“Sadness” by Donald Justice
This indelible poem by Donald Justice, copied below, captures something of the spirit I’ve been trying to find in my own writing.
Many years ago, a young scholar observed about Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic poem I’ve been writing about for my current project, that it often manages to convey “a conscious feeling that the raw emotions of grief have been subsumed in an artistic finality of vision.” In his view, the purpose of Virgil’s great poem is “to impose on us an attitude that can take into account all in history that is both good and bad, and can regard it with the purer emotions of artistic detachment, so that we are given a higher consolation, and sorrow itself becomes a thing to be desired.”
We have to be capable of that detachment, not that we need indulge it always. In Donald Justice’s language, we need to reach a point where we can feel that our tears are immense, and at the same time know that they are not.
Here’s the poem. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
Dear ghosts, dear presences, O my dear parents,
Why were you so sad on porches, whispering?
What great melancholies were loosed among our swings!
As before a storm one hears the leaves whispering
And marks each small change in the atmosphere,
So was it then to overhear and to fear.
But all things then were oracle and secret.
Remember the night when, lost, returning, we turned back
Confused, and our headlights singled out the fox?
Our thoughts went with it then, turning and turning back
With the same terror, into the deep thicket
Beside the highway, at home in the dark thicket.
I say the wood within is the dark wood,
Or wound no torn shirt can entirely bandage,
But the sad hand returns to it in secret
Repeatedly, encouraging the bandage
To speak of that other world we might have borne,
The lost world buried before it could be born.
Burchfield describes the pinched white souls of violets
Frothing the mouth of a derelict old mine
Just as an evil August night comes down,
All umber, but for one smudge of dusky carmine.
It is the sky of a peculiar sadness—
The other side perhaps of some rare gladness.
What is it to be happy, after all? Think
Of the first small joys. Think of how our parents
Would whistle as they packed for the long summers,
Or, busy about the usual tasks of parents,
Smile down at us suddenly for some secret reason,
Or simply smile, not needing any reason.
But even in the summers we remember
The forest had its eyes, the sea its voices,
And there were roads no map would ever master,
Lost roads and moonless nights and ancient voices—
And night crept down with an awful slowness toward the water;
And there were lanterns once, doubled in the water.
Sadness has its own beauty, of course. Toward dusk,
Let us say, the river darkens and look bruised,
And we stand looking out at it through rain.
It is as if life itself were somehow bruised
And tender at this hour; and a few tears commence.
Not that they are but that they feel immense.