We’ve touched upon the somewhat strange and often perplexing but stimulating (and very pertinent, everything considered) subject of human nature with the last two poems featured. So far, we’ve encountered symbolism for human life on a fairly wide scale – with Keats’ ‘seasons’ charting its inevitable and necessary change – and last week, came across an isolated but quite important aspect of human nature: to metaphorically mask our shortcomings, vulnerabilities; for fortification or to appear more capable to the outside world than we really are when it’s called for. Just two examples of many; poets aren’t short on elaborate or otherwise seemingly simple symbols to stand for humanity as after all, isn’t that just what – at least in some respect – all poems are about? What we as humans are made of, or perhaps to put it in better terms, what it is that makes us who we are is a matter of endless speculation and a complex issue indeed; who knows whether we will ever settle the question for certain?
Though we could probably spend more time pondering than is really necessary (or maybe that’s the answer to what makes us human – a curious curiosity and quest to always know more than perhaps we should?), it is interesting to consider, even if we don’t get any resolute answers. As with things that are far more trivial, everyone is bound to have a different opinion on what they consider to be the defining element. The more logically-minded and scientific amongst us would likely put it down to basic (or actually really quite sophisticated) physiology, but that’s not it – as much of a marvel as the human body is, it doesn’t completely encapsulate the finer points of human experience. In a world that is increasingly image-conscious a case might be made for an arena where we can most easily display one of the most key human facets, that of free will…then again, neither do clothes maketh the man or woman. The strongest argument would be for the stuff that’s not just utter sentiment – our emotions, feelings and memories; no matter how apparently insignificant or of considerable implication indeed, all of what we feel surely comes closest to explaining who we are as individuals. What’s more, I would say that it’s the emotions that display our weaknesses and frailties rather than those we would be willing to shout about that truly show us to be human.
I came across this poem by Henry David Thoreau, with its various metaphors and emblems denoting human existence, a little while ago and think it ties in (excuse the pun) quite well with the discussion at hand. It’s perhaps the most apt way to describe us all, as individual ‘parcels’; a combination of many distinct and sometimes contradictory pieces, bundled perhaps somewhat haphazardly ‘by a chance bond together’ but still fixed by some unexplained law and existing, persisting above all that life insists upon relentlessly throwing at us. Perhaps the flower symbolism is a little overused but the use of larger metaphor and language is especially interesting; there’s lots of intriguing phrases to ponder over and which often come into conflict, showcasing to full effect the struggles and vain strivings of life (I confess to having initially misread the title as ‘I Am a Parcel of Vain Strings Tied’ – what exactly vain strings might be I’m not sure; maybe those shiny ones you use to wrap presents with). But the lines that strike me the most are those in the second to last stanza; that striking image of ‘life’s vase of glass’ – something that encases and surrounds but is incredibly delicate and at constant risk – and amongst the hard-going and tough times, the heartening presence of ‘a kind hand’ – showing that whatever it is that humanity consists of, it certainly contains more than enough good to outweigh bad.
I Am a Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied
I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that, their links
Were made so loose and wide,
For milder weather.
A bunch of violets without their roots,
And sorrel intermixed,
Encircled by a wisp of straw
Once coiled about their shoots,
By which I’m fixed.
A nosegay which Time clutched from out
Those fair Elysian fields,
With weeds and broken stems, in haste,
Doth make the rabble rout
The day he yields.
And here I bloom for a short hour unseen,
Drinking my juices up,
With no root in the land
To keep my branches green,
In a bare cup.
Some tender buds were left upon my stem
In mimicry of life,
But ah! the children will not know,
Till time has withered them,
With which they’re rife.
But now I see I was not plucked for naught,
And after in life’s vase
Of glass set while I might survive,
But by a kind hand brought
To a strange place.
That stock thus thinned will soon redeem its hours,
And by another year,
Such as God knows, with freer air,
More fruits and fairer flowers
While I droop here.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)