- a commentary on Tennyson's poem, "The Ancient Sage".

Comments Page 2

What Power but the Years that make
    And break the vase of clay,
And stir the sleeping earth, and wake
    The bloom that fades away?
What rulers but the Days and Hours
    That cancel weal with woe,
And wind the front of youth with flowers,
    And cap our age with snow?”

All true, and perfectly good reasons for pessimism if that's what you're looking for.  In this material world everything that gets created gets destroyed.  Including us.  It's the "way of all flesh".  "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity".

    The days and hours are ever glancing by,
And seem to flicker past thro’ sun and shade,
Or short, or long, as Pleasure leads, or Pain;
But with the Nameless is nor Day nor Hour;
Tho’ we, thin minds, who creep from thought to thought,
Break into ‘Thens’ and ‘Whens’ the Eternal Now
This double seeming of the single world!—
My words are like the babblings in a dream
Of nightmare, when the babblings break the dream.
But thou be wise in this dream-world of ours,
Nor take thy dial for thy deity,
But make the passing shadow serve thy will.

Zoom out if you don't like what you see when you're zoomed in.  You're only looking at the little picture not at the larger context.  Time is optional. The materialist is probably wondering why the Sage keeps talking like he thinks it seems like there are two worlds.  There's the material, physical world we all live in and maybe a few lunatics.  That's one world, not "seems like two".  The Sage insists that he's got one foot in the "real" world and one foot somewhere else.  Maybe both feet somewhere else.  The Sage comments on his state of being in two worlds by comparing himself to someone having a nightmare and making so much noise that he wakes himself up.  This is undoubtedly a peek into Tennyson's mind.  For Tennyson, living in a material world was kind of nightmarish.  Definitely like some kind of a dream.  He was stuck there, but not entirely.  Not by a long shot.  He believed he saw through the material dream; in fact he experienced exiting the material dream on multiple occasions and that was more real than the material dream.  He (as mentioned before, like most other "transcendent" types) found words, "shadows of a shadow world", to be highly inadequate to express his experience but was stuck with having to use them while in the material dream where everybody was that he was talking to, but even though highly inadequate the words occasionally led to a breach in the material dream, at least for anyone who was listening and interested.

So here's where the gold is to be mined: don't take your "sundial"/"shadow world"/material world to be your "deity", your self-identified exclusive reality in which you live and of which you are a creature; but use it as a venue, a stage upon which you can "present your true account" of yourself.  Happy materialists (God bless you, may you know nothing but peace and joy!) need not apply here.  The materialist in this poem, to me doesn't sound very happy, maybe because he was emanating from the mind of Tennyson or maybe someone Tennyson knew.  Who knows. Anyway, a life in a material world, as the shadow goes round and round, whether it makes any sense or is a source of satisfaction or not, is an opportunity to tell your story about who and what you are.  Like it or not, it's pretty much the only thing to do around here.  Whether you perform or not, you perform.  Give it your best because the stage may not be real but the play; the story, your story, certainly is.

The years that made the stripling wise
    Undo their work again,
And leave him, blind of heart and eyes,
    The last and least of men;
Who clings to earth, and once would dare
    Hell-heat or Arctic cold,
And now one breath of cooler air
    Would loose him from his hold;
His winter chills him to the root,
    He withers marrow and mind;
The kernel of the shrivell’d fruit
    Is jutting thro’ the rind;
The tiger spasms tear his chest,
    The palsy wags his head;
The wife, the sons, who love him best
    Would fain that he were dead;
The griefs by which he once was wrung
    Were never worth the while”—

I still say this world is a profoundly crappy deal.

Who knows? or whether this earth-narrow life
Be yet but yolk, and forming in the shell

Look around. It's a construction zone.  Nothing here stays the same or lasts forever; certainly not any individual human and certainly not the world.  Maybe everything, including you is on its way to becoming something totally unrecognizable.  Maybe you're not looking at the end product.  (Here I will insert a quote from another author which may seem completely extraneous, but I think so well states the core argument of this poem that it belongs here.  "Neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal have we created thee, so that thou mightest be free according to thy own will and honor, to be thy own creator and builder.  To thee alone we gave growth and development depending on thy own free will.  Thou bearest in thee the germs of a universal life."  Pico della Mirandola; Oratio de Hominis Dignitate.)

The shaft of scorn that once had stung
    But wakes a dotard smile.”
The placid gleam of sunset after storm!
The statesman’s brain that sway’d the past
    Is feebler than his knees;
The passive sailor wrecks at last
    In ever-silent seas;
The warrior hath forgot his arms,
    The Learned all his lore;
The changing market frets or charms
    The merchant’s hope no more;
The prophet’s beacon burn’d in vain,
    And now is lost in cloud;
The plowman passes, bent with pain,
    To mix with what he plow’d;
The poet whom his Age would quote
    As heir of endless fame—
He knows not ev’n the book he wrote,
    Not even his own name.
For man has overlived his day,
    And, darkening in the light,
Scarce feels the senses break away
    To mix with ancient Night.”
The shell must break before the bird can fly.
The years that when my Youth began
    Had set the lily and rose
By all my ways where’er they ran,
    Have ended mortal foes;
My rose of love for ever gone,
    My lily of truth and trust—
They made her lily and rose in one,
    And changed her into dust.
O rosetree planted in my grief,
    And growing, on her tomb,
Her dust is greening in your leaf,
    Her blood is in your bloom.
O slender lily waving there,
    And laughing back the light,
In vain you tell me ‘Earth is fair’
    When all is dark as night.”

It sounds to me like Tennyson must have had some serious run-ins with depression to be this eloquent, in-depth and persistent abut it.  He wrote this poem when he was 76 years old, and it probably represents a lifelong struggle for him.

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