The Mayfield Deer

By Mark Van Doren
IN the Preface to this long poem the author tells us that he came upon the incident the poem describes in an Illinois county history, and felt at once that he had found the theme for which he had long been looking. He speaks here as a poet, for no serious long poem deals merely with an incident: it is the incident conceived in the terms of a theme — or we might say in terms of a mythology. The ancient myths were fables, based sometimes on ideas, sometimes on natural phenomena, sometimes on history or legend, but these fables embodied the values evolved by the instincts, the intelligence, and the wisdom of the human race. This poem is conceived in the same spirit, and it is a contribution to American mythology.
It tells the simple story of an old hunter whose pet deer strayed and was shot by a boy in a near-by settlement. He shoots the boy, and revenge leads to revenge, until finally love replaces hate. From the action emerge the characters of the hunter and his sons, and of the simple settlers, and these broken patterns of thought and feeling are set against the integrated philosophy ot the old storekeeper, Thorsten. In verse which is always adequate and often both moving and distinguished, Mark Van Doren builds up this ‘moment in slow time’ into a microcosm of human life.
Enormous, necessary, the built world
Wound into its recesses and wound back: . . .
contributing its circles
To the vast form a silence ever drew.
But single in its place, and moveless so,
The center of their centers, mind of minds. . . .
E. D.