Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reuben Bright

by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby all the night
And made the women cry to see him cry.

And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.

* * *

Sorry it's been so long since my last post -- it's hard to get back into the rhythm of things at school after so long away.

We read this poem in American literature class. I like it, because it deals with a kind of snobbery very common these days: the sort of snobbery where educated people think that they have more feelings than blue-collar types. A butcher seems a brutish person to us intellectual highbrows, the poet suggests. But what's the truth? He's as sensitive to loss as the rest of us, despite his gory job and the practical things (paying the funeral workers) that he has to think of. He is an honest man making an honest living, and has as tender a heart, if not more, than any well-educated poetry enthusiast.

3 comments:

Santiago said...

It used to be -- and still is, in some respects -- that poetry was a public art, a common language of the people, a public venue for catharsis, reflection, and ecstacy. Dana Gioia says that it wasn't until college that anyone proposed to him the idea that you had to study criticism and theory in order to enjoy poetry.

Thomas Merton writes in The Seven Storey Mountain that the poet Mark Van Doren would tell his students that by age 18, everyone was prepared to read Shakespeare, because by then, everyone had had moethers, fathers heartbreak, experienced anger, suffering, happiness, loss, etc.

Sheila said...

Very true.

More than that, though, I loathe the idea that working with your hands somehow makes you a less sensitive and refined person mentally. Certainly physical work doesn't require thought so much, but it doesn't preclude it either.

Anonymous said...

I think he killed her...."For when they told him that his wife MUST die. . ."