Versus the Optimistic View of Life
Facing Life Fearlessly
(Report of a lecture delivered at the University of Chicago, under the
auspices of the Poetry Club, and the Liberal Club; revised by Mr. Darrow.)
I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Mr. A.E. Housman in
the Summer of 1927. I spent two hours with him, and before that I had been
to the home of Thomas Hardy. Mr. Hardy told me how much he thought of
Housman, before I visited Housman; and Housman was a frequent visitor at
the Hardy home. Their ideas of life were very much alike; they were what
the orthodox people and the Rotary Clubs would call pessimistic. They
didn't live on pipe dreams; they took the universe as they found it, and
man as they found him. They tried to see what beauty there was in each of
them, but didn't close their eyes to the misery and maladjustments of
either the universe or man, because they ware realists, honest, thorough,
Hardy himself had received the censure of all the good people of
England and the world, who, in spite of that, bought his books. They all
condemned him when he wrote his 'Tess;' so he determined not to write any
more prose. He thought that people probably were not intelligent enough to
appreciate him; certainly not his viewpoint, and he didn't wish to waste
his time on them.
Housman's viewpoint is much the same, as all of you know. He has
written very little. You can read all he has written in two hours, and
less than that; but everything is exquisitely finished. met him he was in
his study in Cambridge. He is a professor of Latin. I can't Imagine
anything more useless than that -- unless it be Greek! He has been called
the greatest Latin scholar in the world, and he seemed to take some pride
in his Latin; not so much in his poetry. He said he didn't write poetry
except when he felt he had to, it was always hard work for him, although
some of the things he wrote very quickly; but as a rule he spent a great
deal of time on most of them.
I asked him if it was true that the latest little volume was what it is
entitled -- 'Last Poems.' He said he thought it was true; that it had been
published as his last poems in 1922 -- five years before -- and he had
only written four lines since: so he thought that would probably be the
last. Upon my asking him to recite the four lines, he said he had
Both Hardy and Housman, and of course Omar, believed that man is rather
small in comparison with the universe, or even with the earth; they didn't
believe in human responsibility, in free will, in a purposeful universe,
in a Being who watched over and cared for the people of the world. It is
evident that if He does, He makes a poor job of it!
Neither Hardy nor Housman had any such delusions. They took the world
as they found it and never tried to guess at its origin. They took man as
they found him and didn't try to build castles for him after be was dead.
They were essentially realists, both of them; and of course long before
them Omar had gone over the same field.
It is hardly fair to call the Rubaiyat the work of Omar Khayyam. I have
read a good many different editions and several different versions. I
never read it in Persian, in which it was first written, but I have read
not only poetical versions but prose ones. Justin McCarthy brought out a
translation a number of years ago which was supposed to be a literal
translation of Omar's book. There is no resemblance between that book and
the classic under his name that was really written by FitzGerald. There is
nothing very remarkable about the Omar Khayyam as found in Justin
McCarthy's translation. It is probably ten times as expansive as the one
we have, and no one would recognize it from the FitzGerald edition.
The beauty of the Rubaiyat is Edward FitzGerald's. He evidently was
more or less modest or else he wanted to do great homage to Omar, because
no one would ever have suspected that Omar had any more to do with the
book than they would have suspected Plato. But, under the magic touch of
FitzGerald, it is not only one of the wisest and most profound pieces of
literature in the world, but one of the most beautiful productions that
the world has ever known.
I remember reading somewhere that when this poem was thrown on the
market in London, a long time ago, nobody bought it. They finally put it
out in front of the shop in the form in which it was printed and sold it
for a penny. One could make more money by buying those books at a penny
and selling them now than he could make with a large block of Standard
Oil! It took a long while for Omar and FitzGerald to gain recognition,
which makes it rather comfortable for the rest of us who write books to
give away, and feel happy when somebody asks us for one, although we
suspect they will never read them. But we all think we will be discovered
sometime. Some of us hope so and some are fearful that they will be.
