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A Poem Against Stoicism

Another James Matthew Wilson poem, this one an elegy in memory of his wife’s mother:


In Memoriam Rae Lee Lester


The parson, lonely in his vicarage
At Bemerton, sits over his book of proverbs.
He wonders what outlandish phrase might shake The wind-burned, inarticulate assurance
Of farmers gathered in the pews: to teach them That summer need not follow winter, wealth Might never sooth their labors, that the seeds They scattered with their children, when the earth Grew soft and damp in memories of ice,
Need not sprout into corn. How does one stir
A dull eye to the poignancy and gift
Of all the things that are but need not be?

He’ll get no help from ancient meditations,
The maxims of a general in Gaul.
The snow upon the woods, the ice upon
The Danube, all the broken swords and bodies Unburied in the quiet, conquering dusk: “These things have always been, and will again, In boundless space and endless generations,”
He wrote, and turned his horse’s steaming snout Back toward the marble monuments of Rome.


There are too many of them, all the wise:
The weak sententious men grown drunk on scotch, The flint-lipped quietists, the smug advisor
Certain no treasonous plot, utopian scheme,
Or menu in an obscure restaurant
Contains a newborn thought, a hope that hasn’t Been crushed before—in more auspicious times; No kiss bestowed with awkward tenderness is
A new page in the history of love.

And you, Ecclesiastes, you, the first
To wipe the settled dust from off his hands And cry between the river and the sea That all is ancient, all is vanity,
That nothing under the dry sun is new: No agony of joy; nothing, nothing,
Not even the light of falling stars is new.



But we are here not to accept reports
From those who found a city in the sand—
And called it “trite.” We come not to admire
Those singular wits who see in naive lovers
The venomous shades of old, unhappy marriages.
We’re not here to attest that we have seen
The troubled, fertile constancy of seasons,
Or slothful regularity of stars.
We come to mourn that in some old crone’s stitch work, Or in the curtains of our living room,
There’s been a tear. Right here. A hole has formed And it will not be mended. I say again,
There’s been a tear; and no needle’s wisdom we
Can thread, no sonorous lessons in disinterest,
Can tell us that the woman we have lost
Has been before, or that another like her—
With a like voice, perhaps, or the same hair—
Will fill this emptiness she occupied.

We do not need a shaking from our comfort In how the seasons feed us, how the new Wars are just like the old ones. What we ask Is wisdom wise enough never to dare

To try to take the measure of our loss.
We do not need to know all things have been, But only to say, once more and in fitting Voice, that she was.

This speaks to me, and speaks words of accusation against me, regarding the unwisdom in trying to empty the mystery out of all things through intellection. What a great poem. “Troubled, fertile constancy of seasons,” “flint-lipped quietists,” “sonorous lessons in disinterest” — man!

Order JMW’s book, The Violent And The Fallen, here.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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