Our sons were in Fredericksburg, Va., for the earthquake, forty miles from the epicenter, visiting their grandparents, unaware they were about to acquire a memory to last a lifetime. They were seated at a soda fountain, sipping milkshakes, when glasses started tinkling and the pharmacy sign started swinging. It lasted about seven seconds and sounded like a muffled cement mixer. They arrived back in Seattle Thursday night, in plenty of time to miss Hurricane Irene, thus escaping without harm two natural disasters in less than a week.
Serendipity led me to a happy convergence of thoughts on happiness and its absence. The poetry of William Cowper remains a mostly guilt-free pleasure, though I know all the good reasons not to read him. In Book II of The Task (1785) he writes, with a proto-Thoreauvian lilt:
“Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumour of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war,
Might never reach me more!”
Suicidal depression haunted Cowper, lending poignancy to his lament, but most of us, in unhappy times, long for sanctuary. In Cowper’s line we hear an echo of Jeremiah 9:2 (King James): “Oh that I had in the wildernesse a lodging place of wayfaring men, that I might leaue my people, and goe from them…” Cowper knew only stray moments of happy lodging, fewer than most.
Another writer who knew vexation and found a measure of relief in writing about it was Robert Burton. In this passage from his great Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), he spells out a recipe for happiness and ticks off the reasons we choose not to follow it:
“How happy might we be, and end our time with blessed days and sweet content, if we could contain ourselves, and, as we ought to do, put up injuries, learn humility, meekness, patience, forget and forgive, as in God's word we are enjoined, compose such final controversies amongst ourselves, moderate our passions in this kind, and think better of others, as Paul would have us, than of ourselves: be of like affection one towards another, and not avenge ourselves, but have peace with all men. But being that we are so peevish and perverse, insolent and proud, so factious and seditious, so malicious and envious; we do invicem angariare, maul and vex one another, torture, disquiet, and precipitate ourselves into that gulf of woes and cares, aggravate our misery and melancholy, heap upon us hell and eternal damnation.”
Elsewhere in the Anatomy, in his chapter on blogs and how they might relieve the curse of melancholy, Burton says “we skim off the cream of other men’s wits, pick the choice flowers of their tilled gardens to set our own sterile plots.”