Mystery and the Thin Place in “Language Barrier” by Robert Penn Warren

In Robert Penn Warren’s book Being Here, the poem “Language Barrier” comes amid poems written from the quiet desk of a man who sees many of his active years as already behind him. He reflects on life and aging, on death and the afterlife, within natural imagery, often recalling moments from his past in which he had adventures in the wilderness. “Language Barrier” is one iteration of this, and it drew me in especially because of its ruminations on death and God.

I recently learned the term “thin place,” which is used in religious and spiritual circles to describe moments in which the boundary between the plane of human existence and a larger, eternal, and unseen plane grow very close to one another—in a thin place, the separation between God and the physical seems no more than a thin gauze. I think the scene Warren paints in “Language Barrier” is of one of his own experiences of a thin place.

Warren begins with a stanza of pure description, leaning heavily on “snow” and “blue,” both of which appear three times in five lines. There is a piercingness in the language, a pull between heat and cold—“snow-glitter, snow-gleam” on the peaks above, and waters below which “face upward to sky-flaming blue.” The landscape is anything but static: the “peaks scream joy”;  “the shelf falters, fails.” The mountains and cirques below are full of movement, perhaps even agency, and each element is in conversation with the others—the peaks screaming joy to the sun, the waters facing upward, the shelf, giving way under the great distance below and tumbling in a “tangle of stone.”

We see a world which speaks, perhaps of this struggle between warmth and cold, and Warren brings the struggle to a head in the first line of the second stanza in the simile “like Hell frozen,” which, if a bit cliché, also captures this deep dichotomy of good (or maybe joy—the joy of the peaks) struggling against evil, warmth and cold pitted against one another. The speaker as “I” never shows up in this poem; the closest Warren gets to an “I” is in the second stanza, when the speaker draws inward, reflecting on himself in relation to the landscape: “Alone, alone, / What grandeur here speaks?” Whereas the landscape is active, even interactive, the speaker stands apart, alone, but only for a moment because in the very next line, the speaker expands to include a larger humanity: “The world / Is the language we cannot utter. / Is it a language we can even hear?” I can’t help but pause in this space as a reader, thinking about the language of the world, especially as it relates to human destruction of the environment. The world has a language; we are separate from it. The world is active, alive, but because we don’t hear it speak, we don’t care enough about it to take good care of it.

At this point, Warren turns from the scene to a later time—“Years pass”—and now, the speaker addresses us in second person: “at night you may dream-wake / To that old altitude, breath thinning again to glory.” In this way, we move from “alone” to a collective “we” and then back to singularity, this time focused not on the speaker but outward, toward the audience. We are each of us alone, reflecting; but in our aloneness, we find similarity, a collective.

Additionally, time seems to have changed the landscape, perhaps dulling the awe to something less fierce, because it’s no longer “Hell frozen” but rather “glory.” I’m sure these word choices are not an accident; Warren is thinking about death. Perhaps, he is thinking about how as we age, if we live long enough to grow tired in our old bodies, death becomes less scary, dulls from terror to a welcome rest. Still, whether the world is hell or heaven, it remains a mystery, as much upon later reflection as upon that moment in the thin place. Warren writes, “What, / Long ago, did the world try to say?”

After these two middle stanzas that feel more meta, both of which end with questions, the fourth stanza mirrors the first in that Warren returns here to pure description, now of the homely scene from which the old body reflects: “The stars have changed position, a far train whistles / For crossing. Before the first twitter of birds.” In the fifth line, Warren shifts focus again from loneliness to the corporate experience, writing, “You may again drowse. Listen—we hear now / The creatures of gardens and lowlands.” This gathering together seems to me reminiscent of death again, perhaps of heaven or the garden of Eden. It is a waking from sleep—an image of returning to life, but in the context, it feels like an ending, a waking to an entirely different world.

And in this new world, the answers to the questions that the lonely humans ask of the world come clear, if not in the straightforward way we would prefer. The single-line final stanza reads, “It may be that God loves them, too.” The implication here, I think, is that God loves us—but just as much as God loves us, God also loves the world which is so mysterious to us. Our view, even from the thin places, is limited to what our lonely minds can imagine. And in poetry, such as this poem, I think we come as close as we can to understanding.

Warren, Robert Penn. “Language Barrier.” Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980, Random House, 1980, p. 72.