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Two millennia of good intentions

Engraving by William Hogarth

Whether poets are qualified to give us advice on how to live is debatable. With few exceptions, they don't generally seem to have been very successful in applying the advice they give to their own particular circumstances. In fact, what advice they give seems to be mainly rooted in their own personal failures, in summary a sort of 'don't do what I did' moral tale. Particularly notable in this respect is Robert Greene (c1558-1592), who by all accounts was one of the very rogues he himself warned us against in his 'coney-catching' pamphlets. ('Coneys' were rabbits in the country, but the term was also used for the human targets of the sharp practices of London rogues during the late sixteenth century.) Greene himself specifically rejected the rural contentment that he could have had with his wife in the country, whose money he instead purloined and spent in London, and then regretted having purloined and spent it. Still, we can forgive a man a great deal if we do not know his particular circumstances, and Greene raised regretting bad behaviour to an art form. His pamphlet Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance is a good if unedifying example. Or perhaps it was just a way to make money out of his pretended repentance.

Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content;
The quiet mind is richer than a crown;

The homely house that harbours quiet rest; 
The cottage that affords no pride nor care; 
The mean that 'grees with country music best; 

The sweet consort of mirth and music's fare; 
Obscurèd life sets down a type of bliss: 
A mind content both crown and kingdom is.

Robert Greene - extract from Farewell to Folly (1591)

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Richard Greene

Woodcut of Robert Greene writing 'suited in death's livery' ie in his winding sheet
from John Dickensen's Greene in conceipt (1598) - Wikipedia 

The 'mean' and the 'quiet mind' are themes which recur regularly in the advice of poets, and sure their own minds are full of raging torrents of thought and emotion.... but nevertheless, there is, of course, a truth in there somewhere.

Nay, Traveller! rest. This lonely yew-tree stands
Far from all human dwelling: what if here
No sparkling rivulet spread the verdant herb;
What if these barren boughs the bee not loves;
Yet, if the wind breathe soft, the curling waves,
That break against the shore, shall lull thy mind
By one soft impulse saved from vacancy.

William Wordsworth - extract from Lines left upon a seat in a Yew Tree (1798)

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Turner Lake District

Landscape in the Lake District
by Turner and possibly also Girtin
Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite Lake from Newlands
sold at auction in 2009
Alain R Truong

A truth which here comes close to the Buddhist idea of meditation, the goal being to empty the mind, or to concentrate on just one thing, or at least to arrest the turbulent and uncontrolled flow of thoughts which drowns our consciousness, and prevents us from really seeing what we are looking at. The barren landscape that Wordsworth (1770-1850) describes helps him to arrive at the same point, except that, confronted by 'vacancy', he recoils. He hangs onto the 'one soft impulse'. Perhaps he was approaching too close to the state of consciousness of the village idiot for the taste of the mainly middle class, urban readers of poetry, or even for his own taste, which was notoriously addicted to 'lowly subject matter'. But the juxtaposition of the two landscapes (the busy landscape with its 'sparkling rivulet' and 'verdant herb', and the landscape with the 'barren boughs the bee not loves', ie the landscape where his seat is situated) parallels the two states of consciousness (busy and calm), and forms a nice poetic whole, like a walnut in its shell. It is Greene's advice, but in a much more generalised form, pitched at the level of consciousness, though the terms used are very particular. Don't look for excitement. Appreciate the here and now, and the tranquil life without gaudy distractions.

Go back nearly two thousand years, and the advice is roughly the same. Martial (40-104) describes what makes life good for the benefit of a friend:

Property you acquire not by working
But through inheritance: fertile land,
A welcoming hearth and no litigation.
Few, if any, civic honours.
A quiet mind and a natural way,
A healthy body, simple discretion,
Like minded friends, and a quick understanding,
Without the burden of too much intelligence. 
Nights without drunkenness, but free from anxiety,

Martial - extract from Epigram Book X No XLVII (94)

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Georgics

Engraving by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677)

We do not find in Martial the ascetic impulse that is evident in Wordsworth's verse above. Martial's vision is rather one of having adequate means, adequate intelligence, and adequate comfort, a situation which produces a quiet mind, in all a close parallel for Robert Greene's 'mean that 'grees with country music best'. Rome at the time of Martial had many of the same problems and concerns as our modern society, and their poets often speak with a singularly 'modern' voice. If properly translated, they also express a very manly, vigorous and common-sense idea of poetry and society, qualities that are enhanced by a language that encourages clarity of thought, a clarity which is often lost in translation, especially under the hand of translators whose idea of poetry is conditioned by the flowery language and extravagant metaphor of the Romantic poets. Roman poets have a similar urban longing for the supposed simplicity of rural life, and for rest for over-stimulated senses. In short, the same link is made between consciousness, habit, and contentment as above in the poetry of Wordsworth.

