The technological baubles of each successive "Modern Age" mean nothing. The human emotions that swirl within our hearts and minds and souls have not altered a whit in centuries. When I wander through, say, The Greek Anthology or Robert Herrick's Hesperides I come across local peculiarities that mark out the age in which the poems were written. But the clearest impression I take away is this: They are the same as us.
Frederick William Hayes, "Cwm Silyn" (c. 1880)
Thus, twelve centuries ago, a Chinese poet spoke for us all, the living and the dead. Nothing has changed.
Climbing the Ling-Ying Terrace and Looking North
Mounting on high I begin to realize the smallness of Man's Domain;
Gazing into distance I begin to know the vanity of the Carnal World.
I turn my head and hurry home -- back to the Court and Market,
A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn.
Po Chu-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).
Frederick William Hayes, "A Waterfall" (c. 1880)
"A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn." I cannot claim to have lived in a manner that reflects the wisdom implicit in that line. I doubt that I ever will. But it is something to aspire to. In the meantime, I am happy to jettison (to the best of my limited ability) any notions of uniqueness or novelty in myself or in my times and embrace truisms (which are, after all, true).
His father gave him a box of truisms
Shaped like a coffin, then his father died;
The truisms remained on the mantelpiece
As wooden as the playbox they had been packed in
Or that other his father skulked inside.
Then he left home, left the truisms behind him
Still on the mantelpiece, met love, met war,
Sordor, disappointment, defeat, betrayal,
Till through disbeliefs he arrived at a house
He could not remember seeing before.
And he walked straight in; it was where he had come from
And something told him the way to behave.
He raised his hand and blessed his home;
The truisms flew and perched on his shoulders
And a tall tree sprouted from his father's grave.
Louis MacNeice, Solstices (Faber and Faber 1961). MacNeice's father was a cleric who eventually became a bishop in the Church of Ireland. He died in 1942, when MacNeice was 34.
MacNeice's poetry generally has a sardonic streak running through it. But there are times when it gives way, at least in part, and for a moment only.
Frederick William Hayes, "Rock and Mountains" (c. 1880)
Realizing the Futility of Life
Ever since the time when I was a lusty boy
Down till now when I am ill and old,
The things I have cared for have been different at different times,
But my being busy, that has never changed.
Then on the shore -- building sand-pagodas.
Now, at Court, covered with tinkling jade.
This and that -- equally childish games,
Things whose substance passes in a moment of time!
While the hands are busy, the heart cannot understand;
When there is no Attachment, Doctrine is sound.
Even should one zealously strive to learn the Way,
That very striving will make one's error more.
Po Chu-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).
The final four lines have a distinct Taoist and Buddhist component, particularly the concepts of non-attachment and "the Way." However, it should be noted that these sorts of truths are not limited to Taoism or Buddhism.
Sand-pagodas or sand-castles: it is all the same.
Frederick William Hayes, "Rocks in the Colwyn" (c. 1881)