This volume brings together the voices of Thomas Merton, David Whyte, the Basque poet Miguel de Unamuno, Anna Swir from Poland, Stanley Kunitz, the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, and Jane Hirshfield, as well as three of Housden’s favorites, Rumi, Mary Oliver, and Naomi Shihab Nye. His luminous essays on the poems show us how to integrate the poets’ truth into our own lives.
Roger Housden’s love of poetry and life leaps from every page—so much so that his readers feel they have found a guide and mentor through the extraordinary Ten Poems series. He has opened the eyes and hearts of many, not just to the power of poetry, but to the truth and beauty of the life of the soul. What more can one ask?
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THROW YOURSELF LIKE SEED
by Miguel de Unamuno
Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit; sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate that brushes your heel as it turns going by, the man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant.
Now you are only giving food to that final pain which is slowly winding you in the nets of death, but to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts is the work; start then, turn to the work.
Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field, don't turn your face for that would be to turn it to death, and do not let the past weigh down your motion.
Leave what's alive in the furrow, what's dead in yourself, for life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds; from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.
RECOVER YOUR SPIRIT
When the fascist General Milan-Astray stormed into the University of Salamanca to confront the elderly professor and poet-philosopher Miguel de Unamuno over his criticism of Franco and the fascist cause, Unamuno said to him:
At times to be silent is to lie. You will win because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: reason and right.
The general shouted, "Death to intelligence! Long live death!" and drove the ailing poet out of the university at gunpoint. The poet suffered a heart attack and died within the week. It was 1936, soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
Unamuno's name is remembered in Spain, even today, as a symbol of courage and integrity. And here we are now, contemplating his poetic legacy, while the name of the general has long since fallen into obscurity. Two thousand years or more before the general confronted Unamuno, Euripides said:
When good men die, their goodness does not perish but lives, though they are gone. As for the bad, all that was theirs dies and is buried with them.
History has challenged Euripides' statement time and again, but even so, the spirit of it stands, and certainly in the case of Unamuno. Although Lorca, his younger contemporary (who was also murdered by Franco's forces), is better known internationally today, Unamuno is still acknowledged in Spain as one of the great thinkers and poets of the last century.
Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit;
The first line of this rousing poem reminds me of those lines by Mary Oliver in her poem "Wild Geese":
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on.
But while Oliver is urging us to turn our eyes from our troubles to the bigger view that nature offers, Unamuno is counseling action, and specifically, work. Have you ever heaved your body through the day with the feeling that nothing is really worth the effort? That your own sadness, loneliness, or confusion weigh so heavily on your shoulders that you have neither the space nor the inclination to look up and see anything else? I have. Sometimes, those days can oblige a necessary pause in what may seem to be an endless cycle of busy-ness. Days of sadness can have their value. But I think it is the self-absorption that Unamuno is pointing to, the indulgence in our troubles that makes our whole being feel sluggish.
sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate that brushes your heel as it turns going by,
This kind of lethargy, or dullness of spirit, can cause us to miss not only opportunities, but even the whole direction and purpose of our life. We forget what we are here for, and don't even notice when the door opens in front of us--the very door we may have been anticipating all of our life.
To indulge ourselves in this way, Unamuno says, is to give food
to that final pain which is slowly winding you in the nets of death,
Perhaps that final pain refers to death itself, which can eat into us by means of the corrosions of despair and depression. I wonder what these lines mean for you. For me, that final pain might also refer to a life not fully lived, one that has been shrouded in regrets over what might have been, or what wasn't. The pain is final because it is all we are left with at the end of a life in which we have never dared to nurture our own flame.
but to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts is the work; start then, turn to the work.
Remember Rilke, who said, speaking to God in one of his poems,
But what you love to see are faces That do work and feel thirst.
