A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
~Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
Stephen Crane was twenty-eight when he died, and he wrote this poem just barely a year earlier. He wrote this poem after experiencing numerous life traumas, including shipwreck, scandal, and tuberculosis. That’s not to say he wrote this because of those experiences (I don’t believe poetry can be subjected to causal analysis), but context can be illuminating.
When I first read this poem, many years ago, I thought it was interesting, funny, and ironic in the way a political cartoon is all of those things. I pictured a scrawny prophet railing at an impersonal and very large universal force that responds with amused and slightly cruel indifference. I didn’t know about Crane’s bio at the time, but the image that came to mind is consistent with such a hard life.
What Crane’s “man said” and how Crane’s universe replied is also consistent with a view of the world which puts man somehow outside of – or a passive object of – the universe, as opposed to part of or co-existent with it. I would propose a different conversation.
Last Sunday morning it was just beginning to rain, that soft drizzle that feels like a cool sauna, or like Scotland in Springtime. I had some planting to do, nonetheless. (“You’re not made of sugar,” said my heartier self to my fear of melting in the rain.) Sam had brought carrot seedlings home from kindergarten in a plastic baggie, and they were growing at a scary rate in their cramped mock-greenhouse environment. They needed to get into the ground. There also was a packet of sunflower seeds that I had been wanting to plant, so I figured while I was getting dirty, I might as well do both.
So, out to the garage I trudged to gather trowel in one hand, carrying seeds and seedlings in the other. Down to the garden, then down on my knees, where I dug in soft, cold dirt. I pulled weeds, I made holes, I scattered seeds, I spread dirt back over seeds. My fingers were numb and my feet had that buzzy feeling of falling asleep as the blood was cut off from kneeling.
I was content. It was so quiet, it seemed I could hear the worms moving under the ground. The only steady and evident sounds were the dull thud of heavy stones being dropped into wheelbarrow by my father-in-law somewhere across the yard, my scraping at loose dirt, and the distant highway. The weedy earthy aroma was intoxicating. For a brief moment, I felt completely alive and as if that moment was all the world and all time.
In that moment, I felt my soul exclaim, “I exist.” But quietly. No exclamation point. More like a prayer. I felt my place within and beside the universe, and I required no response. In fact, a response of obligation (or lack thereof) from the universe would not have been welcome in that moment.
You see, I and the rest of the universe… we are among the created, together. If anyone has an obligation to respond, it is me.
The Oxford Book of Short Poems, Chosen and Edited by P.J. Kavanagh and James Michie (Oxford University Press, 1987)