Tell me, how may I know him, how adore,From whom I have that thus I move and live,And feel that I am happier than I know.
Even here in central Maine—country of junked trailers and gravel pits, tattoo parlors and poisoned rivers; this “conflagrant mass” blotting the white man’s biography of success—I live in an Eden of sorts. Perhaps it’s true that “some Blood more precious must be paid for Man,” but my neighbors and I nonetheless believe that no one will chop off our hands at dawn or disembowel our babies before our eyes. Never in memory has our town succumbed to smallpox or plague; and though our wells sometimes go dry in August, they always replenish in the autumn rains. “In mean estate [we] live moderate.” We possess, according to the lessons of history, happy lives.
Yet if one assumes happiness to imply a quiescent awareness of felicity and contentment, none of us is particularly happy. I’m not the only person who plans ahead for a wonderful Christmas—baking brandy-laced fruitcakes, decorating the piano with miniature snowy houses, purchasing magic tricks and fake mustaches for my sons—but spends the holiday shuffling from window to window, staring into the bleached landscape of a bare-ground December, burdened with that heavy, napless brooding common to a day without purpose. I don’t know what I want, but I know I don’t have it.
Myself I then perus’d, and Limb by Limb
Survey’d, and sometimes went, and sometimes ran
With supple joints, as lively vigor led;
But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
Discontent: it’s one more stupid, obstinate failing of humanity, as anyone who’s read Madame Bovary or “Dear Abby” can verify. But for the most part, stories of other people’s unhappiness are strikingly useless paths to self-improvement. How many readers become happier and more contented after spending an evening with Heathcliff or the Ancient Mariner? Not one, I daresay. Yet I don’t think that transmitting effective lessons in self-improvement mattered much to either Brontë or Coleridge, who wrote to explicate their own internal hells rather than to save humankind. The man who concocted Paradise Lost had a more suasive string of fish to fry.
“To speak I tri’d, and forthwith spake.” Milton, that tireless student of the human condition, surely recognized by middle age that exhorting people to be happy or good or obedient was like spitting into a stiff wind. But as a missionary poet, he nonetheless found himself wading into the noxious puddles of pedantic argument, a class of writing I’ve always found difficult to stomach. I can’t imagine that aligning himself with such “hideous gabble” was good for his temper. As he himself once complained, “what pleasure can there possibly be in the petty disputations of sour old men. . . . Many a time, when the duties of tracing out these petty subtleties for a while has been laid upon me, when my mind has been dulled and my sight blurred by continued reading . . . how often have I wished that instead of having these fooleries forced upon me, I had been set to clean out the stable of Augeas again.”
“But the voice of God/To mortal ear is dreadful”; and though I agree that mucking out a barn can often seem more instructive, and certainly more refreshing, than combing through “the petty disputations” of this particular sour old man, I sympathize with Milton nonetheless, mostly because his hope that a giant bossy poem might repair the errors of human nature seems so brave and loony.
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By mee done and occasion’d, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
To God more glory, more good to Men
From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.