"How unacquainted is that man with the world, and how ridiculous does he appear, that makes a wonder of anything he meets with here?"
Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book XII, Section 13, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702), page 229.
Here is another translation:
"How ridiculous, and like a stranger is he, who is surprised at anything which happens in life!"
Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742), page 285.
Possessed by fear and suspicion,
mind agitated, eyes alarmed,
we desperately invent ways out,
plan how to avoid the inevitable
danger that threatens us so terribly.
Yet we're mistaken, that's not the danger ahead:
the information was false
(or we didn't hear it, or didn't get it right).
Another disaster, one we never imagined,
suddenly, violently, descends upon us,
and finding us unprepared -- there's no time left --
sweeps us away.
C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1992).
Fairlie Harmar (1876-1945), "The Bridge at Monxton" (1916)
For Marcus Aurelius and the other Stoics, Do not be surprised is not a justification for pessimism or cynicism. Instead, it goes hand-in-hand with another injunction: carpe diem. (Which we heard about from Horace earlier this year.) And carpe diem is not a justification for licentiousness or hedonism: the Stoics had no time for ignoble behavior.
Still, how many of us can live up to the ideals of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus? I know that I can't.
Yorkshiremen in Pub Gardens
As they sit there, happily drinking,
their strokes, cancers and so forth are not in their minds.
Indeed, what earthly good would thinking
about the future (which is Death) do? Each summer finds
beer in their hands in big pint glasses.
And so their leisure passes.
Perhaps the older ones allow some inkling
into their thoughts. Being hauled, as a kid, upstairs to bed
screaming for a teddy or a tinkling
musical box, against their will. Each Joe or Fred
wants longer with the life and lasses.
And so their time passes.
Second childhood; and 'Come in, number 80!'
shouts inexorably the man in charge of the boating pool.
When you're called you must go, matey,
so don't complain, keep it all calm and cool,
there's masses of time yet, masses, masses . . .
And so their life passes.
Gavin Ewart, Selected Poems: 1933-1988 (1988). A side-note: Philip Larkin included this poem in the Poetry Supplement anthology that he compiled on behalf of The Poetry Book Society for Christmas of 1974. Now that's something I'm not surprised at: it sounds like a poem that Larkin could have written himself. A second side-note: on men in charge of boating pools calling out one's number, please have a look at Derek Mahon's "September in Great Yarmouth" (which has appeared here previously): "The boatman lifts his megaphone:/'Come in, fifteen, your time is up.'"
It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway): we are all Yorkshiremen in pub gardens.
Fairlie Harmar, "L'Aveyron" (c. 1932)
Yorkshiremen in pub gardens. Or drifting on a peaceful pond, waiting for the boatman to call our number. A perfectly reasonable way to live. We all have something to bear in mind, but not to obsess over. A gentle reminder from the Stoics:
"Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."
Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book II, Section 11, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702), page 21.
A Commuter's Tale
A little late, but still in time
For the end of Z Cars,
After a drink in town with a friend,
On the last lap
The road downhill from the Tube,
Puffing at your pipe, puffing
Too at yourself.
Just at the bend, and almost home,
A -- what? -- a curious behaviour
In the chest, a rush-hour press
And stab of bodies, elbows, feet.
Well, at your age not unheard of
(Nor unread of, every morning),
Yet oddly, no embarrassment
(Must thank the drink for that)
At what portends a sorry solecism,
An exhibition you were brought up
Not to make,
But even some amusement
(Childish, suited to a childish mood)
As you remember:
Your season ticket, it expires today.
D. J. Enright, Sad Ires and Others (Chatto and Windus 1975). Larkin also selected this poem for his 1974 Poetry Supplement Christmas anthology.
Fairlie Harmar, "Garden Gate" (c. 1921)