Late in his life, A. E. Housman declared: "In philosophy I am a Cyrenaic or egoistic hedonist, and regard the pleasure of the moment as the only possible motive of action." A. E. Housman, letter to Houston Martin (March 22, 1936), in Archie Burnett (editor), The Letters of A. E. Housman, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2007), p. 528. "In a world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be warm," there is something to be said for Housman's philosophical inclinations. The word "hedonism" has taken on a pejorative cast in modern times: it has come to imply licentiousness or immorality. But, after all, it simply means (according to The Oxford English Dictionary) "the doctrine or theory of ethics in which pleasure is regarded as the chief good, or the proper end of action."
When it comes to the beautiful particulars of the World, I am an unapologetic hedonist. But I would hope that my pleasure is not "egoistic" (or "egotistic" either). And I do my best (subject to constant failure) to combine my pleasure with gratitude.
Hence, for instance, the wind.
Often I've heard the Wind sigh
By the ivied orchard wall,
Over the leaves in the dark night,
Breathe a sighing call,
And faint away in the silence,
While I, in my bed,
Wondered, 'twixt dreaming and waking,
What it said.
Nobody knows what the Wind is,
Under the height of the sky,
Where the hosts of the stars keep far away house
And its wave sweeps by --
Just a great wave of the air,
Tossing the leaves in its sea,
And foaming under the eaves of the roof
That covers me.
And so we live under deep water,
All of us, beasts and men,
And our bodies are buried down under the sand,
When we go again;
And leave, like the fishes, our shells,
And float on the Wind and away,
To where, o'er the marvellous tides of the air,
Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).
James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "A Castle in Scotland"
But hedonism remains at the surface of things. Whereas, as de la Mare says, "we live under deep water." This is where immanence comes in: glimmers and glimpses and inklings of something within, behind, and beyond all of those beautiful surfaces.
One either has this sense of the World or one does not. I do not say this in a judgmental fashion, nor do I claim that those who have this sense are "wiser" or more "enlightened" than those who do not. How we find ourselves in the World is, for each of us, a matter of mystery. It is not a case of true or false or of right or wrong.
De la Mare again: "Nobody Knows." Exactly. No explanations are necessary. Nor are they forthcoming. We should leave it at that.
In the meantime, we have the wind. And poems about the wind.
White roses shatter, overblown,
by the breath of a little wind undone,
yet the same air passing scarcely stirs
the tall dark green perpetual firs.
John Hewitt, Scissors for a One-Armed Tailor: Marginal Verses 1929-1954 (1974)
"Providence" feels like a haiku: a report on experience. (To borrow from Edmund Blunden.) However, a word such a "providence" would likely be avoided by a haiku poet. Too subjective. Of course, I am completely open to the possibility that what the wind does may well be "providence": I am not in any way criticizing Hewitt's use of the word.
Hewitt, like a good haiku poet, tells us exactly what he saw. The difference is that he gives us a hint. A haiku poet would leave us to draw our own conclusions. Or, better yet, would leave us to draw no conclusions at all, but only see the World as it is, or, perhaps more accurately, as the haiku poet saw it in a moment of passing time.
Enough of that. I do not wish to create the impression that I am quibbling about "Providence": I think it is a lovely poem. As is this, another poem about the wind of Ireland.
This wind that howls about our roof tonight
And tears live branches screaming from great trees
Tomorrow may have scarcely strength to ruffle
The rabbit's back to silver in the sun.
Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).
James McIntosh Patrick,"Boreland Mill, Kirkmichael" (1950)
Of course, poets cannot help but bring humans into their apostrophes about the wind. Thus, for instance, they say that the wind "sighs" or "moans" or "cries." This is to be expected. All poetry, all art, is an attempt to place ourselves into the World in the hope of making sense of things, however briefly. It is not surprising that, in doing so, we see ourselves (or come upon ourselves) in the World.
Moreover, we mustn't forget that the beautiful particulars of the World include human beings. The wind. People.
The Wind Shifts
This is how the wind shifts:
Like the thoughts of an old human,
Who still thinks eagerly
The wind shifts like this:
Like a human without illusions,
Who still feels irrational things within her.
The wind shifts like this:
Like humans approaching proudly,
Like humans approaching angrily.
This is how the wind shifts:
Like a human, heavy and heavy,
Who does not care.
Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).
We are the wind and the wind is us. The wind is us and we are the wind.
But we mustn't go too far. Despite the pretensions of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" (also, risibly, known as "the Age of Reason"), we are not the measure of the World. Our conceit may be boundless and shameless, but we are not in a position to make claim to the wind.
This past winter and spring have been, even for this damp part of the world, unseasonably rainy. As a consequence, the wild grasses in the meadows are more than four feet tall in places, taller than I have ever seen them. As I pass by them on a breezy day, I am inclined to think that they are whispering as they sway, falling and rising, in the wind. But the beauty of that sound has absolutely nothing to do with the name I place upon it.
Thesis and Counter-Thesis
-- Love of God is love of self.
The stars and the seas are filled by precious I
Sweet as a pillow and a sucked thumb.
-- It would be most unflattering for adoring men
If the grasshopper chirping in the warm grass
Could glorify that attribute called Being
In a general manner, without referring it to his own persona.
Czeslaw Milosz, City Without a Name (1969).
James McIntosh Patrick, "Downie Mill" (1962)
As I suggested here recently, wisdom does not necessarily come with age. I can attest to that. But growing old does provide an opportunity to pare your life down to essentials. Think of all the things you once thought were important and that now mean nothing. The length of that list will depend upon the length of your time upon the earth, dear reader.
One day you will realize, out of the blue, that you have lived more years than the number of years that remain to you. On that day, life becomes simpler. You may turn your attention to the wind.
Cathedral of my enchantments, autumn wind, I grew old giving thanks.
Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).
James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"