Robert Bly, “Reading in a Boat”

With thanks to Temperance Dewar

Reading in a Boat (from Morning Poems)
Robert Bly

I was glad to be in that boat, floating
Under oak leaves that had been
Carved by crafty light.

How many times during the night
I laughed, because She
Came near, and stayed, or returned.

The boat stopped, and I woke.
But the pages kept turning. I jumped
Back in the book, and caught up.

I was not in pain, not hungry,
Friend, I was alive, sleeping,
And all that time reading a book.


This poem is a response to someone skeptical about our boat-reader. The skeptic is concerned with “pain” and “hunger,” but it is hard to believe a response this eloquent is needed for someone who only judges by means of material well-being.

The first stanza gives us the boat. Our speaker simply is there, floating. One might think him dead, drowned. Why can’t those oak leaves in their brightness be on the surface of the water? Two details make the given image overwhelmingly beautiful and positive. First, the speaker describing himself as “glad.” Second, Temperance rightly noted the full significance of “oak” and the implied growth. “Carved by crafty light:” there is an artificer at play here (one that maybe makes dreams). Whether that creator is human or divine is an open question.

From the boat we move to the book. The second stanza might not have anything to do with the boat. Who takes a boat out at night? Still, we don’t know if it is moonlight or daylight attending the opening stanza. The more precise connection between first and second stanzas – “glad,” “laughed.” The speaker delights in a Muse (“She”). The language is curious. “Came near,” “stayed,” “returned.” The Muse is only described in how she relates to the speaker. If the speaker said “left” as opposed to “returned,” that would imply the speaker has some knowledge that the Muse even went somewhere at all.

What is amazing about this poem is how the delight of inspiration is allowed its full mystery. When you’re inspired, you might have many moments of inspiration all at once, or just one insight. The temporal difference is two entirely different feelings. Are we asleep, possessed? Or are we awake?

The third stanza more explicitly merges boat and book. The stoppage of the boat forces one to recognize that both are the same. Our speaker has to be the one turning those pages; he’s pushing to find the inspiration in another voice in which he delighted. The Muse is within the book. “Caught up” cancels the Muse’s being. A revelation is had; she is no longer necessary.

Someone might say that inspiration comes from vigilance and diligence. That one has to work and be attentive to every little detail. Nothing could make less sense to Bly’s speaker. Attentiveness for the sake of inspiration is reading a good book, is an imaginative journey. “Alive,” sleeping,” “reading” are all unified. You have to give up control for the best moments. The funny thing is the charity (“Friend”) which attends the inspiration. The imaginative labors cannot be competitive. The Muse was not the Friend, but enabled the Friend.

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