As is the case with puritans in all times and in all places, the new puritans know what is best for the unenlightened (in other words, the rest of us). They believe that they have attained access to certain truths that must be acknowledged and accepted by all unbelievers. (The new puritanism is a religion of sorts, albeit one without gods.) To believe otherwise is to be a heretic.
In today's version of puritanism, everything is the opposite of what it seems. Our puritans think of themselves as being "tolerant" and "open-minded." In fact, they are the most intolerant and closed-minded set of people you will ever come across. The new puritans are fond of describing themselves as "progressives." Beware: within the heart of every self-styled "progressive" lies a totalitarian.
The following poem first appeared here back in January of 2015. Since then, things have only gotten worse.
Watch him when he opens
his bulging words -- justice,
fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace. Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visas, his stamps
and signatures. Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light.
Nobody with such luggage
has nothing to declare.
Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).
The poem was written in June of 1964. Fifty-odd years later, the "bulging words" are the same or similar. The smugglers have changed.
Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"
Ah, well, we each make our own way in "the vale of Soul-making," don't we? The allure of puritanism is understandable: it offers simplicity, certainty, and a sense of superiority. All false, but hard to resist. Puritans find it difficult to sit still and be silent.
A chestnut leaf sinks
Through the clear water.
Shōhaku (1649-1722) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 231.
But the false assurances of simplicity, certainty, and superiority come at a grievous cost: puritanism leaves out of account both the individual human being and the World itself. The world of the puritan is without truth and beauty, without poetry. It is a joyless world.
"Quiet stream, with all its eddies, and the moonlight playing on them, quiet as if they were Ideas in the divine mind anterior to the Creation."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (March or April, 1802), in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Entry 1154.
John Anthony Park (1880-1962), "Heart of Exmoor"
The world of the puritan is a clamorous, harsh, and distracting world. Moreover, I imagine that keeping up with the ever-expanding list of perceived injustices in that world, and then fashioning perceived solutions to those injustices, must be exhausting. I much prefer to remain a heretic.
"The trout leaping in the Sunshine spreads on the bottom of the River concentric Circles of Light."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (May or June 1802), Ibid, Entry 1200.
Over the past week, the sunlight has begun to take on its angled, honey-gold autumn cast. The first red leaves have appeared. Something is afoot. As always, there is too much going on in the World for me to pay any mind to the puritans and their preoccupations.
A trout leaps;
Clouds are moving
In the bed of the stream.
Onitsura (1660-1738) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 253.
How each of us awakens in -- and to -- the World is a miraculous and ineffable mystery. A mystery as unique as each of our souls. This awakening is a matter between our soul, alone, and the World.
"The Whale followed by Waves -- I would glide down the rivulet of quiet Life, a Trout!"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, notebook entry (1795 or 1796), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804, Entry 54.
John Downie (1871-1945), "A Perthshire Stream"
You are my favorite muser of poetry on the web. I have met many previously unknown to me poets through you, and I love the way you tie together likeminded poems from distant eras and lands. But please, beware strawpeople and false political dichotomies - enough of that in our current bitter political climate.
"Within the heart of every self-styled 'progressive' lies a totalitarian." My gosh, Stephen. I, like every other contemporary progressive I know, am keenly aware of the contradictions within historical progressive movements. History's full of naive idiocies and failures and lies and left, right, and center all share plenty of agency.
I and the environmental and human rights activists I love value quiet, peace, and a trout's concentric circles of light - and do so without any need or even ability to dismiss what you scornfully call "perceived injustices." I really don't get the tone of your gibes - self-serving arrogance has never characterized your approach to poetry.
Your blog is absolutely wonderful, thank you so much for it - tossing around political labels like some bitter Fox News ideologue is beneath you.
As always, there is too much going on in the World for me to pay any mind to the puritans and their preoccupations.
I could so wish that that statement were true for me also. I have not yet learned to turn my back on the new ‘puritans’ and their bulging words.
I always read your posts, I always take something away from them that gives me pleasure and this one is no exception. Norman MacCaig is new to me and probably to the members of my poetry group too. I shall introduce them to each other. Thank you very much.
I don't think I've ever agreed with a post of yours more, nor ever felt more relieved and at rest to find agreement in another. Thank you, Stephen, for putting my heart at ease today and for reminding me that I don't have to let the cocksure, inflexible, arrogant puritans into my world.
