Two Paragraphs from Marilynne Robinson

August 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Marilynne Robinson’s prose moves me like that of perhaps no other, even outside the context of its narrative–which is to say, I can pick up Gilead or Housekeeping (Home doesn’t have this power for me, though it’s great in its own way), and read selected passages almost as prose poems, for the sheer beauty of the language. Within their narratives, of course, these passages acquire even greater force. But I think they can stand alone. Which is why I’m going to suggest you read these, perhaps my two favorite paragraphs of Robinson, even if you don’t know her work. First, from Gilead:

I love the praire! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded. I can’t help imagining that you will leave sooner or later, and it’s fine if you have done that, or you mean to do it. The whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love–I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence. (246-47)

I’m willing to concede that a decent measure of my love for that passage comes from my identification with its theological and geographical placement. I love small towns, the Midwest, and humble, hopeful theology, and the passage caters to all those tastes. But anyone would have to admit that the last line, at least, has an incredible haunting beauty all its own. Now my favorite passage from Housekeeping. The image is of a woods covered with frost:

Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries. (152-53)

I could analyze the various things that are going on here metaphorically and philosophically–it’s a dense paragraph–but I’m not sure I can stand to do it that violence. I mean, just read it. If someday long in the future all that remained of Robinson’s work was a few fragments like these, as we have fragments of Sappho or Aeschalus, I believe they would draw study and praise as poems of great beauty.

There is such beauty in the world. Thanks to Marilynne Robinson for contributing.

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