Today I heard Clive James, the well known and loved writer and presenter talk about his imminent death and what he was thinking about while still in the here and now. His regret centred on not feeling that he had been kind enough, that he had not paid enough attention to generosity of spirit, nor to being a good enough husband . I expect many of us feel regrets – some more than others and some without facing death as a close encounter – there must be time for reflection in all of us. Kindness seems to be an underrated virtue, one almost meeting scorn and mockery in our cynical age. There’s a tide that may be turning – in the words of Plato – ‘Be Kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle’.
It may be no coincidence that Clive James is also a poet – it behoves a poet to be reflective, and one of poetry’s great gifts is that it often takes us down a path that leads us to some introverted consideration that questions our behaviours and attitudes. A good poem is like a shortcut to something we need to know about ourselves, a spotlight that focuses our attention and drives us to exploration. Poetry is a signpost that can direct us to to where we want to be, to who we want to be.
Richard Porty wrote in an essay “Pragmatism and Romanticism”;
‘Shortly after finishing “Pragmatism and Romanticism,” I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Some months after I learned the bad news, I was sitting around having coffee with my elder son and a visiting cousin. My cousin (who is a Baptist minister) asked me whether I had found my thoughts turning toward religious topics, and I said no. “Well, what about philosophy?” my son asked. “No,” I replied, neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation. I had no quarrel with Epicurus’s argument that it is irrational to fear death, nor with Heidegger’s suggestion that ontotheology originates in an attempt to evade our mortality. But neither ataraxia (freedom from disturbance) nor Sein zum Tode (being toward death) seemed in point.
“Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” my son persisted. “Yes,” I found myself blurting out, “poetry.” “Which poems?” he asked. I quoted two old chestnuts that I had recently dredged up from memory and been oddly cheered by, the most quoted lines of Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine”:
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
and Landor’s “On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday”:
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.’
It doesn’t seem melancholy to me to begin to consider the brevity of our lives – it seems sanguine to work out while we still have life how best to use the minutes and seconds. Life is busy, demanding, inconsiderate in it’s relentless drive to succeed, to impress. I like the impressions of poets and philosophers – they help me get to where I want to be.
Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was an American philosopher best known for revitalizing the school of American pragmatism. He served as a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Stanford and was the author of several books -http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/richard-rorty