The Yearling is one of the books that I should have read in my youth that I somehow managed not to. Given the avidity of my reading in those days, and my peculiar preference for books that adults seemed to think were good for you, that seems strange, but so it was. Neither, and this is less strange, have I seen the movie. Then it was one of the series I told you about that I have been receiving called “The World’s Best Reading,” so I read it. Well, I’d always heard it was a tear-jerker, which may be why I never read it before, since I have always had a firm preference for happy endings.
Now, I am not a crier, which, given my calling, is a good thing, since the opportunities for crying at weddings and funerals would make it impossible for me to get through them if I were. Nevertheless, The Yearling certainly got the tears flowing for me. Not at the place, where, I understand, most people begin crying, but at the very end — at the passage that I read to you earlier.
For those of you who may, like me, have missed either the book or the movie, it is about a boy, Jody, just entering adolescence, who lives with his parents on a scrubby farming claim in north central Florida, probably just a little north of where I went to undergraduate school in DeLand. It was bare subsistence, on the ragged edge of survival. It was also lonely. One day the boy and his father found a motherless fawn, and he was allowed, though reluctantly, and over his mother’s protests, to keep it as a pet. As it grew it became more and more unruly and destructive, and finally the father shot it. I can be as sentimental as the next person about deer — maybe more so. I tasted venison once and thought it was marvelous, but I can’t eat it. I keep seeing the mild and interested regard of a multi-pronged buck looking over a stone wall at us as we passed by on the
The title of this sermon is from one of Tennyson’s most famous poems, “The Lady of Shallot.” It is the story of the lady who died for unrequited love of Sir Lancelot. Actually, it wasn’t all that unrequited, since, according to the story, she first gave birth to his son who became Sir Galahad, but Tennyson, a Victorian, couldn’t bring himself to mention that. It is not one of my favorite poems — particularly for reading aloud — but that one image which one hears quoted over and over again is a lovely one, and somehow speaks to those who know what heartbreak is:
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shallott.
Then she built herself a boat, lay down in it and died as she drifted down the river:
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shallot.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot.
The first house by the waterside,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shallot.
I don’t think it happens quite that way, ever. There are some lines sung by the villainess, Katisha, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera The Mikado, which are probably more literally true:
Hearts do not break
They burn and ache
The boy in The Yearling didn’t physically die, although when he ran away after the fawn was shot he almost did, but not from heartbreak — from starvation and exhaustion. Nevertheless, the boy did die. The young man who came home was someone different. The boy was forever gone as inexorably as if he had died as the Lady of Shallot died.
There are many things, some important, some seemingly trivial, that each of us can point to as having made significant changes in ourselves and in our lives. One of the advice twins asked her readers to send her stories of single telephone calls that changed their lives. She got far more responses than she could use. Sometimes it’s something we see or hear almost by accident. It may be something that just somehow manages to strike us at the right moment in the right way that another time would pass us by. We can all think of things like that — how different our lives or ourselves would have been had this or that small thing not occurred at a particular time and place. You hear people talking about how something that happened to them must have been fate. “If I hadn’t run out of milk and had to run to the store at the same time you ran out of bread, we would never have met. It must have been fate!” It wasn’t, of course, it was just one of the trivial things that happen that sometimes have enormous consequences.
We change and grow and develop, sometimes in intentional ways, but often through chance-heard words or accidental meetings. It is the process of growth that happens to all of us in much the same way. We can trace it. We can watch it as it changes us and our friends. We can often consciously direct it toward making ourselves better and wiser, which is, of course, what we should do if we can. Sometimes those things are pleasant, sometimes painful, but they all go into the pot of experience in which all of us are boiled.
