Poetry Sunday: Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation

This week’s Poetry Sunday features a new author, the American poet Stanley Kunitz. In his long lifetime, he was one of America’s most renowned poets, winning, among other awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Medal of Arts, the Robert Frost Medal, and Harvard’s Centennial Medal. He served a term as Poet Laureate of the United States, and was still writing and publishing at the age of 100, just prior to his death in 2006.

Stanley Kunitz was born in 1905 in Massachusetts. His father committed suicide just weeks before his birth, and the young Kunitz was raised by his stepfather and his mother, Yetta Helen Jasspon. Kunitz graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in English and served in the military in a noncombat role as a conscientious objector during World War II. After the war, he began a teaching career which took him through a variety of prestigious liberal arts colleges, including Vassar, Brandeis, Rutgers, Yale, and especially Columbia University, where he spent 22 years. During part of this time, he also served as editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin, a professional journal of librarians, where he took a strong stand against censorship and encouraged others to do the same. A 1938 article of his, “The Myth of Library Impartiality”, was the inspiration for the Library Bill of Rights that’s still used in American libraries today.

Like many great poets, Stanley Kunitz was a nonbeliever, in his case by way of a secular Jewish tradition that ran through his family. In an interview later in life, he said that his mother, “at the age of twelve… read Spinoza and lost her God”, and that in his household, “the stress was on cultural and ethical values rather than on ritual practices”. In that same interview, he also said, “The God in whom I believe does not exist.”

Today’s poem is a lyrical musing on nature, but with a wickedly clever sting embedded within. Written from the viewpoint of a worm hoping to undergo metamorphosis into a moth, it starts out idyllic, even romantic – but then takes a sudden, unexpectedly dark turn, one that cuttingly satirizes the excuses offered by proponents of theodicy. It’s also been a revelation to other nonbelievers, as you can see from this reading by a fan – come back and watch it after you’ve read the poem.

Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation

Since that first morning when I crawled
into the world, a naked grubby thing,
and found the world unkind,
my dearest faith has been that this
is but a trial: I shall be changed.
In my imaginings I have already spent
my brooding winter underground,
unfolded silky powdered wings, and climbed
into the air, free as a puff of cloud
to sail over the steaming fields,
alighting anywhere I pleased,
thrusting into deep tubular flowers.

It is not so: there may be nectar
in those cups, but not for me.
All day, all night, I carry on my back
embedded in my flesh, two rows
of little white cocoons,
so neatly stacked
they look like eggs in a crate.
And I am eaten half away.

If I can gather strength enough
I’ll try to burrow under a stone
and spin myself a purse
in which to sleep away the cold;
though when the sun kisses the earth
again, I know I won’t be there.
Instead, out of my chrysalis
will break, like robbers from a tomb,
a swarm of parasitic flies,
leaving my wasted husk behind.

Sir, you with the red snippers
in your hand, hovering over me,
casting your shadow, I greet you,
whether you come as an angel of death
or of mercy. But tell me,
before you choose to slice me in two:
Who can understand the ways
of the Great Worm in the Sky?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Bob Carlson

    Of course, “That Great Worm in the Sky” is evolution. Mr. Kuntz’s “flies” are not flies at all but rather a species of parasitic Hymenoptera called Cotesia congregata, and a photo of an afflicted hornworm is here:


    Cotesia congregata is a member of the family Braconidae, which shares common ancestry with the family Ichneumonidae in the way that we share common ancestry with chimps, although, of course, the split between the Braconidae and Ichneumonidae is vastly more ancient. Concerning the Ichneumonidae, Darwin made the following statement in a letter to Asa Gray: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

    I wonder what Darwin might have said about the false cocoons that are spun by a few species Ichneumonidae of the genus Hyposoter. These species spin their real cocoons inside the skins of hairy caterpillars, and the cocoon keeps the skin of the caterpillar firmly inflated. On the outside of the skin, the Hyposoter larva spins a small false cocoon that is quite similar in appearance to the cocoons of braconid wasps of the genus Cotesia. The false cocoon is left open at one end, and resembles a Cotesia cocoon from which the Cotesia adult has already emerged. The empty false cocoon is presumed to be a mechanism that helps to protect the Hyposoter individual in the real cocoon from being attacked by hyperparasitic wasps

    Now, I suppose that a creationist could provide us amusement by arguing that God took a particular fancy for these few species of Hyposoter and wanted to protect them from the ravages of hyperparasitic species of Ichneumonidae and Chalcidoidea, but rational folks will see it as a fascinating example of how evolution works.

    Bob Carlson

  • Alex Weaver

    This is a bit eerie since we’re actually raising hornworms (I’ve been capturing rather than killing the ones I find on my tomato plants, since they amuse and fascinate my daughter). We’ve been fortunate in that none of them so far seem to be parasitized, though I’ve been worried about that. I had been using gallon ziplock bags, with a few small holes punched in the top and a hole through the bottom, tightly sealed with a rubber band around the stalks of the tomato branches I’d removed for them to finish feeding on, with the stalks inserted into a pool of water in the bottom of a re-used cream cheese container. Unfortunately, of the 5 that have so far hit the point in their life cycles where they are programmed to wander away from their food plant and burrow into the soil, 2 managed to force the rubber band open and drown themselves, so I have a different setup now (stripped leaves and caterpillars, but not water, in the cream cheese container, bag around the outside). I think there’s a metaphor of some sort in this little wrinkle of their behavior…

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    Eep. One of the finest examples of sarcasm I’ve seen yet.

  • Polly

    I can already hear the creationist response:
    God created them ‘specially for man so that they’d stop the worms from destroying our crops, duh!

  • Entomologista

    Great poem! And a potential question in Linnaean Games…

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