Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
This exchange is the basis of literary civilization and is in direct conflict with communalism, secular humanity, immanent instinctual absolutism. Sonnet 65 is meaningful only if mankind collectively has a future, if that future is social and literate, and that literate sociality is valued. None of these three conditions is any longer necessarily assured. Further, we may note that the symbol-instinct exchange in Sonnet 65 requires an interior space, a dimensional subjectivity, in which to inscribe itself. But interior space, the most elite of traditional aesthetic possessions, bears with it the marks of its origins in a disabled self. It is the servile strategy of the Christian slave and invites all persons, slaves of time, to become the captives also of a social future of a given sort in which some kinds of action are preempted and instinctual completion in particular "traded off" against the mimetic bright star. In other words, Sonnet 65, which stands here in my brief remarks for the tradition, defines the person in a specific sense, and the terms of that definition are neither inevitable nor beyond question. Poetry is an irreplaceable mode of the visibility of person to person, but it is impatient of action, communalism, and instinctual humanity, all of which may be as necessary as life itself. You cannot have it all ways. The antinomic character of our civilization (instinct or symbol but not both; agency or communion but not both, etc.) is now as always being administered as a weapon against the young (order or feeling, but not both). Fate is being used as an argument against life. Even Pity, as Blake reminds us "would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor." There is a justifiable system of counter-refusals to be opposed both to the refusals and to the consolations of art. It is not the business of the teacher to conspire with fate.
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