Mr. Ellis: Thank you very much for your comments. To my recollection, I have never expressed an opinion on a specific political issue in any of my posts. This post is no exception. However, I have, on several occasions, expressed concern about the politicization of culture. That is what the post is about.
My observations are not based upon any political views I may or may not hold. Perhaps I hold none. (The only political event I have ever attended took place in the spring of 1976: a speech by Jerry Brown (in his first stint as governor of California) during the Democratic presidential primary campaign.) The observations in my post are based upon what I have seen happen over the course of my life.
I chose the words "puritanism" and "puritans" with intent. A puritan can be -- to use labels I prefer not to use -- "liberal," "conservative," or Martian. It is the puritanism to which I object.
This is why the word "progressive" appears in scare quotes in the post, and why the word is preceded by "self-styled." With all due respect, I am indeed wary of anyone who self-describes himself or herself as a "progressive." "Progressive" with respect to what? "Progressive" compared to who? Again, with all due respect, a person who describes himself or herself as a "progressive" has made a whole host of assumptions and judgments about other people -- i.e., those who are not "progressive" (whatever that means).
You suggest that I should "beware strawpeople and false political dichotomies." But the word "progressive" is, by its very nature, a perfect example of the use of "strawpeople" (a term I have never heard before; I prefer "strawmen," actually) and "false political dichotomies." Your use of the term without scare quotes makes me fear that we are ships passing in the night.
My feelings are similar about a phrase such as "environmental and human rights activists," which you use in your comment. Words such as these (apart from "and") have no meaning to me. What is an "environmental activist"? What is a "human rights activist"? I don't know anyone who doesn't care about "environmental" and "human rights" issues. I like to think that I care about those issues. But I have no idea how one qualifies to be described as an "activist." However, I have long thought that the term does have a self-congratulatory, self-regarding tone to it, so, when people use the term to describe themselves, alarm bells go off for me.
"Some bitter Fox News ideologue"? Come now. That sounds like something that someone who is a political puritan would tweet on Twitter (a service I have never, and will never, use) during the course of yet another pointless political argument with a stranger. I will say that a remark of that sort tends to bear out my concerns about the politicization of culture. Shall I now respond that you sound "like some bitter CNN or MSNBC ideologue"? I think not. I have more respect for you than that.
We shall have to agree to disagree on this topic. A few years ago, I lost a reader from Scotland because I told him it was inappropriate to rejoice at the death of Margaret Thatcher. My statement was not a political opinion. It was a statement about the humanly poisonous nature of the politicization of culture. I feel the same way about puritanism, and I always will.
Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog, for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting again. Remember: it is the World, and the poetry, that matter.
Friko: Thank you very much for your kind words.
I'm pleased you liked the poem by Norman MacCaig, and I'm happy to have introduced him to you. I'm also happy to hear that you will bring his work to the attention of your poetry group. If you click on "Norman MacCaig" in the "Labels" list on the left side of the home page, you will find a number of his poems that have appeared here in the past that will provide a further introduction to his work.
As for "turn[ing] [one's] back" on the puritans and their "bulging words," it is easier said than done, isn't it? As much as one may try to avoid our politicized culture, it is impossible to escape it given the intrusions of today's technology. I cannot claim complete success in that regard, but one tries. My statement has an aspirational element to it!
I greatly appreciate you taking the time to visit here on a regular basis. I hope you'll keep returning. Thank you again.
Laura D: Thank you very much. That's quite nice of you to say.
As I indicated in my reply to Mr. Ellis's comments, I try my best to stay away from specific political issues in the blog, but this malady of the politicization of our culture is of great concern to me. I know that I am not the only one who shares this concern, so I am pleased to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for visiting again, and for your long-time presence here. And, again, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the post.
I am afraid that this is all a bit beyond or above my understanding. I've re-read the post several times, feeling a bit dismayed. I don't like labels for anyone, but yet, I'm sure, I fall into that trap more than I would like to admit. As do we all. We humans are complicated creatures, often contradictory and mutable. So, although I fear I may be of that tribe that you call out upon here, I will own it. Those who are defined otherwise are equally to answer for our troubled times. It is severe now, has been in past times, and will be again.
The poems are beautiful, I will rest in them and thank you for giving them to us, your readers. They are the solace, the intelligence of life.
Stephen: as usual you provide much food for thought. Are we not all ‘smugglers’ with more than enough luggage to declare?
Many thanks, Mr. Pentz, for the good thoughts here. If some readers in future want to turn your blog into a venue for political quarrels, you will, I hope, moderate comments and not print them. There is no lack of places for them.
