“Plain living and high thinking are no more:”

It is certainly not the best photograph I have ever taken, but it is one that fills me with delight. While walking the coastal path in parts of Cornwall, there it was, and from a distance this slate stone wall resembled the colors one would hope to see on a library wall of books. Pinks and grays, blues and greens, yellows and purples extend an invitation to stop for a moment, pull from the shelf a book or two and turn its pages and return! This afternoon I have done just that, pulled a few books, turned some pages, and returned them to the shelf. With no particular list in mind I was turning through some poems to make a choice for the next week or so! I recently made reference to the sonnet, the 14 line verse. William Wordsworth used the sonnet form a lot, and I will use two of his poems today. Both written in 1802. Wordsworth is pained by the selfishness and wrong priorities towards happiness. We may wish to distance ourselves from Wordsworth’s nationalism (these verses written shortly after his return from France and the upheavals of the French Revolution) and step back from his desire for Milton to be a messianic figure. His lines though are as apt for today as they were some 220 years earlier. I wonder what line or lines in each of these two sonnets resonates with you and you find yourself reading it over and over, perhaps even committing it to memory. Ponder these lines and pair them with some of the words from the gospels, words which Jesus the Messiah spoke, words which we have need of amidst our stagnant waters, and which offer a way toward both happiness and holiness.

London, 1802

Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

England 1802

O Friend! I know not which way I must look
For comfort, being, as I am, opprest,
To think that now our life is only drest
For show; mean handy-work of craftsman, cook,
Or groom! — We must run glittering like a brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
And pure religion breathing household laws.

O Loving God,
we hath need of thee.
Too often we have looked in the wrong places,
too often we have sought our own pleasure and
all too often we have pushed others aside
by our refusal to welcome the stranger,
offer food to the hungry or shelter to the homeless.
Return to us O Lord
and come close, accept our welcome.
O Loving God,
as you guided Noah over the floods,
so guide us this day.
As you head the cry of Jonah
so hear our prayer this day.
As you stretched your hand and saved
Peter as he sank,
so stretch and touch us with
life and love. Amen.

One thought on ““Plain living and high thinking are no more:”

  1. I suppose that it is a universal characteristic of our humanity to imagine that the past was somehow better than the present whether 1802 or 2022. And in some ways of course that may be true, in other ways not.

    The poems make a powerful pair. As Wordsworth longed for Milton’s return, we all sometimes long for someone we believe could raise us up to be better than we are and to “fix” what seems broken. Sadly we look for someone else to do that for us. Whether plain living, high thinking, being a glittery runner to attract attention or idolizing the wealthy, these are personal choices now as they were then. And as your prayer suggests, we need help in making the right ones.


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