“Within be fed, without be rich no more”

The Republicans have helped me appreciate the gravity of the national debt. And I’m glad to see that the Democrats at least have it on their radar. This problem reflects the penchant that our culture has for preferring unreality, opting to live as if the world is something to exploit and that its resources are endless. At some point reality will when this contest.

This makes me think of an old poem by Stephen Crane:

Said a man to the Universe,
“But sir, I exist.”
Said the Universe in reply,
“That fact creates in my no great obligation.”

We are a nation of addicts and “stuff” is our drug of choice. We just can’t get enough of it. And Gerald May noted decades ago that all human beings have an addiction problem, those who merit the designation “addicts’ are merely the reflection of the spiritual malady that besets us all. The rest of us are just more subtle with our addiction than are substance abusers.

I think the root problem is the sin of misplaced concreteness, taking for real that which is only ephemeral. As John Masefield noted in the 19th century, “Like a lame donkey lured by moving hay, we chase the shade and let the Real be.” The resulting inner emptiness gnaws at our soul and has to be assuaged. W. H. Auden described this spiritual hunger as our “howling appetites.” And I blame our moribund religion for this problem. Our churches rely on a steady diet of dead platitudes, “well-worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness.” (Conrad Aiken) As Shakespeare noted, “With devotions visage and pious action, they sugar o’er the devil himself.”

I would like to close with my favorite Shakespearean sonnet which addressed this issue, encouraging us to “within be fed, without be rich no more.”

Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,
[Thrall to] these rebel pow’rs that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
  So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
  And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

3 thoughts on ““Within be fed, without be rich no more”

  1. mtsweat

    Sugar coating that old liar from the beginning… this is a spectacular read, good friend. This piece goes straight to the heart of our problem and leaves us with no exit strategy. We have made an idol, sugar coated yes, but an idol no less. We are consumed by materialism and lie to ourselves to convince we’re okay… it very much is not. It’s eating our lunch and is running through every fabric of our being (as you note… even our government). Fantastic message here Lew (I’m becoming a fan of Shakespeare)! Blessings


    1. literary lew Post author

      An afterthought….Glad you are curious about Shakespeare. He is a difficult read; most of what I read I cannot understand. But, when I come across a gem, I am often just staggered. That old boy had a grasp of the human heart!



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