Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Glory and the Freshness of a Dream

John Stuart Mill

Only rarely can I recall my dreams, but I have a vivid fragment of one from two nights ago.  It’s a hot, summer Ozark day, and I’m a small boy sitting on the slight slope of a stock pond.  My fishing equipment is primitive and makeshift, the pole a cut cane, the bobber an actual bottle cork.  Suddenly it bobs, at first faintly and hesitantly, then decisively, propelling little concentric rings spreading out about it on the surface of the muddy water.  Immediately there shoots through my infantile frame a current of nearly inexpressible joy and excitement.  I may have been remembering an actual event; I certainly was experiencing an actual but long dormant psychological state.  It was the wonderment of my young granddaughter Cora a year ago or so when she looked through the glass wall from dining room to atrium and beheld the miracle of a turtle which, she had no way of knowing, I had secretly introduced into that spot a few days earlier.

Jesus, who frequently said strange things, is reported as saying “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  I don’t think this is a heavy moral admonition so much as an empirical observation.  Jesus had noted an unfortunate aspect of the “maturing process” or “child development,” concerning which Wordsworth has more to say than Freud or Spock.

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
    The earth, and every common sight,
            To me did seem
    Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
        Turn wheresoe'er I may,
            By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

If we are ever going to get back to the garden, as Joni Mitchell among other theologians tells us we must, we may need to read more poetry and think about the things poets write about.  “From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham…I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world.”  So wrote John Stuart Mill in his famous autobiography.  To be a “reformer of the world” is no small ambition, but by the autumn of 1826 all meaning and purpose had drained from Mill’s life.  Medicine had not yet defined clinical depression.  The common term was still melancholy, as in Burton’s famous Anatomy thereof.  Mill lacked even the words to describe his agony, though he would find them much later in Coleridge’s poem entitled Dejection: "A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear, a drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief, which finds no natural outlet or relief in word, or sigh, or tear  .” 

Mill had then still nearly half a century to live.  Had he been unable to overcome his depression the Victorian age would never have known one of its greatest intellects and philosophers.  But overcome it he did, and it was the nature of his self-medication that interests me here.  It involved no opiates or psychotropic drugs.  It consisted entirely in a self-directed course of readings in the English Romantic poets, especially the early Wordsworth.  Mill delineates his therapeutic experience in the fifth chapter of his autobiography.  He slowly worked through an early two-volume edition, at the end of which was the “Immortality Ode,” of which I have already cited the opening lines.


Mill wrote thus: “At the conclusion of the Poems came the famous Ode, falsely called Platonic, ‘Intimations of Immortality’: in which, along with more than his usual sweetness of melody and rhythm, and along with the two passages of grand imagery but bad philosophy so often quoted, I found that he too had had similar experience to mine; that he also had felt that the first freshness of youthful enjoyment of life was not lasting; but that he had sought for compensation, and found it, in the way in which he was now teaching me to find it. The result was that I gradually, but completely, emerged from my habitual depression, and was never again subject to it.”  The rest is, as they say, history.

I presume that one of the beautiful but bad passages—bad because it clearly suggests that there are more things in heaven and earth, John Stuart, than are dreamt of in your philosophy--is the following.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
        Hath had elsewhere its setting,
          And cometh from afar:
        Not in entire forgetfulness,
        And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
        From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
        Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
        He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
    Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
      And by the vision splendid
      Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I cannot say precisely when the shades of the prison-house closed upon this growing boy, but it has been a very long time since a piece of cork bobbing on the surface of a stock pond could nearly ravish me with joy and wonder.  I can but be grateful for dream fragments.