Saturday, June 11, 2011

How To Live, Part Seven: "I Kept My Answers Small And Kept Them Near . . . I Let The Stars Assume The Whole Of Night"

In the following poem, Elizabeth Jennings speaks of "small answers" and "big answers."  Perhaps I have grown old and jaded (by the antics of humanity, my own included), but I prefer small answers.  How tiresome to seek The Meaning Of Life!  It is enough for one lifetime to struggle (emphasis on the struggle) to conduct oneself in a thoughtful, kind, and honorable manner.  Oblivion will come in due time, with or without an Explanation.   (I fear that I am starting to sound like Philip Larkin or Thomas Hardy.)

A remark by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the preface to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus comes to mind:  "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must consign to silence."  I think that the whole Meaning Of Life business is one of the things that must be consigned to silence.


I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The huge abstractions I kept from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.

But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life.  Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, still I hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow

And all the great conclusions coming near.

Elizabeth Jennings, A Way of Looking (1955).

                   James Bateman, "Haytime in the Cotswolds" (1939)


Mary F. C. Pratt said...

Splendid. Thank you. And the painting is perfect.

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

A rather profound poem. And I am so struck by this glorious painting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary F.C. Pratt: thank you for visiting and commenting again. I'm pleased that you enjoyed the post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Julie: as always, thanks for stopping by. Yes, it's the kind of painting one would like to walk into, I think.

WAS said...

Nice contrast in trajectories. I can relate to unfathomable meaning needing to be kept in silence, but also to this Elizabeth Jennings poem, how the small answers she had always protected herself with no longer suffice as she gets older and still the big answers loom.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: as ever, thank you for the thoughtful comments. Your thoughts are right on the mark with respect to Elizabeth Jennings: as you probably know, a great deal of her later poetry is religious. It is interesting that she edited a selection of Christina Rossetti's poems for Faber: a great deal of Rossetti's poetry was religious as well, and Jennings touches on this in her introduction to the selection.

Thanks again.

Richard Loveridge said...

My Grandparents bought that picture as a print with money they were given as a wedding present. It has hung on a family wall somewhere since 1946, and I've known it all my life. So nice to come across it randomly somewhere else.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Loveridge: thank you very much for visiting and for the anecdote about the painting. That is a wonderful coincidence! Thanks again.