In his poems, Richard Eberhart returned again and again to the theme of death: death-in-life and life-in-death. His poems are, at once, a stay against oblivion and a bid for immortality. In his essay “Poetry as a Creative Principle” (in Of Poetry and Poets), Eberhart claimed that poetry is “a spell against death.” As long as the essence of one’s life exists in one’s recorded work, there is immortality.
A Bravery of Earth, Eberhart’s first published work, is a long philosophical and autobiographical narrative that establishes the dichotomy between the push toward life, harmony, and order and the corresponding horrors that are a constant pull toward the grave.
“The Groundhog,” perhaps Eberhart’s most anthologized and acclaimed poem, is the epitome of the duality that characterizes his verse. The poem serves as a kind of memento mori that unites all living creatures in their temporality. Focusing on a dead groundhog, it develops the paradox of life-in-death. The poem additionally expresses the poet’s belief that poetry is a gift of the gods—a mystical power that is relative, never absolute.
“The Groundhog” is one of four or five poems that Eberhart claimed were given to him. In a 1982 interview printed in Negative Capability, he described this mystical experience. These “given poems,” Eberhart stated, came from “far beyond or underneath the rational mind” and hence are unusually powerful. In such an experience, he speculated, one is “allied with world consciousness.” Commenting specifically on “The Groundhog,” he explained that the poem was composed in “twenty minutes of heightened awareness” after he saw a dead groundhog on a friend’s farm.The body was open and the belly was seething with maggots. So here was a small dead animal, as dead as could be, and yet he was full of life, an absolute paradox. . . . He seemed to have more life in him being eaten up by maggots than if he were running along in the fields with nature harmoniously in him.
The poem cites three encounters with a dead groundhog. The first takes place “in June, amid golden fields.” Here, in “vigorous summer,” the animal’s form began its “senseless change.” The sight of it without its senses makes the poet’s own “senses waver dim/ Seeing nature ferocious in him.” He pokes the animal with a stick and notes that it is alive with maggots.
In autumn, the speaker returns to the place where he saw the dead groundhog. This time, “the sap [was] gone out of the groundhog,/ But the bony sodden hulk remained.” The speaker’s previous reaction of love and loathing, the revulsion that was the first response of the senses, is no longer present. “In intellectual chains, . . . mured up in the wall of wisdom,” he brings intellect into play. He thinks about and applies reason to the experience of seeing the dead animal. In another summer, then, he takes to the fields again, “massive and burning, full of life,” and chances upon the spot where the groundhog lies. “There was only a little hair left,/ And bones bleaching in the sunlight.”
After three years, the poet returns again, but this time “there is no sign of the groundhog.” It is “whirling summer” once more, and as the speaker’s hand covers a “withered heart,” he thinks of
China and of Greece,Of Alexander in his tent;Of Montaigne in his tower,Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.
Eberhart attributed the success of “The Groundhog” to the fact that he refused to delete these final lines. At a writer’s discussion group in the Harvard area, where Eberhart joined other poets and read his work aloud, he was urged to end the poem with the description of the dead creature—before the mention of China and Greece, of the soldier, the philosopher, and the saint. Eberhart pointed out that the purposeful lives of these notable people distinguish them from a dead animal, the groundhog. Perhaps it can be said that an ordinary man would never have noticed the small rotting thing lying in the field had a poet not called attention to its demise. An animal leaves only bones that in time disappear; however, the lives of great men and women endure throughout time and are recorded in their works. The final lines of Eberhart’s poem celebrate human achievement, the life-in-death that is beyond decay.
“For a Lamb”
In juxtaposition to “The Groundhog,” “For a Lamb,” an earlier poem about a dead animal, anticipates and highlights the import of the later work. In a field near Cambridge, England, in 1928, the speaker sees a dead lamb among daisies. “But the guts were out for crows to eat.” The speaker asks, “Where’s the lamb?” and then answers, “Say he’s in the wind somewhere,/ Say, there’s a lamb in the daisies.” Although there is the sense of death as a fusion with life, there is no person in the poem to give meaning to existence. The lamb lives only because someone, a poet with creative imagination, has marked its being in the world. When there is human significance, death-in-life is transformed into life-in-death.
