This is part 5 of a series introducing poetry to those who have had bad experiences reading poems. Poetry is to be experienced not unlike life itself. Here we will explore the poem, "My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is" by Sir Edward Dyer. I will not give you a background of the poem or a detailed analysis of the rhythm, meter and societal implications of Dyers' poem. Instead, let me tell you a story about a prisoner and the Truth he learned while surviving a hell created by man.
We can imagine that prison life is horrible. Stand up when told, eat when allowed, sleep when ordered. The life of a Nazi Concentration camp inmate was worse than prison for two reasons: The stakes of unpredictable death for unknowable reasons, and the indeterminate duration of the sentence. There are important lessons contained in the harrowing experiences of men and women who endured this, and it is through reading about them that those who will never be a prisoner can gain wisdom for their own life.
In examining prison life we get man at his core: Stripped of all civilized habiliments, the house and car, the watch and pressed pants, what is left besides frail skin and bone?
As was shown in the poem Invictus the mind can be a powerful tool to overcome adversity. To go further, dig deeper, let us examine the story of a heroic man’s experiences in a concentration camp.
Prisoner 119,104 arrived in Auschwitz on October 19th, 1944, and though he was previously a prisoner in a Jewish Ghetto, this could not prepare him for what was to come.
On the train where he and his wife had been stuffed, there came a moment at dawn when everyone in the train first saw the camp careening toward them like a bullet. A collective gasp stole the air from the oppressive train when they saw the sign: Auschwitz.
Prisoner 119,104’s imagination immediately went wild. Only doom could be ahead; his mind brought to him images of gallows with the still kicking feet of the recently departed.
Lined up like ants, the new arrivals filed out of the trains and into the camps. Each prisoner was assessed by a tall man. He was slim and fit, and his spotless uniform emphasized the drab, torn clothes of the prisoners who approached him.
With a simple flick of his finger he would send a prisoner to the left or right--no one knew what either meant. Was doom to the left? or right? Or both? Or neither?
It was 119,104’s turn.
He was sent right. Later he learned this finger game was the first of many “selections,” where life or death hinged on the whim of a madman. Before the day was over he was brought to a bathhouse, stripped naked, shaved of every bit of hair. The only reprieve being the sight of actual water dripping from the shower sprays.
Over the next months prisoner 119,104--the soon to be famed psychiatrist, Victor Frankl—would experience several lifetimes of misery and pain. There would be occasions when guards would attack him like wild beasts, for no other reason than that he had been a doctor. At times he was beat for its own sake. Eventually he and the other inmates would come to a point when they philosophized about “bread strategy,” which was over the question of whether to eat all of ones meager bread in the morning, and thus starve later, or eat a tiny nibble every hour and be hungry throughout the day. Daily life consisted of uncertainty. There was no way to know if a cough would rouse a guard to send one to the sick quarters where almost no one returned. The worst of it was the marching. Endless marching to and from a workstation in worn out shoes stolen from a corpse.
On one particularly cold and brutal morning march, Dr. Frankl and the crew he was assigned to that day marched in the pre-dawn darkness, stumbling over large stones and through freezing puddles. To fall meant a strike from the butt of a rifle, so each prisoner held the arm of the man beside him. The prisoner whose arm Frankl gripped said sardonically, “If our wives could see us now!”
Faster than thought Frankl was suddenly standing before his wife, Tilly. In that moment, he did not know if she survived (she did not) but in that moment it did not matter. He saw her smile at him. She answered his questions, and gave him her usual frank and encouraging look. She was more real than the rising sun and the frigid puddles before him.
“I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words: “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
A contentedness, a serenity, would rush through Frankl in these moment spent in contemplation. Even after hours of “hacking at the icy ground,” and the stream of insults from the guards, Frankl held in his mind the image of his wife and the work he would do on his lost manuscript when he returned to her. He was able to touch her face. He could reach out and grab her hand.
Nothing the guards did could steal that from him. The guards had everything, so it seemed, but they lived in a world of fear and hatred and envy whereas Frankl lived in serenity with the course his life would take.
Frankl would leave that camp one day, either by death or liberation, but the guards would be vicious and filled with an inner turmoil that Frankl no longer experienced.
His great discovery, which he formulated and expressed in over 30 books, was that a prisoner was not a victim of his surroundings, he was not a plaything of circumstances and he need not surrender the last true human freedom, the inner freedom which would determine whether or not a prisoner would in fact become a product of circumstances or rise above. He discovered that this inner freedom cannot be taken; it must be surrendered, voluntarily. And indeed, there were prisoners who bore their sufferings as an inner achievement.
In the below poem, My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is, by Sir Edward Dyer, we can hear the representation of an inner Kingdom, the words chosen by the poet bring to light the thoughts of a truly contented man. in the poem we hear the dangers of becoming lost in princely pomp, and losing sight of a clear conscience, one not saddled with envy, hatred, jealousies; one that “fears no foe” nor “fawns no friends,’ one that “loathes not life, nor dreads [the] end.”
In it we are instructed that it is the mind that has ultimate power in having, by our choice, the ability to control our attitude about the world around us; thus:
Content to live, this is my stay;
I seek no more than may suffice;
I press to bear no haughty sway;
Look, what I lack my mind supplies.
Lo, thus I triumph like a king,
Content with that my mind does bring.
POETRY READING TIP: Vocabulary
Poetry lives and breathes through the power of language—words—thus even educated men require a dictionary for some truly great poems. This is no different than a businessman examining the details of his markets or of his product. After all, English has over 500,000 words. No one can know them all, nor all the infinite meanings their combination can convey. The following poem is one of the more difficult poems in this series (so far!) Yet, in understanding it, on whatever level, will provide new insights into your own life that no teacher could ever tell you. It is up to you to take the journey into that most vast of territories; The kingdom of YOUR mind.
My mind to me a kingdom is; Such perfect joy therein I find That it excels all other bliss Which God or nature hath assign'd. Though much I want that most would have, Yet still my mind forbids to crave. No princely port, nor wealthy store, No force to win a victory, No wily wit to salve a sore, No shape to win a loving eye; To none of these I yield as thrall,-- For why? my mind despise them all. I see that plenty surfeit oft, And hasty climbers soonest fall; I see that such as are aloft Mishap doth threaten most of all. These get with toil and keep with fear; Such cares my mind can never bear. I press to bear no haughty sway, I wish no more than may suffice, I do no more than well I may, Look, what I want my mind supplies. Lo ! thus I triumph like a king, My mind content with anything. I laugh not at another's loss, Nor grudge not at another's gain; No worldly waves my mind can toss; I brook that is another's bane. I fear no foe, nor fawn on friend, I loathe not life, nor dread mine end. My wealth is health and perfect ease, And conscience clear my chief defence; I never seek by bribes to please, Nor by desert to give offence. Thus do I live, thus will I die,-- Would all did so as well as I!