Set the Darkness Echoing

Tonight my four-year-old daughter started asking questions about the afterlife. Her questions were surprisingly sophisticated for one so young. And my answers fell short. My attempts to give her comfort only led to deeper and more difficult questions.

And before long, her questions turned into tearful pleadings for me to make sense of her fears. Somehow, at the age of four, her mind had led her into deep waters. She tasted the bitter fear of death and was desperate for her dad to make sense of the darkness.

Ignition of match, with smoke on black
In his ancient book of wisdom, King Solomon writes that our words bring either death or life. Our words either strengthen and nourish others, or they tear and ruin them. Our words cast spells, evoking from nothing a vision of reality—a vision salvific or serpentine. I had just finished teaching this to my students, and I knew I had to choose my words carefully.

Set the Darkness Echoing

Tonight’s episode with my daughter connected to some thoughts I’d had about one of my favorite poets, Seamus Heaney, and the power of words.

Near the beginning of his publishing career, Seamus Heaney wrote a poem explaining why he wrote poetry. He begins by describing his childhood fascination with wells of all sorts. He would peer down deep into them to catch a glimpse of his face. Sometimes the darkness would be too deep. Other times the darkness would hide horrors, like rats crouched in corners.

Once he grew up, Heaney stopped staring into wells. Now he fears being a “big-eyed Narcissus” and losing his adult dignity. So instead of gazing into wells, he writes poetry:

“I rhyme/To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

In verse and rhythm and careful word choice, Heaney catches a glimpse of his true self, the man hidden by the darkness—or the man his darkened eyes have trouble seeing.

This poem is called “Personal Helicon”, after Mount Helicon, the traditional home of the Muses. Surprisingly, Heaney writes that darkness seems to inspire him, keeps him writing. And just as shocking, Heaney’s poetry doesn’t give light to illumine the darkness, but sound to set it vibrating.

Heaney was a faithful Roman Catholic and a humble poet. Revelation alone, he might argue, brings light into the darkness, but not a mere poet. Heaney modestly credits his poetry with the ability to resonate in the dark. Resonance can lead to harmony and give the darkness meaning. But only the Word-made-flesh utters words powerful enough to drive off the darkness.

Still, resonance is enough when it comes to human words, and so Heaney rhymes. When his poetry works, when his craft is good, when his words hit just the right pitch, the darkness vibrates into meaning and purpose. Such is the power of words carefully chosen and humbly employed.

Tumbling Stones in the Dark

Before trying to comfort my daughter again, I had to know the nature of the darkness she faced. I had to know the shape of her well. So I began asking her questions, tumbling them like stones into the darkness to hear the sounds they made.

Before long, I found words that would resonate with her. I spoke them, and the tears stopped. She started asking me questions, and my answers continued in the right pitch. Soon, a smile and then a laugh, and the darkness had passed. Joy had returned, but a joy hard-won and seasoned with dried tears.

Our words bring death or life. May they always set the darkness echoing.

(Start by leaving a comment below.  Send a rock tumbling.  See what sounds it makes.)