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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Number 207: Vachel Lindsay "The Mouse That Gnawed The Oak-Tree Down"

The Mouse That Gnawed The Oak-Tree Down

The mouse that gnawed the oak-tree down
Began his task in early life.
He kept so busy with his teeth
He had no time to take a wife.

He gnawed and gnawed through sun and rain
When the ambitious fit was on,
Then rested in the sawdust till
A month of idleness had gone.

He did not move about to hunt
The coteries of mousie-men.
He was a snail-paced, stupid thing
Until he cared to gnaw again.

The mouse that gnawed the oak-tree down,
When that tough foe was at his feet—
Found in the stump no angel-cake
Nor buttered bread, nor cheese, nor meat—
The forest-roof let in the sky.
“This light is worth the work,” said he.
“I’ll make this ancient swamp more light,”
And started on another tree.

--Vachel Lindsay

Hap Notes: This is a brilliant little poem. It brings up some startling questions that can certainly apply to our lives.

Is it worth it for the mouse to gnaw down that tree? Is he doing something valuable by letting the light into that "ancient swamp"? Did he waste his life destroying something that should have been left intact? That oak tree was probably home to dozens of creatures- is it okay that they are displaced?

The mouse takes on a monumental task. He seeks out no friends, he has no wife but at the end of his task there is more light in the forest. Who is he making the light for and why? Remember that this is the only reward for this gargantuan task-- there's no cheese or cake as a reward. Is light a good enough reward? It obviously was for the mouse, yes?

So is this the tale of a mouse who takes on the task of progress for the sake of progress or is he a mouse with vision who sees that the light will change the swamp for the better and lets go of his mousie needs to make sure that it gets done and if it evicts a few creatures, well, that's just the way it goes? Why is he a "snail-paced stupid thing" when he is not working on the tree?

Is this the tale of the artist, who gives up his life for his art- who is lost and stupid without it? Or is it the tale of a progressive who works for betterment? Or is it the tale of an obsessive who feels his need to gnaw is more important than any thing or anyone (remember the displaced creatures in the tree)?

What if all mice did this? How much light is enough? And of course, if they all took no wives there would be no mice for a later generation. And even if the mice slept around without marrying, there would be a huge population of young mice who'd never see or know who their father was and learn how to become a regular mouse. Just sayin'. Those mouse coteries would be more like street gang kids in the next generation (just an aside, maybe we should call street gangs "coteries"- it sounds so much more interesting than a "gang.")

Is it selfish for the mouse to do this? Why or why not? I'm just asking.

Do you think I'm reading too much into the poem? What is too much? How do you judge this? Maybe this is my oak tree. Maybe not.

There's a lot to gnaw on in this charming poem.

Here's where we've talked about Lindsay before:

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