Pity is Forbidden

Bronze Statue of Zeus of Artemision, ca. 460 BC

The World Loved by Moonlight
by Jane Hirshfield, from The Lives of the Heart

You must try, 
the voice said, to become colder.
I understood at once.
It is like the bodies of gods: cast in bronze,
braced in stone. Only something heartless
could bear the full weight.

Commentary on the poem by the poet, from The Well (Nov.  10, 1999):

For me it's a kind of poem I have begun to think of as a "pebble"-small, recalcitrant, oblique, yet somehow moving. At least let's hope it's moving to others, besides you and me. Its source was a sentence written by Chekhov in a letter to a young writer: "If you want to move your reader, write more coldly."

The advice is chilling, true, and rich, I think, and leads in many different directions of thought. This poem follows one of those directions: that if one were to imagine a world in which there were mythic, conscious deities, then those beings would have to be very cold, very detached, in order to bear seeing what they must see in the course of any given day. So much suffering, so much foolishness, so much anger.

To be able to watch that at all-and even more, to play some active role in its continuance-would demand total heartlessness. It's the same lack of pity that Virgil demands of Dante as they tour the regions of Hell. Pity, the ghost-guide tells the poet, is forbidden. It is true for the contemporary writer as well, and for any seeker after truth.

A certain detachment is needed to look the fullness of life eye to eye; yet that very detachment is what permits the viewer to feel things fully, to know them without blinking. A paradox, that. And so we come to the title, "The World Loved by Moonlight." The "cold" light of the moon is equally a kind of passion and love for the earth, no less than the sun's warmer gaze. Much happens a night, in the dark.

It's probably because I am in some parts of myself a deeply sentimental creature that Chekhov's and Dante's idea strikes me so forcefully, like the twist of a knife. It's that twist that powered the poem into its speech.

[Check out Come, Thief for more of Jane Hirshfield's pepples.]