Positive Negativity


Prayer – Louis Untermeyer

GOD, though this life is but a wraith,
Although we know not what we use,
Although we grope with little faith,
Give me the heart to fight—and lose.

Ever insurgent let me be,
Make me more daring than devout;
From sleek contentment keep me free,
And fill me with a buoyant doubt.

Open my eyes to visions girt
With beauty, and with wonder lit—
But always let me see the dirt,
And all that spawn and die in it.

Open my ears to music; let
Me thrill with Spring’s first flutes and drums—
But never let me dare forget
The bitter ballads of the slums.

From compromise and things half done,
Keep me with stern and stubborn pride;
And when at last the fight is won,
God, keep me still unsatisfied.

In an adult forum yesterday, we discussed the second stanza of this poem among other “voices” that seemed to echo both an ancient biblical time of semi-depression and the current moods of people in our society. What appealed to some in our forum was the oxymoron of “buoyant doubt.” We probably think more normally of doubt as something which weighs or drags us down, a force from which our spirits need to be lifted, and doubt can be just that, but can it not also be buoyant?

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Caliban in the Coal Mines

GOD, we don’t like to complain;
We know that the mine is no lark.
But — there’s the pools from the rain;
But — there’s the cold and the dark.

God, You don’t know what it is —
You, in Your well-lighted sky —
Watching the meteors whizz;
Warm, with a sun always by.

God, if You had but the moon
Stuck in Your cap for a lamp,
Even You’d tire of it soon,
Down in the dark and the damp.

Nothing but blackness above
And nothing that moves but the cars …
God, if You wish for our love,
Fling us a handful of stars!

~Louis Untermeyer

The Christian answer is that God does know what it’s like down in the dark and the damp, but the protest of the miner Caliban remains unanswered because he can’t hear answers tossed down from bright, warm places of elevated comfort and security. What Christians call the Incarnation (the Word or life-giving truth of God made human flesh and blood) means God down here with us, living in our conditions with our limitations, feelings, and pains.

If my reaction to Untermeyer’s poem with its irreverent Caliban is to take offense and argue that God has already come down into suffering and shame worse than his in the mines, then the question becomes, I think, “Why are the Calibans of this world still stuck down in the dark and the damp where they continue to make wealth for the prosperous up in the warmth and brightness?”

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