John Denver’s album Poem’s, Prayers, and Promises is surprisingly eclectic. It’s got two of his most famous songs on it– “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Take Me Home Country Roads– but they are set off with some real oddities. At one extreme, you have the surprisingly churchy “Gospel Changes” and at the other you have the “Wooden Indian” in which an red man swears by his grandfather’s father that they are going to rise again. (This does not quite jive with the image that of have of him from growing up watching his Muppet Show appearances….)
By far the strangest thing on the album is a poem by called “the Box”. The thing that’s interesting about it is while it appears at first to be a sort of myth or fable, it really is something else entirely. Let’s take a look at it.
Once upon a time, in the land of Hush-A-Bye,
Around about the wondrous days of yore,
They came across a kind of box
Bound up with chains and locked with locks
And labeled “Kindly do not touch; it’s war.”
A decree was issued round about, and all with a flourish and a shout
And a gaily colored mascot tripping lightly on before.
Don’t fiddle with this deadly box,Or break the chains, or pick the locks.
And please don’t ever play about with war.
Now, this idea an arbitrary prohibition is a profoundly good element for a myth. J. R. R. Tolkien could tell you that, certainly. But going with the name “Hush-A-Bye” is utterly disastrous, and not simply because it’s tacky. With that lousy name, first line of the poem is signaling that there is absolutely no connection between this tale and reality. If you happened to miss that, it is made completely plain when it drops into explicit allegory.
Now… for what it is, this as some surprisingly effective writing. As myth, however… this is godawful stuff.
The children understood. Children happen to be good
And they were just as good around the time of yore.
They didn’t try to pick the locks Or break into that deadly box.
They never tried to play about with war.
Mommies didn’t either; sisters, aunts, grannies neither
‘Cause they were quiet, and sweet, and pretty
In those wondrous days of yore.
Well, very much the same as now,
And not the ones to blame somehow
For opening up that deadly box of war.
But someone did. Someone battered in the lid
And spilled the insides out across the floor.
(Let me guess. It was a dude, right?)
It really bugs people that the ancients by and large pin the blame in this sort of scenario on women like Eve and Pandora. You see a whole lot of stories now flipping that script much in the same way that princesses have to be shown rescuing princes and so forth. It so ubiquitous, I suppose that many little girls can grow up without hearing the older versions.
This passage really is nothing like that, though. Sure, it sort of sweeps figures ranging from Lady MacBeth to Jezebel quietly under the rug. And it erases historical figures like that Spartan mother that told her son to come back with his shield or on it. And then there’s the women of World War One that went around handing out white roses guys that were too cowardly to allow themselves to be fed to the meat grinder. It’s like they never existed.
And children…? They’re just as sweet as the mommies and the grannies. Nothing like the little boys you read about in Lord of the Flies.
Well this is all brown nosing, of course. And not only do the “rough men” types that “stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us” get blamed for the fact that they have to do that sort of thing, but they are deftly excluded from the discussion here. Any one of them that speaks up to counter this come off like some rude Theoden challenging Saruman at his tower!
A kind of bouncy, bumpy ball made up of guns and flags
And all the tears, and horror, and death that comes with war.
It bounced right out and went bashing all about,
Bumping into everything in store. And what was sad and most unfair
Was that it didn’t really seem to care
Much who it bumped, or why, or what, or for.
It bumped the children mainly. And I’ll tell you this quite plainly,
It bumps them every day and more, and more,
And leaves them dead, and burned, and dying
Thousands of them sick and crying.
‘Cause when it bumps, it’s really very sore.
Now there’s a way to stop the ball. It isn’t difficult at all.
All it takes is wisdom, and I’m absolutely sure
That we can get it back into the box, And bind the chains, and lock the locks.
But no one seems to want to save the children anymore.
Well, that’s the way it all appears, ’cause it’s been bouncing round
for years and years
In spite of all the wisdom wizzed since those wondrous days of yore
And the time they came across the box,
Bound up with chains and locked with locks,
And labeled “Kindly do not touch; it’s war.”
I know, all of that just to set up a “for the children” type argument. I can cut the poet some slack for that, maybe– it may not have been quite the cliché that it is now back when this was written. The real catch in all this the that not only is there supposed to be a way to end war, but it isn’t difficult.
I’m amazed that anyone ever recited this with a straight face, but there it is. And yet, this really is a masterpiece. The fact that it is predicated entirely on a bit of sleight of hand does not detract one iota from its effectiveness.
This really is nothing like the real myths, though. It’s not a fable, a parable, or a fairytale either. I think if you go back and look at them, they pretty well all were meant to convey something about reality. Some of them were flawed. Some of them maybe needed to decoded in order to be fully understood. Some of them quite plainly were meant to convey instruction regarding one or more traditional virtues.
And this poem really doesn’t do anything like that. Indeed, it takes all of that practical wisdom and all of those thinly veiled cautionary tales, and it replaces them with really powerful feelings of smugness and superiority just for having the right convictions regarding something that doesn’t even make sense.
And it’s alarming just how powerful it is. I know I’ve seen families where the grumpy/realist husband is looked down on by practically everyone else for perennially pooping the sort of feel good party these types of ideas are meant to engender. He occasionally weighs in on the the issues of the day, but somehow… this never seems change anyone else’s opinions. It’s as if he lives in a world where this poem has rolled all over the women and children and bumped them good and hard. And they can’t hear what he is saying because of it!
Someone really ought to do something about this. For the children.