Monday, March 20, 2006

And I don't even have any dates to miss

"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;"

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Rot. Utter unadulterated rot. [1]

Any footprints I'm leaving behind are more likely to be on the carpets of time, and chances are I'll catch hell for not wiping my feet when I came in and will have to go haul out the vacuum and clean up the mess. So much for making my life sublime.

Are there really people out there who find the lives of great men [2] inspiring? How does that work exactly? Do you really find it comforting to think: Yes, that's right, I could be just like him, if only I'd been born in the right century, had half his talent / intelligence / hair, and then got really, really lucky?

Personally, I find that lives of great men always end up depressing me, only serving to bring home my own inadequacy. What we need, I think, is more lives of little men. Yes, that's right, biographies of confirmed losers - the guys who stand in line for tickets to the Star Wars opening night, the guys who take five attempts to parallel park and then end up getting a ticket, the guys who are still delivering pizzas for a living at 56. Those are the men I want to be comparing myself to. Not Wolfgang bloody Mozart. [3]

Take this new life of William Empson by John Haffenden. Or rather the article about it in the last issue of the New York Review of Books (okay, okay, so I'm a little behind on my NYRB reading; it's all these outlet malls) [4]. Apparently one evening Empson is casually hanging about with Eliot's friend John Hayward (groan!) and ends up getting horribly drunk. So what does he do to apologise? He rummages about in his papers, pulls out a poem at random and sends it over. This poem:

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month's desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

GAH! Such an incredible poem - one of the finest villanelles of the century and the man just dashes it off to make up for one evening when he had too many! The way normal people like you and I [5] would send a crappy Hallmark card. That's it! That is absolutely it! I'm ending it now! Elisa, where the devil is my razor?


[1] I am NOT a big fan of Longfellow. He's a nice enough sort but I've just never taken a fancy to him. I think the trouble is that the poor man never managed to outlive his own name. I mean call a chap Longfellow and what choice does he have but to ramble on incoherently for stanza upon stanza? Plus there's that awful middle name - is it Wordsworth (of all people!) or isn't it? The poor guy probably woke up in the middle of the night with an inexplicable urge to write poems about a girl named Lucie (or, equivalently, stuff like this). No wonder he had to come up with all this Gitchie Gummee stuff to keep sane.

[2] Yes, yes, alright and great women too.

[3] Tom Lehrer says: "It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years."

[4] I love the reviews of biographies in the NYRB, btw. My logic is, with a well written review, you'll pretty much get all the important themes and interesting anecdotes about the person's life anyway. That way you don't actually have to read the book.

[5] Notice a) the magnanimity with which I include you in this category; b) I effortlessly slip in the word 'normal' as a description of me, hoping you won't notice.

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Cheshire Cat said...

But we do make our lives sublime, don't we, by remembering these great men, by paying tribute to them? I revere Empson, I truly do. Gotta love a guy who got expelled from Cambridge because condoms were found in his room...

You didn't think of beginning with "I think continually of those who were truly great"? Now, that would have been the occasion of a nice long rant.

Falstaff said...

Cat: I almost did. Almost. But I have other plans for that poem. Plus I like Spender.

Completely agree with you about Empson, except that I'd so much rather be making my life sublime by reading his poetry / criticism than by reading his life. That just makes me feel small.

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