Wednesday 16 November 2016

Under the Glass... Six: Succession of Delight

It’s been a while since I have done one of these but there are three lines of poetry that have been going round my head all week. They are the following;

‘We never are deserted quite;
’Tis by succession of delight
.......That love supports his reign.’

They are the closing lines of my second favourite poem, Christopher Smart’s ‘On a Bed of Guernsey Lilies.’ It was a poem written a few weeks after he had been forcibly (and heroically) rescued/released from the private madhouse he’d been staying in for years. He was going to face some tough times; his work would no longer be taken seriously, he would have real trouble in maintaining his life by his pen and he was going to die cold and alone in the Rules of King’s Bench - a sort of open prison for debtors.

This poem does not reflect that grim future though, it’s about one of Smart’s favourite topics - gratitude. 

A Guernsey Lilly is a late blooming flower, one of the last to show its colours before winter definitely arrives. In thinking of these flowers, Smart reflects on how there are always glimmers of hope, pleasure and even delight, no matter the circumstances. He compares the flowers to welcome visitors on a rainy day and feels that a mind truly open to the world can use such things as visitors and flowers to properly anchor hope.

Johnson, in my favourite poem, ‘On the Death of Dr Robert Levet’ describes hope as ‘delusory’ but he repeats in Rambler after Rambler, in Rasselas, in his poem London, that hope is a necessary delusion. That although people are more likely to move from ‘hope to hope’ than ‘pleasure to pleasure’, they need that hope to survive.

I think Smart is more perceptive. In this poem, hope is a pleasure in itself. Something to treasure and keep safely anchored. From Smart’s perspective these hopes are a ‘succession of delight’ that are given as little shining moments to remind us that love still exists and can still reign in each life. (Of course Smart also means God when he says love - I suppose because God is love).

For me, it’s the first of these three lines that elevate the poem from lovely to beautiful… indeed, it’s the last word of that line. ‘We never are deserted quite’. It seems pretty clear that the ‘quite’ was put in to rhyme with the ‘delight’ in the next line but it is the addition of ‘quite’ that pushes the line just slightly into the realms of despair. Smart knows pain, he knows confinement and he knows humiliation. He can sympathise that life can sometimes feel as if love has deserted it, that it is barren of shining moments but ‘we never are deserted…quite’. It never quite happens.

This then leads into the following two lines where were are reminded how we are not deserted and how life really can be a ‘succession of delights’ if we are but open to them.

Now, why have these lines been running around my head?

Partly, it’s because of the changing season. The world has suddenly become dark and gloomy. The mornings are dark, the evenings are dark, the air is wet and dank and cold. Yet, last night I saw the moon beam in the sky and it still sits brightly outside now.

Also, the general mood seems dark and gloomy. As people start to reflect on 2016, there have been all sorts of political upheavals and uncertain futures on top of the spate of famous deaths and the (depressingly usual) stories of war, famine and atrocity. Talking to people, it really seems that many feel that they have been deserted and that love is an increasingly small and precious commodity. 

To those people, I would like to remind them that they ‘never are deserted quite’ and to encourage them to look out for the little shining moments that remind them that life really can be a ‘succession of delights’, if they but recognise them.

A Guernsey Lilly

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