There are days when I do not understand my life, when I fail so far in grasping my calling — as husband, as father, as writer — that I doubt there is such a thing as a calling to anything. One can fail so far as to doubt whether one has really lived at all, despite the memory and intimation that still plucks at your sleeve. Today is one of those days. So I have been thinking of a poem by Sir Philip Sidney, a poem that I first read a long time ago. It would have been about the spring of 2003 that I read it, the first poem in Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (that would be Star-lover and Star in the Greco-Latin).
I used to love the poetry of Sidney’s time. Still do, come to think of it. I wonder if a poem like this one means more to me today than it did when I first read it fifteen years ago. I don’t have much to say about this poem right now, only a desire to share it and ask if it makes a kind of deep sense to anyone else. I am thinking of the last line — though of course you have to read it as a last line, with everything that went before it, and not take it on its own as a sort of maxim. When I first read that line it was like a prophecy to me. Today, because it is one of these confused misgiven days, I am not so sure what it means.
I do know, though, that my brain feels sunburned on a day like this, as red-gold as the Lake Michigan light glinting at me through foliage of sassafras and oak, like it does on this part of the shore. That is to say, paraphrasing the poem: I’ve read too damn much, or too errantly, or too something. And it seems to me that I gave up a lot for that reading, presumably with a definite notion of what as a writer I’d get in return: that notion is long gone now. But if it was a poor decision, it was also perhaps not a decision I knew I was making. Don’t ask me to explain how that works. In any case, this is only how it seems to me on odd days in middle June, when I just can’t get into the moment and the place, and of course I can’t get back to anything either.
The sun over Lake Michigan has become just the deep red I have long imagined for the sunlight of Earth in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. And thinking of that, I am put in mind of an old book of astronomy I had when I was a kid. It was beautifully and very unscientifically illustrated, and probably unscientific all around. But it had a kind of poetry to it. For example, along with some image of a mellow forest glen bathed in liquid gold light (not this superannuated ruby light that is all around me now for a few fleeting minutes, and in Jack Vance’s stories) there was a description of what the book said would be the last perfect day. Yes, according to this book, the Earth would one day, in the course of her gradual ruination by the sun’s natural expansion (I think astronomers still say this will happen), enjoy a last perfect day, after which every day would be too hot, until eventually life would no longer be possible on the Earth. Can you imagine how futile writing would seem on that last perfect day? Music I could see playing — but writing?
All this is to say that I am going to write as soon as I can, probably starting Sunday or Monday when I get home, on the question: What is the use of writing? Ananda Coomaraswamy and David Jones and Wolfram von Eschenbach and Dante and Spenser and Milton and one or two others of more recent advent and who don’t belong in that company will be helping me out. And you can help me out by telling me what you think it means to look in your heart and write. Or for that matter, what you would do on the last perfect day.