Entry 12: Surprised by Joy– Elegiac song and verse have long exerted a fascination over me. Even before my life was touched by personal tragedy, I was drawn to artistic works that explored eschatological themes. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the word, I do not mean to be unduly obscurantist, nor should you confuse the term with scatological which deals with excremental matters; although, when I reflect upon it, there may be a connection.
Can you remember the film, Full Metal Jacket, at the very end, when Private Joker, surviving the horrors of Vietnam, says, “I’m in a world of shit”? So many traumatised people would echo his words: military men and women returned from conflict zones, paramedics, police officers, firies and emergency responders as well as those benighted individuals who do not have the excuse of having served in such capacities but who just have encountered the black dog in their lives and can’t get rid of it.
The four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell are the territory of eschatology and
really only an issue for believers who profess that there is meaning in this universe. Others would simply say it’s random and there’s nothing else. This view I respect even though I do not share it. For me, I have been surprised by joy too many times to feel otherwise. A formation of clouds, a smile, a kindly word, an unexpected compliment, a breath of fresh air, a hug from a child- on and on I could go, perhaps writing the hit lyrics of a saccharine country song.
But, instead, I turn to one of my literary heroes, William Wordsworth, to give these thoughts proper context when he reflects on what it is that is important in the larger
scheme of things. He talks about, that best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love. What a dreadful proposition this would be to the players in today’s media circus. Good deeds unreported!
I cannot open a newspaper or magazine, switch on a current affairs or lifestyle show without being bombarded with a barrage of overwhelming acts of charity as homes are refurbished, holidays provided, reunions facilitated and medical miracles accomplished in the glare of publicity and attendant advertising.
Not that I begrudge, in any way, the recipients of this largesse. I do feel for the numberless and nameless who will never benefit. Name, fame, the celebrity game is just so much blather. We are all used to yet another icon exposed on the breakfast news as venal or sad or pathetic- just like us really. I remember when the great cynic of English poetry in the previous, century, Philip Larkin was taken off in one of those ships with black sails.
Almost before the vessel had vanished around a misty bend of the River Styx we were breathlessly informed that the poet had a collection of what was described as repulsive pornography, and as for the content of his diaries…well! But I will always think softly of him, not only because of his life and works but an anecdote concerning him. He was, as I
recall, driving back towards his home in Hull along the motorway, listening to the radio and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the windshield wipers when he had to pull onto the hard shoulder, blinded by tears, because, on the radio, someone had begun reciting a sonnet by Wordsworth:
Surprised by joy- impatient as the Wind/I turned to share the transport- Oh! With whom/ But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, / that spot which no vicissitudes can find? / Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind-/But how could I forget thee? Through what power, / Even for the least division of an hour, /Have I been so beguiled as to be blind/to my most grievous loss! – That thought’s return/Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,/Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,/Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;/That neither present time, nor years unborn/Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
The song was performed only once in public, at the newly opened Penrith Gaels club in Sydney in 1997. Unfortunately, I had neglected to tell my wife about this song, which had
just been written. Indeed, the decision to sing it was spur-of-the-moment. As she listened to the lyrics, she realised the context and left the venue in tears.
When she asked me later if the dream detailed in the song, Surprised by Joy, had been a real dream, I admitted that, no, it was just an idea I had for writing a song- but true, just the same- truer, perhaps, because it was not dredged from the unconscious sludge of my mind but that I dreamed the whole thing consciously as I beat the red-hot iron in the smithy of my waking imagination, feeling with each blow, the pain of loss but persevering nonetheless to produce an elegy that would serve: