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"The surest home is pointless": a pathless path through Merton's poetic corpus.

Finding one's way through the 1,000-plus pages of the Collected Poems (1) is a daunting prospect for even the most dedicated reader of Thomas Merton. The sheer number of the poems, the obscurity of many of them, as well as their uneven quality, have tended to keep most Merton readers from acquaintance with more than a handful of the most familiar pieces. Daniel Berrigan, in an oft-quoted comment, said, "He needed a Pound, to cut him to size" (2) (alluding to Ezra Pound's editing of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land). Just hefting the book itself might incline us to modify that to: he needed someone to cut it to a pound--even the paperback edition weights three times that. Merton's poetry is probably too heavy, in more than one sense, ever to be popular, yet neglecting it leads to an incomplete and thus distorted understanding of Merton as both writer and person. Although I doubt anyone would claim that his verse is as important as his prose, the fact that Merton, particularly at the outset (1939-1949) and again toward the conclusion (1966-1968) of his writing career, dedicated a considerable portion of the limited time available to him for writing to poetry, and identified himself explicitly, at times even primarily, as a poet, should never be overlooked or minimized.

Merton's verse is both an important resource for discovering and evaluating his developing spiritual and social vision, and a quite significant if secondary contribution to his overall achievement as literary figure and as "spiritual master" (to borrow a term from Lawrence Cunningham's now classic anthology (3)). The poetry, therefore, needs to be recognized as an integral part and not a peripheral dimension of his work. The poetry reinforces and extends themes and ideas found in the prose and provides insights on some topics available nowhere else.

I believe, moreover, that the Collected Poems needs to be read complete, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is not to say, of course, that unless one is going to read all the poems one should not read any of them--hardly a proposition that will increase the familiarity and popularity of Merton's verse. (4) What I mean, rather, is that patterns of recurring and developing imagery and themes weave their way through the nearly three decades of Merton's verse in such a way that a reading of virtually any poem is enriched by seeing it in the context of these broader patterns. (5) One such pattern that seems to me among the most central and significant for appreciating Merton's poetry can be discerned by noting an apparent coincidence with regard to work dating from the beginning and the end of his career. The last of Merton's separately published volumes of verse, which appeared the year after his death, is entitled The Geography of Lograire. (6) The very first word in the Collected Poems also happens to be "geography": it is found in the four-line epigraph that opens Early Poems (1940-1942): "Geography comes to an end, /Compass has lost all earthly north, /Horizons have no meaning, /Nor roads an explanation." (7) The fact Merton selected these lines to introduce this gathering of previously uncollected early verse (which actually appeared only after his death, in 1971 (8)) signals his own recognition of the consistent though multivalent presence of topographical images and themes throughout his verse. This can be seen in such poems as "Landscape: Wheatfields," "Landscape, Prophet and Wild Dog," "Landscape: Beast," or "Aubade: Lake Erie," "The Ohio River--Louisville," "The Trappist Cemetery--Gethsemani," and "Grace's House," yet is by no means restricted to poems with specific locations in their titles. Michael Mott has commented that "It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of place for Thomas Merton," (9) and this is particularly, though certainly not exclusively, applicable to the poetry. His extraordinary attentiveness to the spatial dimension, to place, not just as setting but as subject--as sacramental revelation of divine creativity; as symbolic manifestation of religious vision; as concrete representation of moral and spiritual alternatives; as "objective correlative" for interior states of mind and soul--is a central aspect of many of his most fully realized poems, from all phases of his career, and provides an important, perhaps the most important, point of access for appreciating the foundation and evaluating the results of Merton's vast poetic enterprise. Therefore this motif is, I believe, one thread that can guide us through the daunting and at times seemingly impenetrable labyrinth of the Collected Poems. While in this brief discussion we can do no more than to take samplings of this attentiveness to place, spatiality, "geography," I hope it will be enough to suggest its centrality and significance, and thereby to encourage readers to continue to follow the thread for themselves. Merton's fascination with this pattern is a key which can be of value for many readers.

One can identify three broad categories into which Merton's poetry of place can be assigned, related in a loosely dialectical way: sacramental, desacralized, and interior landscapes. The first mode focuses on the capacity of the created world to manifest the power, wisdom and love of the Creator. "To the true Christian poet," Merton writes, "the whole world and all the incidents of life tend to be sacraments--signs of God, signs of His love working in the world." (10) Merton's extraordinary sensitivity to the natural world allows him to find in creation an epiphany of the Creator. In many of the early poems this sacramentality is expressed through the use of implicitly eucharistic imagery, finding in wheatfields and vineyards signs of the divine presence analogous to, and perfected by, the sacrament of communion. Such awareness is characteristically associated with the innocence of children or the wisdom of saints, who are able to see the world as God intended it to be, to recognize paradise hidden within the ordinary forms of everyday reality, as in the lovely early lyric "Evening," (11) when the children describe apple trees in springtime as "their innocent sisters, dressed in blossoms, /Still wearing, in the blurring dusk, /White dresses from that morning's first communion": (12) the flowering of the trees, a sign of renewal, is indeed a communion with the creative Lord who gives form and life to all creatures. When Merton enters monastic life the abbey itself frequently serves as an image of this holistic vision, as in poems such as "Trappists, Working," written shortly after his arrival, or "After the Night Office--Gethsemani Abbey," (13) where the monastery represents the embodiment of a harmonious integration of the natural, the human and the divine and the antithesis to scenes of disorder representing a world that has ignored or rejected God. Later, the desert landscape will provide a paradoxical locus of spiritual fecundity, as in "Macarius and the Pony" (14) or "Night-Flowering Cactus." (15)

