Few of us, except the suicidal, want to die. And even they sometimes have second thoughts. We rebel against the idea, as Shakespeare put it, that one “struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” No, we are more likely to feel, as a later poet wrote, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But, at some point, die we must. Now, in my early eighties, I’m perhaps more conscious of this than many younger readers. So how do we cope with this awareness? In an earlier essay I suggested, “perhaps some sort of transcendence is the answer,” and added that “for me transcendent moments have come from primarily three sources: nature; the arts, especially poetry; and love, all of which also involve perceiving the beauty and oneness of creation.”
But now, a new idea occurs to me: Some of my favorite poems are nostalgic, and nostalgia, whether expressed in poetry, song, movies, or by some other means can be another way of trying to achieve some form of transcendence, of trying to stop the onrush of time and freeze, if only in our minds and only temporarily, time’s galloping pace. As Svetlana Boym wrote in her The Future of Nostalgia(2001), “nostalgia is rebellion against . . . the time of history . . . . The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology.”
Yes, nostalgia can have a strong appeal to us, and manipulated by unscrupulous leaders (like Trump, with his “Make-America-Great-Again slogan) it can be harmful and anti-progressive. But our desire to spend some mental time in an idyllic past where time is not racing forward is understandable. The poet Keats expressed it beautifully after looking at a Grecian urn that displayed a timeless scene that remained unchanged over centuries:
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young . . .
Much earlier the seventeenth-century English poet Thomas Traherne imagined the unchanging world of delight that existed in the Garden of Eden:
Joy, pleasure, beauty, kindness, glory, love,
Sleep, day, life, light,
Peace, melody, my sight,
My ears and heart did fill and freely move.
All that I saw did me delight.
The Universe was then a world of treasure,
To me an universal world of pleasure.
Unwelcome penitence was then unknown,
Vain costly toys,
Swearing and roaring boys,
Shops, markets, taverns, coaches, were unshown;
So all things were that drown’d my joys:
No thorns chok’d up my path, nor hid the face
Of bliss and beauty, nor eclips’d the place.
Some of my favorite poems are nostalgic, and nostalgia, whether expressed in poetry, song, movies, or by some other means can be another way of trying to achieve some form of transcendence.
The Sun does arise,
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
To welcome the Spring;
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the Echoing Green.
Old John, with white hair,
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls & boys,
In our youth time were seen
On the echoing green.’ . . .
Perhaps influenced by such verse, in my own college years, as life became more complex, I wrote a similar (but far inferior) poem:
Remember when we were kids, not so very long ago,
gathered in the yard were we,
running and playing so.
Cool and crisp was the air;
the sun came burning down;
and multicolored leaves were gathered along the ground.
Here we ran and tackled,
caught and threw the ball.
That was life, that was all.
That was all that we saw.
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Two more poems reflecting both nostalgia and a desire for transcendence, both of which I first read in my college years but have since reread many times are Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” The first begins,
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
Then, however, Wordsworth admits he has had a “thought of grief,” but adds,
Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother's arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
For Wordsworth, as for another later poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” And nature--provided we don’t destroy it--can timelessly replenish our quest for the timeless.
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman . . .
Although the poets are most nostalgic about childhood, we can also be such about later periods of our life. From time to time I sing, with fond remembrance, guitar words I wrote when our three children were young (but I was approaching middle age):
I sit here by the window and watch the kids at play.
They’re over in the park now, not a quarter mile away.
Some are playing baseball, and some are riding bikes,
Some are shooting baskets, and some are flying kites.
Mothers sit with toddlers there,
playing in the sand.
They’ve all got spring fever,
and oh it’s so grand.
I see my Tom and Jenny there,
Our dog’s there too,
and Nancy’s chasing Danny, whose just lost his shoe,
And oh the sun is shining, shining oh so bright,
And oh the sun is shinning and everything is right.
Nostalgia seems more common as we get older, perhaps because we have more good times to remember and less future challenges to meet. And there’s no doubt we have to keep it in check--there’s too many real-life problems like racial injustice and climate change that require our attention for us to spend most of our remaining years in nostalgia land. But we all need some rest, some breaks in our daily hectic lives, some moments to recharge our spirits. Pausing briefly to recall wonderful times, those that seem to transcend time, or reading poems like Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” can be just such moments.
Walter G. Moss