Saturday, January 4, 2014


If we are to live in the present moment, a worthy goal for most of us, it is helpful to always remain mindful of the impermanence of things.  As Samuel Johnson famously said, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Here are two fine poems that deal with life's impermanence and what it means for those who want to avoid sleepwalking through life.  Enjoy!

                                     The question before me, now that I
                                     am old, is not how to be dead,
                                     which I know from enough practice,
                                     but how to be alive, as these worn
                                     hills still tell, and some paintings 
                                     of Paul Cezanne, and this mere
                                     singing wren, who thinks he's alive
                                     forever, this instant, and may be.

                                                     Wendell Berry
                                               Sabbath Poems 2001, VIII

                       Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened,
                       like winter, which even now is passing.
                       For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
                       that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.

                       Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
                       Climb praising as you return to connection.
                       Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
                       be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

                       Be.  And, at the same time, know what it is not to be.
                       That emptiness inside you allows you to vibrate
                       in resonance with your world.  Use it for once.

                       To all that has run its course, and to the vast unsayable
                       numbers of beings abounding in Nature,
                       add yourself gladly, and cancel the cost.

Sonnets to Orpheus, Part Two, VIII
(translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

To always "climb back singing," to continue ringing the glass even as it shatters.  Is there any better resolution we can make for the new year?


  1. A tremendous photograph, and a wonderful pairing of poems, George. I read Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus quite often, and never tire of them. They always startle me into seeing the deeper realities.

    1. Thanks, Robert. It's impossible to tire of Rilke's poems because each reading seems to yield new insights. As you say, we are startled "into seeing the deeper realities."

  2. Wonderful post, George. I glean something new from those words of Rilke every time I read them.

    Usually it is the "add yourself gladly and cancel the cost", but today it is his exhortation to 'use the emptness'. Perhaps because I have consciously worked, this past year, on being empty and still. I have discovered, as Rilke says, that it does allow one to "vibrate in resonance with your world". Surely that must be the only way one would 'use' emptiness. I have never thought about 'using' the emptiness - I've just allowed it to be and to manifest as it will.

    I find the phrase just before "be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings" interesting. In connecting with the emptiness it seems to me that one leaves 'the world of the transient' which is the realm of impermanence....

    Thank you for this beautifully composed, provocative piece.

    1. Thanks so much, Bonnie. Great to hear from you! Yes, as Robert also notes in his comment, Rilke's poems always seem offer new insights with each reading. This poem, in particular, always has a different kind of resonance, depending on how I read it, and it seems that you have had a similar experience.

      Looking forward to learning more about the emptiness and stillness that have characterized your life for the past year. Ironically, as the Tao Te Ching says, there is a fullness that comes with emptiness, just as there can be movement in stillness.

  3. Nice. I'd never thought about using the emptiness before.

  4. Oh yes, Rubye Jack. As noted in my reply to Bonnie, the Tao Te Ching reminds us that, in order to be full, we must first be empty. Think about it. It makes perfect sense, and this is what Rilke is addressing, I think, when he counsels us to use the emptiness. It's simple a way of opening the door to the many good things that can come into our lives when there is room for them.

  5. Lovely wren photo - in my case it's Wendell Berry's words that appeal to me 'this mere singing wren, who thinks he's alive forever, this instant, and may be'. Oddly enough there are moments when I feel the same way.

    1. Thanks, Rowan. I, too, tend to come back to the words you quote. Each time I read them, they seem a little more profound and thought-provoking.

  6. I love that little wren against the soft green background. "Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened", but in doing so, I may leave the beauty of this present moment, which as I speak is slipping through my fingers!

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment, Sandra. I think Rilke would always advocate living in the beauty of the present moment. While there may appear to be an inconsistency here, I think he is simply reminding us that everything is transitory, and that we should always be open to the mysterious unfolding of life. In reality, "parting" is something that occurs with every passing second, as this present moment dies and the next one is born.