Heartbreak, it seems to me, is something different, in a qualitative way, from these experiences, however painful they may sometimes be. We use the word quite casually. The Rays had a heartbreaking season. My heart has been broken and mended again many times. Well, I don’t think so. I believe that there is such a thing as true heartbreak, something that affects you so powerfully and so tragically, that when you recover from it, insofar as it can be recovered from, the person you were before is essentially gone. You have the same name, you may look the same, you may even act and sound the same to casual observers, but you are, at least in your own soul, a different person. So, although Katisha is right, that a broken heart doesn’t physically kill, the Lady of Shallot’s poetic death is a true metaphor for the consequence of heartbreak. I’m not sure that it happens to everyone. Someone with whom I was discussing it asked me if I didn’t think that everyone has some one thing in his or her life that he can point to as true heartbreak, something that hurt so deeply that the person he was before can truly, on some level, be said to have died. I don’t know if that is true. It doesn’t seem to me that it would have to be true at all. In fact, with the casual way we use the term, I suspect that it happens to comparatively few. There can be great grief and loss, loss that makes you just as sad as true heartbreak might, but whose consequence is not that same sense of destruction of the past and of the self.
I also don’t know if it can happen to anyone more than once. It may be that, should it happen, the person becomes armored against a second heartbreak. I would think — or perhaps the correct word is hope — that that would not be because the person feels less deeply or cares less deeply, but because the change that he has undergone is permanent and complete, like the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly.
It may be that what I am talking about — and you may have noticed that I’m not really certain what that is — is the possible redemptive power of suffering. I do not believe that suffering is necessarily redemptive. On the contrary, I believe that it is more often destructive. In the heartbreak that Jody felt, the child that he was was destroyed. The maturer person that he became was certainly more understanding and responsible, and, though we never get to know him in his new self, since the book ends at the time of his change, perhaps he was more likable, sensitive, contented and in just about every way better. But the destruction happened, the loss was complete, the mirror cracked.
Earlier I expressed the hope that the person who emerges after heartbreak would care as deeply as before, encounter the same joys and sorrows, and feel them just as much as before the experience of heartbreak. This certainly may not happen. People can numb themselves, refuse to feel, when feeling has been too painful. They can become callous, uncaring, insensitive, fearful of a renewal of love only to lose it, or sometimes their feelings may be completely negative. They may become angry and vengeful with hate taking the place of love that has been denied them. Perhaps the image of the butterfly may be useful again here. Sometimes the caterpillar never emerges winged from the chrysalis. The Lady of Shallot died. Those who are numbed, callous, afraid of love, or angry are those who are not born anew, winged and ready for flight.
I don’t think they can be blamed for that, any more than the caterpillar that doesn’t make it through the chrysalis stage can be blamed for its failure. Paradoxically, however, I think we can will our own redemption — or at least try to. Just as some of us refuse to barricade ourselves in our homes to protect ourselves from the increasing violence in our society, so also can we refuse to barricade our hearts to keep from being hurt. A truly broken heart, I believe, never entirely mends, but if we accept its brokenness without trying to protect it from further pain, it is still useful for loving. Sometimes more useful, since the courage and faith required to love in spite of brokenness can only make love greater.
There is a nostalgic sadness for the lost self, the child Jody. It is a true loss and worthy of being mourned. One of the things we tend to do at the new year, along with our resolutions for the future, is to try to put the past behind us. We need to do that. We need to slough off those things which burden us and hold us back from love and joy. What we do not need, however, is to try to slough off our grief and sadness. We tend to think of happiness as a right and to feel aggrieved if we do not achieve it. We even seem to believe that we should try to forget or ignore or just not feel those things that give us pain. I think that to try to do that is to be like the Lady of Shallott rather than Jody, to die without being reborn like the morning. Jody didn’t cease to mourn his fawn and the thoughtless, happy child he once had been, but he went forward, carrying with him his broken heart, into a new life.
We don’t need, indeed we must not be so self-indulgent, as to wallow in grief, but it is also hurtful to discount it. If we put it behind us or armor ourselves against it, we neither learn from it, honor that for which we grieve, nor are able to open ourselves and our hearts to new joys and new appreciation of the totality of the world which includes sorrow as well as joy.
The last lines of “The Lady of Shallott” are said by Sir Lancelot. “He said, ‘She has a lovely face;/God in his mercy lend her grace,/The Lady of Shallott.’” The grace we need is not so much comfort and healing, as we tend to think, but rather the grace to allow our hearts to break, and then somehow find the courage to be born anew in our brokenness, to love, to accept the knowledge that one can be broken in one’s weakness, a weakness which can then be transformed to compassion and fellow-feeling, and strength bear and to share, and the grace also to find joy — joy that is somehow inseparable from the acceptance and honoring of all that life holds for us.