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix'd; sweet recreation, 
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation. 

Thus let me live, unheard, unknown; 
Thus unlamented let me dye; 
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

Alexander Pope - extract from Ode on Solitude (1700)

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Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope reading

There cannot have been many poets who more craved celebrity and renown than Pope (1688-1734), but here he is, at twelve years of age, exhorting us to live and die in obscurity. The poem is, of course, something of a schoolboy exercise, and he is generally taking his cue from any number of preceding poets. Absurd? Perhaps. But the verses are very well polished by a true genius of the well-turned phrase, and a precocious genius at that. But is that sufficient to make a great poet? Probably not, if we are to accept the judgement of history which consigns Pope to a fairly minor place, despite his undoubted and impressive ability with the English language. What we find lacking here is heart, or magnanimity. In fact, Pope was more at home with dealing out waspish criticism of others, often unjust criticism at that, but always with a deft elegance which it was more amusing for readers to repeat than dispute. Truth is sacrificed to wit, virtue to elegant phraseology. But was it a good bargain?

And is not virtue in mankind
The nutriment that feeds the mind;
Upheld by each good action past,
And still continued by the last?
Then who with reason can pretend

That all effects of virtue end?
Believe me, Stella, when you show
That true contempt for things below,
Nor prize your life for other ends
Than merely to oblige your friends;
Your former actions claim their part,
And join to fortify your heart.

Jonathan Swift - extract from Stella's birthday (1727)

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Stella

Esther Johnson (1681-1728) - the Stella of Swift's poetry

Swift (1667-1745), a contemporary and friend of Pope's, is here writing to the long-time object of his affections, Esther Johnson (Stella in his poetry), a girl he first encountered when she was six years old and he twenty, who is now ill (in fact she died in January 1728). His analysis of past actions approaches very close to the Buddhist idea of karma, and his intent is much more serious and heart-felt than Pope's, whose only aims appear to be to please and to show how clever and well-read he is. But is it true? Is it true that past actions condition our present state, and that virtuous actions contribute to contentment and peace of mind? Whatever the answer to this question, there is in Swift's poem also a background of belief that such virtuous actions will get Stella into heaven. But this rather leads us to a further question: if virtuous actions are done for the base, selfish motive of getting into heaven, are they still virtuous, or does the motive corrupt? At all events, it is clear that Swift is not inclined to exclude self-interest from his own behaviour when he lauds Stella for not prizing her life for anything better than obliging her friends. Her friends, of course, include Swift himself. What? Can he really be saying that she should console herself with the idea that she has acted well in dedicating her life to Swift himself? In fact he had arguably both dominated and ruined her life with his attentions over the years, almost certainly making it difficult if not impossible for her to take a proper lover (Swift was probably impeded in the consummation of the relationship either by consanguinity or by some personal incapacity), or to marry. Swift's lines might be read more as providing a gloss of words over his own baseness in depriving her of her possibilities in life in this way, and he offers her this consolation at a time when it was evidently impossible for her to do anything about it. Craven advice indeed. But if our present state is conditioned by our past actions, it becomes clear that Swift paid the price for his actions.

'Definite symptoms of madness appeared in 1738. In 1741 guardians were appointed to take care of his affairs and watch lest in his outbursts of violence he should do himself harm. In 1742 he suffered great pain from the inflammation of his left eye, which swelled up to the size of an egg. Five attendants had to restrain him from tearing out his eye. He went a whole year without uttering a word.'

Will Durant, The Story of Civilisation

Poetry is, of course, concerned with fine words, and cloaking bad deeds with fine words becomes almost second nature to those who have any sort of gift for using language, making language serve self interest, and poets very prone to both deceit and, what is probably worse, self-deceit.

But Swift possibly had the last and most enduring word, leaving in his will enough money to found a hospital for the mentally ill in Ireland. Originally known as St Patrick's Hospital for Imbeciles, it still exists today as a psychiatric hospital.

St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin

But let us return to Martial as he gives advice to his friend (or perhaps lover) Pannychus on his appearance (Epigram Book II No XXXVI). He here in fact attempts something like a practical definition of virtue in urging Pannychus to find the 'mean' between two opposites, not too manly, but not too effeminate, not too washed, but not filthy, his hair combed, but not styled and waved. All this accurately reflects Aristotle's ideas about virtue being the mean point between two extremes, as, for example, bravery lies between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness, generosity between prodigality and meanness. Martial ends the poem on a different note, however:

In short your legs are hairy and your chest is covered in bristles,
But your mind, Pannychus, is bald.

Martial - Epigram Book II No XXXVI

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Belgian postcard c1940
The Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York

Yes, in the final analysis, for the poet, wit is more important than virtue. Poetry, after all, is a business.

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