Last night, because of no other reason than it was within reach and because it had been awhile since I looked through it, I picked Eight American Poets, and, propped up on two fat pillows, I read the selection of Theodore Roethke in the book—about twenty-five short poems, many of them anthologized many times– and one poem struck me. I don’t know why exactly, but I think the poem has to do with the “truth” of the world and how some men try to remedy the harsh reality, no matter how small and futile their efforts.
The poem I read and mused over is titled “The Meadow Mouse.” The poet finds a baby mouse in the meadow, small enough to cradle in Roethke’s big hand, the little creature trembling, almost sure to die if left alone in the meadow. Roethke takes the mouse home, where he feeds it “three kinds of cheese” and gives him water from a “bottle-cap watering-trough,” and then the little mouse sleeps, “His tail curled under him; his belly big / As his head; his bat-like ears / Twitching, tilting toward the least sound.”
And the poet, the man, the always hopeful self-conscious human creature, thinks,
Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
He seems no longer to tremble.
The poet, like most of us, is a self-conscious creature constructed of “seems.” The mouse “seems” to recognize the man, no longer tremble at his approach. The gentle poet, the man who so much wants the world to show more compassion, finds comfort in illusion. Who can blame him? The universe might not care about the abandoned and doomed meadow mouse, but the poet does–and it is his caring that defines a man’s life, this “unnatural” quality a man can create within himself. We’d not say that one of the attributes of nature is compassion. Nature is beyond such terms as “compassion” or “guilt.”
Why, after all, should the man care about the meadow mouse? He just does. Many of us care about such things. Some people wouldn’t care. It takes a tremendous leap of the imagination, imagination arcing over knowledge, to birth compassion. Schopenhauer says that the highest virtue, the supreme thing self-conscious can give to us, is empathy. We can “imagine” how another person feels. A lot of us simply can’t get used to the truth that much of life, sentient life, is filled with suffering and anguish. We sometimes think our concern will somehow supersede the order of things, the way things are. Becker says, “ . . .what we call the human character is actually a lie about the nature of reality.” The nature of reality is hard to take.
We can break our hearts loving this world, but it never glances in our direction, never returns our love. Still, we love, and some men rush to alleviate suffering–even to save the meadow mouse, trying to save one mouse while the gimlet-eyed hawk and the big-eyed owl and the gray cat prowling grassy field beyond my study window seek their prey, all under the blue sky and sighing wind in the trees.
We see the bent-beaked hawk riding high in the sky, spy the gray cat mercilessly stalking through the field. Sometimes at night, on a still night, I can hear the mournful cry of the owl seeping from deep in the swamp. We know the owl hunts at night. It is I who describes the owl’s cry as mournful, the illusory character projecting itself on reality, creating things that are not: owls don’t mourn. We, however, identify with the meadow mouse, and as absurd at it is, we will, if given a chance, attempt to save the helpless creature.
I have stopped my truck and removed the slow-crawling turtle from the busy highway, but even though I tried, I could not save the piglet from my dog’s primitive fury, from the blind instinct running in his blood. Walking the dog in the country, the dog way ahead of me, I heard terrible screams up the dirt lane and around the corner, and though I ran, I was too late to save the piglet, which had somehow wandered off from from where he should have been. I was horrified, but it’d been futile to blame the dog, this creature who likes nothing better than to climb into my lap when I sit reading in the recliner, who sleeps under my desk as I write, his head lying upon my right foot.
The innocent murderousness of the world disturbs us, but the world has no mercy: it is a great killing machine, a greedy but blind and dumb drinker of blood. (I will not speak of the not so innocent murderousness of the human animal; that will make for another essay.)
So, yes, the poet did his best to save a meadow mouse. He made a noble gesture into the void, into yawning infinity. It might be an absurd gesture, but it’s far from meaningless.
The next morning the little mouse is gone:
But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm?–
To run under the hawk’s wing,
Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.
I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,–
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.
I think most of us would willingly go forth with the poet to save the meadow mouse. We too would stand over the little thing as it slept. We too would want to protect it from the ravages of the natural world, knowing full well we could not. But we’d try anyhow. The next morning, as the poet did, we’d find the little mouse gone. We’d imagine its making its way through the meadow while overhead the hawk, its keen eyes missing nothing below, prepares to dive, elegant feathery death falling like a stone through the blue and gentle morning, plummeting ruthlessly and efficiently down upon “All things innocent, hapless, and forsaken.”