What is a poet?

“What is a Poet? He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them.”

~ William Wordsworth in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.

A Contrast

It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet, tender joy. The mild serenity of age takes the place of the riotous blood of youth. I bless the rising sun each day, and, as before, my heart sings to meet it, but now I love even more its setting, its long slanting rays and the soft, tender, gentle memories that come with them, the dear images from the whole of my long, happy life-and over all the Divine Truth, softening, reconciling, forgiving! My life is ending, I know that well, but every day that is left me I feel how earthly life is in touch with a new infinite, unknown, but approaching life, the nearness of which sets my soul quivering with rapture, my mind glowing and my heart weeping with joy.

~ Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Book IV “The Russian Monk,” Chapter 1 “Father Zossima and His Visitors”

This paragraph is reminiscent of what the poet William Wordsworth would have called “sensations sweet, felt in the blood”. The blend of memory, grace, and glory rolled into the metaphor of life as a rising and setting sun captures both the poignancy and the “deep power of joy” Wordsworth wrote of in Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey… 

Seeing Into the Life of Things

Like Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, Wordsworth wrote of the glory of nature, its power to subdue the heart, to summon memory- the sublime and blessed memories that lead us with their aching joys and dizzy raptures.

Wordsworth and Dostoevsky also give hope of an old age to come, accompanied by sober pleasures, elevated thoughts- an autumn characterized by a mature love of quietness and beauty. No longer swimming in the throes of thoughtless youth, we will celebrate “our cheerful faith: that life is full of blessings.” Serenely, we accept our setting sun, seeing the joy and peace of our souls sustaining our beloved through their portion of “solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief.”

But another influence clamors for attention. There are more ways to look at time, aging, and death. It rages and warns in a whisper. Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A sobering contrast only the hubris of youth could ignore.

Every Leaf

Sorbus_alnifolia_'Submollis'_JPG1La
Jean-Pol Grandmont/WC
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
Fall, leaves, fall– Emily Brontë

It moves us not

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
~William Wordsworth, The World Is Too Much With Us