Even in these poems of sacramental awareness, there is often a direct or implicit contrast with the perspective of those who fail to perceive the truth because they try to force reality to conform to their own expectations, and many poems juxtapose contrasting scenes which serve as concrete representations of contradictory worldviews: desert and city ("The Flight into Egypt"), or monastery and "world" ("The Trappist Abbey: Matins") or Harlem and Wall Street ("Aubade: Harlem"). The two settings typically embody the Augustinian distinction between self-love and self-gift, cupiditas and caritas, the City of Man and the City of God, antitheses particularly evident in Merton's verse drama The Tower of Babel.

The awareness of a fallen world is evident in the "landscape of disaster" of which Merton writes in his best-known poem, the elegy on the death of his brother John Paul during the Second World War, (16) and in numerous other poems which Merton writes about war both early and late in his career. (17) Frequently the city, with its dehumanizing routines and sharp divisions between rich and poor, epitomizes this desacralized landscape, as in "Aubade--The City" (18) or "Hymn of Not Much Praise for New York City," or in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, "And the Children of Birmingham." (19) But Merton avoids a simplistic dualism in which nature is perceived as good and revelatory while urban life is rejected as profane and distorted. In one of his earliest poems, "The City's Spring," the urban landscape is perceived as having a sacramental capacity of its own, albeit one that is too seldom recognized by its inhabitants. Nor is there anything automatic about the sacramentality of the natural world, which can be unrecognized and undermined by human greed and desire to dominate. Merton was usually wise enough to recognize the danger of creating an oversimplified dualism, dividing people, places, and events into mutually exclusive classifications of good and evil, unduly idealizing the monastery or demonizing the world. He soon recognized that religious life had its flaws and lapses and that no earthly landscape can or should be viewed as a perfect correlative to God's eternal and infinite love. From the mid-1905s, he increasingly used landscape imagery to symbolize interior states, finding the alternatives of good and evil within the self, and replacing condemnation with compassionate identification with the world and its struggles. These poems express the realization that the real journey of life is interior, that the ultimate landscape to be explored is the landscape of the soul, as expressed in the final lines of one of his most significant poems, "Elias--Variations on a Theme":
Under the blunt pine
Elias becomes his own geography ...
His own pattern, surrounding the Spirit
By which he is himself surrounded:

For the free man's road has neither beginning nor end. (20)


A similar perspective marks the concluding sections of Cables to the Ace, where Merton, having depicted depersonalized, manipulative, coercive modern society through much of the poem, finally turns to the desert as an alternative: "for each of us there is a point of nowhereness in the middle of movement, a point of nothingness in the midst of being: the incomparable point, not to be discovered by insight. If you seek it you do not find it. If you stop seeking, it is there. But you must not turn to it. Once you become aware of yourself as seeker, you are lost. But if you are content to be lost you will be found without knowing it, precisely because you are lost, for you are, at last, nowhere." Only in this emptiness can the "true word of eternity" be heard that "is spoken only in the spirit of that man who is himself a wilderness." (21)

To get a better sense of how the dynamics of Merton's shifting poetic landscapes actually function in practice, it is helpful to look in detail at representative poems that exemplify each of these three major developments.

Sacramental awareness

The best known, and arguably the best, of Merton's poems of sacramental awareness is "Grace's House," (22) based on a drawing by a young girl whose name could not have been more apt. (23) The poem begins abruptly, with a prepositional phrase, a very effective initial point of focus:
On the summit: it stands on a fair summit
Prepared by winds: and solid smoke
Rolls from the chimney like a snow cloud.
Grace's house is secure. (11. 1-4)


The description of the scene literally begins at the top, and using the phrase "the summit" has the effect of aligning it with all the other summits of myth, perhaps particularly with Dante's location of Eden at the summit of the seven-storied Mount Purgatory. Only then does the poem drop back from the unmodified description to a subject and verb and the more modest "a fair summit"--from the archetype to a particular, specific exemplification of this archetype. What is being described (prescinding from the title) is not yet specified--in fact at this point the poem looks at the summit from a primordial perspective, a time before "it" was there: the detail "Prepared by winds" is not based directly on the drawing, obviously--it is interpretation rather than description: "winds" are symbolically associated with the creative work of the Holy Spirit, as in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:8 (The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit) and the wind/spirit that blows over the waters at the beginning of Genesis. The detail suggests preparation for creation, and implicitly for transformation as well. Attention then shifts not to the house itself but to the smoke coming from the chimney, the first indication that the object being described is in fact a house. (24) But the smoke is not dingy or dirty but "like a snow cloud," an image of purity (which is in fact "solid" white in the drawing). Only at this point, to conclude the first verse paragraph, is full identification made--the description of the house as "secure"--firmly set on its site--recalls the house built on rock at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7. It also creates an interesting parallel with St. John of the Cross's poem "The Dark Night" with its references to the "case" being "segura" (and even its repeated phrase "Ah, the sheer grace"); (25) but this poem is firmly cataphatic, focused on the sacramentality of the scene--here it is not a matter of leaving the house and going forth into the darkness, as in St. John's poem, but rather of reaching the house on the sunlit hill, a reverse dynamic--but it is likely that the language, deliberately or not, reflects that of St. John. There is no effort to elaborate, here or elsewhere in the poem, on the symbolic significance of the girl's name--it is allowed to operate "on its own" without spoiling its effect by foregrounding it too obviously. Much of the effectiveness of this opening section depends on the way the poet weaves together sounds--the assonance of "fair" and "Prepared," of "smoke," "Rolls" and "snow," "cloud" and "house"; the slant rhyme of "stands" and "winds"; the repeated "s" in "summit," "stands," "solid smoke" "snow," moved to the end of words in "Grace's house" and echoed by the unaccented first syllable of "secure." These connections will continue into the opening line of the second section as "Grace's" is connected by assonance with "blade" and consonance with "grass."

