Greatness, Reading Life

At this time of the year ladders hang from the sky. Even if there is only one rail from which the rungs attach themselves, those great lines of clouds compel the eye to climb upwards. I have been thinking of heights, the greatness of certain lives. The protagonist in The Caxtons is advised he may measure himself against such greatness provided that he is motivated to "scorn delights, and love laborious days" - a line from John Milton's poem Lycidas, which is in part about being an artist and a human being.
The poem addresses the struggles between work and pleasure (verse six). The poet thinks through the problem of death and life and how to live, how to understand life. It is fascinating, knowing how Milton went on to leave a written legacy, to read through how he was tempted - if in passing, a passing verse, by the motivation of fame, which he goes on to dismiss.
To undertake anything seriously tempts this false idea of fame to come forward. To dismiss it far less nobly than does Milton, one might ask who dares to assess their potential so audaciously. Few are those who may be called genius. It may be dangerous to peer to those heights.
For consideration of even Milton, embalmed, in a matter of speaking, as he is in the canon, is problematic; he is disputed by some, including others who claim a place the canon (Pound, Eliot) and was not entirely lauded by Samuel Johnson. But then, the canon is but a starting point for the mind with its thoughtful text and initially dizzying baggage of historical context and criticism.
"Master the books," Augustine Caxton, Esq. advises, "do not let them master you. Read to live, do not live to read." However, the squire goes on to refer to himself as a "slave of the lamp" - there are those whose natural penchant ceaselessly seeks out the printed word, bringing to light what might otherwise be relegated to a shelf of oblivion. Key to such endeavour, I think, is memory and a degree of pertinence.




No matter the profession in question, one must question whether one has what it takes to adopt it. So writes Epictetus in the Enchiridion when he warns: be not like children, hungering after the laurel of athletes yet not able to sustain regular training. Where does this leave those of us somewhere in between "delights" and "laborious days" and the lofty heights we may aspire to?
There is a violation worse than not entirely mastering one's subject, and that is the genius mind flying off course to the sun, deranged. I think now of the Greek word ὕβρις - outrage, violation, its roots in the word hubris. The mind may be tragic, as when its criticism is over-analytical; encyclopaedism reading things into situations; attention given more to flaws than virtues; desire unbridled.
Such are the true hybrids, if we accept what Robert Baird and some dictionaries claim: that ὕβρις (violent transgression) is at the root of the word hybrid. Of those remaining, many are less hybrids than poorer creatures challenged, always, by shortcomings. We may see pedantry - Milton's "strictly meditate the thankless Muse" - as a parody of the pedant who, as teacher, is to first teach the most essential, enveloping the more difficult learning in allegory, out of the reach of the petty mind. Pedantry, in its concern over minutiae, is mostly for the genius and not the small mind that lords over or idolises. The mind is a saving force, able through explanation or introduction, to make of starved dry oats a mouth watering repast for more souls than one.
To gaze at the heights is also to notice interference by those with an overgrown critical mind, reading the wrong thing at the wrong time, not realising the vital importance of learning and work - which is to keep us alive, not just our bodies, but also our minds and the mind in the heart. Mencius writes that deeds performed without heart cause famine of the soul. Which answers Milton's question in Lycidas about whether one should frolic with the nymph or tend to homely trade and thankless muse. For most mortals, the lessons and surprise of play best be integrated into work.
To look up is to recognise one's inferior place, but also to notice that through the mercy of situation, ladders may appear; one is to make use of what one knows, hopefully knowing something, if only from the book of life, read by observing. Such was the legacy of William Cobbett, author of Rural Rides; not a university man, but the subject of books by some.



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