Neither Omar nor FitzGerald believed in human responsibility. That is the
rock on which most religions are founded, and all laws -- that everybody
is responsible for his conduct; that if he is good he is good because he
deliberately chooses to be good, and if he is bad it is pure cussedness on
his part -- nobody had anything to do with it excepting himself. If he
hasn't free will, why, he isn't anything! The English poet Henley, in one
of his poems, probably expressed this about as well as anybody. It looks
to me as if he had a case of the rabies or something like that. But people
are fond of repeating it. In his brief poem about Fate he says:
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
A fine captain of his soul; and a fine master of his fate! He wasn't
master enough of his fate to get himself born, which is rather important,
nor to do much of anything else, except brag about it. Instead of being
the captain of his soul, as I have sometimes expressed it, man isn't even
a deck-hand on a rudderless ship! He is just floating around and trying to
hang on, and hanging on as long as he can. But if it does him any good to
repeat Henley, or other nonsense, it is all right to give him a chance to
do it, because he hasn't much to look forward to, any way. Free will never
was a scientific doctrine; it never can be. It is probably a religious
conception, which of course shows that it isn't a scientific one.
Neither one of these eminent men, Hardy or Housman, believed anything
in free will. There is eight hundred years between Omar and Housman, and
yet their, philosophy is wondrously alike. I have no doubt but that Omar's
philosophy was very like what we find in the rendering of FitzGerald. It
is not a strange and unusual philosophy, except in churches and Rotary
Clubs and places like that. It is not strange in places where people think
or try to, and where they do not undertake to fool themselves. It is
rather a common philosophy; it is a common philosophy where people have
any realization of their own importance, or, rather, unimportance. A
realization of it almost invariably forces upon a human being his own
insignificance and the insignificance of all the other human atoms that
come and go.
Men's ideas root pretty far back. Their religious creeds are very old.
By means of interest and hope and largely fear, they manage to hang on to
the old, even when they know it is not true. The idea of man's importance
came in the early history of the human race. He looked out on the earth,
and of course he thought it was flat! It looks flat, and he thought it
was. He saw the sun, and he formed the conception that somebody moved it
out every morning and pulled it back in at night. He saw the moon, and he
had the opinion that somebody pulled that out at sundown and took it in in
the morning. He saw the stars, and all there was about the stars was, "He
made the stars also." They were just "also." They were close by, and they
were purely for man to look at, about like diamonds in the shirt bosoms of
people who like them.
This was not an unreasonable idea, considering what they had to go on.
The people who still believe it have no more to go on. Blind men can't be
taught to see or deaf people to hear. The primitive people thought that
the stars were right near by and just the size they seemed to be. Of
course now we know that some of them are so far away that light traveling
at nearly 286,000 miles a second is several million light years getting to
the earth, and some of them are so large that our sun, even, would be a
fly-speck to them. The larger the telescopes the more of them we see, and
the imagination can't compass the end of them. It is just humanly possible
that somewhere amongst the infinite number of infinitely larger and more
important specks of mud in the universe there might be some organisms of
matter that are just as intelligent as our people on the earth. So to have
the idea that all of this was made for man gives man a great deal of what
Weber and Field used to call "Proud flesh."
Man can't get conceited from what he knows today, and he can't get it
from what intellectual people ever knew. You remember, in those days the
firmament was put in to divide the water below from the water above. They
didn't know exactly what it was made of, but they knew what it was. Heaven
was up above the firmament. They knew what it was, because Jacob had seen
the angels going up and down on a ladder. Of course, a ladder was the only
transportation for such purposes known to Jacob. If he had been dreaming
now, they would have been going up in a flying machine and coming down in
the same way.
Our conceptions of things root back; and that, of course, is the reason
for our crude religions, our crude laws, our crude ideas, and our exalted
opinion of the human race.
Omar had it nearer right. He didn't much overestimate the human race.
He knew it for what it was, and that wasn't much. He knew about what its
power was; he didn't expect much from the human race. He didn't condemn
men, because he knew he couldn't do any better. As he puts it.
But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-Board of Nights and Days:
Hither and thither moves, and checks and slays
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
Compare that conception with Mr. Henley's, with his glorious boast that
he is the captain of his soul and the master of his fate. Anyone who
didn't catch that idea from the ordinary thought of the community, but
carved it out for himself, would be a subject for psychopathic analysis
and examination. When you have an idea that everybody else has, of course
you are not crazy, but if you have silly ideas that nobody else has, of
course you are crazy. That is the only way to settle it,
Most people believe every day many things for which others are sent to
the insane asylum. The insane asylums are full of religious exaltants who
have just varied a little bit from the standard of foolishness. It isn't
the foolishness that places them in the bug-house, it is the slight
variations from the other fellows' foolishness -- that is all. If a man
says he is living with the spirits today, he is insane. If he says that
Jacob did, he is all right. That is the only difference.
Omar says we are simply "impotent pieces in the game He plays" -- of
course, he uses a capital letter when he spells, He which is all right
enough for the purpose -- "in the game He plays upon this chequer-board of
nights and days." And that is what man is. If one could vision somebody
playing a game with human pawns, one would think that everyone who is
moved around here and there was moved simply at the will of a player and
he had nothing whatever to do with the game, any more than any other pawn.
And he has nothing more to do with it than any other pawn.
Omar expresses this opinion over and over again. He doesn't blame man;
he knows the weakness of man. He knew the cruelty of judging him.
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
Whatever the impulse calls one to do, whatever the baubles or the baits
that set in motion many acts, however quickly or emotionally, the
consequences of the acts, as far as he is concerned, never end. All your
piety and all your wit cannot wipe out a word of it! Omar pities man; he
doesn't exalt God, but he pities man. He sees what man can do; and, more
important still, he sees what he cannot do. He condemns the idea that God
could or should judge man. The injustice of it, the foolishness of it all,
appeals to him and he puts it in this way:
O Thou who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in.
Thou wilt not with Predestin'd Evil round
Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin!
Nothing ever braver and stronger and truer than that! Preachers have
wasted their time and their strength and such intelligence and learning as
they can command, talking about God forgiving man, as if it was possible
for man to hurt God, as if there was anything to be forgiven from man's
standpoint. They pray that man be forgiven and urge that man should be
forgiven. Nobody knows for what, but still it has been their constant
theme. Poets have done it; Omar knew better. Brave and strong and clear
and far-seeing, although living and dying eight hundred years ago. This is
what he says about forgiveness:
O thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev'n with Paradise devised the Snake:
For all the sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken'd -- Man's forgiveness give -- and take!
"Man's forgiveness give -- and take!" If man could afford to forgive
God, He ought to be willing to forgive man. Omar knew it. "Ev'n with
paradise devised the snake." Taking the orthodox theory, for all the sin
with which the earth is blackened, "Man's forgiveness give -- and take!"
That is courage; it is science. It is sense, and it isn't the weak,
cowardly whining of somebody who is afraid he might be hurt unless he
whines and supplicates, which he always does, simply hoping that some
great power will have compassion on him. Always cowardice and fear, and
Omar was wise enough to know that if there was any agency responsible
for it, that agency was responsible. He made us as we are, and as He
wished to make us, and to say that a weak, puny, ignorant human being,
here today and gone tomorrow, could possibly injure God or be responsible
for his own weakness and his ignorance, of course is a travesty upon all
logic; and of course it does great credit to all superstition, for it
couldn't come any other way.
Housman is equally sure about this. He knows about the responsibility
of man. Strange how wonderfully alike runs their philosophy! Housman
condemned nobody. No pessimist does -- only good optimists. People who
believe in a universe of law never condemn or hate individuals. Only those
who enthrone man believe in free will, and make him responsible for the
terrible crudities of Nature and the force back of it, if there is such a
force. Only they are cruel to the limit.
One can get Housman's idea of the responsibility of the human being
from his beautiful little poem, "The Culprit," the plaintive wailing of a
boy to be executed the next morning, when he, in his blindness and terror,
asked himself the question, "Why is it and what does it all mean?" and
thought about the forces that made him, and what a blind path he traveled,
as we all do. He says:
The night my father got me
His mind was not on me;
He did not plague his fancy
To muse if I should be
The son you see.
The day my mother bore me
She was a fool and glad,
For all the pain I cost her,
That she had borne the lad
That borne she had.
My mother and my father
Out of the light they lie;
The warrant would not find the m,
And here 'tis only I
Shall hang on high.
Oh let no man remember
The soul that God forgot
But fetch the county kerchief
And noose me in the knot,
And I will rot.
For so the game is ended
That should not have begun.
My father and my mother
They have a likely son,
And I have none.
Nobody lives in this world to himself or any part of himself. Nobody
fashions his body, and still less is responsible for the size or the
fineness of his brain and the sensitiveness of his nervous system. No one
has anything to do with the infinite manifestations of the human body that
produce the emotions, that force men here and there. And yet religion in
its cruelty and its brutality brands them all alike. And the religious
teachers are so conscious of their own guilt that they only seek to escape
punishment by loading their punishment onto someone else. They say that
the responsibility of the individual who in his weakness goes his way is
so great and his crimes are so large that there isn't a possibility for
him to be saved by his own works.
The law is only the slightest bit more intelligent. No matter who does
it, or what it is, the individual is responsible. If he is manifestly and
obviously crazy they may make some distinction; but no lawyer is wise
enough to look into the human mind and know what it means. The
interpretations of the human judges were delivered before we had any
science on the subject whatever, and they continue to enforce the old
ideas of insanity, in spite of the fact that there isn't an intelligent
human being in the world who has studied the question who ever thinks of
it in legal terms. Judges instruct the jury that if a man knows the
difference between right and wrong he cannot be considered insane. And yet
an insane man knows the difference better than an intelligent man, because
he has not the intelligence and the learning to know that this is one of
the hardest things to determine, and perhaps the most impossible. You can
ask the inmates of any insane asylum whether it is right to steal, lie, or
kill, and they will all say "No," just as little children will say it,
because they have been taught it. It furnishes no test, but still lawyers
and Judges persist in it, to give themselves an excuse to wreak vengeance
upon unfortunate people.
Housman knew better. He knew that in every human being is the imprint
of all that has gone before, especially the imprint of his direct
ancestors. And not only that, but that it is the imprint of all the
environment in which he has lived, and that human responsibility is
utterly unscientific, and besides that, horribly cruel.
Another thing that impressed itself upon all these poets alike was the
futility of life. I don't know whether a college succeeds in making pupils
think that they are very important in the scheme of the universe. I used
to be taught that we were all very important. Most all the boys and girls
who were taught it when I was taught it are dead, and the world is going
on just the same. I have a sort of feeling that after I am dead it will go
on just the same, and there are quite a considerable number of people who
think it will go on better. But it won't; I haven't been important enough
even to harm it. It will go on just exactly the same.
We are always told of the importance of the human being and the
importance of everything he does; the importance of his not enjoying life,
because if he is happy here of course he can't be happy hereafter, and if
he is miserable here he must be happy hereafter. Omar made short work of
that, of those promises which are not underwritten, at least not by any
responsible people. He did not believe in foregoing what little there is
of life in the hope of having a better time hereafter.
He says, "Ah, take the Cash and let the Credit go." Good advice that:
"Ah, take the Cash and let the Credit go." If you take the "Credit,"
likely as not you will miss your fun both here and hereafter. Omar knew
It is strange how the religious creeds have hammered that idea into the
human mind. They have always felt there was a kinship between pleasure and
sin. A smile on the face is complete evidence of wickedness. A solemn,
uninteresting countenance is a stamp of virtue and goodness, of
self-denial, that will surely be rewarded. Of course, the religious people
are strangely hedonistic without knowing it! There are some of us who
think that the goodness or badness of an act in this world can be
determined only by pain and pleasure units. The thing that brings pleasure
is good, and the thing that brings pain is bad. There is no other way to
determine the difference between good and bad. Some of us think so: I
Of course, the other class roll their eyes and declaim against this
heathen philosophy, the idea that pain and pleasure have anything to do
with the worth-whileness of existence. It isn't important for you to be
happy here. But why not? You are too miserable here so you will be happy
hereafter; and the hereafter is long and the here is short. They promise a
much bigger prize than the pagan for the reward of conduct. They simply
want you to trust them. They take the pain and pleasure theory with a
vengeance, but they do business purely on credit. They are dealers in
futures! I could never understand, if it was admissible to have joy in
heaven, why you couldn't have it here, too. And if joy is admissible at
all, the quicker you get at it the better, and the surer you are of the
result. Omar thought that: "Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go!"
