RUST, PAIN, BEAUTY AND TIME

I like to respond, when it is practical and possible, to what I notice people are coming here to find.  Some of them, no doubt, are literature students in high school or college; others are perhaps just curious.  So when my “statistics” page shows me that several people have come looking, for example, for the meaning of the words “pain rusts into beauty,” from a poem by Mary Carolyn Davies, I like to provide what they want.  

I mentioned the poem in an earlier posting.  But here it is on its own:

Iron, left in the rain
And fog and dew,
With rust is covered. — Pain
Rusts into beauty too.
I know full well that this is so:
I had a heartbreak long ago.

It is not a perfect poem.  It has its “loopholes,” and we can see that the writer is generalizing and not really telling us the whole truth of the matter, but nonetheless she has her point.

What I mean is this:  she tells us that iron when exposed to water, whether as rain, fog, or dew, will oxidize.  The surface will chemically alter to iron oxide, which is rust.  That is the foundation of the poem.  The flaw in the foundation is that she is looking at the process from only one point of view, that of the aesthete — the person looking for beauty.  Rust is beautiful to some people, those who overlook that it is also often harmful.  Any farmer knows that rusting machinery is slowly being destroyed from without.  Iron that rusts is iron changing, decaying.

It is upon this process of change and decay that the poet builds her conclusion, which comes in the the lines that follow:

Pain
Rusts into beauty too.
I know full well that this is so:
I had a heartbreak long ago. 

Davies tells us that just as iron (which seems hard and permanent and unyielding) rusts, similarly pain rusts into beauty.  Notice, however, that she did not actually tell us in the first part of the poem that iron rusts into beauty; she just assumes that everyone will hold that view, which is the aesthetic point of view but certainly not the universal view.  So we may say that her premise is flawed, and upon this premise she bases what is also the implied flawed conclusion:  that all pain rusts to beauty, and that is simply not true.

But how does she know that pain rusts to beauty?  She tells us it is because she had a heartbreak long ago.  What that heartbreak was she does not reveal, but we may assume (correctly or not) that it was unrequited love for a young man.  Over time she just remembers the beauty of her love and not the hours and days and weeks of tears and misery — the way an old woman looks back on the crushes of her schoolgirl days.

But there are many kinds of heartbreak, and time does not turn all of them to beauty; it merely dulls the memory, if one is fortunate.  There are some cases of heartbreak that never rust to beauty.  That is the fundamental flaw in this poem, a failing which makes us feel that the poet is using hyperbole — exaggeration — to make her case.  She is being “poetically selective.”

The poem is essentially a re-stating of the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.”  But there are some wounds that time never heals in this lifetime.  That is the whole truth that the partial truth of this poet is not revealing.  Because of that, we sense that she is not being entirely honest with us.  She does not tell us the whole truth in either her premise or in her conclusion.  Beauty is is in the eye of the beholder, and by no means all people see rust on iron as beautiful, nor does everyone’s pain transform into beauty.  

The poem leaves one feeling that the poet would have made a better case had she said it all differently — if she had noticed a particular instance of iron becoming beautiful through rusting — and that in a particular case of heartbreak, the pain corroded into beauty.  Instead, she has falsely generalized and has told us an untruth in the process.

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