Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Not Resigned to the Inevitable

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

There is, I would claim, something almost indescribably profound about this lack of resignation to that which is most inevitable. It connects, I think, to the spirit of fighting without hope that (as the best Tolkien critic I know of, Tom Shippey, persuasively argues) is so central to the worldview of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings -- the "spirit of the north" as he called it,* which he identified as a determination to fight for what is right even in the face of hopelessness -- with a belief in the idea that even ultimate defeat does not imply that a cause was wrong -- with a refusal to despair even when all hope is, in fact, lost. (Tolkien himself, as a Christian, thought there was an ultimate hope of course -- blunting the spirit that he himself saw in the pagan writers he admired, that of fighting in the face of genuine, inevitable defeat.) And what is more hopeless than the fight against death?

Hopeless: genuinely, eternally hopeless. And yet, and yet: I am not resigned. As a poetic contemporary of Millay's put it: rage, rage against the dying of the light.

* If memory serves. I don't have my copy of Shippey's work right now, and neither Google Books nor Amazon will let me search inside for the precise phrase. But it's something in that vein.

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