This one made me very sad at first, until I read the events surrounding it. The poem could be read as an overall statement of existential angst, with the “unlove” coming from his father’s suicide. Ouch, yes, that would be sad. But actually it was written as the poet’s second marriage had decayed into open warfare and was dissolving away rapidly. It’s a sad enough situation for anyone, to be sure. No one wants that. Unfortunately, it throws a harsher light on the poem to see what really prompted it. Instead of the sad, helplessness of the boy who lost his father, which would engender some genuine pathos, now it’s much his own fault. One partner is half-responsible for a breakup. Are you inattentive? Career mean more than your relationship? Have you been a caring father? No? Drink too much, like waaaay too damn much? Fair enough. It happens. But don’t go claiming that “what the world to Henry / did will not bear thought” since you weren’t quite the passive victim here, pal. But, then again, we all indulge in self-pity from time to time; it’s another of the “secret bits of life” he refers to. But right now, all the adventures on Earth don’t compensate for unlove, whether it’s well-earned or not.
I’m sitting here all cool and secure and superior, passing judgment, as is my prerogative as reader. This poem does bring up memories of the power of negative emotion, though. I remember the isolation and smallness of feeling unloved, the need to hurt something when angry, and I’ve had bitter moments of jealousy that taught me it’s a bad, bad emotion to have to experience. Most of this was long ago. Fear and anxiety are mainly what I’m left with as I’ve gotten older, negatively speaking. Plenty of good stuff in my life too, but we’re not talking about that at the moment.
I’ve had moments in villages and cities of Europe and wild spots in North America that no jealousy, rage or self-pity will ever have a chance of supplanting, emotionally or otherwise. But I also know that an upwelling emotion can spread over your psychological surface like an oil spill. It dissipates eventually, unless you write it—and then there it rings, hanging for everyone to see and reverberating indefinitely. There’s something cool about that, even if it’s some kind of ridiculous self-pity ringing over the decades. Art shows us who we are, sometimes the minutia and fleeting wisps of who we are, and reminds us that it’s all amazing. Henry gets it at the last line: even in the midst of a dark, dark sorrow, an uptick of wonder.