Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Art of Happiness 15

Peele Castle by Sir George Beaumont
Let me here quote, in full, a poem entitled Elegiac Stanzas by William Wordsworth and then make some comments afterwards:

Elegiac Stanzas

SUGGESTED BY A PICTURE OF PEELE CASTLE, IN A STORM,
PAINTED BY SIR GEORGE BEAUMONT.
 
I was thy neighbor once, thou rugged Pile!
Four summer weeks I dwelt in sight of thee:
I saw thee every day; and all the while
Thy Form was sleeping on a glassy sea.

So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!                    
So like, so very like, was day to day!
Whene'er I looked, thy Image still was there;
It trembled, but it never passed away.

How perfect was the calm! it seemed no sleep;
No mood, which season takes away, or brings:             
I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest, of all gentle Things.

Ah! THEN, if mine had been the Painter's hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was. On sea or land,               
The consecration, and the Poet's dream;

I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile,
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.                

Thou shouldst have seemed a treasure-house divine
Of peaceful years; a chronicle of heaven;--
Of all the sunbeams that did ever shine
The very sweetest had to thee been given.

A Picture had it been of lasting ease,                   
Elysian quiet, without toil or strife;
No motion but the moving tide, a breeze,
Or merely silent Nature's breathing life.

Such, in the fond illusion of my heart,
Such Picture would I at that time have made:             
And seen the soul of truth in every part,
A steadfast peace that might not be betrayed.

So once it would have been,--'tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;              
A deep distress hath humanized my Soul.


Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne'er be old;
This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.  
          
Then, Beaumont, Friend! who would have been the Friend,
If he had lived, of Him whom I deplore,
This work of thine I blame not, but commend;
This sea in anger, and that dismal shore.

O 'tis a passionate Work!--yet wise and well,            
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That Hulk which labors in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, this pageantry of fear!

And this huge Castle, standing here sublime,
I love to see the look with which it braves,             
Cased in the unfeeling armor of old time,
The lightning, the fierce wind, and trampling waves.

Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,
Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,                    
Is to be pitied: for 'tis surely blind.

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.--
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

(A wonderful PowerPoint Presentation can be accessed here for an English Lit, Music or even a Human Development class on coping with grief.)

Commentary:       

The above poem is a really wonderfully measured and balanced poem from the pen of the great William Wordsworth. (1770 – 1850)  While I will make some comments here about the poem itself from a literary point of view, the tenor and purpose of my comments are directed towards the poet's wonderfully mature acceptance of the death by drowning of his brother, Captain John Wordsworth, when his ship the East India Company's The Earl of Abergavenny was lost in 1805.  The poet can no longer see things wholly idealized anymore, because if I may anachronistically quote W.B. Yeats' words that "All is changed, changed utterly" which, of course, he used in a far different context.  Yet his words are so true for Wordsworth or for anyone who has been bereaved.  Like any human being, he has been devastated and has suffered his own spiritual shipwreck and his life is truly changed utterly!  Yet, after a year's grieving, his brother's death has revealed to him, however, the ennobling virtue of grief. Thus, a personal loss can be converted into human gain.  It is also worth remembering that Wordsworth wrote this wonderful elegy after viewing a painting, by Sir George Beaumont (1753–1827), of Peele Castle in a storm. The poet had lived near the castle for a month some years before.

This poem was composed a year after the shipwreck of The earl of Abergavenny - 1806.  Wordsworth indicated in a letter that he had first seen the picture of Peele Castle when staying at the house of the painter, Sir George Beaumont, in London in April of 1806. Sir George was a wealthy landowner and an admiring friend of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.   He also had a fair reputation in his day as a landscape painter. Peele Castle is on the coast of Lancashire, near the village of Rampside where Wordsworth had spent a month his time visiting a cousin in 1796.

