When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?
Louis MacNeice, Visitations (Faber and Faber 1957).
Thus wrote MacNeice sixty-four years ago. He was not wrong. Moreover, as I have noted here on several occasions, Wordsworth was not wrong in his preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads:
"[A] multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies."
Hence, the theme is not new. Only the technology changes. So here we are again. But all is not lost. Some of us continue to love, and attempt to preserve, what Wordsworth and MacNeice loved (and feared for). Yet at times one does think of the Roman living contentedly, going about his or her daily business, seeing dust on the horizon, having never heard of Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals.
William Rothenstein (1872-1945)
"Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (c. 1925)
I try to keep things in perspective, but since 1968 (the year of the White Album, a memorable World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals, and nothing else good) I have been of the opinion that the world (as distinguished from the World) is indeed going to Hell in a hand-basket. However, don't mind me: I suspect I had the same feeling as I emerged bawling from the womb, gasping for air, during the first term of the Eisenhower administration. Withal, come what may, I have remained quite cheerful. I simply step outside and take a look around at the World and its beautiful particulars. How can one be anything but astonished and grateful?
On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations
You'll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.
Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (Henry Holt and Company 1928).
William Rothenstein, "St Martin's Summer"
Nevertheless, one cannot help but take notice of certain things. Of things that have permanently vanished. Of irreplaceable things, now broken, that appear to be irreparable. There's no help for it. One does notice. Is this merely a product of growing older, of feeling that it is time to leave the stage, an outdated relic? Perhaps. But that denizen of Rome haunts me.
Suddenly, another Roman arrives to remind me:
"If, I say, you separate from the governing principle within you those things which are, as it were, appended to it by its vehement passions, and the times past and future, you make yourself like the firm World of Empedocles, A sphere rejoicing 'midst the circling eddy. Be solicitous only to live well for the present; and you may go on till death, to spend what remains of life, with tranquillity, with true dignity, and complacence with the divinity within you."
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book XII, Section 3, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).
Life is ever a matter of attention and gratitude, don't you think?
On Something Observed
Torn remains of a cobweb,
one strand dangling down --
a stray petal fluttering by
has been tangled, caught in its skein,
all day to dance and turn,
never once resting --
elsewhere in my garden,
no breeze stirs.
Kokan Shiren (1278-1346) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume 2 (Columbia University Press 1976), page 27.
William Rothenstein, "Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (1933)