Paramahansa Yogananda’s "The Toiler’s Lay"
Introduction: Running to Paradise
Paramahansa Yogananda’s “The Toiler’s Lay” from Songs of the Soul dramatizes the longing that arises as the human body and mind grow tired and weary of the continual grind of struggle and strife; many times one wishes that one could just run away from all of the cares and bothers.
First Stanza: “From school of life”
Yogic teachings liken the human experience of earthly existence to “school,” from which one must complete lessons in order to graduate to a higher existence. The speaker acknowledges that life’s ordinary school and ordinary labor thereafter exert the force of tiresomeness that make one want to be “a runaway.”
Each day is filled with duties one must perform just to get through the day: eating, tidying one’s home, caring for family members exemplify some of those activities that are required and therefore must be considered “duties.”
And of course, one of the most profoundly important duties is the earning of money to support the upkeep of the body and the home and the family. The speaker acknowledges that much of one’s labor is “dollar-strife.”
Regardless of the nature of the moneymaking employment, the performance of all jobs and professions requires specific amounts of physical and mental toil.
Second Stanza: “From harrying worry-hound”
The speaker proclaims that one day he will free himself from these “harrying worry-hound[s]”; he will, in fact, leave those “crowds and restless throngs.” Again, the speaker repeats what becomes his refrain in the poem, “I wish I were a runaway!”
The speaker seems to be quite certain that he will one day be able to enjoy a different kind of being from the ordinary noisy, tiresome existence of daily toil.
The reader commiserates and feels a sense of adventure in following the declarations of this confident speaker who wants to run away from it all.
Third Stanza: “From greedy food”
The speaker then becomes very specific in his complaint with the material level of existence: he is tired even of having to eat food, and particularly tired of being tempted by delicacies.
The speaker engages the food itself calling it “greedy”; the food is greedy and manages to make itself be consumed by the tempted human being, who cannot help it that his body requires the nutrients in food, and whose consciousness tells him that the allure of the food motivates him to consume it.
Even though he knows he needs the nutrition, the speaker intuitively understands that his soul is not dependent on the physical food, and thus, in fact, he is longing to be that runaway to the place where even his body will not be tempted by physical food. Thus again, he engages the refrain, “I wish I were a runaway!”
Fourth Stanza: “From homely chairs and banal couch”
The speaker again becomes very specific in naming the physical features of his environment with which he has become bored; instead of the “homely chairs and banal couch,” he would prefer to recline on a “grassy bed.”
The romantic that ever exists in the human heart always finds nature more congenial than man-made utensils.
The speaker’s “heart’s desire” urges him to prefer the couch be the grass, instead of man-made contraption that he encounters daily. Thus, again he wishes to be “a runaway!”
Fifth Stanza: “Someday, from Nature-given cup”
The romantic strain continues in the fifth stanza, which swells, doubling its lines from the four of the other stanzas to eight lines.
The speaker proclaims that “someday” he will drink from his hands, scooping the waters from a natural stream. He will eat the fresh fruits that he can pluck with his fingers.
Instead of using a man-made cup, the speaker will use his God-created hands, and instead of using the man-made forks, he will employ his God-created fingers.
And instead of the homely, man-made chairs and couches, he will sit “[a]ll snug beneath the shady trees.”
Instead of listening to man-made music, he will be “[e]nlivened by songs of birds and bumblebees” all the while being “fanned by mothering air,” instead of the man-made apparatuses that move the air to cool homes in summer.
Sixth Stanza: “From care and tear”
Still predicting his future “new-made day,” the speaker portends that one day he will “bathe [his] weary mind” in the joy that that new day will herald.
No more “dishwashing, cups and saucers”—for he will be “a runaway,” and he will experience an unalloyed joy of freedom from the things of this world.
Of course, this speaker’s prediction is not that he will experience a utopian physical Garden of Eden; he is referring to his home in Omnipresence, where he will finally be liberated from the physical and united in the spiritual with the Divine, from which he will never want to be “a runaway.”