As we approach the end of a year dominated by chaos, bleakness, and the ravages of the pandemic, it is difficult not to succumb to despair. We seem to be caught up in the ‘widening gyre’ of Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
Yeats wrote ‘The Second Coming’ in January 1919, at a time when the First World War had only recently ended, the political situation in his native Ireland was dangerously unstable and the Spanish ‘flu pandemic was raging (his pregnant wife Georgie Hyde-Lees became very ill and almost died from the ‘flu). It’s hardly surprising that a sense of impending doom reverberates through the poem.
In despondent moments (and there have been many this year) I turn not to apocalyptic visionaries such as Yeats but to poems that offer spiritual succour – poems that radiate positive energy, that open windows to optimism and restore my belief in humanity’s essential goodness.
I turn to the reassurance of Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’. Oliver makes clear that she is no stranger to despondency:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Nevertheless, as she gently reminds us, ‘the world goes on’. Natural rhythms prevail. The sun shines, the rain falls, ‘moving across the landscapes’; the wild geese fly overhead. The world, Mary Oliver tells us, ‘offers itself to your imagination’. We hear the geese calling, ‘harsh and exciting’, stirring deep within our being a recognition that we, too, are an integral part of nature in all its wild, untrammelled beauty.
In ‘Everything’s going to be all right’, Derek Mahon writes with a similar, unflinching directness:
There will be dying, there will be dying, but there is no need to go into that.
Just as Oliver does, he draws our attention upwards, to ‘the clouds flying’ and the sun that ‘rises in spite of everything’. The tone is conversational, the images are life-affirming and resonant with quiet joy.
‘Geometry’ by Rita Dove, opens with one of my favourite lines in modern poetry:
I prove a theorem and the house expands
Straightaway the poem generates its own logic, opening out into a world of boundless possibilities. The windows ‘jerk free’, the ceiling ‘floats away’ and the walls
clear themselves of everything but transparency
It’s a glorious metaphor for the deep, liberating pleasure that comes with solving an abstruse problem, be it mathematical or otherwise. But Rita Dove does not stop there. As in the previous two poems, our gaze is directed upward and there is an image of flight – not wild geese or scudding clouds, but in this case the windows themselves that have ‘hinged into butterflies’, glinting in the sun.
This December, our skies have been graced by Comet Leonard, trailing luminous streamers on its flight path around the sun. Meanwhile, the James Webb telescope, launched on Christmas Day, heads towards its orbital destination at the second Lagrange point some 1.5 million kilometres away, from where it will probe deep into space-time. The journey will take around a month. During this time, the telescope will gradually unfurl from its folded launch configuration. In a series of intricate manoeuvres, the sunshield – delicate as the wings of a butterfly – will open out so that it can protect the telescope’s instrumentation from the sun’s heat. By the time the telescope reaches its destination, its mirrors will be fully deployed, ready to act as a window into the cosmos. Beyond our world, the universe will offer itself to our imagination.
Everything is going to be all right.