Jane Kenyon, “Evening Sun”

With thanks to Margaret Mahoney and Laura Garofalo

Evening Sun (from Poetry)
Jane Kenyon

Why does this light force me back
to my childhood? I wore a yellow
summer dress, and the skirt
made a perfect circle.
                         Turning and turning
until it flared to the limit
was irresistible . . . . The grass and trees,
my outstretched arms, and the skirt
whirled in the ochre light
of an early June evening.
                         And I knew then
that I would have to live,
and go on living: what sorrow it was;
and stilI what sorrow ignites
but does not consume
my heart.


Right now, I’m tearing my hair out at the number of 20-somethings I personally know who are desperately seeking validation from their peers and only their peers. They’re not doing a damn thing for anyone else except themselves, not recognizing the voices of those older or younger. I’ve never seen so much selfishness and self-absorption. The value of “be like children to enter the kingdom of heaven” is lost on me: I just see nasty, brutish, overgrown babies.

And then there’s this poem, which like all art has a certain ridiculousness and a power. I’ve been musing on it for a little while. The question Kenyon’s speaker asks, “Why does this light force me back to my childhood,” is not really answered by the image of her twirling in the evening sun, the joy and sorrow felt once, or even the sorrow that is at the moment igniting her heart.

“Huh?” you rightly ask. You say the sorrow she feels now connects with her childhood. Of course the light reminds her of the origin of the pain she feels. But that’s where this poem almost gets ridiculous. How can a child have such an insight, one enduring and defining adulthood on a higher level? This is not to say children cannot have a moral maturity far beyond their years, or go through inhuman experiences with a dignity that would break even the most battle hardened. It is just to say that the degree of self-knowledge required to recognize that maturity and have it be a driving force is highly unlikely.

So let’s go through the poem stanza-by-stanza to see exactly what the speaker’s dilemma is, why she feels her own question in some way unanswerable. “I wore a yellow summer dress, and the skirt made a perfect circle:” she is like the sun in how she is clothed, not in motion. But in motion, she again resembles the sun: “Turning and turning until it flared to the limit was irresistible.” She is the point at which all things revolve around, not just revolving herself. I take the whirling of the “grass and trees” to not just be a statement of her perception, but a brief moment where she was the sun, the source of light.

It is easy to say she wasn’t. That brief moment of unadulterated joy, of forgetting oneself entirely and just being blissful, was lost immediately. The child somehow realized that all of life would be nothing but trying to attain those moments in one way or another. A funny thing – it does not matter if she realized she was not the sun or was more like the sun than she thought. It will also go on “living” and being everyday itself, but for a longer time than her. Even the sun isn’t what it is supposed to represent. Again, we’re supposed to believe a child understood all this, and knew the deeper lesson. That we love and know we will lose and still keep loving to try to have those moments where life justifies itself. That our love and joy is the same thing as sorrow, and sorrow is therefore one’s heart.

But this poem does make sense in light of Jesus’ admonition. A child does learn that life is not getting everything, all at once. A child does learn that the best moments are moments one might never have again. There is such a thing as an innocent joy, a joy that loves its innocence and is not trying to forcibly replicate it, as it wants to see the world more than make it. When I think about this, I realize the problem with the 20-somethings isn’t their childishness. It’s that they have a caricature of adulthood they doggedly pursue. Kenyon’s speaker, on the other hand, is still wondering about that light once upon a time. She’s wondering about why she’s forced back to her childhood, when the pain endures even today.

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