Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Paul Lawrence Dunbar, "The Mystery"

This poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar expresses one of the basic tenets of Taoism: we know not where we come from and we know not where we go. In the West, much blood has been spilled by various religious groups because of differences in doctrine about our ultimate destination. Perhaps if they had been less dogmatic about their beliefs, fewer people would have died in vain.

The Mystery

I was not; now I am -- a few days hence
I shall not be; I fain would look before
And after, but can neither do; some Power
Or lack of power says "no" to all I would.
I stand upon a wide and sunless plain,
Nor chart nor steel to guide my steps aright.
Whene'er, overcoming fear, I date to move,
I grope without direction and by chance.
Some feign to hear a voice and feel a hand
That draws them ever upward thro' that gloom.
But I --I hear no voice and touch no hand,
Tho' oft thro' silence infinite I list,
And strain my hearing to supernal sounds;
Tho' oft thro' fearful darkness do I reach,
And stretch my hand to find that other hand.
I question of th' eternal bending skies
That seem to neighbor with the novice earth;
But they roll on, and daily shut their eyes
On me, as I one day shall do on them,
And tell me not the secret that I ask.

Another reason why this poem caught my eye is that recently I had just posted some comments about Quatrain LII from FitzGerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I thought it might be interesting to quote that quatrain. People from different cultures and times still seem to think alike.

First Edition: Quatrain LII

And that inverted bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help--for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou and I.

And while I was reading that Quatrain, yet another came to mind:

First Edition: Quatrain XXXIII

Then to the rolling Heav'n I cried,
Asking, "What Lamp had Destiny to guide
Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?
And--"A blind Understanding!" Heav'n replied.

It seems as though there are two ways of dealing with this mystery. One is to grasp desperately at one "truth" which others have claimed to know, and to struggle constantly with those who think differently. The other is to accept that we really can't know, but must go on anyway. I prefer the second way.

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