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Little Book on the Human Shadow

Little Book on the Human Shadow

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by Robert Bly, William C. Booth (Editor), William Booth

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Robert Bly, renowned poet and author of the ground-breaking bestseller Iron John, mingles essay and verse to explore the Shadow — the dark side of the human personality — and the importance of confronting it.


Robert Bly, renowned poet and author of the ground-breaking bestseller Iron John, mingles essay and verse to explore the Shadow — the dark side of the human personality — and the importance of confronting it.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.24(d)

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A Little Book on the Human ShadowChapter OneProblems in the Ark

We notice that when sunlight hits the body, the body turns, bright, but it throws a shadow, which is dark. The brighter 'the light, the darker the shadow. Each of us has some part of our personality that is hidden from us. Parents, and teachers in general, urge us to develop the light side of the personality ... move into well-lit subjects such as mathematics and geometry ... and to become successful. The dark part then becomes starved. What do we do, then? We send out a crow.

The dove returns: it found no resting place;
It was in flight all night above the shaken seas;
Beneath dark eaves
The dove shall. magnify the tiger's bed;
Give the dove peace.
The split-tailed swallow leaves the sill at dawn;
At dusk, blue swallows shall return.
On the third day the crow shall fly,
The crow, the crow, the spider-colored crow,
The crow shall find new mud to walk upon.

The poem refers to the Noah story, though I drew the images from an earlier version composed by the Babylonians, in which three birds took part. The poem came two or three years after college, and it seems to say that if any help was going to arrive to lift me out of my misery, it would come from the dark side of my personality. I remember this as one of the first things I understood clearly for myself. I felt that it was true also in politicsthat is, what we needed to help us in the nation was not someone like Adlai Stevenson, who was too much like a swallow, or Bertrand Russell, who had too much light in his personality. Even Eugene McCarthy later on, who had a little more ofthe dark side, seemed to me a swallow, unable to find mud. Birds have become a problem for the United States. All we elect to the Presidency are doves or swallows, or white crows like Nixon.

One afternoon, several years later, watching snow fall on some long grass,felt the positive dark come in again.

The grass is half-covered with snow.
It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon,
And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.


If I reached my hands down, near the earth, I could take handfuls of darkness! A darkness was always there, which we never noticed.


As the snow grows heavier, the cornstalks fade farther away,
And the barn moves nearer to the house.
The barn moves all alone in the growing storm.


The barn is full of corn, and moving toward us now,
Like a hulk blown toward us in a storm at sea;
All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.

Sometimes the first snow comes while the grass is still green, and if the grass is long, bends it over, making little houses underneath. The barn at our farm that year was empty of animals, but full of corn, sealed in a government program, and though the corn belonged to my father, it was a sort of treasure. The image "handfuls of darkness" does not by itself make this a shadow poem. The poem approaches the shadow at the end as the writer gets more darkness than he bargained for.

The ancient Chinese culture emphasizes the Yin-Yang symbol, which shows us the white part of the personality and the black part of the personality united inside a circle. I wrote this poem one spring day.


Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever! I am wrapped in my joyful flesh, As the grass is wrapped in its clouds of green.


Rising from a bed where I dreamt Of long rides past castles and hot coals, The sun lies happily on my knees: I have suffered and survived the night, Bathed in dark water, like any blade of grass.


The strong leaves of the box-elder tree, Plunging in the wind, call us to disappear Into the wilds of the universe, Where we shall sit at the foot of a plant, And live forever, like the dust.

One could speculate that because ancient Chinese poets, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, tried to reconcile the dark side and the light side, they preserved more feeling for plants and animals than we have preserved. Plants are asleep, and so they live always in the dark side, though their leaves reach out for the light. So we could say that each weed in our back yard unites dark and light as the rose window of Chartres does, and sitting by them is much cheaper than flying over to France.

The Busy Man Speaks

Not to the mother of solitude will I give myself
Away, not to the mother of love, nor to the mother of conversation,
Nor to the mother of art, nor the mother Of tears, nor the mother of the ocean;

Not to the mother of sorrow, nor the mother
Of the downcast face, nor the mother of the suffering of death;' Not to the mother of the night full of crickets,
Nor the mother of the open fields, nor the mother of Christ.

But I will give myself to the father of righteousness, the father of cheerfulness, who is also the father of rocks,
Who is also the father of perfect gestures;
From the Chase National Bank
An arm of flame has come, and I am drawn to the desert, to the parched places, to the landscape of zeros; And I shall give myself away to the father of righteousness, The stones of cheerfulness, the steel of money, the father of rocks...

A Little Book on the Human Shadow. Copyright © by Robert Bly. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Robert Bly's books of poetry include The Night Abraham Called to the Stars and My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. His awards include the National Book Award for poetry and two Guggenheims. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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