“The freethinking of one age is the common sense of the next.”
by Matthew Arnold
Foil’d by our fellow-men, depress’d, outworn,
We leave the brutal world to take its way,
And, Patience! in another life, we say
The world shall be thrust down, and we up-borne.
And will not, then, the immortal armies scorn
The world’s poor, routed leavings? or will they,
Who fail’d under the heat of this life’s day,
Support the fervours of the heavenly morn?
No, no! the energy of life may be
Kept on after the grave, but not begun;
And he who flagg’d not in the earthly strife,
From strength to strength advancing—only he,
His soul well-knit, and all his battles won,
Mounts, and that hardly, to eternal life.
It can be a bit of a head spinner to jump from the language of the mid 19th Century to the 21st Century from one day to the next and then back again, but that’s one of things I find fascinating about the sonnet form. It is a framework that has remained relatively unchanged and relevant for hundreds of years. Although the language has changed, many of the themes Arnold is exploring are universal. Matthew Arnold is not a poet I would ever come across if not for this project and my radar always being up and listening for sonnets. Arnold is not a poet who has remained popular. His language sounds a bit stilted to my ears. Yet if I push through the language and listen to his themes that he is wrestling, it sounds familiar. In the middle of a pandemic, where all of our patience has been tested, his opening to Immortality is dead on to thoughts I have been having. Where should I place my energies? Work doesn’t have the same feeling as it used to, working remotely has lessened the humanness and the fulfillment of working alongside other people so that I question a bit, what am I really doing and does it really matter as much as it once did? I like his language if I let it transport me and embrace its foreign qualities. It raises questions in my mind; what energies of my life will live past me? What will give strength to my children to others? What battles are worth winning other than the one we all can win, enjoying our lives.
by Matthew Arnold
Others abide our question. Thou art free. We ask and ask – Thou smilest and art still, Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill, Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea, Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place, Spares but the cloudy border of his base To the foil’d searching of mortality;
And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know, Self-school’d, self-scann’d, self-honour’d, self-secure, Didst tread on earth unguess’d at. – Better so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure, All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow, Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.
“Like children bathing on the shore
Buried a wave beneath,
The second wave succeeds before
We have had time to breathe.”
Sonnets To A Republican Friend
by Matthew Arnold
God knows it, I am with you. If to prize
Those virtues, priz’d and practis’d by too few,
But priz’d, but lov’d but eminent in you,
Man’s fundamental life: if to despise
The barren optimistic sophistries
of comfortable moles, whom what they do
Teach the limits of the just and true
And for so doing, have no need of eyes
If sadness of the long heart-wasting show
Wherein earth’s great ones are disquieted:
If thoughts, not idle, while before me flow
The armies of the homeless and unfed: –
If these are yours, if these are what you are
Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.
I can almost feel the anxiety creeping up through the internet the past couple of days from people reading this blog. I am torn between posting fluff and feel good poetry as a distraction to the disruption in our lives or share something with a bit more gristle attached to the bone. If I am wrestling with it, the answer is probably do both.
If there are good things to come out of COVID-19, it will be what each of us focuses on in response to these challenges of change. Here’s the good I see; friends and family rallying around their elders, dropping off food, connecting with them by phone and Facetime and Skype. I hear friends reconnecting with their neighbors, sharing food and childcare and reassuring each other, supporting each other. I hear both fear and boastfulness of good health, but across that wide span, I am watching people talking to each other. Maybe what will come out of social distancing is a sense of community. A realization of what we value, a longing for our neighbors and neighborhoods when we re-emerge. We can’t isolate ourselves completely from this global world we find ourselves. This is true for the person sitting on their couch binge watching Netflix and for nations. At some point we are going to have come out of social isolation and take the risks we have always taken. The risk that there are communicable diseases in our world.
Wendell Berry is a gifted writer and poet, who speaks to our personal well being in ourselves as a direct reflection of the well being of our communities:
“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”
I listened to the church service I had planned to attend Sunday morning at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis by live stream. It was a first. It wasn’t nearly as spiritual or relevant. It wasn’t even a good substitute for being there. I won’t pretend. It was a thing unto itself that if I am going to get anything out of it, I will have to accept it for what it is, a video on a screen. I still enjoyed viewing it. What did it inspire me to do? Take a few of my business cards and slip them under my neighbors doors, who I have said hi to in the hall in the past but never really met as they all have moved in relatively recently and I am never home. I wrote on the back – “Howdy Neighbor, I am your neighbor in 208. If you need anything, give me a call.”
As this thing progresses and turns into weeks, months and potentially years, the question we are going to ask ourselves at some point is when do we shift from fear to living bravely? We can’t shut out our parents, our neighbors forever, we can’t close our schools forever, we can’t all work from home and actually survive and move forward. At some point we have to accept the risk of living. Otherwise, like the protagonist in Wendell Berry’s poem below, we shall cease to experience, cease to be even in, our own lives. For as Matthew Arnold says: “Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.”