“Only when love and need are one,/ And the work is play for mortal stakes/ Is the deed ever truly done/For Heaven and the future’s sake.”
Those lines are taken from a poem by Robert Frost, and have been much discussed and analysed by many literary critics who have come up with various interpretations.
At first, the poem seems to be a departure from Frost’s simple, easy-to-understand style in that the poet has deliberately introduced an obliqueness of expression as if to make us to untie its meaning as we would do with an intricate knot. What is the guy getting at?
When love and need are one? Well, aren’t they always? If you love someone, or something, like an idea or an ideology, don’t you need that which you love, and vice versa?
Not necessarily. We can need people, for economic or social reasons, without loving them, and we can need the idea of a religion, or an ‘ism’, as a spiritual or psychological support without loving that which we need.
This is true of the work we do, our occupation or profession. Most of us need to work at something in order to make a livelihood. But do we love what we do, do we do what we do as best as we possibly can so that the work is play for mortal stakes, a joyous endeavour that fulfils our lives?
Hey, look, that isn’t fair. We can’t always choose what we do for a living.
I might have wanted to be a stand-up comic. But everyone knows that stand-up comics don’t make much money, unless they happen to be Vir Das. So I’ve little option but to become an accountant, a job which I find boring but which gives me a decent salary.
This argument is certainly valid. Not all of us love our jobs, or our professions. In fact, only a lucky few of us do. But Frost is making a distinction between what we do to earn a living, and what do we do for living.
There is a great difference between the two. I knew a senior officer of an enforcement organisation who had a fearsome reputation for pursuing economic offenders with ruthless implacability, more like a programmed automaton than a human being with human emotions.
That’s what he did to earn his living. What he did for living was to play the violin, in the privacy of his home.
He’d evoke a haunting enchantment from the instrument, as though what he was playing on was made not of wood and metal but the secret sinews of his heart and spirit.
He never performed in public, never sought fame or fortune for what he did, what for him was work that was “play for mortal stakes”.
We don’t have to be classical violinists, or creative artists of any kind, to find in ourselves something we do for living, not just for a livelihood. It could be a passion for gardening, or cooking, or playing golf or chess, or doing yoga, or mastering Esperanto. It could be anything, any “deed ever truly done/For Heaven and the future’s sake.”
Not a cottonwool-cloud Heaven up there, but the heaven we try to make right here, however imperfect, for the sake of the only future which is worth the while of living.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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