This morning I had an experience which I've often had before, and which is (potentially) embarrassing; being brought to tears by some lines of poetry. As far as I can tell, nobody has ever actually noticed when this happens. And let it be understood that I'm not bawling uncontrollably-- it's more a case of my eyes welling up with tears.
Invariably, it's the memory of some lines of poetry that does this. Poetry rarely has its most powerful impact on us when we first read it. It has to seep into our minds, to become a part of us.
Here is how it happened this morning (as I was on the bus, and walking from the bus to work). I was thinking of an idea for a poem that I might write, but probably won't; a poem inspired by the always-poignant sight of children's abandoned toys or games, and how this makes all human artefacts and memorials seem child-like and innocent to me.
Then I remembered Michael Hartnett's "Death of an Irishwoman". It's available on several places on the internet so I hope his estate won't come after me for including it in full here:
Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnet:
Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but púcas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
The two lines that reduce me to tears are "she was a song that nobody sings" and the final line: "She was a child's purse, full of useless things."
I think "a child's purse, full of useless things" might sum up my social and cultural philosophy-- although, as I've said before, "curtains make a house a home" might also serve the purpose.
There are many lines of poetry that move me like this. These lines from Tennyson's "The Passing of Arthur" also bring me to tears. They are the dying King Arthur's reproach to his last knight, who has refused to throw his sword Excalibur into the lake:
Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
Authority forgets a dying king,
Laid widowed of the power in his eye
That bowed the will.
"Authority forgets a dying king" makes me feel as though my heart is going to break.
The parable of the Prodigal Son does this to me too. Every time it is read at Mass, I have to hide my face, especially at the line where the father comes out to greet his son, and the words "Everything I have is yours"-- the latter spoken, of course, to the other son; but, as Pope Benedict pointed out, we are each of us both of the sons, and the parable might be more accurately called the Parable of the Two Brothers. Being a traditionalist, however, I prefer the usual title.
(Incidentally, have you ever noticed how often Jesus's parables bypass moral reasoning, and speak straight to the heart? And yet they seem unanswerable.)