From the Hymn of Empedocles

We overlook everyday beauty, dogged as we so often are by anxiety about the future. Here is how Mathew Arnold puts it.

IS it so small a thing
To have enjoy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;

That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

Not much, I know, you prize
What pleasures may be had,
Who look on life with eyes
Estranged, like mine, and sad:
And yet the village churl feels the truth more than you;

Who ‘s loth to leave this life
Which to him little yields:
His hard-task’d sunburnt wife,
His often-labour’d fields;
The boors with whom he talk’d, the country spots he knew.

But thou, because thou hear’st
Men scoff at Heaven and Fate;
Because the gods thou fear’st
Fail to make blest thy state,
Tremblest, and wilt not dare to trust the joys there are.

I say, Fear not! life still
Leaves human effort scope.
But, since life teems with ill,
Nurse no extravagant hope.
Because thou must not dream, thou need’st not then despair.

Mathew Arnold was an English poet and an inspector of schools in 19th Century England. The son of Thomas Arnold, renowned headmaster of Rugby school. A bright cove, he was educated at Winchester and then Balliol College Oxford.

Did he embody the principles he so eloquently describes in his poetry or was his a life of drudgery, disappointment and pain?

Arnold was, it seems, a good man. A lifelong Liberal and supporter of Gladstone – the only politician for whom I have ever had much time. He criticized “the great Philistine middle-class, the master force in our politics.” And how right he was; dumb materialism, the pursuit of wealth, the desecration of a once green and pleasant land by the ugly stain of greed and industry.

These Philistines were “humdrum people, slaves to routine, enemies to light”. And still they are.

As to religion, he veered in a very modern direction. Talking of Salvation by Jesus Christ, he commented:

“Never let us deny to this story power and pathos, or treat with hostility ideas which have entered so deep into the life of Christendom. But the story is not true; it never really happened”.

“The personages of the Christian heaven and their conversations are no more matter of fact than the personages of the Greek Olympus and their conversations.”

Arnold was captivated by the beauty surrounding religious belief, whilst deeming it a man made fable, invented to soothe man’s troubles in a random and fearful universe.

 Arnold’s dramatic poem Empedocles on Etna (from which the above extract was taken) concerns events leading up to the supposed suicide of Empedocles, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. It is said he cast himself into the flames of Mount Etna.

Clearly Empedocles is imputed with something of the poet’s own disillusionment with the world:

He is too scornful, too high-wrought, too bitter.
‘Tis not the times, ’tis not the sophists vex him;
There is some root of suffering in himself,
Some secret and unfollowed vein of woe,
Which makes the time look black and sad to him

As so often there is a stark contrast between the ideal that we seek and the inner discontent we suffer. Clearly like all of us, the poet seeks happiness and fulfillment and in the brighter lines of the poem he seems to have found a route to satisfy those wishes. We should enjoy the sun, we should revel in the beauty around us. We should live for the moment, we should not pin our hopes as the religious do on the fable of a blessed state to come.

We should not “feign a bliss Of doubtful future date“. We should live in the now and not mortgage ourselves to some promised and doubtful future.

And what of the historical Empedocles? He lived 2,500 years ago in Sicily, we are told. Apparently he sought release from the wheel of re-birth by purification and abstinence. Not a happy soul then? Or was he? Perhaps he achieved the bliss he so clearly sought.

Whether we speak of Arnold or Empedocles, it seems clear that both looked for what so many of us have sought in the hundreds of thousands of years of human consciousness. Happiness, peace, release from fear and uncertainty. Purpose and meaning.

In a sense if you feel compelled to write about such a quest (whether in verse in 19th Century England or in prose on a 21st Century website) then you are not quite there.

And yet we are told there are means by which we may climb off the wheel of re-incarnation. Techniques by which we may return to union with the whole, to be re-absorbed by the divine.

I find myself in the shoes of Sisyphus at a later and more satisfactory juncture in his tale. I have pushed the rock to the top of the hill for the last time and have dismissed the false gods who condemned me to such absurdity.

I have kicked the rock of Sisyphus into the abyss and have walked off to enjoy the sun and to live lite in the spring.

I wonder if Arnold ever achieved this?

7 Comments

  1. Peter Kingsley, in his 2 vol. book “Catafalque”, relies heavily on Empedocles. I have heard the name Matthew Arnold (in grammar school?), but have no memory of reading him. Now I shall, and thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Anthony,
    I’ve been catching up on your blog today, and enjoyed this entry. You clearly have the soul of a poet in my view, whether or not you employ it personally in your musings. I very much enjoyed your speculative wonderment about whether Arnold and Empedocles may have achieved their goals of happiness, peace, meaning and purpose. It certainly is a refreshing look at the tale of Sisyphus, who was not able to dismiss the will of the gods. It’s an intriguing metaphor for your current frame of mind at least.

    Arnold has one of my favorite quotes about poetry:

    “Without poetry our science will appear incomplete, and most of what passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”

    One can only hope!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love poetry but have all too seldom read it. That is what comes I suppose from leading an unbalanced life and concentrating too much on worldly matters. I seem to have been writing this blog for a while now and need to focus on a direction. I fear that it has all been rather a ramble so far. Perhaps reflecting life itself! A random walk. Would that I could write fiction but I don’t seem to be overburdened with imagination.

      Liked by 1 person

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