In this poem, Wordsworth utilizes three nature-related subjects (after all, nature is central to the Romantic sensibility) — the wind, the sea, and the sun—in "Elegiac Stanzas," and these topics also show up in other great works by the poet with similar descriptions that reveal Wordsworth's personal emotions connected with them. The poet-viewer-critic wishes that the painter of Peele Castle had given the scene a somewhat brighter and more peaceful setting, rather than a dismally dark, stormy and almost desperate aspect, and he demonstrates through this image his fondness for the light of the sun.   As I have said above, he had spent a month living nearby the castle and he had noticed how the place attracted "the sweetest" sunbeams.   In this poem, our great Romantic poet wishes that Beaumont had depicted this in his painting instead of the stormy darkness.

This sweet light, I recall, also appears in "Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge" and "The Wanderer." In "Westminster Bridge," Wordsworth writes that "Never did the sun more beautifully steep/ In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill," when describing the morning light in the city. Here also, the narrator/viewer/poet looks at the light as a wonderfully happy part of nature. In "The Wanderer" Wordsworth writes that the wise man "beheld the sun/ Rise up, and bathe the world in light!" Within both of these pieces as well as in "Elegiac Stanzas," the sunlight gives a peaceful and joyous impression to both the narrator/poet/viewer/critic and the reader. The writer seeks to establish a warm, gentle ambiance in "Elegiac Stanzas."  

In this great elegy the wind blows fierce and strong. The painter's menacing wind disturbs the poet/viewer because he does not remember Peele Castle that way. The wind, I hasten to add, especially the stormy kind conjures up the power of nature.  Now the power of nature is often cruel as we know all too well.  I'm reminded here of the power of the storm scene in the wonderful tragedy King Lear by Shakespeare.  Also the stormy wind reminds the poet/viewer of the painting that his own dear brother, Captain John Wordsworth had perished in a shipwreck on the stormy seas.

The sea often tends to be depicted as an animal in works by Wordsworth, and is evidenced here in "Elegiac Stanzas" this way as well:

How perfect was the calm! it seem'd no sleep;
No mood, which season takes away, or brings:
I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest of all gentle Things.

However, it is to the coping with grief element of this poem that I really wish to comment on.  Without a shadow of a doubt our Romantic poet has dealt with his grief over the tragic loss at sea of his beloved brother John.  Read this poem slowly aloud, or, better still hit the link above and read the words aloud while playing the PowerPoint Presentation above at a high volume as the author of the presentation suggests.  Then, let the words seep into your heart meditatively.  Indeed, you will soon realise that indeed the poet/viewer has accepted, though not forgotten, the loss of his brother.  The stormy sea is a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life, but after every storm there comes the calm.  Likewise, after every grief, properly coped with, comes the calm of acceptance.  The calm of acceptance is metaphorically expressed in the tranquil sun on a still ocean.  And so, having meditatively mulled over and pondered this wonderfully potent elegy, we can say, with the poet, the healing words of the final stanza:

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.--
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

Also the stanza where he mentions his own loss or grief directly is very powerful indeed, and I will quote it in full here so that we can remind ourselves of the depth of the poet's loss and the inevitable depth of our own losses in life:

So once it would have been,--'tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanized my Soul.

That the poet is transformed by the healing powers of nature is without doubt as is evidenced in the lines: "I have submitted to a new control."  Indeed, things are changed, radically and painfully so - John Wordsworth is dead and is no more, as he says in the line "A power is gone, which nothing can restore," and yet there is a deep healing at work in his soul, something ennobling and humanising at work as nature heals his grief: "A deep distress hath humanised my soul."

My fervent wish for any readers of this blog is that when it becomes your turn, or indeed mine, to suffer more in this life that we may take heart from these wonderfully healing words of the great William Wordsworth.

