Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Anyone Happy In This Age And Place Is Daft Or Corrupt"

I have previously noted this conundrum:  Is the world going to Hell in the proverbial handbasket, or is the belief that this is so simply a stage that each generation passes through as it begins to age?  For my part, I believe, first, that the world is in fact going to Hell in a handbasket, and, second, that this belief has absolutely nothing (of course!) to do with my age.  As I have suggested before, my sympathies lie with the views expressed in "On a Vulgar Error" by C. S. Lewis.

Similar sympathies are, perhaps, evident in the following poem by Roy Fuller (1912-1991), which Philip Larkin (ever sly and cheerful) included in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse.  On the other hand, Fuller may be pulling our leg.  Although Fuller -- a committed (pun not intended) socialist in his younger years -- became more conservative as he aged, I am not sure whether he ever fully abandoned his youthful political views.  However, he did look upon modern culture with some skepticism.  In this regard, the essay "Philistines and Jacobins" in his Owls and Artificers: Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1971) is very entertaining.   


Now that the barbarians have got as far as Picra,
And all the new music is written in the twelve-tone scale,
And I am anyway approaching my fortieth birthday,
               I will dissemble no longer.

I will stop expressing my belief in the rosy
Future of man, and accept the evidence
Of a couple of wretched wars and innumerable
               Abortive revolutions.

I will cease to blame the stupidity of the slaves
Upon their masters and nurture, and will say,
Plainly, that they are enemies to culture,
               Advancement and cleanliness.

From progressive organisations, from quarterlies
Devoted to daring verse, from membership of
Committees, from letters of various protest
               I shall withdraw forthwith.

When they call me reactionary I shall smile,
Secure in another dimension.  When they say
'Cinna has ceased to matter' I shall know
               How well I reflect the times.

The ruling class will think I am on their side
And make friendly overtures, but I shall retire
To the side further from Picra and write some poems
               About the doom of the whole boiling.

Anyone happy in this age and place
Is daft or corrupt.  Better to abdicate
From a material and spiritual terrain
               Fit only for barbarians.

Roy Fuller, Counterparts (1954).  Lempriere's Bibliotheca Classica states that Picra was "a lake of Africa, which Alexander crossed when he went to consult the oracle of Ammon."  It is also possible that Fuller is alluding humorously to "hiera picra," which is defined in the OED as "a purgative drug composed of aloes and canella bark."  It is my understanding that "hiera picra" may be translated as "holy bitter" or "sacred bitter."  Gaius Helvius Cinna was a Roman poet who (according to Plutarch) was murdered at Julius Caesar's funeral when he was mistaken for the conspirator Lucius Cornelius Cinna. 

                                                      Henry Raeburn
              "Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch"
                                                           (c. 1795)               


S R Plant said...

Well, daftness and corruption certainly go a long way to explaining my own happiness, and the Internet, for all its faults, helps too.
Oddly, or perhaps characteristically, the fiery destination of the hand-basket doesn't seem to worry me too much – I suspect our course was set the moment we invented the mirror.

From My Easy Chair said...

Perhaps it's because nothing seems to change but rather to be different repetitions of the same old thing, that one loses optimism as one ages. (Interesting painting as companion piece.) Thank you.

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Reverend Walker looks serene but determined as he glides over the ice. Is he contemplating the fall of man or planning his next sermon? Maybe he's only thinking of the hot tea and scones that wait for him at home. We all do seem to plod onwards, which this painting captures perfectly.

Stephen Pentz said...

S R Plant: as always, thank you for stopping by. (And welcome under the new moniker!)

Your comment makes me realize that I should have made clear in the post that I do not exempt myself from daftness and corruption.

Your second point is excellent as well: I fully agree that the handbasket is a personal matter for all of us. I suspect that Fuller, being a one-time believer in utopian political schemes as a solution to the handbasket, may have held out hope despite his disillusionment. My flirtation with utopian politics ended sometime in the 1970s. "Useful to get that learnt", as Larkin wrote in another context.

Stephen Pentz said...

From My Easy Chair: thank you for stopping by again.

Your observation is a fine one: the details change over the years, but they do seem to be variations on "the same old thing." That being said, it does seem that the intensity of "daftness" and "corruption" seem to be growing apace since my time on Earth. Or perhaps it is simply that the wonders of modern technology serve these things up to us every day.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Whitmore: thank you for dropping by again, and for your comments.

It is an interesting painting, isn't it? Thank you for your thoughts about what the Reverend is up to -- I agree that we do, after all, "plod onwards" (on thin ice perhaps) like him.