In this next section, the focus is on the landscape:
No blade of grass is not counted,
No blade of grass forgotten on this hill.
Twelve flowers make a token garden.
There is no path to the summit-
No path drawn
To Grace's house. (11. 5-10)


The emphasis on the grass is true to the drawing, which is remarkably thorough in its detailed depiction of each separate blade (counting them all would actually be quite a task!). The implication is that even the apparently least significant objects are to be recognized as important, precious, not to be overlooked. The phrasing of the first statement recalls Christ's words that the hairs of the head are all counted (Matt. 10:30); the repetition with variations serves to reinforce this point. The "Twelve flowers" (actually more than seem to be found in the drawing), with their scriptural echoes, form " a token garden" not just in the sense that they are a part to be taken for the whole but that they are symbolic, a sign of fullness, completion, creating a garden scene suggestive of Eden. The conclusion of this section echoes its opening in that it is also phrased as a repetition with variation. The full implications of this detail are not yet developed; the absence of a path could be considered simply as one more detail of the landscape, perhaps even as evidence of an unintended incompleteness of the scene, as the word "drawn" indicates for the first time that what is being described is, in fact, a picture. But the repetition of the key word "summit" from the opening line, and the line break that turns the second clause (with a syntactic structure exactly parallel to 1. 6) into two lines, leaving "To Grace's house" by itself, subtly foreshadows the symbolic significance that this detail will assume at the conclusion of the poem. Once again the sound devices of this section effectively reinforce its sense of unity and order: the perfect iambic pentameter of line 6 gives it particular prominence, and forms a contrast with the trochaic rhythms of the following line's "Twelve flowers make a token garden" (also a pentameter), with its mirroring effect of the "w-1-v"/"f-1-w" of "Twelve flowers," the medial "k" of "make" and "tok-" and the echo of the identical unaccented final syllables of "token" and "garden" (linking as well to "-gotten" in the previous line).

Mention of the house at the end of this section leads naturally to consideration of a particular detail of its appearance to open the following verse paragraph:
All the curtains are arranged
Not for hiding but for seeing out.
In one window someone looks out and winks.
Two gnarled short
Fortified trees have knotholes
From which animals look out.
From behind a corner of Grace's house
Another creature peeks out. (II. 11-18)


There is a certain amount of "expansion" of the drawing here--no wink is evident in the picture (the girl in the window has only dots for eyes); a knothole is visible only in one of the trees; there is only a very sketchy creature, if there is one at all, behind the corner of the house. This entire section is linked by the motif of "seeing out": "someone" from within the house "looks out and winks"; "animals" from within the trees "look out"; a "creature" from behind the house "peeks out." Humans, animals and "creatures" in general are all participating in the common process of seeing--and being seen. There is no hiding, as Adam and Eve did in the garden after their sin. The "wink" of the figure in the window suggests eye contact and even a signal of sorts to the viewer. What all the participants share is both being fully integrated into the scene and yet being able to look out from it--the "innocent 'outgazing' proper to the child" or of the "animal [which] simply 'gazes out' without any consciousness of a center which gazes" that Rilke describes: "the 'pure consciousness' of Zen, the consciousness that has not fallen into self-consciousness, separateness, and spectatorship," which "does not look at things, and does not ignore them, annihilate them, negate them" but "accepts them fully, in complete oneness with them. It looks 'out of them,' as though fulfilling the role of consciousness not for itself only but for them also." (26) Once again sound reinforces sense: again there is a regular iambic pentameter (without the initial unaccented syllable) in the second line of the section; "winks" echoes both "win-" and "looks" earlier in the line; "creature" is linked both to "corner" in the previous line by its "c" and "r" sounds and to "peeks" by assonance. The cluster of accented syllables in "Two gnarled short / Fort-" (with the rhyme connecting the lines) reinforces the impression of sturdiness here (in the context "Fortified" suggests not defensiveness but something substantial, strong [cf. the root "fortis"], firm, parallel to the "secure" of the house).

While this section with its multiple figures was panoramic, what follows focuses on a single creature:
Important: hidden in the foreground
Most carefully drawn
The dog smiles, his foreleg curled, his eye like an aster.
Nose and collar are made with great attention:
This dog is loved by Grace! (11. 19-23)


The phrase "hidden in the foreground" seems paradoxical, but is quite accurate: the dog is fully integrated into the scene--not standing out as separate from his surroundings--perhaps suggestive of the puzzles of finding concealed objects in children's activity books; yet while "hidden" he is not "hiding"--there is no concealment, just a need for discernment on the viewer's part. He is "most carefully drawn"--presented as unique. The reference to his "eye like an aster" (which is indeed quite prominent in the drawing) relates the dog both to the outseeing creatures of the previous section and to the flowers of the section before that, and as "aster" is also linked etymologically to "star" there may be a suggestion of a parallel with celestial light here also. The care and attention of the drawing are perceived as a sign of love, of a world marked by love, the love of the artist for her dog, whose smile reciprocates, and by analogy of the Creator for the creature. The "musical" dimension of the verse continues, as "collar" echoes both "aster" and "curled" and "made" and "great" are linked with "Grace" by assonance, and in the latter case by alliteration as well.

