Poetry, Altruism, and the Web of Life



Poetry makes a great framework on which to hang thinking; along with metaphor, which offers another device for thinking – about poetry. Recent events came to mind as I entwined the leading shoots of my jasmine, hoya and mandevilla onto their respective trellises. It’s a meditative job; one I enjoy. Like taking a child by the hand and saying ‘come with me, this is the best way’. They are climbing plants, so each needs a support to grow on. Their natural growth pattern of sending out long tendrils on string-like stems is ideal for vertical growth. Some, like the hoyas, also have suckers which grasp walls or other solid structures for support. However, the jasmine and mandevilla need something to wind  around like wire or a trellis in order to fulfil their towering ambitions. The point is, they don’t achieve this on their own. They need support.



After a recent accident I too, needed support. For days I couldn’t get out of bed or even sit up without help. I’m fortunate to have loving family who cared for me, who unequivocally gave me their support. I healed quickly and no longer need such intensive care. But it got me thinking about a poem my father often quoted. He could quote poetry by rote and took every opportunity to do so. It’s only now, I realise what a legacy he left me. All those metaphors, all those verses, which encapsulated life’s lessons. The ones that taught him and now the lessons they teach me.

‘No Man is an Island’

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne  1572–1631

Poetry can support and nourish growth. Like the support enjoyed by my climbing plants, poetry is a trellis which encourages us to reach upward and soar. The lesson contained in one of my father’s favourite poems (above) is about the holistic nature of life.  None of us is truly a solitary agent. We are all connected in a Web of Life.

This morning over breakfast, my friends and I discussed how important was the role of the volunteer and the inherent altruism of humanity involved. Most of us would help another in need without even thinking about it. Primate research suggests altruism is not a purely human trait. Anyone with a pet knows the positive symbiotic relationship that having one involves. Without getting into a Darwinism discussion, I simply have to remind myself not to ask ‘for whom the bell tolls’, because it tolls for each of us – as my dad would often tell me, ‘no man [woman, beast, nor plant] is an island’. Bracketed additions are my own. : )


42 responses to “Poetry, Altruism, and the Web of Life

  1. How true. And about the value of poetry – it’s a shame we don’t learn more by rote. The writer Eugenia Ginsburg spent 17 years in Stalin labor camps – she says in her memoir that remembering and reciting poetry helped her survive and keep sane.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. So true Robyn. My dad both wrote and quoted poetry. His favourite was If by Runyard Kipling , but he often too quoted (sic) “One man looked through prison bars. One saw mad the other stars.” He was never quite that open minded!


    • I well remember that poem ‘If’, Karolyn. You have spoken of your dad’s love of poetry before.
      I wonder what it was about that generation? I think rote learning was a large part of their education process then.


  3. I’m glad to hear you’re a bit better since your last post. (That seems like a very quick recovery to be given that I read that post about three minutes ago!)

    Your point about altruism is well made. Funnily enough, your line about primate research reminded me of a book I read a few years ago called “Peacemaking among Primates” by Frans de Waal. It was a pretty popular book when it came out so you may have read it already, but if not, I thought you might be interested in it. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. so very true Robyn. We all depend on one another, we can never be truly self-sufficient. Yesterday while cycling 74 miles home , my lovely DH put his hand on my back and helped me up a couple of hills. Bless him – he’s like an electric motor haha!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I agree that poetry helps buit all sorts of art helps in life. Having me visiting a Nazi concentration camp, Father explained that the fact they could remember paintings or music pieces or poems or novels, had helped prisoners go along.
    As to help, well, primates may well have better kept their instinct than many human beings. I do not think this is an instinct anymore in mankind or in European mankind anyway. Our culture has put comfort nd selfishness first – or this is what I see everyday.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have to agree with Camille, but add that I think 25% of people, like you, are great. Another 70% are neutral. The remaining 5 are a-holes. I flit between the latter two. Apologies. XD

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The interconnectedness that makes us all one. I love Donne’s poem and all of the tiers of meaning it brings to mind.I am so happy that you are doing well and i hope your garden causes more pondering for all of us to enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great and inspiring post. Poetry is therapeutic , it speaks in images. It connects the two hemispheres of the brain , we feel united with in our selves , since we are able to verbalize those experiences which were non verbal.
    Though I did not know it when I started writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Poetry, Altruism, and the Web of Life – Silencio Digital·

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