James Matthew Wilson asks in “Some Notes for Ecclesiastes” (Some Permanent Things, 2014):
“How does one stir
A dull eye to the poignancy and gift
Of all the things that are but need not be?”
Like a rich kid’s Christmas morning, the world overflows with gratuitous bounty. It’s also a slaughterhouse. Negotiating those truths across a lifetime winnows optimists from pessimists, but a prudent path between them seems sanest. Wilson’s poem, written “In Memoriam Rae Lee Lester,” is a gloss on Koheleth, almost a rebuke. He understands that Ecclesiastes in the wrong hands turns quickly into cynical, smug, impotent, wet-blanket doomsaying (“flint-lipped quietists”). Along with Job, it’s probably the biblical book most favored by the faithless. But Wilson starts his poem practically, almost optimistically, with George Herbert, “The parson, lonely in his vicarage / At Bemerton,” wanting to stir his flock.
The title of Dr. Johnson’s greatest poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” traces it lineage to Ecclesiastes 1:2, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” a phrase distilling his central lifelong theme. In his Dictionary, Johnson defined vanity as “emptiness, arrogance, falsehood.” For vain he gives “fruitless, meanly proud, idle.” Asked for a synonym today, many would respond with “egotism,” “self-centeredness,” “pride.” Only the last avoids the modern clinical taint and retains the older, moral/spiritual sense. In Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), Jeffrey Meyers writes of “Human Wishes”:
“Believing with George Herbert that `A verse may finde him who a sermon flies,’ Johnson uses the poem to preach from a deeply pessimistic text. His title implies that certainty and truth can be found, despite the temptations of the world, only by adhering to a spiritual path and following God's will . . . Instead of emphasizing the joy and consolation of Christian belief, and the hope of redemption it offers, Johnson distilled into the poem twenty years of bitterness, failure, and struggle for faith. His poem is not simply pessimistic, but strains against optimism, against the possibility that human life could actually get better.”
Wilson is not naïve. Neither is he hard-boiled. He seeks wisdom, not finality:
“We do not need a shaking from our comfort
In how the seasons feed us, how the new
Wars are just like the old ones. What we ask
Is wisdom wise enough never to dare
To try to take the measure of our loss.”
In one of the essays collected in The Night is Large, Martin Gardner quoted G.K. Chesterton, from what I find is "A Second Childhood":
Where in God's ponderous mercy hangs,
On all my sins and me,
Because he does not take away
The terror from the tree
And stones still shine along the road
That are and cannot be.
Wilson insists on the significance, not the insignificance of each individual in the face of the repetitively turning wheels of the universe. So each individual doesn't live 'in vain'. It's rather optimistic.
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