The section that follows provides the first reference to the world beyond the hill, beyond the drawing:
And there: the world!
Mailbox number 5
Is full of Valentines for Grace.
There is a name on the box, name of a family
Not yet ready to be written in language. (11. 24-28)


The initial detail here focuses more on connections than on distinctions. The mailbox (which is part of the drawing) is filled with valentines (which are not seen--there is no way to see what is inside the mailbox) that represent the wider world's love for the little girl, or perhaps the girl's perception of the wider world as loving: there is a sense of harmony and attraction linking the two. At the same time, the mailbox preserves a sense of mystery, of difference, for the unreadable name is an indication that no label is adequate to express her identity, which transcends the limits of language.

In the lines that follow, the distinction between the two realms begins to be recognized and its implications to be considered:
A spangled arrow there
Points from our Coney Island
To her green sun-hill. (11. 29-31)


The "arrow" refers to the flag on the mailbox, which actually is arrow-shaped, and does point toward the hill. "Coney Island" is of course outside the frame of the picture, as it is outside the experience of the artist. The archetypal amusement park. Coney Island with its noise, its crowds and its frenetic pace is an icon of triviality, of busyness without purpose, a symbol of contemporary culture's obsession with diversion. This is the world of "experience" in the Blakean sense, juxtaposed with the child's world of innocence, the hill bathed in light and filled with the natural vitality of creation.

The distinction between "our Coney Island" and "her green sun-hill" is further developed in the section that follows:
Between our world and hers
Runs a sweet river:
(No, it is not the road,
It is the uncrossed crystal
Water between our ignorance and her truth.) (11. 32-36)


Located at the very bottom of the picture, the stream does indeed form the border between the world of the drawing, the visionary world of the child, and the world of the observer. It is reminiscent of the River Jordan as the boundary of the Promised Land, and perhaps of the river that separates the narrator from the young girl in the medieval dream-vision Pearl (though Grace, unlike the pearl maiden, is alive) or the river Lethe that must be passed to enter into paradise in Dante's Purgatorio. Its "uncrossed crystal" water is a symbol of purity, and with its likely wordplay on "cross" and "Christ" suggests a vision of paradise before the fall, before sin and death, before the necessity of the cross. The speaker says it separates "our ignorance and her truth," but one might have expected the converse: she is still ignorant of the reality of the fallen world and its evils, while we know what reality is actually like. But the point is that Grace is still able to grasp intuitively what creation is intended to be, to see the world as God made it; she retains a holistic vision that we have lost, because it is inaccessible to the analytic mind; it can be known only from within, through love and wisdom, relational and participatory knowledge.

The lines that follow, which finally make explicit the identification that the speaker's description has suggested from the outset, move the focus back to the scene itself:
O paradise, O child's world!
Where all the grass lives
And all the animals are aware!
The huge sun, bigger than the house
Stands and streams with life in the east
While in the west a thunder cloud
Moves away forever. (11. 37-43)


Following the initial revelatory invocation here, the edenic landscape is epitomized in terms of plant and animal life--the grass is alive, the animals aware. The speaker then immediately reverts to the concrete details of the drawing, effectively countering any tendency to abstraction or grandiose pronouncements. He returns to the top of the drawing, to the rising sun in the east, sign and source of life, symbol of new beginnings. The sun is indeed "huge" in the drawing--in fact only a quarter are is seen in the upper left-hand corner; this is definitely a depiction of a "mysticism of light." While the sun "stands and streams with life" (paralleling the "sweet river" at the bottom of the page), the thunder cloud "[m]oves away forever": one remains as a permanent reality, the other is disappearing (literally, as it too bleeds beyond the edge of the drawing). These contrasting images, more "cosmic" than the details of the description of the hill itself, have apparently been reserved for this point in the poem as all-encompassing symbols of the two contrasting, indeed incompatible worldviews that have emerged in the previous sections.

The poet signals that the poem is drawing to a close by providing a recapitulation with variations of the opening lines of the second section:
No blade of grass is not blessed
On this archetypal, cosmic hill,
This womb of mysteries. (11. 44-46)


The grass that was "counted" in line 5 is now "blessed"--by the sunlight, but more fundamentally by the Creator, who cares for even the most ordinary components of creation; "on this hill" (1. 6) becomes "on this archetypal, cosmic hill"--recognized as representative of all the high places where the divine is encountered, and as a microcosm of the entire universe as it was intended to be. As the "womb of mysteries" it is, like Eden, the source of further life, but also the source of insight into the mystery of reality, the hidden wholeness of creation that is always present beneath the surface yet generally ignored or denied.