Take the Cash and let the other fellow have the Credit! That was his
philosophy, and I insist it is much better, and more intelligent
philosophy than the other.
But Omar had no delusions about how important this human being is. He
had no delusions about the mind, about man's greatness. He knew something
about philosophy or metaphysics, whatever it is. He knew the uncertainty
of human calculations, no matter who arrived at them. He knew the
round-about way that people try to find out something, and he knew the
results. He knew the futility of all of it.
Myself When young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.
That is what Omar thought. Man evermore came out by the same door where
in he went. Therefore, "take the Cash and let the Credit go!"' He put it
even stronger than this. He knew exactly what these values were worth, if
anything. He knew what a little bit there is to the whole bag of tricks.
What's the difference whether you were born 75 years ago, or fifty or
twenty-five? what's the difference whether you are going to live ten
years, or twenty or thirty, or weather you are already dead? In that case
you escape something! This magnifying the importance of the human being is
one of the chief sins of man and results in all kinds of cruelty.
If we took the human race for what it is worth, we could not be so
cruel. Omar Khayyam knew what it was, this life, that we talk so much
'Tis but a Tent where takes his one day's
A Sultan to the realm of Death addrest;
The Sultan rises, and the dark Forrash
Strikes, and prepares it for another Guest.
"Tis but a Tent where takes his one day's rest" -- is there anything
else, if one could just make a survey of the human being, passing across
the stage of life? I suppose man has been upon the earth for over a
million years. A million years, and perhaps his generations may be thirty
to thirty-five years long. Think of the generations in a thousand years,
in 5,000 years, in a hundred thousand, in a million years! There are a
billion and a half of these important organisms on the earth at any one
time. All of them, all important -- kings, priests and professors, and
doctors and lawyers and presidents, and 100 per cent Americans, and
everything on earth you could think of -- Ku Kluxers, W.C.T.U.'s, Knights
of Columbus and Masons, everything. All of them important in this scheme
of things! All of them seeking to attract attention to themselves, and not
even satisfied when they get it!
What is it all about? it is strange what little things will interest
the human mind -- baseball games, fluctuations of the stock market,
revivals, foot races, hangings, Anything will interest them. And the
wonderful importance of the human being!
Housman knew the importance just as well as Omar. He has something to
say about it, too. He knew it was just practically nothing. Strangely like
him! The little affairs of life, the little foolishnesses of life, the
things that consume our lives without any result whatever; he knew them
and knew what they were worth. He knew they were worth practically
nothing. But we do them; the urge of living keeps us doing them, even when
we know how useless and foolish they are. Housman understood them:
Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I.
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.
Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what's to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I've done my best
And all's to do again.
That is what life is, rising in the morning and washing and dressing
and going to recitations and studying and forgetting it, and then going to
bed at night, to get up the next morning and wash and dress and go to
recitation, and so on, world without end.
One might get a focus on it from the flies. They are very busy buzzing
round. You don't exactly know what they are saying, because we can't
understand fly language. Professors can't teach you fly language! We can't
tell what they are saying, but they are probably talking about the
importance of being good, about what's going to happen to their souls and,
when. And when they are stiff in the morning in the Autumn and can hardly
move round, the housewife gets up and builds the fire, and the heat
limbers them up. She sets out the bread and butter on the table. The flies
come down and get into it, and they think the housewife is working for
them. Why not?
Is there any difference? Only in the length of the agony. What other?
Apparently they have a good time while the sun is shining, and apparently
they die when they get cold. It is a proposition of life and death, forms
of matter clothed with what seems to be consciousness, and then going back
again into inert matter, and that is all. There isn't any manifestation
that we humans make that we do not see in flies and in other forms of
Housman understands it; they have all understood it. Read any of the
great authors of the world -- any of them; their hopes and their fears and
their queries and their doubt, are, about the same. There is only one man
I know of that can answer everything, and that is Dr Cadman.
