In his poems, Richard Eberhart returned again and again to the theme of death: death-in-life and life-in-death. His poems are, at once, a stay against oblivion and a bid for immortality. In his essay “Poetry as a Creative Principle” (in Of Poetry and Poets), Eberhart claimed that poetry is “a spell against death.” As long as the essence of one’s life exists in one’s recorded work, there is immortality.
A Bravery of Earth, Eberhart’s first published work, is a long philosophical and autobiographical narrative that establishes the dichotomy between the push toward life, harmony, and order and the corresponding horrors that are a constant pull toward the grave.
“The Groundhog,” perhaps Eberhart’s most anthologized and acclaimed poem, is the epitome of the duality that characterizes his verse. The poem serves as a kind of memento mori that unites all living creatures in their temporality. Focusing on a dead groundhog, it develops the paradox of life-in-death. The poem additionally expresses the poet’s belief that poetry is a gift of the gods—a mystical power that is relative, never absolute.
“The Groundhog” is one of four or five poems that Eberhart claimed were given to him. In a 1982 interview printed in Negative Capability, he described this mystical experience. These “given poems,” Eberhart stated, came from “far beyond or underneath the rational mind” and hence are unusually powerful. In such an experience, he speculated, one is “allied with world consciousness.” Commenting specifically on “The Groundhog,” he explained that the poem was composed in “twenty minutes of heightened awareness” after he saw a dead groundhog on a friend’s farm.The body was open and the belly was seething with maggots. So here was a small dead animal, as dead as could be, and yet he was full of life, an absolute paradox. . . . He seemed to have more life in him being eaten up by maggots than if he were running along in the fields with nature harmoniously in him.
The poem cites three encounters with a dead groundhog. The first takes place “in June, amid golden fields.” Here, in “vigorous summer,” the animal’s form began its “senseless change.” The sight of it without its senses makes the poet’s own “senses waver dim/ Seeing nature ferocious in him.” He pokes the animal with a stick and notes that it is alive with maggots.
In autumn, the speaker returns to the place where he saw the dead groundhog. This time, “the sap [was] gone out of the groundhog,/ But the bony sodden hulk remained.” The speaker’s previous reaction of love and loathing, the revulsion that was the first response of the senses, is no longer present. “In intellectual chains, . . . mured up in the wall of wisdom,” he brings intellect into play. He thinks about and applies reason to the experience of seeing the dead animal. In another summer, then, he takes to the fields again, “massive and burning, full of life,” and chances upon the spot where the groundhog lies. “There was only a little hair left,/ And bones bleaching in the sunlight.”
After three years, the poet returns again, but this time “there is no sign of the groundhog.” It is “whirling summer” once more, and as the speaker’s hand covers a “withered heart,” he thinks of
China and of Greece, Of Alexander in his tent; Of Montaigne in his tower, Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.
Eberhart attributed the success of “The Groundhog” to the fact that he refused to delete these final lines. At a writer’s discussion group in the Harvard area, where Eberhart joined other poets and read his work aloud, he was urged to end the poem with the description of the dead creature—before the mention of China and Greece, of the soldier, the philosopher, and the saint. Eberhart pointed out that the purposeful lives of these notable people distinguish them from a dead animal, the groundhog. Perhaps it can be said that an ordinary man would never have noticed the small rotting thing lying in the field had a poet not called attention to its demise. An animal leaves only bones that in time disappear; however, the lives of great men and women endure throughout time and are recorded in their works. The final lines of Eberhart’s poem celebrate human achievement, the life-in-death that is beyond decay.
“For a Lamb”
In juxtaposition to “The Groundhog,” “For a Lamb,” an earlier poem about a dead animal, anticipates and highlights the import of the later work. In a field near Cambridge, England, in 1928, the speaker sees a dead lamb among daisies. “But the guts were out for crows to eat.” The speaker asks, “Where’s the lamb?” and then answers, “Say he’s in the wind somewhere,/ Say, there’s a lamb in the daisies.” Although there is the sense of death as a fusion with life, there is no person in the poem to give meaning to existence. The lamb lives only because someone, a poet with creative imagination, has marked its being in the world. When there is human significance, death-in-life is transformed into life-in-death.
Eberhart believed that poetry comes out of suffering, and it was his mother’s death that brought this awareness. Before she died, he had stayed out of college a year to help take care of her. According to a 1983 essay published in Negative Capability, this was for Eberhart “the most profound experience of my life, one that begot my poetry, an experience of depth that was inexpressible.” Fifty-five years later, in an essay entitled “The Real and the Unreal,” the adult Eberhart ponders the meaning of this early suffering. From memory, he says, “as part of the mystery of creation, flow poetry and music, manifold works of the imagination.” One of his poems asserts that it is “the willowy Day-Bed of past time/ that taught death in the substratum.” These lines exemplify Eberhart’s thoughts in “The Theory of Poetry” that the first experience of the death of a loved one teaches “the bitterness but the holy clarity of truth.”
Life-in-death and death-in-life
The final stanza of the poem “1934,” reprinted in Collected Poems 1930-1986, defines Eberhart’s premise about poetry and “life-in-death.”
And I have eased reality and fiction Into a kind of intellectual fruition Strength in solitude, life in death, Compassion by suffering, love in strife, And ever and still the weight of mystery Arrows a way between my words and me.
As a philosophical poet, Eberhart explores life’s dualities. In “How I Write Poetry,” he states that “everything about poetry is relative rather than absolute.” Commenting on “The Cancer Cells,” a poem that brings to mind his mother’s terminal illness, the poet writes that the cancer cells photographed in Life magazine aroused in him an awareness of the simultaneity of the lethal and the beautiful, another poignant reminder of death-in-life.
In “Meditation Two,” Eberhart notes that since “the Garden of Eden/ When Eve offered man the fruit of the...
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