Again there is a movement from these more universal images to more specific and concrete details, which counters any hint of pretentiousness, while at the same time completing the recapitulation of the entire drawing from top (sun, thunder cloud) through middle (grassy hillside) to bottom:
I must not omit to mention a rabbit
And two birds, bathing in the stream
Which is no road ... (11. 47-49)


In these almost final lines, the speaker refers to himself directly for the first time in the poem--calling attention to himself would have been a distraction earlier. He seems to be reminding himself as he approaches the conclusion that he needs to include mention of these particular creatures as part of the scene, but in the process he is returning the focus to the stream, which is not a barrier for the innocent animals as it is for fallen humans, and which is once again (as in line 34) identified as "no road," a declaration that prepares the way for the final line, which stands by itself: "... because // Alas, there is no road to Grace's house!" (11. 49-50). This line is also a variation on earlier descriptive detail (11. 8-10), but repeated now with a sense of its full significance, and with the first interjection of an affective response in the initial "Alas," concluding the poem with an apparent sense of loss and regret. One may ask, then, if the poem is finally pessimistic, if it presents a vision of paradise only to admit its complete inaccessibility. Certainly, the lack of a road means there is no "way" to return to Eden, no method, no set of plans or directions. A clear path would indicate the possibility of reaching this perfection by one's own efforts. Yet it is, after all, the house of Grace that is on the summit, which cannot be reached through a self-directed journey, cannot be achieved or earned, but is nevertheless available as sheer gift for those who are willing to be led along a road which is no road, a pathless path to paradise.

Counter-sacramentality

In Merton's poetic vision the possibility of failing to recognize and respond to the revelatory power of the natural world becomes actual in the early poem entitled "The Regret," (27) which describes a failure to make connections, a "counter-sacramentality," in its depiction of human alienation from the rhythms and patterns of creation.

The opening line stands alone, separated from the rest of the poem like the personified figure it describes: "When cold November sits among the reeds like an unlucky fisher" (1. 1). The image is one of isolation, discomfort, futility, failure. What follows indicates that it is less an objective description than a projection of the speaker's own feelings about the season:
And ducks drum up as sudden as the wind
Out of the rushy river,
We slowly come, robbed of our rod and gun.
Walking amid the stricken cages of the trees. (11. 2-5)


The juxtaposition of the hapless fisherman with the flock of ducks suggests that he would be better off hunting than fishing, but the speaker and his companions (presumably his audience) are deprived of both rod and gun, powerless to catch any game at all. The imagery used here reveals why the human figures are out of sympathy with the seasonal round. There is a sense of being aggrieved and resentful at the turn of events, but the fault lies not with nature but with the misperception of humans' relationship to nature: the equation of trees with cages suggests that nature is regarded not as a sacrament, a gift, but as a possession, something to be captured and kept under control.

Merton's speaker's frustration is that the effort to cage up nature, to consider oneself its owner or keeper, is inevitably thwarted by the patterns of the temporal cycle. The enemy is transience, mutability. He has been "robbed" of rod and gun, but robbed more fundamentally of the world of summer, the pleasant weather, the "good life." But this is evidence of a distorted perception of the world: trees are not cages, and they are certainly not "stricken," a word that suggests not only "damaged" but "diseased." The dis-ease is in the speaker's own mind. Caged birds may be restricted in their movements, but those in the trees are free to follow their instinctive urge to migrate, and there is no way for humans to prevent their disappearance.

In the opening lines of the following stanza, the image is altered from keeping in to keeping out, but with no more successful results:
The stormy weeks have all gone home like drunken hunters,
Leaving the gates of the grey world wide open to December.
But now there is no speech of branches in these broken jails. (11. 6-8)


Here the "stormy weeks" are faulted for their carelessness in failing to bar the gates to the approaching winter, imaged as a sort of unwelcome trespasser. But in fact this "explanation" for the arrival of December is merely evidence of the speaker's refusal to accept the processes of nature. So long as the trees are considered as "broken jails," from which imprisoned creatures have fled, it is little wonder that there is "no speech" to be heard there, no revelation of the true significance of the events being described. The consequence of this narrowness of vision is apparent in the lines that follow, perhaps the central pivot of the entire poem, coming as they do at its midpoint:
Acorns lie over the earth, no less neglected
Than our unrecognizable regret:
And here we stand as senseless as the oaks,
As dumb as elms. (11. 9-12)


The speaker considers the acorns scattered beneath the trees to be neglected, but in fact he himself is ignoring the developmental potential of the acorns, which are of course seeds, signs of new life to come; they have not been simply discarded but left to germinate and so to participate in the rhythm of renewal, of seasonal death and rebirth. To all this the speaker is deaf. His human regret is thus "unrecognizable" because it does not correspond to the dynamism of creation--is out of harmony with the rhythms of the year. He claims to find an analogue for his inarticulate grief in the "dumb" and "senseless" trees, no longer filled with the song of birds or even the rustling of the leaves, but in fact the correspondence is suspect: the oaks and elms may still have something to communicate, even with their limbs stripped and seemingly dead, but the speaker's state of mind makes it virtually impossible for him to be receptive.

This sense of alienation grows more intense in the lines that follow:
And though we seem as grave as jailers, yet we did not come to wonder

Who picked the locks of the past days, and stole our summer.

