Like many a young lad of 22 or so I was once enamored with carpe diem. Coined by the Greek philosopher Horace long before the 1980s movie Dead Poets Society, in which (an unbearded) Robin Williams, playing a prep school English teacher, urges his male charges to seize the day, the idea feels uniquely suited to people below the age of 30. Unfortunately if we’re talking about men, whose brains we now understand don’t fully develop until the age of—you guessed it—30, seizing the day is just another chance to audition for a Darwin Award. Perhaps I am conflating youthful male impetuousness—read: stupidity—with the desire to suck out all the marrow of life. Except seizing the day is different than sucking out marrow, too. It was the American Henry David Thoreau who said it: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” but he likely was not influenced by Horace. Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson (and later, to a degree, Walt Whitman) belonged to a group of thinkers who, had they been born in England at the start of the 19th century, might have been not transcendentalists but Romantics. Might have been, but probably not. Though the two groups are often linked, they have little in common.
On the surface William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron and John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had little in common too. Coleridge and Wordsworth, for example, did not descend from nobility, money, or rank, unlike Byron and, to a lesser extent Shelley. But other than in their works, surfaces don’t much matter to poets, as Coleridge and Wordsworth formed close bonds, especially in their early careers, and Byron and Shelley’s misadventures are the stuff of legend. What they also had in common was their reaction to the Industrial Revolution happening under their noses.
On the other side of the Atlantic American Romanticism looks like an English-lite version, and not merely because the movement occurred some 25 years after the peak of Shelley, et al. While it’s true transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau advocated for a return to nature, what mostly remains of their philosophy is their championing of self-reliance. (There’s an argument that says America has, in addition to never quite shedding its puritan roots, featured self-reliance too prominently as a way to live even now, many decades past the point when we needed guns to scare off wild bears. But that is for another day.) Where the two rivers of thought diverge even further is with carpe diem. The English Romantics took Horace’s advice and tweaked it. The idea was still to seize the day, but it was different than simply being in the moment—and much different than what we would today call “mindfulness.” In his poem “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth, taking in a cherished vista he had not seen in five years, explains.
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.
Those years to come will look different than those of our youth, and while nothing can ever match the “aching joys” and the “dizzy raptures,” Wordsworth is at peace with the process.
Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur: other gifts
Have followed, for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.
(The lines that follow these observations are some of the most beautiful ever written in English, but more on that later.)
Wordsworth is still very much in the moment here—he’s seized the day and seized ours, too, with his poetry—but he’s also looking past the original experience. For him an unintended consequence of carpe diem is its utility, though he would blanch at that word. But there is no doubt that being alive to a moment, harvesting its particulars as it happens—its smell, its feel, its sounds, its very essence, creates the possibility of future “pleasing thoughts,” to be called upon when needed.
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure.
What were you doing when you were 28? When he was 28 Wordsworth was composing a masterpiece like “Tintern Abbey,” and what is remarkable was the philosophical wherewithal he displays here, the wisdom of someone with only 28 years of life from which to cull, even if 28 in the year 1798 is more like 38 now. No matter. Wordsworth had a more solid grasp of the universal than his contemporaries, in particular his later ones, Shelley, Byron, and Keats—though Shelley and Byron better apprehended the plight of the people buried by the rapid technological shifts occurring in England at the time. This command of the universal is underrated in Wordsworth’s work. We often forget his genius because so much of his writing is examined thru the lens of his famous maxim that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” But for all the emotional power of his poetry, there is a maturity present largely missing in writers like Keats, Byron, and, later, Whitman. Wordsworth not only had the capacity to make us feel, but he also had the ability to instruct free of the didacticism we see on occasion from the likes of Shelley and, to a lesser degree, Coleridge.
