"[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."
And this, it seems to me, is a sound response to our distempered and unseemly contemporary world:
"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness. Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."
I suspect that many of you will have noticed that the two quoted passages come, not from our own time, but from the past. The first passage is 218 years old: it appears in William Wordsworth's preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads. The second passage is 117 years old: it is from George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, which was published in 1903. Hence, pick your truism. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, if you prefer: There is nothing new under the sun.
Roger Fry (1886-1934), "Village in the Valley" (1926)
"They are not long, the days of wine and roses:/Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream." Yesterday, while driving in my car, I heard Glen Campbell sing "Gentle on My Mind." 1967. Ah, well. All those years. I was born during the first term of the Eisenhower administration. Of history and its events, what remains for me is the death of President Kennedy (our elementary school principal announced it over the public address system on a sunny afternoon), the moon landing, the Vietnam War, and 9/11. Unexpectedly hearing "Gentle on My Mind" on the car radio on an ordinary July afternoon. How many times have I heard that song? Where was I each time I heard it? Who was I with? What has become of them? One song. An entire lifetime returns. History vanishes.
Rising from My Sickbed
Alone and ill, I was confined to bed
But my dreams kept returning to my old haunts
This morning, at last, I managed to rise and
stand beside the river
An endless trail of peach petals
drifting down the stream
Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel), in Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel, Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings (University of Hawai'i Press 1996), page 123.
James Prowett (1865-1946), "Cruive Dykes, Craigforth"
Is it inevitably the case that, as one grows older, the world of human affairs takes on an alien aspect, while the World of beautiful particulars becomes ever more hospitable? On the other hand, one might arrive at that feeling at a young age, and find its truth confirmed by life. Either way, there is indeed something to be said for possessing one's soul in quiet, for living "in thoughtful stillness," for having no part in the "increasing clamour."
Happy were he could finish forth his fate
In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1566-1601), in E. K. Chambers (editor), The Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse (Oxford University Press 1932). The poem is untitled.
Percy Horton (1897-1970), "A Corner of Ambleside" (1943)