(We are no longer listeners for curious saws, and secret keys!)
  (11. 13-15)


Here he admits defeat, renouncing even the role of jailer: not only will he no longer try to impede time's passage, he will make no effort to determine how the summer has disappeared. This is not an expression of resignation and acceptance, but of despondent submission. The line break allows the words "we did not come to wonder" to stand momentarily alone, forming a statement much more accurate than the speaker realizes. It is precisely the lack of wonder, of awe and fascination before the mystery of creation that isolates him from the scene he describes. He rejects the coming winter because of the reminder it brings of his own subjection to time, his own mortality, but it is all to no avail: he is already "as grave as jailers," already carrying death around within him in the form of his fear. Seeing only the forces of death and dissolution in the passage of time, he misses the deeper force of renewal, just as his professed disinterest in the "curious saws" and "secret keys" which made possible the summer's flight obscures his more significant failure to attend to these elements in their more profound sense, the enigmatic sayings and mysterious hidden wisdom (even expressed, perhaps, in musical form) through which the authentic meaning of natural processes would be revealed.

This psychic abasement reaches its lowest point in the final quatrain, where all distinctions between summer and winter, life and death, are obliterated:
We are indifferent to seasons,
And stand like hills, deaf.
And never hear the last of the escaping year
Go ducking through the bended branches like a leaf. (11. 16-19)


He has passed from regret to indifference, a loss of faith leading to, or disguised as, a lack of concern. The claim is being made that in doing so he has actually aligned himself fully with nature, represented by the hills, which is just as insensible as he now is. He has accepted a view of the material world as meaningless, a sign of nothing but the absurdity of existence, and has adopted a stance of insensibility. But the final lines suggest that this is a pose, an effort of self-protection designed to spare him the necessity of noticing the end of the year. But the fact that the year is still being described as "escaping" suggests that his earlier possessive attitude is not in fact dissipated, and that a satisfactory solution to his problem will not come through a specious indifference, but only by his honestly recognizing the sources of his regret, and coming to a belief that from his own inner emptiness, no less than from the scattered acorns, new life can sprout. Yet the poem ends with no indication that such a development will take place, other than the implicit recognition that with the departure of the old year comes the simultaneous entrance of the new. But if a person ignores the one, he will miss the other as well. "The Regret," then, depicts the lack of a sacramental consciousness, the refusal or inability to recognize nature as a gift from and a sign of the Creator, and the consequent bitterness and isolation that such a position inevitably entails. Its bleak despair heightens by contrast an appreciation of what authentic sacramentality should be.

The world as God intended

Despite its title, Merton's "The Fall" (28) is not simply about the desacralized landscape but about how to reverse the effects of the fall, how and where to encounter the world as God intended it to be. Its opening lines, a single sentence with no less than four negatives, are certainly an expression par excellence of the apophatic approach, the way of negation:
There is no where in you a paradise that is no place and there
You do not enter except without a story. (11. 1-2)


The very beginning of the sentence seems to be saying that paradise is not to be found within "you," but this impression is immediately countered by the clause modifying "paradise," which indicates that "no where" is not to be equated with "nowhere" but with "no place": the inner paradise is not present as a specified, distinct location that can be defined, pinpointed, mapped out--it is, nevertheless, "there" in some mysterious way, but cannot be entered "except without a story"--only by a radical self-surrender, by stripping away the illusion of one's own autonomy, by letting go of the story we have invented in order to provide for ourselves an identity over which we exercise control, can "paradise" be re-entered.

This negative language continues through the succeeding lines:
To enter there is to become unnameable.

Whoever is there is homeless for he has no door and
  no identity with which to go out and to come in.

Whoever is nowhere is nobody, and therefore cannot
  exist except as unborn:

No disguise will avail him anything. (11. 3-6)


If renouncing one's "story" is the necessary precondition for the recovery of paradise, becoming "unnameable" is the consequence. According to the poet one becomes not merely "unnamed" but "unnameable"--indefinable, not reducible to a label, to a limited identity. One is homeless because the distinction between one's home and everywhere else has become insignificant; there are no doors because all divisions between inside and outside, here and there, are transcended. Paradise has no boundaries, no borders, and to be in paradise is to have no identity that separates or isolates one from anyone else. It is a rediscovery, a reintegration, of the self-in-God, the true self known by God from all eternity, prior to all separation from its divine source and from the rest of creation. It is, as Merton will later say, "beyond the shadow and the disguise," (29) beyond the masks one creates to assume an artificial identity. "Such a one," the speaker declares, "is neither lost nor found" (1. 7), for such dualistic categories are inapplicable to paradise, to a world of primordial all-embracing unity.

In contrast, to be exiled from Eden is to live in a world of organized routines and recorded identities, subject to divisive labels and categories: "But he who has an address is lost" (1. 8). To have an address is to have both a place and a name (by which one is "addressed"), which in conventional terms is precisely not to be lost--it is to have and to know one's place and one's identity, to belong, to fit in, to possess a sense of contentment and self-satisfaction. But what is lost here is a sense of participation in a reality that transcends the individual self. This is the "fall" of the poem's title:
They fall, they fall into apartments and are securely established!
They find themselves in streets. They are licensed
To proceed from place to place
They now know their own names
They can name several friends and know
Their own telephones must some time ring. (11. 9-14)


