Monday, October 08, 2007


Cursed, Trite, Commonplace Topics

John Courtenay, Letter to Edmond Malone (Feb. 22, 1791), quoted in Adam Sisman, Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) p. 250:
Poor Boswell is very low and dispirited and almost melancholy mad—feels no spring, no pleasure in existence, and is so perceptible altered for the worse that it is remarked everywhere. I try all I can to rouse him but he recurs so tiresomely and tediously to the same cursed, trite, commonplace topics about death, etc.—that we grow old, and when we are old we are not young—that I despair of effecting a cure.
Boswell was 50 years old at the time. He would not live to see his 55th birthday.

Those "same cursed, trite, commonplace topics about death" give rise to some of the most sublime poetry ever written, such as Glaucus' words to Diomedes in Homer's Iliad 6.145-149 (tr. William Cowper):
Why asks brave Diomede of my descent?
For, as the leaves, such is the race of man.
The wind shakes down the leaves, the budding grove
Soon teems with others, and in spring they grow.
So pass mankind. One generation meets
Its destined period, and a new succeeds.
The second movement of Brahms' German Requiem begins with these words on the same theme, from 1 Peter 1.24:
For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.
Brahms himself was "very low and dispirited and almost melancholy mad" by temperament. Joseph Hellmesberger said about him, "When Brahms is in good spirits, he sings 'The grave is my joy'."

I sleep fitfully, and when I awoke in the wee hours of this morning I turned to an author not exactly known for bubbly cheerfulness, Seneca the Younger. I read his letter to Lucilius (101) on the unexpected death of Cornelius Senecio. Here is part of the letter in Richard M. Gummere's translation:
[4] But how foolish it is to set out one's life, when one is not even owner of the morrow! O what madness it is to plot out far-reaching hopes! To say: "I will buy and build, loan and call in money, win titles of honour, and then, old and full of years, I will surrender myself to a life of ease."

[5] Believe me when I say that everything is doubtful, even for those who are prosperous. No one has any right to draw for himself upon the future. The very thing that we grasp slips through our hands, and chance cuts into the actual hour which we are crowding so full. Time does indeed roll along by fixed law, but as in darkness; and what is it to me whether Nature's course is sure, when my own is unsure?

[6] We plan distant voyages and long-postponed home-comings after roaming over foreign shores, we plan for military service and the slow rewards of hard campaigns, we canvass for governorships and the promotions of one office after another - and all the while death stands at our side; but since we never think of it except as it affects our neighbour, instances of mortality press upon us day by day, to remain in our minds only as long as they stir our wonder.

[7] Yet what is more foolish than to wonder that something which may happen every day has happened on any one day? There is indeed a limit fixed for us, just where the remorseless law of Fate has fixed it; but none of us knows how near he is to this limit. Therefore, let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life's account every day.
Related posts:

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?