Fanning the Flame: Upon reading Monro’s “Living”

Living

Slow bleak awakening from the morning dream
Brings me in contact with the sudden day.
I am alive – this I.
I let my fingers move along my body.
Realization warns them, and my nerves
Prepare their rapid messages and signals.
While Memory begins recording, coding,
Repeating; all the time Imagination
Mutters: You’ll only die.

Here’s a new day. O Pendulum move slowly!
My usual clothes are waiting on their peg.
I am alive – this I.
And in a moment Habit, like a crane,
Will bow its neck and dip its pulleyed cable,
Gathering me, my body, and our garment,
And swing me forth, oblivious of my question,
Into the daylight – why?

I think of all the others who awaken,
And wonder if they go to meet the morning
More valiantly than I;
Nor asking of this Day they will be living:
What have I done that I should be alive?
O, can I not forget that I am living?
How shall I reconcile the two conditions:
Living, and yet – to die?

Between the curtains the autumnal sunlight
With lean and yellow finger points me out;
The clock moans: Why? Why? Why?
But suddenly, as if without a reason,
Heart, Brain, and Body, and Imagination
All gather in tumultuous joy together,

Running like children down the path of morning
To fields where they can play without a quarrel:
A country I’d forgotten, but remember,
And welcome with a cry.

O cool glad pasture; living tree, tall corn,
Great cliff, or languid sloping sand, cold sea,
Waves; rivers curving; you, eternal flowers,
Give me content, while I can think of you:
Give me your living breath!
Back to your rampart, Death.

~ Harold Monro (1879 – 1932)

Just when I thought I had lost my excitement for poetry, that I had read too much in the past six months than is healthy (overdosing on mind-altering literature) and in so doing had extinguished the fire, I stumbled upon the first three lines of Harold Monro’s “Living.”

Slow bleak awakening from the morning dream
Brings me in contact with the sudden day.
I am alive – this I.

What’s this? Someone who understands how it feels to not be a morning person? It cannot be! But as I rapidly finish the first stanza, I see it is true. The feeling he describes, I understand it: this reluctant entrance into the wakened world, the nerves beginning to send signals, the memory starting to code, and cruel Imagination muttering, “You’ll only die.

The morbid sense of meaninglessness that floods upon awakening, before the better angels can have their sway, I recognize this, too. Then the Pendulum starts to swing even if slowly, with routine (“My usual clothes are waiting on their peg” and “Habit, like a crane, / Will bow its neck and dip its pulleyed cable”), and still that question “why?”

The questioning continues into the next stanza as Monro wonders if others are better at mornings, if they “go to meet the morning / more valiantly than I.” And he wonders about even bigger things, why he gets to live when others do not, why should there be this thing called life at all when it only ends in death. Such bottom line questions, and always this ticking of the clock which echoes “Why?Why? Why?”

And then the entire poem turns, and it is this turning that kept me reading all the way through and kept me coming back to this poem all week long, rereading and rereading like an obsessed child. This bit here quickened me, striking that original match of poetic longing:

But suddenly, as if without a reason,
Heart, Brain, and Body, and Imagination
All gather in tumultuous joy together,
Running like children down the path of morning
To fields where they can play without a quarrel

Oh yes, and yes again, to life to live to run like children heart-brain-body-imagination tumbling together, a complete unreasonable reasoning. Yes! Such abandon is where living happens, where we do not compartmentalize and code the bits of our lives – here for Brain, here for Body, there for Heart, way over there Imagination – but bring these together to fully experience the moment. There is no other way to fully overcome morning and drive Death back to its rampart.

In reading this poem, I have this sense of Monro saying to his compartmentalized parts: “Altogether now, team, let us do this thing! Let us live this life. Death, it’s not your turn until it is, but until then, be gone.”

What were smoldering ashes have once again been fanned to blaze. I love how these words dance, how they make my spirit feel that much more alive, and put the exclamation point on the living. I had not lost my love for poetry. No, not at all. I just hadn’t found Harold Monro yet.

Reference

Immortal poems of the English Language, edited by Oscar Williams (Simon & Schuster, 1952)

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