P.S.
An interesting website to peruse on similar Ekphrastic Poetry is this one here


Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Art of Happiness 14

Suffering and Meaning

Sun reflected on Donabate Beach
I have written many posts on this topic over the years as can be found by hitting the relevant label or clicking here and subsequent posts.  The late great Dr Victor Frankl (1905 - 1997), who was imprisoned by the Nazis in some three concentration camps - Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Turkheim - once said that "Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see meaning in it." (Quoted The Art of Happiness, p. 167)  When he looked around him in these three horrific and murderous camps he quickly realized that those who survived the atrocities they witnessed and experienced there were not the most intelligent or educated, the strongest physically, but rather those who derived their strength to persist and to go on from a purpose or meaning to which they clung despite the apparent meaninglessness of all around them.  In fact, this great doctor went on to found a school of psychotherapy based on that very principle, the principle of finding and creating meaning in one's life, a school of therapy he called Logotherapy which is a form of Existential Analysis.  His movement of therapy is often called the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy", the first being that of Sigmund Freud and the second that of Alfred Adler. Here is a short paragraph from the WIKI on Frankl:

His best-selling book, Man's Search for Meaning (published under a different title in 1959: From Death-Camp to Existentialism, and originally published in 1946 as trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager), chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones, and thus a reason to continue living. Frankl was one of the key figures in existential therapy and a prominent source of inspiration for humanistic psychologists.  ( Frankl)
Finding meaning in our suffering is a powerful method of helping us cope even during the most trying times in our lives.  However, finding meaning in our suffering is far from an easy task.  At such times we often despair and say things like, "Why me?  It's terribly unfair that I am suffering.  What did I do to deserve this? It's very hard to be philosophical or to take a larger and wider perspective - a topic we discussed in our last post - when we are actually suffering and paining in the here and now.  This is pure existentialism.  No explanations will satisfy the paining soul at that profound existential level.  Indeed, while we are in the midst of our pain and suffering, all our energy is focused on getting away from it.  In such instances we are far from able to be reflective on our pain and there is often little we can do but endure and trust in the help forthcoming from our family, friends and medical practitioners.  However, it is later that we must do serious reflection on our plight when the real storm has abated.

And so, it is in periods such as this, when you and I are in times of comparative ease or non-suffering that we must begin our search for the meaning of pain.  We must begin our quest for the meaning of suffering when things are going well.  Such has long been Buddhist practice, even to the extent of meditating on illness, dying and death as important parts of life.  Indeed, much of what I have written above is in keeping with the thoughts of the philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche who believed that what does not kill us makes us stronger.  Indeed this little piece of wisdom has been quoted by legions of preachers over the centuries, not to mention its provenance being wrongly ascribed to Martin Luther King, Jr. by Dr Cutler, one of the author's of our book being discussed here.

Cutler quotes an interesting comment from Graham Green's The Third Man:

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed - but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they have brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, what did they produce?  The cuckoo clock." (Quoted The Art of Happiness, p. 169)
Suffering can both soften and harden us.  When I was hospitalized for seven weeks in a psychiatric hospital, thankfully some thirteen years ago now, I left it feeling stronger and harder than I had been before.  I had experienced a break-through to depths of strength which I had up until then not realized I possessed.  My experience was empowering, rather than dis-empowering.  It was almost as if I had been far too soft prior to that break-through, and afterwards I was strengthened and hardened to face crises in my life with more tenacity, courage and power.  Cutler recounts one very hardened businessman or CEO who had for thirty years or more portrayed a hard and tough exterior to all, and to some extent to his wife, whose break-through was to a more softened internal sense of his own vulnerable self, so much so that his wife told the psychiatrist that her husband had cried for hours upon hours in her arms during his recovery.  His hardened Self needed to be softened, to be humanised while my soft Self needed to be hardened.

Here, I am reminded of the brilliant Commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios at Standford University

My third story is about death.When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.
I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.
This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. (Jobs' Speech)

How elegant, how stylish, how wise, how profound, and yet how simple are Steve Jobs' words above.  To speak such wisdom from the heart, from the soul and from lived experience reflected upon, is the key to good speech-making.  We need such wise entrepreneurs and such good and great human beings to spur us on in coping with life's challenges.