The Value of Mystery

February 15, 2012

A wise friend told me that since the Age of Reason we’ve felt we had to explain everything, and that as a result we’ve forgotten the value of mystery. Here’s a poem by Lisel Mueller that celebrates mystery. Mueller is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet from Illinois. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.] 

Sometimes, When the Light 

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1980 by Lisel Mueller, from her most recent book of poems, Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Poem reprinted by permission of Lisel Mueller and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

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  1. Love that poem!! It so sums up the feeling I get of secret happenings going on in thick woods, a locked gate or a closed door....something enchanted, no doubt!

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I love the imagery, and the concept of mystery. I'm a sucker for old gates and crumbling walls...

    Glad you enjoyed the poem too!

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  4. It's where the old witch lives! The one who is going to hang us up on hooks on the wall till she's ready to eat us. I know 'cause my big sister told me so when we passed the witches haunted yet empty looking house when I was 4or 5 years old.

  5. Yikes! Your sister had quite the imagination, which apparently she used to terrify you!

  6. Beautiful poem. I love a sense of seems to not exist as much, or perhaps I'm getting older. I was assured recently by an 8 year old boy who was fishing at Fakahatchee that there was a werewolf living nearby - he was fully appreciating the marvelous dangerousness of it all!

  7. Ooh, a werewolf...Mystery can be beautiful and spine-tinglingly scary. Isn't it wonderful?