Ecker's Little Acre

Reflections on Life and Other Stuff

by Ronald L. Ecker



January, 1999


Dark Night of the Soul

"In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning."--F. Scott Fitzgerald



They are called the terrible sonnets. Not because they're awful (the sonnets are brilliant), but because of the dark hours, the spiritual anguish and frustration, they express. The author was Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), an English Jesuit priest and poet who had a right to feel frustrated. Not a single poem of his was published in his lifetime (nor for thirty years after it). He wrote some joyous poetry, but Hopkins also expressed, in a short series of sonnets, the proverbial "dark night of the soul" (a term first used by St. John of the Cross) more artistically than anyone before or after him. Maybe it's because my own shortlived efforts at serious poetry seemed to gravitate to despair that I often consider Hopkins my favorite poet. (The ranking seems to change from day to day, depending on whose poetry I'm reading.)

Hopkins wrote in what is called sprung rhythm, with lines characterized by such poetic devices as assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme. The effect can be marvelous, as in the opening description in his exuberant "The Windhover" of viewing a bird in flight:


I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air. . . . .


The poem's concluding lines speak memorably of how divine grandeur can be found in the earth's most mundane things:


No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.


Yes, Hopkins takes getting used to. And by the time you're used to him, you've read his whole body of work. To me he was at his best when his spirit turned dark and he wrote, in the terrible sonnets, of the most profound religious anguish, as in his perturbed rewriting of Jeremiah 12:1, which he begins with


Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee: but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? And why must
Disappointment all I endeavor end?


Calling himself "Time's eunuch," he pleads "Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain." Another sonnet begins with his waking up to gloom so palpable he can touch it with his hands: "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day." In another, his description of his despondent state of mind is hauntingly surrealistic:


O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.


Well, I've hung there, at least literarily, for my own poetic efforts, as already mentioned, have tended to be on the dark side, like the work of another of my favorite poets, the misanthropic Robinson Jeffers. (In one of his lighter moments, in "Original Sin," Jeffers wrote, "I would rather / Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.") Such darkness left its mark on perhaps my best poem, never published till now. (That's right, I'm fixing to publish it here before your eyes.) It's a villanelle, a French poetic form that for some reason seems to lend itself to dark musings. For example, one of Dylan Thomas's best-known poems, " Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," is a villanelle. Written for his dying father, the first three-line stanza reads:


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Next to Thomas's, my favorite villanelle is by W. H. Auden. Entitled "Villanelle," it is also a morose piece of writing, beginning with the requisite three-line stanza (tercet):


Time can say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.


Because of the strict formal structure, villanelles, like limericks, are fun to try to write (which is really why I wrote one), but, unlike limericks, are often not very amusing. (Mine certainly isn't). With a villanelle you're pretty much stuck with the thought you start out with. The first and third lines of the first tercet must be alternately repeated in the following five tercets, with both lines then repeated in the concluding quatrain. So if you start out with a sad or dark sentiment, the poem relentlessly drills that sentiment home.

Here, then, is my own "Villanelle," you the reader having been amply forewarned of its nature:


Life is a downward plunge and death is deep;
Where essence springs, earth opens to consume,
In night is born a flame that cannot keep.

Down wells of broken silence plashes leap,
And generative poisons seal our doom;
Life is a downward plunge and death is deep.

In kindred tides our souls awake and weep,
Of love and light born to the starless tomb;
In night is born a flame that cannot keep.

The grain is spoiled as swelling waters steep,
Then burst the billows from the morning gloom;
Life is a downward plunge and death is deep.

Nothing is salvaged, naught is there to reap,
Where floods have swept the dark and hush resume;
In night is born a flame that cannot keep.

This, then, is ours before again we sleep:
Draw breath and drown in maelstroms of the womb.
Life is a downward plunge and death is deep;
In night is born a flame that cannot keep.


Bleak? Depressing? Bad poetry? Then you'll be happy to know that this villanelle both begins and ends my published poetic career. (Well, there's my book The Evolutionary Tales, which I certainly invite you to read, but I call that work verse, not poetry.) And I'm not sure how accurately the above poem actually reflects my outlook on life. (Perhaps I've better expressed that elsewhere: "Life is unfair, and death is the pits.") As I've said, when you start writing a villanelle, you're trapped in the thing till it's over. But if the above poetic endeavor does reflect my own dark night of the soul of sorts (I don't honestly recall how I felt at the time I wrote it), I was at least able to crawl back out of it, just as the Jesuit Hopkins reemerged from the black hole that was his dark night. Having written the terrible sonnets, the wonderfully gifted Hopkins saw some daylight again, and was able to look back at


That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with
(my God!) my God.





Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins




Copyright 1999 by Ronald L. Ecker


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