Housman saw it. He knew a little of the difference between age and
youth -- and there is some. The trouble is, the old men always write the
books; they write them not in the way they felt when they were young, but
in the way they feel now. And they preach to the young, and condemn them
for doing what they themselves did when they had the emotion to do it.
Great teachers, when they grow old! Perhaps it is partly envy and the
desire that no one shall have anything they can't have. Likely it is, but
they don't know it. Housman says something about this:
When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse hid I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.
Now times are altered: if I care
To bay a thing I can;
The pence are here and here's the fair,
But where's the lost young man?
The world is somewhat different. The lost young man was once looking at
the fair. He couldn't go in, and he liked it more for that; but now he is
tired of the fair and tired of the baubles that once amused him and the
riddles he once tried to guess, and he can't understand that the young man
still likes to go to the fair.
We hear a great deal said by the ignorant about the wickedness of the
youth of today. Well, I don't know: some of us were wicked when we were
young. I don't know what is the matter with the youth of today having
their fling. I don't know that they are any wickeder today. First, I don't
know what the word wicked moans. Oh, I do know what it means: It means
unconventional conduct. But I don't know whether unconventional conduct is
wicked in the sense they mean it is wicked, or whether conventional
conduct is good in the sense they mean it is good. Nobody else knows!
But I remember when I was a boy -- it was a long time ago -- I used to
hear my mother complain. My mother would have been pretty nearly 125 years
old if she had kept on living, but luckily for her she didn't! I used to
hear her complain of how much worse the girls were that she knew than the
girls were when she was a girl. Of course, she didn't furnish any bill of
particulars; she didn't specify, except not hanging up their clothes, and
gadding, and things like that. But at any rate, they were worse. And my
father used to tell about it, and I have an idea that Adam and Eve used to
talk the same fool way.
The truth is, the world doesn't change, or the generations of men or
the human emotions. But the individual changes as he grows old. You hear
about the Revolt of Youth. Some people are pleased at it and some
displeased. Some see fine reasons for hope in what they call the youth
movement. They can put it over on the old people, but not on the youth!
There is a Revolt of Youth.
Well, youth has always been in revolt. The greatest trouble with youth
is that it gets old. Age changes it. It doesn't bring wisdom, though most
old people think because they are old they have wisdom. But you can't get
wisdom by simply growing old. You can even forget it that way! Age means
that the blood runs slow, that the emotions are not as strong, that you
play safer, that you stay closer to the hearth. You don't try to find new
continents or even explore old ones. You don't travel into unbeaten
wilderness and lay out new roads. You stick to the old roads when you go
out at all.
The world can't go on with old people. It takes young ones that are
daring, with courage and faith.
The difference between youth and old age is the same in every
generation. The viewpoint is in growing old, that is all. But the old
never seem wise enough to know it, and forever the old have been preaching
to the young. Luckily, however, the young pay very little attention to it.
They sometimes pretend to, but they never do pay much attention to it.
Otherwise, life could not exist.
Both of these poets saw the futility of life: the little things of
which it is made, scarcely worth the while. It is all right to talk about
futility. We all know it, if we know much of anything. We know life is
futile. A man who considers that his life is of very wonderful importance
is awfully close to a padded cell. Let anybody study the ordinary,
everyday details of life; see how closely he is bound and fettered; see
how little it all amounts to.
There are a billion and a half people in the world, all of them trying
to shout loud enough to be heard all at once, so as to attract the
attention of the public, so they may be happy. A billion and a half of
them, and if they all attracted attention none of them would have
attention! Of course, attention is only valuable if the particular
individual attracts it and nobody, else can get it. That is what makes
presidents and kings -- they get it and nobody else.
Then when you consider that it is all made up of little things, what is
life all about, anyway? We do keep on living. It is easy enough to
demonstrate to people who think that life is not worth while. We could do
it easier if we could only settle what worth while means. But if we settle
it and convince ourselves that it is not worth while, we still keep on
living. life does not come from willing; rather it does not come from
thought and reason. I don't live because I think it is worth while; I live
because I am a going concern, and every going concern tries to keep on
going, I don't care whether it is a tree, or a plant, or what we call a
lower animal, or man, or the Socialist party. Anything that is going tries
to go on by its own momentum, and it does just keep on going -- it is what
Schopenhauer called the 'will to live.' So we must assume that we will
live anyhow as long as we can. When the machine runs down we don't have to
worry about it any longer.