Merton's wordplay on "apartments," with its connotations of isolation and alienation, highlights the contrast with the "homeless" yet integrated state of paradisal existence. Such "security" may seem reassuring, but its overtones suggest a loss of freedom and openness, a kind of imprisonment (cf. "maximum security") as part of the "establishment"--a static, confined existence. The self that is "found" in the streets (and so, as both lost and found, is doubly distinguished from the paradisal self) is the social self, a superficial identity defined by an accepted and acceptable role in society. The understated sardonic social commentary of being "licensed" to move about (suggesting an extreme dependence on the automobile), of "know[ing] their own names," accepting an identity and role assigned by society, of having the ability to "name several friends" (with no implication that this ability to name represents more than the most superficial knowledge) and of waiting for the telephone to ring, indicating a craving for communication and community that is perpetually disappointed but never relinquished, leads to the parody of oneness created "If all telephones ring at once, if all names are shouted at once and all cars crash at one crossing" (1. 15), a pseudo-unity that is meaningless, incomprehensible and ultimately destructive. It foreshadows the ultimate sharing in a common fate of apocalyptic destruction when "all cities explode and fly away in dust" (1. 16), yet even in such a catastrophe the bureaucracy and its mania for labels will survive: "identities refuse to be lost. There is a name and number for everyone" (1. 17). Such an existence is truly a culture of death, and is most perfectly realized in the efficient organization of the dead, who after all are completely compliant with established routines:
There is a definite place for bodies, there are pigeon holes for ashes:
Such security can business buy! (11. 18-19)


Apparently projecting the past history of the Nazi death camps, with their obsessively careful records, into some future atomic holocaust, the speaker explicitly links the "security" previously associated with having a place to live with having a place to die, or rather to be assigned postmortem; not even nuclear annihilation will eliminate the tendency to "pigeon hole" people--to be carried on, perhaps, by computers properly programmed to keep accurate lists of the dead.

While the poem thus far seems to have set up an antithesis between interior and societal landscapes, personal and social identities, it concludes by transcending such a distinction, and revealing that only those who have been liberated from oppressive social identities are truly able to live authentically and creatively in the social world without being trapped and dehumanized by it:
Who would dare to go nameless in so secure a universe?

Yet, to tell the truth, only the nameless are at home in it.

They bear with them in the center of nowhere
  the unborn flower of noting:

This is the paradise tree. It must remain unseen until words end
  and arguments are silent. (11. 20-23)


To be nameless in such a world is to be truly free because one evades all classifications and restrictions. Paradoxically, only those who are "homeless" (1. 3), completely detached, can be "at home" in a fallen world, because they alone find their center not in the plausible but fraudulent order of a "secure" social environment but in the genuine security of knowing creation as an epiphany of divine love. The vulnerability of namelessness, which has no self-image to maintain and defend, provides the only reliable protection against both interior and exterior pressures to conform to distorted and malignant definitions of person and society. Only the nameless can draw on resources that liberate them from the need to know, and keep, their place in society; only they "bear with them ... the unborn flower of nothing," not an object to be possessed or analyzed or distinguished from other objects but the eternal and everlasting mystery at the center of existence, the tree of life, "the paradise tree" that is always present but unperceived, to be revealed only when all attempts to define and explain it, and so to possess it, are relinquished.

Thus, for Thomas Merton, interior and exterior landscapes are ultimately recognized as not alternative but correlative, not contradictory but complementary, but only for those whose interior exploration has led to the discovery that no specific setting can be more than an emblem of the divine presence, that to be nowhere is to be in touch with everywhere, that transcendence is not the opposite of immanence but its necessary precondition, that "There is no where in you a paradise that is no place," that "the surest home is pointless" (Cables to the Ace) (30)--an uncharted center which opens out on the fathomless abyss of divine creative love.

It is the process of recognizing that "pointless" point, of following the pathless path, of "getting nowhere," that is the fundamental dynamic of Merton's "landscape" poems in particular, and of his poetry as whole. For when "you are, at last, nowhere" (the epiphanic moment of Cables to the Ace) you are at last open to everywhere (the central recognition of The Geography of Lograire) because you have encountered the Presence that is the Ground and Goal of all reality.

Notes

(1.) Merton, Thomas, Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1977); for an overview of this volume, and summaries of the individual volumes of Merton's verse, see Shannon, William H., Christine M. Bochen, and Patrick F. O'Connell, The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002).

(2.) Berrigan, Daniel SJ, "The Seventy Times Seventy-Seven Storey Mountain," Cross Currents 27 (Winter, 1977-1978), p. 93.

(3.) Cunningham, Lawrence S., ed., Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master (New York: Paulist, 1992).

(4.) For an excellent new selection of Merton's poetry, arranged thematically, see Merton, Thomas, In the Dark before Dawn: New Selected Poems, ed. Lynn Szabo (New York: New Directions, 2005).

(5.) Commentators on this material have provided helpful orientations to some of these patterns. George Woodcock, one of the first critics to integrate a discussion of Merton's verse into a broad consideration of his work, distinguished between "poetry of the choir," the rather ornate, liturgically influenced products of Merton's early years in the monastery, and "poetry of the desert," the much more austere verse of the last decade of his life: see his Thomas Merton, Monk and Poet (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1978), pp. 51-62 and 74-86. George Kilcourse has added the categories of "poetry of the forest," characteristic of pieces written from Merton's hermitage, and "poetry of paradise consciousness," works that captured the primordial innocence and unity of creation; see his Ace of Freedoms: Thomas Merton's Christ (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), p. 44, pp. 56-87. Lynn Szabo has explored the paradoxical interplay between efforts at verbal articulation and awareness of the divine reality beyond the expression of language; see her "The Sound of Sheer Silence: A Study of the Poetics of Thomas Merton," The Merton Annual 13 (2000), pp. 208-21. Malgorzata Poks has emphasized the thematic continuities in Merton's verse in her "Thomas Merton's Poetry of Endless Inscription: A Tale of Liberation and Expanding Horizons," The Merton Annual 14 (2001), pp. 184-222.

