“The Things That Are More Excellent”

First Posted on January 16 2014

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve long enjoyed a fondness for poetry, particularly poetry written by those of brilliant mind. There are numerous familiar names, of course, a few of which are Aeschylus, Omar Khayyam, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Emily Dickinson — the list is long and incredibly accomplished. There are, also and of course, many more accomplished poets of less familiar name, but whose work stands as tall as any.

In that latter vein, it was while rummaging through some old poetry files just the other day that I happened across this little ‘masterpiece’ by the British poet Sir William Watson (1858-1935). Watson probably wrote it somewhere around 100 years ago, give or take a decade, but curiously enough the ideas expressed in it seem to be so amazingly up to date as to suggest he wrote it just last week! I suppose the embedded message in that little factoid is that most likely throughout the vast bulk of human existence, if ideas and concepts are to change at all, said change invariably proceeds only with unimaginable lethargy.

Watson’s poem, quoted below, contains nine verses of eight lines each, and in which the final line of each verse is a repeat of the Poem’s title, “The things that are more excellent.” In the first seven verses he speaks of, resp., things that are NOT ‘more excellent,’ including (1) material possessions, (2) politics, (3) social issues subject to a prejudiced agenda of one or another sort, (4) the burdens of fetishes (“fetich”), (5) a demanding God and the religious practices therein implicit, (6) the conflict of the ‘social ramble’ with the natural world, and (7) the accumulation of wealth and power. Those aren’t quite the Seven Deadly Sins, but it’s probably safe to assume all of ‘SALIGIA’ is embedded in there somewhere!

In verses 8 and 9, Watson lays out with reasonable precision that which he sees as defining of “The Things That Are More Excellent” including friendships and understanding, science, art, knowledge, a liberal mindset, the sprawl of Nature, and life itself. I can find no argument with any of his conclusions.

So, without further ado, here it is, complete and unfettered. Enjoy!

THE THINGS THAT ARE MORE EXCELLENT
by William Watson

As we wax older on this earth,
Till many a toy that charmed us seems
Emptied of beauty, stripped of worth,
And mean as dust and dead as dreams,–
For gauds that perished, shows that passed,
Some recompense the Fates have sent:
Thrice lovelier shine the things that last,
The things that are more excellent.

Tired of the Senate’s barren brawl,
An hour with silence we prefer,
Where statelier rise the woods than all
Yon towers of talk at Westminster.
Let this man prate and that man plot,
On fame or place or title bent:
The votes of veering crowds are not
The things that are more excellent.

Shall we perturb and vex our soul
For “wrongs” which no true freedom mar,
Which no man’s upright walk control,
And from no guiltless deed debar?
What odds though tonguesters heal, or leave
Unhealed, the grievance they invent?
To things, not phantoms, let us cleave–
The things that are more excellent.

Nought nobler is, than to be free:
The stars of heaven are free because
In amplitude of liberty
Their joy is to obey the laws.
From servitude to freedom’s name
Free thou thy mind in bondage pent;
Depose the fetich, and proclaim
The things that are more excellent.

And in appropriate dust be hurled
That dull, punctilious god, whom they
That call their tiny clan the world,
Serve and obsequiously obey:
Who con their ritual of Routine,
With minds to one dead likeness blent,
And never ev’n in dreams have seen
The things that are more excellent.

To dress, to call, to dine, to break
No canon of the social code,
The little laws that lacqueys make,
The futile decalogue of Mode,–
How many a soul for these things lives,
With pious passion, grave intent!
While Nature careless-handed gives
The things that are more excellent.

To hug the wealth ye cannot use,
And lack the riches all may gain,–
O blind and wanting wit to choose,
Who house the chaff and burn the grain!
And still doth life with starry towers
Lure to the bright, divine ascent!–
Be yours the things ye would: be ours
The things that are more excellent.

The grace of friendship–mind and heart
Linked with their fellow heart and mind;
The gains of science, gifts of art;
The sense of oneness with our kind;
The thirst to know and understand–
A large and liberal discontent:
These are the goods in life’s rich hand,
The things that are more excellent.

In faultless rhythm the ocean rolls,
A rapturous silence thrills the skies;
And on this earth are lovely souls,
That softly look with aidful eyes.
Though dark, O God, Thy course and track,
I think Thou must at least have meant
That nought which lives should wholly lack
The things that are more excellent.

Note that if, in the second verse, the word ‘Westminster’ is changed to ‘Washington’ the entire context pretty much automatically vaults ahead a century to the present moment, and at that point defines the hell-hole in which resides our “government” — a contrivance that most certainly does not even approach  much less begin to comprehend ANY of those “Things That Are More Excellent.” As Watson put it, Tired of the Senate’s barren brawl, / An hour with silence we prefer / . . . / Let this man prate and that man plot, / On fame or place or title bent: /

The votes of veering crowds are not
The things that are more excellent.

Amen.

If I were to make a wild guess it would be that, were he around today, William Watson would NOT be one of the myriad who never ev’n in dreams have seen / The things that are more excellent.”  In other words, he would not be Republican, nor a wingnut, nor a teabagger, nor a politician of any description. Watson, in fact, ‘saw himself as a lifelong enemy of tyranny’ so there can be no doubt that he would still, today, continue to be precisely that which first and foremost he always was: a Poet capable of penning Universal Truth.

Advertisements

About frugalchariot

How Frugal is the Chariot That bears the Human soul. (Emily Dickinson)
This entry was posted in Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s