Song for Autumn

This address is another pass over the fertile ground mapped out by James C. Edwards in his The Plain Sense of Things  (Penn State Press 1996) in which he says for us (i.e. late twentieth and early twenty-first century Western European and North American intellectuals) that “full Pathos, full belief, comes only with intellectual or artistic inevitability” (p. 231). This address concentrates on what for me feels true in the poetry of Mary Oliver - for me she speaks with an artistic inevitability - but, as I offer this to you I also point towards the need for this artistic inevitability to go hand-in-hand with an intellectual inevitability, primarily that provided by the natural sciences.

As my thoughts turned this week towards the need to write today’s address I had on my desk two what seemed to be completely unrelated texts. The first was a verse from Proverbs 4:23 “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Behüte dein Herz mit allem Fleiß; denn daraus geht das Leben - Luther Bibel). This was before me because I was reading about Heidegger’s relationship to his house in Frieburg and his hut in the Alps and this verse was inscribed above the front door of his Frieberg house. The second was a poem by Mary Oliver entitled “Song for Autumn” (in New and Selected Poems Vol. 2):

In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.


The chance meeting of these two texts caused me to reconsider in a particular way the old, old human problem that is concerned to understand what is the relationship between our mind and body, between us and the other contents of the world.

The difference between our mind and our heart forms one part of this question and, for many years, there has been a strong tendency within our culture to make a pretty clear distinction between them, with, on the one hand, the heart being understood as simply a bio-mechanical pump on the one hand and, on the other, the mind being understood as the biological ‘seat’ of our thinking, reasoning, perceiving, willing, and feeling self.

But as a World Service programme illustrated last week there is an increasing body of empirical research which is suggesting that we are not quite right in saying the heart is merely a pump but instead can also be said to contribute to what we call thinking - an activity formerly, for we moderns, reserved for our minds.

Now I simply don’t have the knowledge to talk about this current research in an informed technical way but in the first instance I’m minded to take this suggestion very seriously. Why? Well, for starters, if from childhood you grew up with the Biblical text constantly in your imagination as I did, then the connection between the heart and thinking was never really absent. In Genesis we read the rather dark and bleak claim that “And GOD saw that the wickedness of man [was] great in the earth, and [that] every imagination of the thoughts of his heart [was] only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) whilst, more positively, when speaking of God the Psalmist says “The counsel of the LORD stands for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11).

But, despite their often great beauty and wisdom. the contents of the Bible are, of course, far from having the only or final word on any matter. We need to bring to them everything else that has made us who we are and which gifts us with the possibility of framing any vision at all. They include not only what we might call unmediated direct personal experiences of the world but also the ripest fruits of both our reasoned and poetic thinking. For me one of the most ripest and succulent fruits is a way of thinking about the world, not as something from which we are separated and over which we triumphantly walk, but rather as an interdependent whole in which we are indissolubly commingled - in which we are more a line of creative movement than a discrete thinking thing (res cogitans).  In the way necessity has required that I see the world, to turn to the list found in Oliver’s poem, leaves, earth, air, trees, moss, stone, birds, golden rod and ‘everlastings’, snow, fox, fire and firewood are not only to be thought of as discrete things set apart one from another and us but commingled things - lines of living movement like us. In this I cannot but help always to have on my lips the ancient saying that “all things in the world are one, and one is all in all things.”

But, if all things can be imagined to be commingled in the radical way I have suggested then I am also required to imagine as “an inevitable knowledge, required as a necessity requires” that it is not just a matter of God or the gods and humans having thoughts of their hearts but of all other things having them too. This in part is, surely, what Mary Oliver is attempting to do in her poem “Song for Autumn”.

Recall how she imagines the leaves thinking “how comfortable it will be to touch the earth instead of the nothingness of air and the endless freshets of wind?” and then the trees thinking of “the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep inside their bodies?”

Her list continues with other ways she sees the world signaling a movement towards the ways of winter, the goldenrod’s whispered goodbye to summer, the perennial pea’s crowning “with the first tuffets of snow” (I take her to mean here the lathyrus latifolius - but perhaps she is referring to a distant mountain?), the pond’s freezing over which allows the fox to begin its winter routes impossible in summer and in so doing revealing, in its footprints, the blue shadows of deep frozen water beneath.

