Wednesday, April 12, 2017

`Joy in Convalescence'

I spend my days talking with intelligent, enthusiastic young people, engineering students who assume a natural, complementary fit between themselves and the world. Their confidence is touching. Some are one-third my age and already know more than I will ever learn. Naturally, some swell with pride and entitlement. That’s inevitable and human, though I prefer the company of those who wear their learning lightly, exercise a vigorous sense of irony and appreciate the odds against good fortune. Their equilibrium is bracing.

On this date, April 12, in 2004 – six months before his death – Anthony Hecht wrote a letter to his friend Dimitri Hadzi, the sculptor who made the etchings for a limited edition of Hecht’s The Venetian Vespers (1979). Hadzi had been hospitalized for clinical depression. The two had much in common besides their art. Hadzi was born in 1921; Hecht, two years later. Both were World War II veterans. Hecht writes (in The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, 2013):

“I was, if possible, the more distressed for having gone through such a hospitalization myself at one time. So I know that nothing could be more irrelevant than glib advice to cheer up, delivered with scoutmaster optimism.”

Hecht was hospitalized for depression for three months in 1962. He admits to Hadzi that he still lives with “a not completely latent anxiety,” in part because he had not written any “poems of consequence” for more than a year. “I have no firm way to deal with this, except to remind myself that I’ve often felt this way in the past, and have nevertheless, by some kind of miracle, come up with something totally unexpected.” Then Hecht suggests Hadzi read a poem that often comes to my mind when I speak with students and experience flutters of envy and self-pity: “There’s a beautiful poem by George Herbert called `The Flower,’ which bears directly and persuasively on the kinds of fluctuations you and I are both subject to.” Hecht encloses a copy of Herbert’s poem in the letter. I know the second stanza almost by heart:

 “Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
         Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown,
                      Where they together
                      All the hard weather,
         Dead to the world, keep house unknown.”

And best of all are the first two lines from Herbert’s final stanza: “And now in age I bud again, / After so many deaths I live and write.” Herbert’s poem is powerful medicine prescribed by a patient who is also a doctor. In his monograph George Herbert (Longmans, Green & Co., 1962), T.S. Eliot offers a second opinion:

“I cannot resist the thought that in this last stanza--itself a miracle of phrasing--the imagery, so apposite to express the achievement of faith which it records, is taken from the experience of the man of delicate physical health who had known much illness. It is on this note of joy in convalescence of the spirit in surrender to God, that the life of discipline of this haughty and irascible Herbert finds conclusion: In His will is our peace.”

1 comment:

Chuck Kelly said...