So what of the American side? From the half-seeing eye the road linking Wordsworth to Thoreau looks clear enough, but while Wordsworth expressed truth Thoreau searched for it, and only a partial truth at that.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
What is most striking about that passage is not the marrow of life but how it contains the antithesis to what Thoreau is saying. He wants to “learn what [life] had to teach” but what can life really teach him if he wants at the same time to drive it “into a corner and reduce it to its lowest forms”? A corner is not an enlarged view of the world but a deliberately diminished one. He does not wish to “practise resignation” but goes to the woods to live. It is not clear what kind of marrow could be sucked out by living by himself near a pond on his wealthy New England sponsor’s (Emerson’s) land. What is clear is that the kind of life Thoreau chose did not contain “the essential facts of life,” since there is no mention of love, of children, of dying—of, in short, much of the marrow of life. At best he would learn half of what life offers us: that of the internal mind. No matter what Thoreau’s sexuality was—it’s never been established—he’s deliberately cut out a substantial portion of existence for human beings. I am hardly suggesting the Meaning Of Life can only be found with a spouse and children, but even those who choose not to live that kind of life would be blind if they didn’t at least recognise its prominence in the world. Thoreau was a deep, profound thinker, and produced many memorable aphorisms. But what he mainly was interested in was minimalism, survival, and the stripping down of life, not its expansion or celebration. Wordsworth was also a deep thinker, and he went deeper; he exposed himself to the world and all its perils.
Exposure implies risk, but what kind of risk? It is not the risk of getting hurt while you’re seizing the day or the hour or the minute, or rather that risk is minimal. The danger is later, when maybe the moment turns into several over the course of a week, or a month, or a year. When you fall in love with someone and every minute is a dream. When your life takes shape, scene by scene, only to come apart in the (mostly) unforeseen ways these things do. What happens when the moments end? When the love ends, when lovers part ways? What happens when the life-blasting moment of a wedding ends in the bigger blast of a divorce and a broken family? When the moments become unremembered not because of the unrelenting “burthen of the mystery” but because they hurt too much? The end of our illusions or of our happy memories contains Whitman’s multitudes, but they are painful multitudes. Such is the consequence of the risk of exposure. Or one of the consequences. In the main there are two responses, each with considerable variety, to the risk of exposure. In his travel book/philosophical tour de force The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen presents the common one—and if you look closely enough, you can see Thoreau.
Amazingly, we take for granted that instinct for survival, fear of death, must separate us from the happiness of pure and uninterrupted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same. And this debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free-swimming life into safe crannies, the desperate instinct that our life passes unlived, is reflected in proliferation without joy, corrosive money rot, the gross befouling of the earth and water from which we came.
Compare that to the Victorian writer and thinker Walter Pater in his English-major-required-reading “Conclusion to the Renaissance,” written in 1868.
We are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnés mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.
A sensible person would suggest the goal is to arrive in the middle of those two, to strike a balance between Matthiessen’s pessimism and Pater’s enthusiasm, which, for all its effulgence, is perhaps not sustainable. But to say that, to imply that it’s not possible to live as we were when we young, that Wordsworth’s “joyous raptures” really must be no more, confirms Matthiessen’s point. We are not so much afraid of dying as we are of living. We are limited by our mortality and diminishing vigour, yes—and by the devil of scarcity. These are cruel facts. At the same time we are nearly as limited by our choices, by our retreats into the woods and our safe crannies. Later in The Snow Leopard Matthiessen finished his thought. “We have outsmarted ourselves, like greedy monkeys, and now we are full of dread.” The Snow Leopard was published in 1978, so we now have 42 years of evidence for defenders of the late Matthiessen to bury the prosecution.
None of this is necessary, according to the writer Annie Dillard in her English-major-required-reading essay “Living Like Weasels.” We are not locked into a Thomas Hardy universe of merciless gods and fists of fate crushing us into submission.
Could two live under the wild rose, and explore by the pond, so that the smooth mind of each is as everywhere present to the other, and as received and as unchallenged, as falling snow? We could, you know. We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting.
We could continue to be full of dread, or we could seize a few more days. Maybe a lot more. Perhaps we should sever the unbound ties we place on ourselves and instead “see into the life of things.” Risk the pain. Risk the confession of love. Risk the mid-life career change. Risk the move across the country, across the globe, that might not work out.
But it might.