Ant in Flower
Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
For many decades, beginning in the early seventies, I walked around with ten to fifteen memorized poems in my head. Generally, these were poems that sustained me through the challenges of life, and I simply enjoyed having them always available to me, whatever the place or circumstances. I felt then, as I do now, that quiet reflection upon a poem that I "know by heart" is a rewarding form of meditation that can deepen my understanding of both the poem and myself.
Most of the memorized poems that I carried around in my head during those years provided valuable insights or inspiration for my personal journey — e.g., Tennyson's Ulysses. There was one poem, however — Departmental, by Robert Frost — that I memorized for the simple reason that I loved its rhyming structure, its musicality, its lighthearted humor, and its sheer entertainment value. The poem offers more, however, than a delightful and entertaining structure. While it is ostensibly an observation of the "curious race" of ants, it is also a reflection on the societal traits of another curious race, namely, the human race.
Read the poem and see what you think. For what it's worth, I find it very satisfying to read this particular poem out loud.
by Robert Frost
An ant on the tablecloth
Ran into a dormant moth
Of many times his size.
He showed not the least surprise.
His business wasn't with such.
He gave it scarcely a touch,
And was off on his duty run.
Yet if he encountered one
Of the hive's enquiry squad
Whose work is to find out God
And the nature of time and space,
He would put him onto the case.
Ants are a curious race;
One crossing with hurried tread
The body of one of their dead
Isn't given a moment's arrest —
Seems not even impressed.
But he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher-up at court.
Then word goes forth in Formic:
"Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
Our selfless forager Jerry.
Will the special Janizary
Whose office it is to bury
The dead of the commissary
Go bring him home to his people.
Lay him in state on a sepal.
Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
This is the word of your Queen."
And presently on the scene
Appears a solemn mortician;
And taking formal position,
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in the air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It's nobody else's affair.
It couldn't be called ungentle,
But how thoroughly departmental.