Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
T.S Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”
"Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled…"
In the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly.
There are outsiders, always. These stars—
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened
thousands of years before
our pain did: they are, they have always been
They keep their distance. Under them remains
a place where you found
you were human, and
a landscape in which you know you are mortal.
And a time to choose between them.
I have chosen:
Out of myth into history I move to be
part of that ordeal
whose darkness is
only now reaching me from those fields,
those rivers, those roads clotted as
firmaments with the dead.
How slowly they die
as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.
And we are too late. We are always too late.
The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
I worry sometimes about my future, and whether my condition will stay the same or worsen, and what that might mean for my career and family. I worry that maybe I shouldn’t have kids. I worry that I will alienate myself from others, or that the people closest to me will tire of my periodic, deep, inconsolable grief.
But I can’t live there. The closest I have to a personal motto is paulo maiora canamus, the opening line of Virgil’s fourth eclogue, which Wordsworth used as an epigraph for his “Intimations of Immortality.” It means, “Let us sing of somewhat higher things.”
Why we think of up as good and down as bad, I’m not sure. That directionality seems arbitrary, but everyone knows that heaven is above us and hell is below. When we are sad, we are feeling closer to hell than to heaven. We are feeling low. We are feeling down.
I think we must try, though, through our artmaking or loving or any of the myriad actions we perform in a day, to “sing of somewhat higher things.” I love that modifier “somewhat” there — it is forgiving, and it suggests that while we may not rise to the height that we want, we can at least go farther than this. We can elevate our thoughts, our feelings, our moods — our brokenness — through our singing, and hopefully, at the end of it all, find ourselves closer to heaven than not.
Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.
Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.
This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not—indeed, probably won’t—be the best anymore.