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Meditations on Ecclesiastes

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Inquiry

“What profit has a man for all his labor…?” —Ecclesiastes 1: 3

None knows what all his work accomplishes;
What one begins, another finishes
A different way. Or, fools may come in after
He dies, waste life in lust and drunken laughter,
Abandoning the place he built. None will
Recall his arduous efforts or his skill.
This inescapable absurdity
Asserts the depth of earthly vanity.

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Perplexity

“And this also is a severe evil, that just exactly as he came, so shall he go. And what profit has he who has labored for the wind?” —Ecclesiastes 5: 16-17

We cheer each birth—yet, as man comes, he’ll go—
Naked, as he arrived. The womb is narrow
From whence he comes—as is the grave, where sorrow
Pervades the winds of vanity that blow
About the burial ground, where neither sparrow
Nor man can fall whose Maker doesn’t know.
Of all the things he’s worked for, none will follow
Him to another world. This world seems hollow
To those who mourn his loss; the here and now
Cries out, “Futility! This life is shallow!”
The place of grief surpasses that of mirth;
Therefore a death seems better than a birth.

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Irony

“There is a vanity which occurs on earth, that there are just men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous.” —Ecclesiastes 8: 14

Whoever humbly works beneath the skies
With perseverance, thrift, and industry,
Should be rewarded. Why do some, then, rise
By evil? Even worse: the irony
Of those who fall by virtue, is a cause
For philosophical perplexity.
It seems to work against all prudent laws
To give to those who’ve done no good the prize
That should have been bestowed upon the wise
And diligent, however many days he
Labored for posterity. How crazy
To keep back payment from the just! Absurd
Among the things that we have seen and heard,
This system certainly appears insane,
And magnifies a world that seems in vain.

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Insanity

“… Truly the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.” —Ecclesiastes 9: 3

We’re made in God’s own image; nonetheless,
Life is full of madness; then we die.
Has evil led to madness, or has madness
Led to evil? What made us insane?
Why didn’t all-but-one-tree satisfy?
If we had been content, would we have had less
Than all we need? Does soul make war with brain
To warp us? Or, are both demented? Why
Are we conceived and born in craziness?
Our senses can’t make sense of constant pain
That stalks us while, incessantly, we try
Again and yet again, with no success
(The definition of insanity)
To be as God – resulting in the mess
That warped creation’s first and flawless beauty
And carries on this permanent Anomaly.

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Folly

“And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.” —Ecclesiastes 1: 17 (KJV)

We’re born dissatisfied. Excess vexation
Appears to be our destiny. Like winds
That turn, and blow, and turn about again,
Things change, yet stay the same. Each generation
Repeats the past; wherever one thing ends,
One starts. There’s nothing new beneath the sun.
Our portion in this life—to drink, to eat,
To find some merriment, before defeat
Has overwhelmed us and it is too late
To take delight on earth—this is our fate
While we’re alive. Unfailingly we follow
Our forebears to the always-hungry belly
Of death. Then, what’s the meaning of this folly
We act out on life’s stage beneath a shadow
Of clouds that emphasize our own unknowing?
We chase the wind; it turns, and keeps on blowing
Dust into our eyes, till we can’t see,
Reminding us about the certainty
That we are made of dust, and will return
To it. This paralyzing vanity
Accentuates the Fall’s insanity.
We stumble, wisdom-less, till life is done,
And end in ignorance, as we’d begun.

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Cynthia Erlandson is a poet and fitness professional living in Michigan.  Her second collection of poems, Notes on Time, has recently been published by AuthorHouse, as was her first (2005) collection, These Holy Mysteries.  Her poems have also appeared in First Things, Modern Age, The North American Anglican, The Orchards Poetry Review, The Book of Common Praise hymnal, and elsewhere.


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12 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Elegant poetic echoes of Ecclesiastes, Cynthia, and obvious statements to be making and questions to be posing as we take in breath to face 2022. “Irony” could have been composed as a response to Susan’s marvelous skewering of Blair yesterday.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much, Julian! You are absolutely right: the “character” in Susan’s excellent poem about the “Knight” matches the one here who should not have gotten the prize.

      Reply
  2. James Sale

    Some very powerful – and skilful – poetry here: well done. I love these Biblically related poems, since the source adds a deeper grandeur to the thematic exploration.

    Reply
  3. Sally Cook

    Cynthia, you are a truly unusual poet. I am happy to see your lines on anything, as I am sure that what you write will be well thought out, clear, yet subtle. Thanks !

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you very much, Sally! I have been musing on Ecclesiastes for most of my life.

      Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    Cynthia, after seeing the line “clouds that emphasize our own unknowing,” I wonder whether you know the medieval English work entitled “The Cloud of Unknowing.” To paraphrase very roughly, the unknown author says that in order to love God, we must set aside our knowledge and enter into the cloud of unknowing where we will find Him. His anticipation seems exactly the opposite of the frustration with experiential knowledge expressed by Ecclesiastes! Your own poems seem to enter into and modernize the Preacher’s mindset, while your titles reveal what you find in it.

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    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you for your comments, Margaret. I actually have not read that work (though I know of the title). I’m glad you mentioned it; I will have to look it up.

      Reply
  5. Yael

    These are superb Meditations on Ecclesiastes, I really enjoyed reading them. The way you sometimes end a sentence in the middle of a line as opposed to ending them at the end of a line only, adds an interesting amount of suspense and surprise, while lessening the boredom of being able to anticipate words and phrases. Well done, thank you!

    Reply
  6. Brian Yapko

    Cynthia, these are all marvelous meditations on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes with spotlights on vanity, sanity, birth and death. I enjoyed reading them — especially “Perplexity” which used “o” rhymes for 10 out of 12 lines ending with a true couplet. The “o” sounds seem to echo and amplify the “labor for the wind” quote. In contrast, “Insanity” and “Folly” have somewhat unsteady rhyme schemes — emblematic, perhaps, of a certain lack of societal discipline. Sometimes there are assonances, sometimes slant rhymes. There are a few sets of couplets, but just as often not. “Folly’s rhyme-schemes resolves in the last four lines — not exactly hopefully but with sad wisdom and closure. The effect of carefully-crafted randomness is quite thought-provoking. With respect to all five, thank you for a very enjoyable read.

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    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I’m so glad you found so much in these, Brian; thank you for your very thoughtful analysis. I was not always aware of doing some of the things you mentioned, particularly the “o” rhymes echoing laboring for the wind. I’ve had experiences over the years (I imagine you have, too) of being surprised at how some things work out subconsciously during the writing process.

      Reply

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