Eberhart believed that poetry comes out of suffering, and it was his mother’s death that brought this awareness. Before she died, he had stayed out of college a year to help take care of her. According to a 1983 essay published in Negative Capability, this was for Eberhart “the most profound experience of my life, one that begot my poetry, an experience of depth that was inexpressible.” Fifty-five years later, in an essay entitled “The Real and the Unreal,” the adult Eberhart ponders the meaning of this early suffering. From memory, he says, “as part of the mystery of creation, flow poetry and music, manifold works of the imagination.” One of his poems asserts that it is “the willowy Day-Bed of past time/ that taught death in the substratum.” These lines exemplify Eberhart’s thoughts in “The Theory of Poetry” that the first experience of the death of a loved one teaches “the bitterness but the holy clarity of truth.”
Life-in-death and death-in-life
The final stanza of the poem “1934,” reprinted in Collected Poems 1930-1986, defines Eberhart’s premise about poetry and “life-in-death.”
And I have eased reality and fictionInto a kind of intellectual fruitionStrength in solitude, life in death,Compassion by suffering, love in strife,And ever and still the weight of mysteryArrows a way between my words and me.
As a philosophical poet, Eberhart explores life’s dualities. In “How I Write Poetry,” he states that “everything about poetry is relative rather than absolute.” Commenting on “The Cancer Cells,” a poem that brings to mind his mother’s terminal illness, the poet writes that the cancer cells photographed in Life magazine aroused in him an awareness of the simultaneity of the lethal and the beautiful, another poignant reminder of death-in-life.
In “Meditation Two,” Eberhart notes that since “the Garden of Eden/ When Eve offered man the fruit of the...
(The entire section is 3102 words.)
The Groundhog by Richard Eberhart
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The Groundhog by Richard Eberhart
In Richard Eberhart's poem "The Groundhog", the author uses his expertise in language to contrast life and death in nature. With diction and contrasting imagery the author discloses his idea that the world is in constant change. Changes in which things eventually decompose, or disappear, but also, at the same time saying that nature will renew itself.
The groundhog's "senseless change" shows the irrational but ordered controlling force of nature as it decays and changes. The authors returning visits embody the change in the groundhog. In Eberhart's four visits the groundhog changes. From a "seething cauldron", becoming a "bony sodden hulk", to only become "bones bleaching", and "only a little hair". The last visit "there is no sign of the groundhog".
The author feels so emotional over the continuing changes of the groundhog because he resents change. It makes him feel that he is not in control over himself and what is going on. Eberhart treats it as if he is losing a tradition in his life, not feeling comfortable about life. The author "capped a withered heart" because that is his way of taking control of his life.
Eberhart uses wonderful, artistic diction to illustrate contrasting imagery. He contrasts "golden fields" with "the groundhog lying dead", and "vigorous summer" and "dead lay he". The result of these comparisons creates the picture of a hot and calm summer day in a peaceful field with a dead groundhog. The mental picture created can be one of sadness and dismay that on such a wonderful day, such a horrible thing could happen. The frightening picture is amplified by "inspecting close his maggots' might".
The author goes on further to contrast in the imagery by showing how he appreciates the groundhog and it's slow decay. He inspects the body up close, but "half with loathing" of the dead creature, it's smell, and disgusting appearance, and yet with a "strange love", he shows how he strangely likes the animal and starts to care about the changes that it is going through, to renew nature.
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Strange Love Taking Control Visits Calm Sadness Bleaching Loathing Losing Smell Feeling
A change has happened to the author, the original concern for "keeping reverence for knowledge" has conflicted with an attempt "for control, to be still, to quell the passion of the blood." Eberhart caps his heart with his hand because he no longer has the appreciation for the groundhog as he did, but that now he has an awareness of life.