The Work of Happiness

by May Sarton


Original Language English

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall --
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life's span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.

-- from May Sarton, Collected Poems, 1930-1993, by May Sarton

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This morning I rediscovered this poem and thought, I have to share this with everyone.


I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.


I like the poet's vision of happiness as a quiet, steady reality that comes upon us almost unnoticed. Real happiness does not come upon us rapidly, only to leave just as unexpectedly. It is not dependent on what is happening to us; it is not the result of events or experiences.

Happiness is cultivated. It is nurtured. It grows from silence, from peace, and from inner strengthening and unseen growth.

No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.


If we are constantly focused outward on action and accomplishment and experience, at best we find fleeting, overly caffeinated, under satisfying versions of the happiness we truly crave.

For Sarton, happiness is about quiet presence, that which is steady and always there, yet unnoticed in the background -- like solid furniture. It is what supports us and makes our lives functional. It is what populates the corners of our homes, defining the spaces in which we live:

A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall --
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done...


She sees in furniture something of timelessness. The chest or table sits there, year after year, timeless in its unchanging presence, as the days wash over it.

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life's span in a single place...?


And, when we think about it, our furniture, our rooms, our apartments and houses are where we do our growth. They are the outer containers of our inner worlds. We move amongst them as we feel and contemplate and realize.

Tables, chairs, and beds are our intimate companions, knowing our movement and our silences. They are bathed in our breath and our thoughts. Over time they take on our energies.

No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless


When we do our inner work to cultivate happiness, our mundane material world frames and focuses our inner contentment.

Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.


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To everyone affected by the intensely cold weather, stay bundled up and warm and safe.



Recommended Books: May Sarton

May Sarton, Collected Poems, 1930-1993





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