Thursday, January 31, 2008

Poem by William Stanley Braithwaite

Here is a poem by African American writer William Stanely Braithwaite (1878-1962) that I like:

Sic Vita

by William Stanley Braithwaite

Heart free, hand free,
Blue above, brown under
All the world to me
Is a place of wonder.
Sun shine, moon shine,
Stars, and winds a-blowing,
All into this heart of mine
Flowing, flowing, flowing!

Mind free, step free,
Days to follow after,
Joys of life sold to me
For the price of laughter.
Girl's love, man's love,
Love of work and duty,
Just a will of God's to prove
Beauty, beauty, beauty!

(first published 1908)

The rhetoric and language of Braithwaite's poetry are rarely this deliberately spare, stripped down. The poem reminds me of deliberately simplified paintings; for some reason, Chagall's work comes to mind, but I don't know how apt that comparison is.

Normally, the repetition of "beauty" followed by an exclamation point in a poem would make me nervous, but i think it works all right here. The poem seems to answer an unspoken question: "What are the basics of life, of human experience?" The poem seems both rhetorically and philosophically pithy, and althought the perspective is certainly adult, the landscape evoked by the poem reminds me of a children's book: blue above, brown below, keep it simple.

I did not see "Love of work and duty" coming, but I was glad to see it. Depending, of course, on the nature of the work and the duty, love of work and duty may be of basic importance to a good life, I'd argue. What does "Just a will of God's to prove" mean? It might mean that one has to live in order to live out or demonstrate whatever God's will is for one's life (and the poem assumes one believes in God). Or the line might be using "prove" as in "try" or "test." That is, "the exception that proves the rule" used to mean "the exception that tests the rule," not "the already accepted exception that we'll agree to ignore as we continue to abide by the rule." Anyway, I like the fact that the line seems as simple as the other lines but introduces some complexity there at the end.

It would be going way too far to suggest that there is something essentially "American" about the poem, but I do think there is a kind of American impulse to "get down to business," and Braithwaite may have had the impulse to list the basics of this life. I imagine I hear an American voice in the poem brusquely asking, "Okay, when we're talking about life, what are we really talking about, huh?"

I suppose Max Weber would perceive something quite Protestant in "Love of work and duty."

A final musing: Braithwaite's being born in the year after Reconstruction ended and having died after one major chapter in the Civil Rights Movement had occurred probably mean that he was astonished by some changes and dispirited by a lot of circumstances that remained the same. I wonder if he ever saw Jackie Robinson and/or Willie Mays play baseball--trivial in one sense, miraculous in another. Likewise (and not so likewise), I've always wondered if T.S. Eliot, who died in 1965 (if memory serves), listened to the Beatles, and if he did, what he thought about that. I assume he would have been unamused by the Beatles, but on the other hand, Tse Tse (as Ezra Pound called him) was the source of Broadway's Cats, so who knows? Maybe one of his biographers does. I'll have to check the index.
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