The Ant, the Grasshopper, and the Antidote to the Cult of More: A Lovely Vintage Illustrated Poem About the Meaning and Measure of Enough
By Maria Popova
“Enough is so vast a sweetness, I suppose it never occurs, only pathetic counterfeits,” Emily Dickinson lamented in a love letter. In his splendid short poem about the secret of happiness, Kurt Vonnegut exposed the taproot of our modern suffering as the gnawing sense that what we have is not enough, that what we are is not enough.
This is our modern curse: A century of conspicuous consumption has trained us to be dutiful citizens of the Republic of Not Enough, swearing allegiance to the marketable myth of scarcity, hoarding toilet paper for the apocalypse. Along the way, we have unlearned how to live wide-eyed with wonder at what Hermann Hesse called “the little joys” — those unpurchasable, unstorable emblems of aliveness that abound the moment we look up from our ledger of lack.
The poet and etymologist John Ciardi (June 24, 1916–March 30, 1986) offers an uncommonly wonderful wakeup call for this civilizational trance in the out-of-print 1963 gem John J. Plenty and Fiddler Dan (public library) — part fable, part poem, part prayer for happiness.
Written as a long lyric and illustrated with gentle charcoal sketches by the artist and experimental filmmaker Madeliene Gekiere, the story is a soulful — spiritual, even — modern take on Aesop’s famed tale of the grasshopper and the ant, radiating a countercultural invitation to rediscover life’s true priorities amid our confused maelstrom of materialism and compulsive productivity.
Ten years ago, or maybe twenty,
There lived an ant named John J. Plenty.
And every day, come rain, come shine,
John J. would take his place in line
With all the other ants. All day
He hunted seeds to haul away,
Or beetle eggs, or bits of bread.
These he would carry on his head
Back to his house. And John J., he
Was happy as an ant can be
When he was carrying a load
Big as a barn along the road.
The work was hard, but all John J. —
Or any other ant — would say
Was “More! Get more! No time to play!
Winter is coming.”
So it is that, as the birds of summer sing, John J. Plenty goes on hoarding “beetle eggs, and crumbs, and seeds, moth-hams, flower-fuzz, salad-weeds, grub-sausages, the choicer cuts of smoked bees, aphid butter, nuts,” single of purpose, always marching to the chant of “More! Get more!,” insentient to Annie Dillard’s haunting admonition that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Then comes the turn — that vital and vitalizing element of every good poem and every good story: One day, John J.’s sister falls in love with a grasshopper named Dan, who spends his days playing his carefree fiddle in the grass, filling the world with music. Worried about what would happen to his sister when winter comes and she has no cache of sustenance, John J. tries to stop her. But she elopes with Fiddler Dan, feeding on love and music.
All day long from rose to rose
Dan played the music the summer knows,
Of the sun and rain through the tall corn rows,
And of time as it comes, and of love as it grows.
And all the summer stirred to hear
The voice of the music. Far and near
The grasses swayed, and the sun and shade
Danced to the love the music played.
And Dan played on for the world to turn,
While his little wife lay on a fringe of fern,
And heard the heart of summer ringing,
Sad and sweet to the fiddle’s singing.
In consonance with John Berger’s observation that music is our best means of taking shelter in time, Ciardi writes:
So the sun came up and the sun went down.
So summer changed from green to brown.
So autumn changed from brown to gold.
And the music sang, “The world grows old,
But never my song. The song stays new,
My sad sweet love, as the thought of you.”
And summer and autumn dreamed and found
The name of the world in that sad sweet sound
Of the music telling how time grows old.
Fields held their breath to hear it told.
The trees bent down from the hills to hear.
A flower uncurled to shed a tear
For the sound of the music. And field and hill
Woke from the music, sad and still.
John J. Plenty hears “the music far and near,” but goes on trudging along to the trance of “Get more!” His sister and Fiddler Dan, he vows, will get nothing from him when winter comes — that will teach them, he grumbles.
And then winter does come, and John J. Plenty shuts his door, and he gloats when he hears the music go silent, and he gloats as he begins relishing his infinite stash of delicacies.
But as he heaps poached beetle-eggs and moth-ham onto his plate, he is suddenly seized with a terrible thought: What if winter goes on forever and he ends up not having enough?
So John J. Plenty waited and fasted.
As for the winter, it lasted and lasted.
He nibbled a crumb one day in ten.
But he shook with terror even then
When the thought of how he might be wasting
All that food he was hardly tasting.
And that’s how it went.
When spring arrives at last, John J. Plenty vows to store twice as much this year. But as he starts out the door to find his first load, he is stilled in his tracks by the sound of music.
From far and near, from blade to blade,
He heard the song that springtime played.
It’s a softer fiddle than autumn knows
When the fiddler goes down tall corn rows,
But the same far song. It grows and grows,
And spring and summer stir to hear
The music sounding far and near.
And the grasses sway, and the sun and shade
Dance when they hear the music played.
It was Dan, still singing for time to turn
While his little wife lay on a fringe of fern
And heard the heart of the springtime ringing
Sweet and new as the fiddle’s singing.
Stung with disbelief that Fiddler Dan survived the winter with nothing but his store of beauty, John J. Plenty topples over and falls facedown in the mud as the music goes on playing and life goes on living itself through its natural abundance.
I guess he recovered. I hope he did.
I don’t know where the Fiddler hid
With his pretty wife from ice and snow.
I guess about all I really know
Is — save a little or save a lot,
You have to eat some of what you’ve got.
And — say what you like as you trudge along,
The world won’t turn without a song.
Published July 29, 2023