And then, as the autumn wind blows we find ourselves by a campfire or, perhaps, by a fire in a grate or stove the wood shifts in that distinctive, soft and subtle way that she senses is saying to us, “I must be on my way” - as we, too, are on our way into winter. These commingled things call upon us to reflect upon both our mortality - the leaves willingly, longingly returning to their roots - and also new possibilities still to break forth from our lives - the birds nesting inside the trees as ideas and thoughts nest in us to be pondered upon, nurtured and brought to later birth.

I think it is clear that Oliver’s poem is undeniably evocative of the beauties of autumn but, if this were its only quality, then it would be merely a decorative and rather sentimental text. But Oliver is a much more profound poet than that.

As I have observed elsewhere she is someone who writes very much from the perspective of someone who understands themselves to be commingled in nature - she does not write from the perspective of a distanced, outside observer. It is important to realise that she is not concerned to describe the things of the world, rather she is feeling, and helping us to feel, an intimate part of it and, as her thinking line of movement crosses the lines of movements that are the leaves, earth, air, trees, moss, stone, birds, golden rod and everlastings, snow, fox, fire and firewood it seems legitimate (to me at least), at the moment of intersection, at that set of momentary co-ordinates to say (and know and feel) that these things in relationship with us can be said to have thoughts. They can be said to think because at the co-ordinates that is this poem and us reading it there is no separation - we are called to bring our line of movement to intersect with hers and the particular collection of things she connects together in this and hr other poems. Her purpose is not precisely to persuade us that this commingling is possible but to show us in a poetic way such that (as long as it moves hand in hand with our developing knowledge of the world as we encounter it through scientific endeavour) we come to accept it, quite naturally, as a necessity requires. It is to live fully as if the world were one and always to act out of a profound respect of that interdependent commingling.

In terms of our current language use I want to say here today - though not, of course, in an absolute, dogmatic and final way - that the language of “the thinking heart” seems to be a good way of gesturing to this way of being in the world expressed by Mary Oliver. She gives us, if you are minded to follow Heidegger here, a body of work which strongly suggests this comminglement is the primordial way of being-in-the-world. In this sense Mary Oliver’s work is an example of, not explaining, but showing what it might mean “to guard our hearts with all diligence” and it is to be done because it connects us directly to something we might be minded to call the “springs of life.” 

But we live in a world of different aspects (even as the facts of the world remain unchanged) and this primordial way of looking at the world is not the only one available to us. The scientific world-view, harking back to my opening comment, is the other chief way we encounter and understand our world. Science, though it has many unitary tendencies and aspects itself, has developed for the most part by analysing our world it into ever smaller constituent elements - revealing the ‘thingy-ness’ of our world. So, as above, in terms of our current language use I want to say here today - though again not in an absolute, dogmatic and final way - that the language of “the thinking mind” seems to be a good way of gesturing to this way of being in the world.

These two aspects can inappropriately be hijacked by over-zealous advocates. On the one hand there are many mystics (whether of traditional or new-age kinds) who want to claim that the commingled, wholistic way of seeing and experiencing the world is the only true way to be-in-the-world. On the other hand, there are many scientific-rationalists who are minded to say about this way of thinking (to rehearse an old joke) that this mystical wholism begins in ‘mist’ and ends in ‘schism’ and can go on to claim that the true way to view the world is as a dispassionate scientific observer who looks at the world from ‘outside’

But both ways of encountering the world are, surely, not only possible but required. To me they are both required as a necessity requires. One person who realised this and expressed it well and with some humour was the great physicist Richard Feynman. In “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” he tells us the following story (you can also see him tell the story on YouTube):

I have a friend who's an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don't agree with. He'll hold up a flower and say, "Look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. But then he'll say, "I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull." I think he's kind of nutty. [...] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.

A religious community such as our own should, I think, be careful to be quite clear that for us full belief requires both intellectual (the thinking mind) and artistic (the thinking heart) inevitability and that only a life which values them both is sufficient for our time, place and culture. Neither is, of course, absolutely separate from each other and they, too, commingle; both inform, correct and inspire the other even as they continue to have their different realms and can reveal different aspects of our extraordinary world.

In short perhaps we should modify the proverb with which we began and say loudly and clearly:  “Keep your heart and mind with all diligence, for from them both flow the springs of life.”
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