast by wild despair, just acknowledging that “the wheel turns” and everything is subject to change. The notion of the Wheel of Fortune (no, I wasn’t channelling Nicky Campbell) seems to have arrived in Western thought in the Mediaeval period and was still current when Southall was writing. The idea was that fate/Fortune was the main determinant of a life’s course so that, as Fortune’s wheel spun, those who rose would fall and vice versa. (Of course you could never know where the wheel would stop…)

Part of what reaches me about this poem is that it’s a reminder that people are always trying to make sense of human experience. We may not come to the same conclusions, but we’re still trying to work out What It’s All About. And while I can see that the passivity and powerlessness implied in the notion of the Wheel of Fortune might sit uneasily in current Western culture—we’ve all been encouraged to believe that we can do/acquire anything if we just work hard/drink green smoothies/repeat our affirmations/get our Cosmic Orders in—I also experience ‘Times go by Turnes’ as a soothing reminder that no-one is really in control of anything much at all. No-one has everything, whatever their Bookface page may look like. This really takes the pressure off, I find.

And I absolutely love where the poem leaves us: stopped for a moment, perhaps, by the fact that ‘Few all they need, but none have all they wish;/ Unmeddled joys here to no man befall’ but in the end contented by the reminder that ‘Who least, hath some; who most, hath never all’. Aren’t they great lines to have turning (and returning) in your mind? Particularly at the moment, when peace and comfort can be hard to find.

*If you’re interested, you can read more about Southall’s life here.

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