And, in the end, the answer we may stumble upon applies only to a single soul: our own. Still, we may encounter kindred souls in our travels. What would we do without them?
"What a marvelous time it was when everything was alive, according to human imagination, and humanly alive, in other words inhabited or formed by beings like ourselves; when it was taken as certain that in the deserted woods lived the beautiful Hamadryads and fauns and woodland deities and Pan, etc., and, on entering and seeing everything as solitude, you still believed that everything was inhabited and that Naiads lived in the springs, etc., and embracing a tree you felt it almost palpitating between your hands and believed it was a man or a woman like Cyparissus, etc., and the same with flowers, etc., just as children do."
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 69.
As an unrepentant Wordsworthian pantheist (the Wordsworth of 1797 through 1807) and a lover of the poems in The Greek Anthology, I fully concur with Leopardi's thoughts. How far we have fallen! But some may say: "What of Progress?" Ah, yes, "Progress." We now find ourselves in the hands of political, scientific, technological, and media "experts." That seems to be working quite well.
H. S. Merritt, "Woodford Bridge in the Avon Valley" (c. 1942)
I am also wholly in sympathy with Walter de la Mare:
Had the gods loved me I had lain
Where darnel is, and thorn,
And the wild night-bird's nightlong strain
Trembles in boughs forlorn.
Nay, but they loved me not; and I
Must needs a stranger be,
Whose every exiled day gone by
Aches with their memory.
Walter de la Mare, The Listeners and Other Poems (Constable 1912).
The pang of exile from a lost, ever unreachable world is a thread that runs throughout de la Mare's poetry. But it never leads to a slighting of the World as we find it. Nor does it lead to despair, or to lack of love for the beautiful particulars of the World. Thus: "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall." ("Now.") Or this: "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour." ("Fare Well.")
And, despite the sadness and the sense of irremediable loss expressed in "Exile," de la Mare still catches glimpses of the lost world in the English countryside:
Seven sweet notes
In the moonlight pale
Warbled a leaf-hidden
And Echo in hiding
By an old green wall
Under the willows
Sighed back them all.
Walter de la Mare, Bells and Grass: A Book of Rhymes (Faber and Faber 1941).
This brings to mind a lovely poem from The Greek Anthology:
High up the mountain-meadow, Echo with never a tongue
Sings back to each bird in answer the song each bird hath sung.
Satyrus (c. 1st century B.C. - 1st century A.D.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 358.
There is no telling what one might suddenly see out in a field:
What saw I -- crouching by that pool of water
Bright-blue in the flooded grass,
Of ash-white sea-birds the remote resort, and
April's looking-glass? --
Was it mere image of a dream-dazed eye --
That startled Naiad -- as the train swept by?
Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).
H. S. Merritt, "Bowerchalke" (c. 1942)
The ironic moderns among us have "progressed" too far to take any of this seriously. They fancy themselves to be unillusioned and undeceived. Products of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment."
Leopardi again: "[T]here has never been an age so tainted and corrupted that it did not believe itself to stand at the pinnacle of civilization and social perfection, and to be an example to the other ages, and, in particular, superior in every respect to all past ages, and at the farthest point in space yet traveled by the human spirit." (Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, page 395.)
Enchanted or disenchanted? Each of us makes a choice in this matter every day.
That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.
C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1975).
H. S. Merritt, "Wishford, Wylye Valley" (c. 1942)