From The Kenyon Review, Winter 1946, Vol. VIII, No. 1
I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
Into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea;
What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
In battle array against the fire
And treason crackling in your blood;
For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?
A very little thing, a little worm,
Or hourglass-blazoned spider, it is said,
Can kill a tiger. Will the dead
Hold up his mirror and affirm
To the four winds the smell
And flash of his authority? It’s well
If God who holds you to the pit of hell,
Much as one holds a spider, will destroy,
Baffle and dissipate your soul. As a small boy
On Windsor Marsh, I saw the spider die
When thrown into the bowels of fierce fire:
There’s no long struggle, no desire
To get up on its feet and fly
It stretches out its feet
And dies. This is the sinner’s last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.
But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
Into a brick-kiln where the blast
Fans your quick vitals to a coal—
If measured by a glass,
How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.
As a young man Lowell had read deeply in the life and writings of his mother’s ancestor, the eighteenth-century New England theologian Jonathan Edwards. “He was an ancestor,” Lowell said, “but this doesn’t make our relation exactly personal – another grandfather.” Perhaps, but early on in Lowell’s life, Edward’s work impressed upon him a belief in the hardness of life and the need to summon the courage to face what the pain of the world would deliver him. Edward’s writings stamped Lowell’s religious and historical thinking, as well his early poetry. Lowell abandoned his initial plan to write a biography of Edwards, but he returned to his life and work as the inspiration for four poems, including one of his greatest, “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” which was published in Lord Weary’s Castle in 1946. Thirty years later, a few months before he died, it was one of the poems Lowell read during his last public reading at Harvard.
Filed under History, Poem