Serendipity: Reflecting on Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness”

Image by ataylor28 via stock.xchng
Image by ataylor28 via stock.xchng


There’s just no accounting for happiness,

or the way it turns up like a prodigal

who comes back to the dust at your feet

having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?

You make a feast in honor of what

was lost, and take from its place the finest

garment, which you saved for an occasion

you could not imagine, and you weep night and day

to know that you were not abandoned,

that happiness saved its most extreme form

for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never

knew about, who flies a single-engine plane

onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes

into town, and inquires at every door

until he finds you asleep midafternoon

as you so often are during the unmerciful

hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.

It comes to the woman sweeping the street

with a birch broom, to the child

whose mother has passed out from drink.

It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing

a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,

and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots

in the night.

                     It even comes to the boulder

in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,

to rain falling on the open sea,

to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

Jane Kenyon, “Happiness” from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota,

Source: Poetry (February 1995).

Serendipity: Reflecting on Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness”

by Rebekah Choat

Serendipity is a beautiful thing.  I bought a biography of Jane Kenyon in November, on a whim, having never heard of her before.  The same week, Kelly mentioned her, and soon after gave us this poem to muse on.  I usually encounter a poet the other way around:  I read some of his or her work and then, if it resonates strongly enough with me, I set out to learn more about the person.  But having a foundation of knowledge about Kenyon is helping me to read her poems with a deeper understanding than I otherwise would have this early in my experience with them.

Jane Kenyon suffered from bipolar disorder, experiencing long periods of what she called melancholy, punctuated by a few brief episodes of hypomania – bursts of extraordinarily high spirits and energy.

I live with a much more pedestrian form of depression, a dull, plodding shadow.  With treatment I stay on an even keel most of the time.  Still, I can identify with Kenyon’s implied base of a pervading, underlying sadness, one that is sometimes so powerful as to drag one down into sleep midafternoon…during the unmerciful hours.

I recognize, too, the unexplainable happiness that comes when least expected:  the return of a hope that seemed lost forever, the stab of joy out of the blue penetrating the thickest clouds.  There’s just no accounting for happiness.  You can’t summon it at will; it refuses to show up when it should – on holiday mornings, at weddings and graduations.  It doesn’t respond to invitations.  It won’t be enticed.  It is seemingly indiscriminate with the rest of the world, but it’s not coming to you; not then, not now, not ever.   Then one day, long after you’ve accepted this fact, you sense something behind you as you’re pulling weeds, or you glance up from shaping a loaf of bread, and there it is in a child’s grubby hand or perched on the branch just outside the kitchen window.



2 thoughts on “Serendipity: Reflecting on Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness”

  1. Karen H says:

    What a lovely poem, and an equally lovely reflection. I, too, suffer from depression. Depression, when treated, is still just outside the door, waiting to slip in when I’m not paying attention. Thankfully happiness shows up when I’m not paying attention as well.

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