I was pleased to stumble on the following poems recently in a little volume titled Poems of Gratitude. These mini-anthologies put out by Everyman’s Library are really wonderful; they’re among the highest and best examples of the pocket-gift-book genre (literal slim volumes of poetry). Reading long-dead people lately reminds me not only that rough times are nothing unusual, but also that people have always needed reassurance. People have always ached for consolation. Yes: people have always needed feel-good memes.
But if your tastes don’t run toward pithy aphorisms about mindfulness (pictured with a sunset or a dog in the background), here’s something in the same vein, but better. These two lovely poems, written in 1885 and 1655, respectively, are about keeping calm and being nice to yourself. The first was written by the Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins as he was coming out of a time of anguish. The second was written by the great 17th-century poet John Milton as he was going blind — but the “spent light” he references could easily stand in as a metaphor for one’s life and talents.
My own heart let me more have pity on
My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1885
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
John Milton, c. 1655