Thursday, October 16, 2014

Two Poems Diverged

One of my new favorite movies, Dead Poets Society, mentions two poems that have struck me in these last few days. One is an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau's Walden about why one would go to the woods, and the other is a poem by Walt Whitman called "Oh Me! Oh Life!" which answers the ever-popular question, "Why are we here, in the world, and what is our purpose?"

The reason why I mention these two poems together is that they both attempt to answer this question with two different perspectives.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to 'glorify God and enjoy him forever.'"

Thoreau makes a very good point, that we are here to choose life over death, and to avoid the realization at the end of our lives that we had not lived.

Unfortunately, he says that "most men...have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to 'glorify God and enjoy him forever.'"

What a shame, to believe that such a glorious calling is nothing but a hasty conclusion!

If I were to visit the woods, this would be my purpose: to enjoy God and glorify Him. At this season of my life, I praise God every day for the trees. The leaves and their colors are absolutely captivating, and it my heart skips a beat realizing that God made me ruler of all of it (as well as you!); that you and I are in fact the crowning glory of those beautiful colors on the leaves, the constellations in the stars on the dark night sky, and the brightness that overcomes the cold morning air in the sunrise at the beginning of every day: that all of us were made to top those beautiful sights, and to give our glory back to the Lord (2 Peter 1:3-11, ESV).

I disagree with Thoreau: this is not a hasty conclusion at all. I did not come up with that conclusion on my own. It is in fact what I was assigned to do by the Voice of Truth Himself on the day He gave me breath (Jeremiah 1:5, ESV; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, ESV). It's not a conclusion I made for myself: it's a calling.

I believe that Walt Whitman describes the facts of life much better: that amongst our hurt and pain, our hearts cry out, "Oh me! Oh life!" and "what could I possibly be good for?"

"O Me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring-What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here-that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."
Whitman knows quite well that we are sad wretches, searching around the earth for an answer to what we are good for, what we were made for, and why we are here, still daring to live. The answer: that we're here! That we are a part of a beautiful story set all around us, and we are important characters in it! And that our lives will contribute a verse to the greatest play of all time.

As Professor Keating very well stated, "What will your verse be?"

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