Seventeen years ago, as Tim and I returned from our honeymoon in Maine, we spent the drive memorizing a W.H. Auden poem. In Camden, I’d picked up a hardcover collection of Auden’s work and, as we drove, I leafed through its pages until coming to “As I Walked Out One Evening.” The poem – fitting it seemed for a honeymoon – begins with two lovers strolling along the Thames. Reaching a bridge, the lovers linger (as lovers do) to pledge and proclaim their undying love.
Sweet, sentimental stuff, these words, and on-point for two kids driving through coastal Maine with the “Just Married” paint still visible on our car’s rear window.
Then without warning, Auden’s poem veers sharply.
Into the midst of the lovers’ disclaiming, suddenly “all the clocks in the city/ Began to whirr and chime. ” On and on the clocks go with their tolling, gainsaying the lover’s optimism. Through the next several stanzas, Auden relentlessly compiles the ways time works its many disappointments, piling up losses in its wake. “Into many a green valley,” he notes, “drifts the appalling snow.”
These deft lines steer toward a single question: What can stand the relentless onslaught of time? The clocks’ insistence consigns everything to dissolution. Their tolling indicts love’s pretensions to escape unmarred. Happy stuff for a honeymoon, yes?
In this week’s Consider, Kim writes about sorrow padding along beside her amid spring’s glories. “How do I make peace with a reality where beauty and travesty stand shoulder-to-shoulder?” she asks.
This has been a week of devastating news. A week in which we’ve seen another place claim its spot on the sad and terrible litany we repeat: Paris, San Bernadino, Orlando, London, Brussels, Manchester.
Of course, loss isn’t only in such epic tragedies. As I watch the painful dissolution of a friend’s marriage, as I watch my widower neighbor try to get a handle on his days, I know we are deep in the appalling snow. And, if we probe our own hearts, who of us cannot touch some vein that seizes with sorrow?
“Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color. This is why, even in moments of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow,” Christian Wiman writes in his essay “Sorrow’s Flower.”
As Wiman suggests, I don’t think there is peace to be made with the reality of beauty and travesty standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Rather this is the animating tension of our lives. As Auden shows, even in a blessed life where things are going well, the clock is still ticking away the moments, is still stepping us closer to the tragedy that will stagger us. The lovers’ blissful moment by the river (and indeed every moment, blissful or not) is haunted and compromised by this reality. And isn’t that reason enough for sorrow to run its vein right through us?
What do we do with such a reality? Despite the dismal state he has descried, Auden will not leave us comfortless. He enjoins the reader with two incredible stanzas:
‘O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress: Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless. ‘O stand, stand at the window As the tears scald and start; You shall love your crooked neighbour With your crooked heart.'
Through the years, these words have never run dry. The hope they contain is not starry-eyed — rather wrested from the muck, with the dirty fingerprints of that struggle still upon it. There is no way around this place where sorrow and loss compromise your joys. One must go through. And as we do, we find the incredible, mysterious truth that, however compromised we are, life remains a blessing. From this new-found place, “You shall love your crooked neighbour/ With your crooked heart.”
Late this summer, Tim and I will have our eighteenth wedding anniversary. Like Auden’s lovers, we’ve had plenty of moments that have sung out with promise. And we’ve had plenty which would be better characterized by his line, “in headaches and in worry, vaguely life leaks away.” Such are the conditions of being. And you know what, friends? However deep in the appalling snow, however much the clocks toll time’s passing, however crooked I find myself and my neighbour, Auden’s humble words abide. They run on and on like the river. “Life remains a blessing.”