Henri Nouwen and the 133rd Psalm
A great quote from a great theologian, Henri Nouwen: “One of the main tasks of…
So, I ran across a poem by Robert Frost that I ended up reading at the end of a service a couple of months ago. Before this I had read a smattering of poems by Frost and enjoyed the imagery, rhyme schemes, and ideas presented. Some of you probably know them well, The Road not Taken, and Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. Well, I knew from Literature class in High School (so many years ago now) that Frost produced whole volumes of poetry. Until recently I had left them completely unexplored. So I acquired “The Poetry of Robert Frost” edited by Edward Connery Lathem.
A poem that caught my attention is The Demiurge’s Laugh. I thought it worthy of a bit of commentary on my part. I am used to breaking down passages of poetry. Being a pastor, I often have occasion to read and analyze one of the Psalms. But before I begin I think it is a good idea to nail down just what a demiurge is. The Oxford dictionary describes the demiurge as a creator being subservient to God that created the universe, a being antithetical to the spiritual and focused on the material. Also, the demiurge might have been the root of evil.
I should stress here that I am not sure of Frost’s understanding of what a demiurge might be, nor what meaning he was attempting to convey in this poem. I looked for an in-depth breakdown of this poem by some other investigator. I could not find anything on-line. However, I suppose there are any number of high school or college essays sitting in some obscure file drawer attempting to explain the poem. There is, nevertheless, some commentary on the poem by a high school class at The Demiurge’s Laugh (uscsd.k12.pa.us) I decided not to read their comments before I write my own. (Going back after. The High School students had some interesting and often insightful comments.)
Here is the poem in its entirety: “The Demiurge’s Laugh” Poetry.com. STANDS4 LLC, 2021. Web. 10 Mar. 2021. <https://www.poetry.com/poem/30913/the-demiurge’s-laugh>.
So the poem begins: “It was far in the sameness of the wood; I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail,” I think there must be some significance to “sameness”, perhaps reflecting common experience or a common environment that we all share within civil society. But there is also something idyllic about a “wood” any wood, so we all have a share in the ideal world. But within this ideal world there are opportunities for bad things to happen. Frost writes of being on the demon’s trail and running with joy as he did so. I see this as perhaps a frenetic pursuit of physical pleasure, could be sex, alcohol, or some other form of dissipation. We suspect at this time that the “Demon” is ahead of him.
The protagonist expects something from the Demon, perhaps instant gratification. And yet, as he hunts, there is a niggling in his mind that he is doing wrong and we see this in the next line, “Though I knew what I hunted was no true god.” The Demon, the demiurge is only a poor substitute for God. And perhaps it is this knowledge in the back of his mind that will ultimately save him.
Then there is this crucial line, “It was just as the light was beginning to fail…” So he has been going down the wrong path or perhaps about to take the wrong path of dissolution. (We don’t really know if he has already embarked on a sinful life and about to reach the point of no return or simply getting ready to embark on that life. Although I suspect it is the former because later he will hear the laugh from behind him.) It was then that he “suddenly heard-all I needed to hear: It has lasted me many and many a year.”
“The sound was behind me instead of before,” And now we get two possible notions. First, if the demiurge was before him and is now behind him how long has he been running? Second, maybe the demiurge has been behind him pursuing him all along. He only thought he was in control. What does all this say about our sinfulness?
Though we may have expected an evil being to be triumphant, jubilant, harsh, brazen, and loud in its expected victory at the moment, the Demon releases only “A sleepy sound, but mocking half, as one who utterly couldn’t care.” Now we get the feeling that the demiurge has put little or no effort into leading the person to this place. It had been all too easy. There had been no joy in the chase.
“The Demon arose from his wallow to laugh, Brushing the dirt from his eye as he went; And well I knew what the Demon meant.” The demon has not said a word and yet there is meaning. The meaning may be in his rising up with the intent of laughing and the brushing of the dirt from his eye. Perhaps brushing the dirt was a mockery to the person, saying to him, could you not see what was happening all this while. You were pursuing pleasure in sin and what has it gotten you? Not pleasure surely, but pain for yourself and perhaps too for those about you. Ultimately, it is a signal of his blindness in giving up his own freedom, making him a slave to sin.
But the Demon has done him a favor, perhaps bringing him to the bottom, but surely exposing him to shame. “I shall not forget how his laugh rang out. I felt as a fool to have been so caught,” His reaction, then, is to pretend that it never happened “and checked my steps to make pretense It was something among the leaves I sought”. The episode has made our hero thoughtful for then we find, “Though doubtful whether he stayed to see. Thereafter I sat me against a tree.”
And so the poem ends with the runner leaning against a tree. A tree is sturdy, stable and could represent much. One might even find his leaning against the tree in a contemplative stance as a vague reference to that tree we all know from the book of Genesis, the “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. Now he knows the difference.