The books are there for us all, by reading which we can push back in our minds against the current relentless reductive politicization of the human. Now I am slowly reading Walter de la Mare's Early One Morning in the Spring -- a long meditation, complete with innumerable selections from authors well known and not well known, on childhood. We would do well to follow C. S. Lewis's advice ("On the Reading of Old Books"), to discipline ourselves to read at least one old book for every new one. De la Mare's book itself is about 85 years old, and, of course, his selections are older than that.
I actually found this in a comment thread on the Internet, a woman writes: "I'm not good at spotting when I'm supposed to get all upset & stuff over gender equality issues; my dismaydar is usually asleep on the job." I have fallen in love with "dismaydar", which of course spell-check highlights. This seems to fit in with your general theme. I share your dismay with the current atmosphere, however described.
But now to go to the paintings in this post. When I saw "Heart of Exmoor" I was transported to reading "Lorna Doone", probably at around age ten. I was entranced with John Ridd's climb into the hidden Doone Valley. I even remember one line of description: "The snow lay in patches, like a lady's glove forgotten". That lovely phrase has stayed with me for about seventy years!
Then "A Perthshire Stream" is exactly like "Our Brook" on my family's property in southwestern New Hampshire. It could be a painting of our brook in the woods, the perfect destination for family walks.
So I enjoyed the post particularly for all those reasons. Susan
Mary: Please accept my apologies for the delay in publishing, and responding to, your comment. I was pulled in another direction at the time it came inn, and I neglected to return to my pending comments for quite some time.
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. As far as the topic of the post goes, I completely agree with your fine final observation: "[The poems] are the solace, the intelligence of life." Exactly.
As ever, thank you for visiting. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.
David: Please accept my apologies for the delay in publishing, and responding to, your comment. As I indicated in my response to Ms. Ahearn's comment above, due to other commitments I neglected to keep up with the comments.
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. With respect to your observation that we are all smugglers "with more than enough luggage to declare": if you are referring to each of us as individual souls, I would agree: we each harbor secrets and mysteries within our hearts, don't we? There can never be full disclosure; something is always hidden. On the other hand, the political "smugglers" of which MacCaig speaks and the political puritans of which I speak are in another realm altogether. I would respectfully suggest that, unlike them, most of us do not presume to define the world for others, and to prescribe "solutions" that purport to bring the rest of us (whether we like it or not) to their imagined utopia. As you can tell, I am not fond of political utopianism of any stripe.
But that's just my opinion, isn't it? And I am fully aware that, in making these pronouncements, I am being judgmental. It's a conundrum. But I know what I see. I also know that, as I said in the post, we each make our own way in "the vale of Soul-making."
Again, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and my apologies for the delayed response.
Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for those thoughts. Your description of the way things are now is excellent: "the current relentless reductive politicization of the human" is a wonderful and perfect way of putting it. And you are right: we can, and must, push back against it.
On a happier note, your current choice of books is marvelous and, for me, a nice coincidence: over the past month or so, I have been revisiting two of Walter de la Mare's anthologies (both of which I'm sure you know well). First, his wonderful anthology of poems, Come Hither! Second, an anthology akin to Early One Morning in the Spring: Behold, this Dreamer!: Of Reverie, Night, Sleep, Dream, Love-Dreams, Nightmare, Death, the Unconscious, the Imagination, Divination, the Artist, and Kindred Subjects. I'm sure you are also aware of two additional anthologies/compendiums by him: Love and Desert Islands.
These are all wonderful books, aren't they? A reminder of what civilized life can be, and should be.
Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for sharing your thoughts. It's always good to hear from you.
Susan: "Dismaydar": that's an inventive, and apt, term. It does seem that the list of things we are supposed to be outraged about grows by the day. But I'm doing my best to keep all of that out of my life. The other day I revisited one of my favorite Walter de la Mare poems: "A Recluse." In it, he describes the recluse as being "a lover of mere privacy." I completely understand.
I'm pleased that the paintings resonated with you. The phrase you quote from Lorna Doone is indeed lovely: I can see why it has stayed with you. The phrase is new to me, but it immediately reminded me of late winter and early spring in my childhood years in Minnesota: it perfectly captures the look of the remaining, disappearing snow. I'm happy that "A Perthshire Stream" brings back good memories for you. That painting has a particularly beautiful light to it, I think.
It's always a delight to hear from you. As ever, thank you very much for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts. Take care.
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