Purgatorio, Canto XXII
“So Much Depends upon ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’”
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
chickens. –William Carlos Williams
So much depends not just upon the wheel barrow itself (or did in an age when agriculture was different) but upon the poem about the wheel barrow, the little, modest text dedicated to reminding us that little, modest things matter.
This canto is about a number of things. For example:
“Often, indeed, appearances give rise
to groundless doubts in us, and false conclusions,
the true cause being hidden from our eyes.” (ll. 28-30)
But the canto is also about the role poets and poetry can play in pulling the wool from our eyes.
Of course, pulling the wool isn’t easy. As David Brooks wrote in one of my all-time-favorite columns: “The human mind is continually TRYING to perceive things that aren’t there, and NOT perceiving them takes enormous effort” (The New York Times, October 28, 2008; caps mine).
Take a look at one of America’s favorite poems:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. –Robert Frost
We love this thing. We trot it out at one graduation after another. But I’d argue that we don’t pay enough attention to some of its little details. A la Brooks’s comment, we TRY to perceive in Frost’s poem a message about the importance of “taking the road less traveled by.” But take (to follow the poem’s actual title) the road (too often) not taken. Take a look a stanza 2: The roads are “really about the same.” And take a look at stanza 4: What exactly is the purpose of the colon there? What is it setting up? All I’ll say is that it seems clear to me that Frost knew a lot about human psychology, in this case showing his grasp of how we pull the wool over our own eyes, both in interpreting our own past behavior and in interpreting what we read.
Anyway, I love that Canto XXII is so much about the power of poets and poetry to inform our lives. And not just to inform but to re-form. Statius says so glowingly to Virgil:
“Had I not turned from prodigality
in pondering those lines in which you cry,
as if you raged against humanity:
“’To what do you not drive man’s appetite
O cursed gold-lust!’—I should now be straining
in the grim jousts of the Infernal night.” (ll. 37-42)
I’m with Statius. Quite a roster of poets, and of poems, has followed me around, offering guidance in aptly timed whispers, sometimes shouts, from the memory.
Of course, in order to be informed by a text, we must not deform it.
And so, we read on. Into Canto XXIII, where we shall read about glutton.
…and perhaps meditate on the dangers of putting on our plates too much of what we like, too much of what we choose for ourselves out of appetite, instead of taking in those things that we need. Raw vegetables, for example. And raw textual details.
Better that the barrow—not our eyes—be glazed.