Hotisman asked himself this question, and Omar asked himself this
question. Life is of little value. What are we going to do while we live?
In other words, what is the purpose, if we can use the word purpose in
this way, which is an incorrect way? What purpose are we going to put into
it? Why should we live; and if we must live, then what? Omar tells us
what. He knew there was just one thing important; he knew what most
thinkers know today. He put it differently -- he and FitzGerald together.
It is a balance between painful and pleasurable emotions. Every organized
being looks for pleasurable emotions and tries to avoid painful ones. The
seed planted in the ground seeks the light. The instinct of everything is
to move away from pain and toward pleasure. Human beings are just like all
the rest. The earth and all its manifestations are simply that. Omar
figured it out, and after philosophizing and finding that he ever came out
the same door where in he went, he said:
You know, my Friends, with what a brave
I made a Second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.
That is one way of forgetting life -- one way of seeking pleasurable
emotions: "I took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse." A way that has been
fairly popular down through the ages! Even in spite of the worst that all
the fanatics could possibly do, it has been a fairly universal remedy for
the ills of man. It would be perfect If it were not for the day after!
He says in his wild exuberance:
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of
Your Winter-Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter -- and the Bird is on the Wing.
There isn't much of it; but while it is fluttering, help it. It has but
a little way to flutter, and it is on the wing!
To those who are not quite so strenuous, there is an appeal more to
beauty, a somewhat more permanent although not much more, but a more
beautiful conception of pleasure, which is all he could get:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise now!
Well, if you get the right jug and the right book and the rest of the
paraphernalia, it isn't so bad!
It is strange that two so different human beings have sought about the
same thing. This physical emotional life that we hear so much about is the
only life we know anything about. They sought their exaltation there, and
Omar Khayyam pictured it very well. Housman again does as well. What does
he say about the way to spend life and about life?
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore, years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
What else is there? So while the light is still on and while I can
still go, and when the cherry is in bloom -- I will go to see the cherries
hung with snow.
That is the whole philosophy of life for those who think; that is all
there is to it, and it is what everybody is trying to do, without fully
realizing it. Many are taking the Credit and letting the Cash go. Housman
is right about that.
Since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
That is why I have so little patience with the old preaching to the
young. If youth, with its quick-flowing blood, its strong imagination, its
virile feeling; if youth, with its dreams and its hopes and ambitions, can
go about the woodland to see the cherry hung with snow, why not? Who are
the croakers, who have run their race and lived their time, who are they
to keep back expression and hope and youth and joy from a world that is
almost barren at the best?
It has been youth that has kept the world alive; it will be, because
from the others emotion has fled; and with the fleeing of emotion, through
the ossification of the brain, all there is left for them to do is to
preach. I hope they have a good time doing that, and I am so glad the
young pay no attention to it!
Of course, Housman and Omar and the rest of us are called pessimist's.
It is a horrible name. What is a pessimist, anyway? It is a man or a woman
who looks at life as life is. If you could, you might take your choice,
perhaps, as to being a pessimist or a pipe dreamer. But you can't have it,
because you look at the world according to the way you are made. Those are
the two extremes. The pessimist takes life for what life is: not all
sorrow, not all pain, not all beauty, not all good. Life is not black;
life is not orange, red, or green, or all the colors of the rainbow. Life
is no one shade or hue.
It is well enough to understand it. If pessimism could come as the
result of thought, I would think a pessimist was a wise man. What is an
optimist, anyway? He reminds "Me of a little boy running through the woods
and looking up at the sky and not paying any attention to the brambles or
thorns he is scrambling through. There is a stone in front of him and he
trips over the stone. Browning said, "God's in his heaven and all's right
with the world." Others say, "God is love, love is God," and so on. A man
who thinks that is bound to be an optimist. He believes that things are
The pessimist doesn't necessarily think that everything is bad, but he
looks for the worst. He knows it will come sooner or later. When an
optimist falls, he falls a long way; when a pessimist falls it is a very
short fall. When an optimist is disappointed he is very, very sad, because
he believed it was the best of all possible worlds, and God's in his
heaven and all's well with the world. When a pessimist is disappointed he
is happy, for he wasn't looking for anything.
