Our first Christmas together as a couple my wife gave me Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s collection of poems, The Haw Lantern. Reading the title poem, I was drawn by the imagery of fruit and dying light in winter, and and I thought of Christmas tree lights, but knew that the reference to Diogenes meant something else was going on than a cute comparison of two plants. Years later, I open the book again and turn to the poem, drawing a light on how the poem has grown on me, what fruit it now bears.
“The Haw Lantern” is, to me, a meditation on the search for integrity in a world of dim and little minds. And I think it is relevant today.
In winter, we light fires, and we search for lights as signs of people gathered, of warmth, of comfort and gift-giving. That is Yuletide.
That is Christmas. Diogenes the philosopher was a philosopher “with his lantern, seeking one just man.” As we bear through the winer of December and January, coming upon a great upheaval across the country. In the poem, “the wintry haw is burning out of season,” light in a time of darkness, wisdom in a time of folly.
Yet it is “a small light for small people” that shines. Perhaps this is Ireland, a tiny island of little impact to the world historically picked on by Britain, a frustratingly stubborn people. But perhaps this is any place where backwater or forgotten people struggle for illumination, having abandoned wisdom or access to wisdom having abandoned them. These people want self-respect without all the illumination. Blinded by truth and honesty, they only want just enough to suffice their desires.
Yet here comes Diogenes in the bush, scrutinizing us with its penetrating light. No matter how small, it stubbornly cuts at our eyes and pierces us with questioning. Like Diogenes, the haw lantern is set up for disappointment.
You flinch from “its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,” desiring some proof that what you believe and know is truly wise. Or perhaps some litmus test to see if what you chose was wise.
I find this haunting poem fit for people in America today as it was for Ireland decades ago. When I try to see through the eyes of a poet I see a people who are actually very small in their dimness, judging of others, scrutinizing not themselves. I see a land starved of integrity, justice, and enlightenment.
Yet like a hawthorn berry blooming out of season, in winter we are thankful for warmth, and in a time of darkness and approaching darkness I am thankful for what light I find, no matter how long I must search for it, no matter how many places I look and find it not.
Seamus Heaney’s poem is a gift to me this time of year this year, when I look back on a lot of darkness, darkness I have known and darkness this land has known and may come to know still. I look for light, even if it is meager. A small fire is precious in the snowfall as is a single berry to a scrounging critter.
May the light of Bethlehem shine forever over the manger.