Rilke suggests here that work is the greatest offering we can make to Life, God, call it what you will. In work, we, too, become creators, and act in the likeness of the Intelligence that made us. Rilke's tutor in this was the great French sculptor Rodin, for whom Rilke worked as a secretary for a time. Rodin would always tell the young, sensitive poet that the essential thing for an artist was not dreaming, or talking, but work. "Travailler, travailler, travailler," Rodin shouted once, trying to explain how new works came to him.
In saying that to live is to work, Unamuno even infers that a life without work is itself a kind of living death. But the work that is truly yours is the life that is truly yours; and if we have created something from our labors, it will speak for us long after we are gone.
Neither Unamuno nor Rodin nor Rilke was speaking out of some culturally ingrained Protestant work ethic. They were not concerned with being "useful." No, they were passionate about doing what they had come here to do; and they all knew, in their own way, the crucial value of dedication and commitment to their chosen vocation.
The next line is the key to the work Unamuno is referring to:
Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,
Give yourself away, he urges, and to what will ultimately be your own will and testament--dedicate yourself to your own talents, whatever they may be. Give everything you have--body, mind, and soul--to that endeavor. At the same time, the image of throwing yourself away implies less an effort than a self-offering, a complete surrender to what is required--as if the work were bigger than you are. If you do not do this, the poem goes on to warn, you will be inviting death. You must shake off your doubts, take up your bed and walk, and without looking back. It is never too late to live the life that is yours.
That's all very well for a Rodin or a Rilke, you may say, but many of us--most of us--do not know what our true work is. Like me, you may have spent much of your lifetime with the nagging feeling that you are not quite doing what you came here to do. Or perhaps you feel an outsider, somehow, to the mainstream current of fashions and events, someone whose gifts do not fit easily into the prevailing culture. We need to cherish these feelings, and look into them deeply. The pain they can cause us may be due less to their message than to our interpretation of it.
Instead of concluding that these feelings make the life we are leading seem wrong in some way, we can look for the value they bring to our lives. Outsider status, for example, can be a privileged, if sometimes painful, position to have. For the price of feeling lonely, and, often, unheard, it can offer a unique perspective that can be known in no other way. Every artist, every visionary in any field, must be willing to pay that price. Unamuno urges us to persist in what we know, in what we imagine to be possible, regardless of the cost. You persist by putting one foot in front of the other,
as you walk, and into your own field,
If you want to know what you are here to do, look around you, at the life you already have. It will tell you what to do next if you follow the deepest thing you feel inside. You may realize that, ultimately, your own true vocation has no outer form; that your dedication is to an inner life that is not concerned with the work you do. What matters, finally, is less what it looks like--the presence or absence of a string of achievements--than the pouring of your heart and soul into the longings and loves you have been given.
Leave what's alive in the furrow, what's dead in yourself,
Unamuno's images of seeds and furrows are an echo of the passage in the Gospel of John (12:24) where Jesus says,
Truly, I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
There is a form of dying that is necessary when you give yourself utterly to your work--whether it be raising children, writing novels, tending a garden, or caring for the sick. Our work calls us--our life calls us--to surrender our smaller selves to the greater task. If we do not submit to that process, we shall remain outside the stream of life, and therefore lonely. It is in the dying, as the Bible passage tells us, that we harvest the fruit.
When Unamuno tells us to leave what's dead in ourselves, I think he is advising us not to spread about our despair or our self-pity--those things that won't give any harvest--but only to share what is alive in us. In sharing our gifts and talents with the world, we give ourselves away--we die a little--and in that way, we reap the harvest:
from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.
Finally, I can think of no better footnote to Unamuno's stirring poem than these lines by W. H. Murray, leader of the Scottish Himalaya Expedition:
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Whatever you do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.
1. Excerpt from Temenidæ. Frag. 734, Euripides. 2. Excerpt from "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver. In New and Selected Poems. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. 3. Excerpt from "The Man Watching" by Rainer Maria Rilke. In Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans. Robert Bly. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. 4. Extract from The Scottish Himalaya Expedition by W. H. Murray. London: J. M. Dent & Son, 1951 (out of print).
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