This is the safest and by all odds it is the wisest outlook. Housman
has put it in a little poem. It is about the last thing I shall give you.
Housman is the only man I know of who has written a poem about pessimism.
Nearly all the people who are talking about pessimism talk in prose; it is
very prosy. Poems are generally written about optimism:
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
Those are the sort of poems. Of course there have been poems written
about pessimism. Poetry is really, to my way of thinking, good only if it
is beauty and if it is music.
I don't mean tonight to discuss the question of free verse and poetry,
or the comparative merits of the two styles, or of prose, but I do think
that poetry is an exaltation and that you can't hold it for long. Poetry
ought to have beauty and it ought to have music. It should have both. You
can be the poet of sadness; sadness lends itself to poetry as much as
gladness, although few poets know how to use it. Listen to this from
With rue my heart is laden;
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leading
The lightfoot boys are laid,
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where raises fade.
That is sad, isn't it? But it is beautiful.
I remember once, years and years ago, reading Olive Schreiner's Story
of an African farm, in which she describes the simple Boers of South
Africa, with their sorrows and their pleasures. She used this expression:
which it took me some time to understand, in describing pain and pleasure:
"There is a depth of emotion so broad and deep that pain and pleasure are
the same." They are the same, and I think they find their meeting in
beauty. The beauty, even if it is painful, is still beauty. You find the
meeting of pain and pleasure, and you can hardly distinguish between the
Housman knew it; he knew how to do it. Here is his idea of the young
lad who dies: not passes on -- passes off. He dies:
Now hollow fires burn out to black
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go.
Oh never fear man, nought's to dread,
Look not left or right:
In all the endless road you tread
There's nothing but the night.
Does it bring you painful or pleasurable emotions? It is beautiful; it
is profound; it is deep. To me the painful and pleasurable are blended in
the beauty, and I think the two may be one.
Housman, as I have said, is the only one I know who wrote a poem of
pessimism; and this, like all of his, is very short, and I will read it.
Somebody else may have written one; but Housman carries the philosophy of
pessimism into poetry, perhaps the philosophy that I have given you. This
poem is supposed to be introduced by somebody who complains of Housman's
dark, almost tragical verses. For in every line that he ever wrote there
is no let down. He is like Hardy; he never hauled down the flag. Life to
him was what he saw; what the world saw meant nothing. This was the view
in all of Housman's work. In all of his work there is not one false note;
and when I say a false note I mean one that is not in tune with the rest.
This is his idea of pessimism in poetry:
"Terence this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can't be much amiss, 'tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
We poor lads, 'tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad."
Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near.
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet.
And nothing now, remained to do
But begin the game anew.
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure.
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul" is in my soul's stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.
"Luck's a chance but trouble's sure." The moral of it is to "train for
ill and not for good."
If I had my choice, I would not like to be an optimist, even assuming
that people did not know that I was an idiot. I wouldn't want to be an
optimist because when I fell I would fall such a terribly long way. The
wise man trains for ill and not for good. He is sure he will need that
training, and the other will take care of itself as it comes along.
Of course, life is not all pleasant: it is filled with tragedy. Housman
has told us of it, and Omar Khayyam tells us of it. No man and no woman
can live and forget death. However much they try. it is there, and it
probably should be faced like anything else. Measured time is very short.
Life, amongst other things, is full of futility.
Omar Khayyam understood, and Housman understood. There are other poets
that have felt the same way. Omar Khayyam looked on the shortness of life
and understood it. He pictured himself as here for a brief moment. He
loved his friends; he loved companionship; he loved wine. I don't know how
much of it he drank. He talked about it a lot. It might have symbolized
more than it really meant to him. It has been a solace, all down through
the ages. Not only that, but it has been the symbol of other things that
mean as much -- the wine of life, the joy of living.