Wrestling with Insignificance: Reading Yeats’ “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”

Image courtesy lexiesaxion.com
Image courtesy lexiesaxion.com

To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing

Now all the truth is out,

Be Secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved the lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbor’s eyes;

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult

~ W.B. Yeats


Wrestling with Insignificance:

Reading Yeats’ “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”

By Crystal Hurd

It has been nearly a decade since I stood, motionless and anxious, awaiting my entrance onto a makeshift platform. With band-members by my side, I prayed and exchanged nervous glances.  The hot Georgia climate only intensified as the afternoon progressed, as did my uncertainty.  Everybody here was really good.  I could feel my self-confidence lagging under the heat. Three record executives sat with smiles and scoresheets.  I had been preparing for this moment since I was six years old; the years of church singing and choral training – all had led to this climactic moment.  As I stepped on stage, I continued to dismiss my apprehension and allow the music to carry me away, to transcend myself.

But despite all of this, we didn’t win over the judges.  In fact, our scores were depressingly mediocre.  We never signed a major record contract.  After two albums and yet another failed audition, the band dismantled.

I’m not suggesting surrender after the first loss (we all experience it), but one must recognize when the curtain is beginning to sweep the stage and thus, graciously bow out. It is a hard but necessary truth. There is nothing more discouraging than watching your dreams die. I grew up with the refrain that I would “get famous” with my voice.  But there is no resisting reality.  At that critical moment, I was assembled with the best talent in the country.  They, as I, had a hope that all of their work would come to something. They were good.  No, they were great.  I simply could not compete with them.  When I welcomed that realization, I had two options: either I nurture resentment and shuffle away defeated or I find something else.  Thankfully, I chose the latter. I took Yeats’ advice: I walked away from that competition with greater self-knowledge and an amended plotline for my life. As clichéd as this sounds, there existed a germ of hope that urged me to press onward into new territory.  I was thankful to be sobered to that harsh fact, because now I understood that the path forks into something new, something different. An exciting chapter of self-discovery begins.

Even with approval, we continue to wrestle with our insignificance. Poet Joy Davidman (later the wife of C.S. Lewis) wrote in a letter to Stephen Vincent Benet:

I have to thank you not only for your very kind letter of recommendation but also for something more subtle. When one is beset with rejection slips and tormented by distrust of one’s work and ability, it is a comforting thing to receive encouragement from a man who knows. And so I am very grateful for your letter; it will justify the sunny moments in which I tell myself how good I am. (April 2, 1938)

Benet was a literary prodigy and Yale graduate whose full-length narrative poem “John Brown’s Body” earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1920.  His short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “By the Waters of Babylon” are anthologized in many celebrated volumes of literature.  Davidman had won the respect and admiration of Benet, a fact that comforted her as the rejection letters began to accumulate. If you haven’t heard of Davidman, don’t be surprised.  Many of Davidman’s poems were written during her stint as a communist, an unrelenting stigma that prevented much of her work from gaining popularity with the public. Davidman, although an incredibly gifted writer and poet, is now sadly known more for her association with C.S. Lewis than her talent as a wordsmith. She often contemplated her contribution.  Even with the approbation of other artists, she wondered if the pursuit of poetry was the right choice.

We all want to make a contribution, to, as Eliot eloquently stated, “disturb the universe”.  We all wish to discover the vacancy that bears our shape, the great void that requires our presence and our influence. The legacy you intend may not be what you expected – it may be something much, much greater than you imagined.  Have you considered this?  The moment you relinquish those tired dreams, a newer one emerges and all of the ambiguity of the past dissipates.  It all begins to make sense.

When the “Yeats” of the world underscore our failures, do not be stirred to anger. Take it as an opportunity to explore new territory.  Don’t become jaded; you may simply be mismatched.  Over the years, I have witnessed many determined musicians who have thwarted all other chances to play music.  They continue to spread their seeds on thirsty, resistant soil.  Instead of pursuing a different path, they cling to insistence, staggering headlong into a destiny that does not belong to them.  At some point, we all must embrace the path that is ours. If not, we live trapped with an unquenched longing, reside where we are perpetually unfulfilled.  I laid down my microphone and picked up a pen.  And honestly, I couldn’t be happier; in fact, I “exult” in the failures that define me today.  I took criticism on the chin, and then averted my gaze to a new direction. That is my destiny, the place where I leave fresh footprints. Perhaps no one said it better than Joy Davidman:

*Yet One More Spring

What will come of me

After the fern has feathered from my brain

And the rosetree out of my blood; what will come of me

In the end, under the rainy locustblossom

Shaking its honey out of springtime air

Under the wind, under the stooping sky?

What will come of me and shall I lie

Voiceless forever in earth and unremembered,

And be forever the cold green blood of flowers

And speak forever with the tongue of grass

Unsyllabled, and the sound no louder

Than the slow falling downward of white water,

And only speak the quickened sandgrain stirring,

Only the whisper of the leaf unfolding,

On the tongue of leaves forever and ever?

Out of my heart the bloodroot,

Out of my tongue the rose,

Out of my bone the jointed corn,

Out of my fiber trees,

Out of my mouth a sunflower,

And from my fingers vines,

And the rank dandelion shall laugh from my loins

Over million seeded earth, but out of my heart

Core of my heart, blood of my heart, the bloodroot

Coming to lift a petal in peril of snow,

Coming to dribble from a broken stem

Bitterly the bright color of blood forever.

But I would be more than a cold voice of flowers

And more than water, more than sprouting earth

Under the quiet passion of the spring;

I would leave you the trouble of my heart

To trouble you at evening; I would perplex you

With lightning coming and going about my head,

Outrageous signs, and wonders; I would leave you

The shape of my body filled with images,

The shape of my mind filled with imaginations,

The shape of myself.  I would create myself

In a little fume of words and leave my words

After my death to kiss you forever and ever.


*This poem is recorded, in its entirety, in Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman edited by Don King – William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.


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