Poetry Review: “Sigmund Freud Discovers the Sea Shell” by Archibald MacLeish

“What can be explained is not poetry.” W.B. Yeats

MacLeish's Notebook

MacLeish’s Notebook

It is summer and my mind is wandering. I stand in front of my bookcase and pick up a volume of Archibald MacLeish that I first read 30 summers ago, when I was first in love with poetry… in love with love. I look at lines I underlined, notes I made, cross references I noted to other poets and poems. I read the lines I underlined out loud. My breath makes the same sounds my younger self once made… that MacLeish once made. I forget my restlessness.

MacLeish brings an intellect to his poetry that is impossible not to admire. Yet if you approach a MacLeish poem merely intellectually you will miss most of what makes him a great poet: his underlining emotive integrity. All poems after all (even those by intellects as great as MacLeish’s) begin as emotive moments.

“Sigmund Freud Discovers the Sea Shell” is a prime example of what makes MacLeish a great poet: his textual duplexity. (“Textual Duplexity” may not be a real term, but I like like it anyway… it gets as close to what I mean as any term I can think of.) The prosaic argument that the poem makes is straight forward. But the poetic heart of the poem is not an idea but an emotion. Indeed, if the poem was merely a discussion of the relationship between science and religion it would be neither a poem nor unforgettable. It is the integrity of emotion that makes this a good poem… that makes it unforgettable. That make you stand 30 years later speaking the words into the air as if your life depended on it.


Sigmund Freud Discovers the Sea Shell
Science, that simple saint, cannot be bothered
Figuring what anything is for:
Enough for her devotions that things are
And can be contemplated soon as gathered.

She knows how every living thing was fathered,
She calculates the climate of each star,
She counts the fish at sea, but cannot care
Why any one of them exists, fish, fire or feathered.

Why should she? Her religion is to tell
By rote her rosary of perfect answers.
Metaphysics she can leave to man:
She never wakes at night in heaven or hell

Staring at darkness. In her holy cell
There is no darkness ever: the pure candle
Burns, the beads drop briskly from her hand.

Who dares to offer Her the curled sea shell!
She will not touch it!–knows the world she sees
Is all the world there is! Her faith is perfect!

And still he offers the sea shell . . .

What surf
Of what far sea upon what unknown ground
Troubles forever with that asking sound?
What surge is this whose question never ceases?

Comments are closed.