(6.) Merton, Thomas, The Geography of Lograire (New York: New Directions, 1969).

(7.) Collected Poems, p. 2; these lines are taken from the final poem in the collection, given the title "Sacred Heart 2 (A Fragment ...)" (Collected Poems, p. 24).

(8.) Merton, Thomas, Early Poems: 1940-1942 (Lexington, KY: Anvil Press, 1971).

(9.) Mott, Michael, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merlon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), p. 205.

(10.) Merton, Thomas, The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, ed. Patrick Hart, OCSO (New York: New Directions, 1981), p. 345.

(11.) For a discussion of this and related poems, see O'Connell, Patrick F., "Sacrament and Sacramentality in Thomas Merton's Thirty Poems," in The Vision of Thomas Merton, ed. Patrick F. O'Connell (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2003), pp. 155-84.

(12.) Collected Poems, p. 42.

(13.) For a discussion of this and related poems, see O'Connell, Patrick F., "Thomas Merton's Wake-Up Calls: Aubades and Monastic Dawn Poems from A Man in the Divided Sea," The Merton Annual 12 (1999), pp. 129-63.

(14.) For a discussion of this and its companion poem, see O'Connell, Patrick F., "More Wisdom of the Desert: Thomas Merton's Macarius Poems." Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 40.3 (2005), pp. 253-78.

(15.) For a discussion of this and related poems, see Thurston, Bonnie B., "Wrestling with Angels: Some Mature Poems of Thomas Merton," Vision of Thomas Merton, pp. 187-201; and O'Connell, Patrick F., "Nurture by Nature: Emblems of Stillness in a Season of Fury," The Merton Annual 21 (2008) [in press].

(16.) For a discussion of this poem, see O'Connell, Patrick F., "Grief Transfigured: Merton's Elegy on His Brother," The Merton Seasonal 18:1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 10-15.

(17.) For a discussion of the early poems on war, see O'Connell, Patrick F., "Landscapes of Disaster: Thomas Merton's War Poems," The Merton Annual 19 (2006), pp. 178-233.

(18.) For a discussion of this and related poems see "Thomas Merton's Wake-Up Calls."

(19.) For a discussion of this and related poems see O'Connell, Patrick F., "The Civil Rights Poetry of Thomas Merton," Across the Rim of Chaos: Thomas Merton's Prophetic Vision (Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Radstock: Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 2005), pp. 89-113.

(20.) Collected Poems, p. 245; for a discussion of this poem, see O'Connell, Patrick F., "The Geography of Solitude: Thomas Merton's 'Elias--Variations on a Theme,'" The Merton Annual 1 (1988), pp. 151-90.

(21.) Collected Poems, pp. 452-53.

(22.) Collected Poems, pp. 330-31.

(23.) For background to the poem, see Merton's letter of August 2, 1962 to Elbert Sisson, Grace's father, in Merton, Thomas, The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends, ed. Robert E. Daggy (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989), pp. 323-24; see also the letter of August 9, 1962 to Mark Van Doren (Road to Joy, p. 45) and a letter of May 13, 1967 to Grace Sisson herself about a later drawing (Road to Joy, pp. 352-53).

(24.) In "When Is a Building Beautiful?" (New York Review of Books 54.4 [15 March 2007], pp. 19-21), Alison Lurie writes, "There was also a generic type of benevolent dwelling that appeared in our art, of the type that the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard speaks of in The Poetics of Space as the picture most frequently drawn by the very young, that picture sometimes called the 'Happy House.' This is the image, familiar to almost every parent or teacher, of a square one- or two-story home with a peaked roof, a central door, and two or more symmetrically placed windows that may sometimes suggest a face with eyes and a mouth. In cool climates, the house often has a chimney with curls of smoke pouring out, suggesting that the building is warm and inhabited. Frequently the Happy House is surrounded by trees and/or flowers, and a big yellow sun shines in the sky, which is indicated by a strip of bright blue at the top of the drawing" (pp. 19-20). Despite the striking similarity, Merton had not yet read Bachelard's discussion of the "Happy House" at the time of writing "Grace's House." In "Merton's Hermitage: Bachelard, Domestic Space, and Spiritual Transformation" (Spiritus 4.2 [Fall, 2004], pp. 123-50), Belden Lane notes that Merton "enthusiastically read" The Poetics of Space while living at the hermitage (p. 124); for Merton's own comments on Bachelard see the journal entries for September 30 and October 2, 3, and 8, 1967 (Merton, Thomas, Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom. Journals, vol. 6: 1966-1967, ed. Christine M. Bochen [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997], pp. 295, 296, 298, and 300).

(25.) The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), p. 711.

(26.) Merton, Thomas, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), pp. 244-45.

(27.) Collected Poems, p. 33.

(28.) Collected Poems, pp. 354-55.

(29.) Merton, Thomas, The Asian Journal, ed. Naomi Burton Stone, Brother Patrick Hart and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973), p. 236.

(30.) Collected Poems, p. 454.
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Title Annotation:Thomas Merton
Author:O'Connell, Patrick F.
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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