lundi, mai 30, 2011

Are you a Very Serious Doubter?

I've been thinking about a poem today -- Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach.

I might have quoted it here before. It is truly one of my favorites of the Victorian poems, though it doesn't rank as high with me as various Tennyson poems, and the intriguing, lovely poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

As I mowed the lawn, the last stanza, perhaps the poet and critic's most famous, sparked a few thoughts. I find that lawn-mowing, which is so repetitive, often has the effect of inciting a meditation on things I rarely think about. In the case of Arnold, it was "why were the Victorians so darned serious?"

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Lovely, isn't it? But quite a bummer. Yeah, you might feel that way at times -- but would you make a categorical statement about it?

Arnold was what one might call a VSD, or a Very Serious Doubter. As with many of his peers, many (though not all, by any means) of the smart men and women of his day, he chose to emphasize good works and morality on earth, and doubted a lot of what was said about a supernatural God.

One gets the feeling that many English writers, painters and poets were sensuous, intelligent, and creative -- but where the heck was their sense of farce? Did they leave that to the French?

The strange thing about Arnold, which I just discovered, is that apparently he was just the fellow you want at a dinner party with good friends -- but produced writings that give the effect of never having had, as Sheryl Crowe said, "a day of fun in his whole life."

And isn't that how you think of the Victorians?

I have friends and acquaintances, atheists, believers, and even hedonists, who take life's Big Questions just that seriously. And while I might learn something from all of them, they aren't the people with whom I want to have a glass of red and get a big tipsy.

Oddly enough, it is with them that I become like Shakespeare's Beatrice -- born to speak all mirth, and no matter.

Which, of course, pisses them off royally. They are, you see, Very Serious Believers, Hedonists and Doubters.

At which point, I just want to cry out -- send in the clowns.

How about you? Where do you fall on the spectrum? Would you have been first up to the stake, ready to die for your faith, or atheism? Or would you have been in the crowd, kissing some wench or manservant and hoping they wouldn't find you?

I know where I would be. And I hope that I see you, my friends, right beside me.

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