As we approach the end of the year and look forward to ringing in 2012, I thought I’d choose a poem about reflection and deference to all aspects of life—including death. The poem I’ve selected is “Sorrow’s Uses,” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
The uses of sorrow I comprehend
Better and better at each year’s end.
Deeper and deeper I seem to see
Why and wherefore it has to be
Only after the dark, wet days
Do we fully rejoice in the sun’s bright rays.
Sweeter the crust tastes after the fast
Than the sated gourmand’s finest repast.
The faintest cheer sounds never amiss
To the actor who once has heard a hiss.
To one who the sadness of freedom knows,
Light seem the fetters love may impose.
And he who has dwelt with his heart alone,
Hears all the music in friendship’s tone.
So better and better I comprehend,
How sorrow ever would be our friend.
For Wilcox, sorrow is not merely an emotion one feels, but rather a necessary tool in life that helps remind us to be grateful for the happy times. She states that she understands these “uses” (1) of sorrow as she gets older, or “at each year’s end” (2). It is not easily apparent; in fact, many people never see it. But nevertheless, it’s true. And, according to Wilcox, it is essential to life. As she says, “…it has to be” (4). We may not want to believe that grief is useful in any way; we may see it as our greatest enemy. But in reality it is far from that.
The poet gives several examples of contrasts between positives and negatives to illustrate her point. However, the most recognizable one is “Only after the dark, wet days,/Do we fully rejoice in the sun’s bright rays” (5-6), which mirrors the meaning of the proverb “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Oftentimes we complain about it being too hot out, or too bright, but we don’t come to appreciate the sun until it is cold or rainy. Without the rain, we’d never be able to see how lucky we are to have the sunny days. This is why Wilcox proclaims that we need grief in our lives: we need its darkness to acknowledge the light.
The poem also serves as a reminder for us to appreciate what we have while we have it; because, as another proverb goes, “You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” As Wilcox puts it, “To one who the sadness of freedom knows,/Light seem the fetters that love may impose” (11-12). Love may seem restrictive at times, like a “fetter” (12), but as soon as it goes away, it is dearly missed. We must remember to show how thankful we are to have the people we love in our lives, because one day they’ll be gone. But, as Wilcox declares in the poem’s final line, sorrow is “our friend” (16).There is a reason that it exists, and its intentions are good, not bad. In the moment, grief may feel painful and unwanted, but as with anything, this is only because we often fail to relish what we have.