A Reflection on the Changing Seasons: Or Why We Need Poetry

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Finally, the season is turning from winter to spring. Soon, the tulips will be poking up through the mulch in Prospect Garden. The northern magnolias will begin to blossom along University Place. It will be a time of constant gentle breezes and the rebirth of green. This is the wonderful thing about the seasons: each one comes at just the right time.

I am reminded of something C. S. Lewis wrote in his Screwtape Letters: “[E]ach season [is] different yet every year the same, and so … spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme.” Our delight at the changing of the seasons brings to light an interesting and seemingly paradoxical fact of human nature: we yearn both for change and repetition, newness and sameness, novelty and tradition.

Lewis writes, “[God] has balanced the love of change in [man] by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm.” I think that’s entirely right; something about ‘rhythm’ is delightful to us. We crave that unique synthesis of change and permanence that comes with cathartic recurrence of a certain experience or a certain activity.

This human appreciation of rhythm inclines us to form habits. For instance, I make a full french press of coffee which I enjoy at my desk in the same way every morning. It may well be one of the best parts of the day. The change from that groggy state of just-woken-up to fully-awake-and-motivated is invigorating, and the regularity of the activity lends a certain comfort and pleasure of its own. Like the changing of the seasons, albeit occurring every 24 hours, the morning coffee-ritual is both comforting and refreshing, a rhythm of my daily routine I could hardly do without. I think we all have these habits, these personal rituals, rhythms of life that keep us sane: that designated time for prayer and contemplation each day, say, or that particular daily walk around campus that is at once placidly familiar and utterly vivifying.

But not all rhythm (in Lewis’s sense of the term) is habitual; in some cases, it has a certain spontaneity to it, odd as that may seem. The most apt example, I suppose, is music. All of us listen to particular songs again and again, often on whim at times when they strike particular chords with us. There’s always that song we’ve heard before that lifts our spirits when it comes on the radio unexpectedly. The spontaneity of recurrence is delightful. And it’s not just in how we enjoy some songs repeatedly; it’s apparent within music itself. In genres as disparate as country and classical, the return of a theme, a beat, or a chorus after the bridge in a song or in some unexpected movement of a larger piece is gratifying in this same sort of spontaneous way.

If, as Lewis says, there is indeed a harmonious balance in the human soul between love of change and love of permanence, and if these loves only find fulfillment in the union of change and permanence in ‘rhythm’, then to break that union is to upset the balance in our souls. This is all too common in the world today, and indeed, at this very University.

On the one hand, constancy of repetition without change is absolute monotony. This is not unfamiliar to us, even here at Princeton where we have the luxury of living lives of the mind. Even this blessing we can—and all too often we do—mold into the dullness of work. Without that spark of imagination, reading George Eliot becomes drudgery and proving mathematical theorems mere toil. Upon graduation, as I’m becoming all too well aware, the danger is heightened. The workaday world is full of defeated individuals, careerists who labor meaninglessly within what Max Weber famously called the ‘Iron Cage’.

On the other hand, an ever-changing imagination lacking steady purpose is distraction. Distraction is both shortness of attention and narrowness of perspective, the combination of which often results in a frenetic quest for novelty. Consider, for instance, how often we idly check our smartphones and refresh our Facebook newsfeeds, ever eager for that new message or interesting new status update. By now it’s cliche to comment on the astonishing increase in attention disorder diagnoses since the advent of social media. Yet it’s cliché because it’s true. A problematic lack of focus—and, I would add, diminished sense of purpose—are increasingly pronounced in our modern era.

Perhaps we’d better take stock of the argument. To this point, I have suggested the following: as humans, we have a spiritual need for the harmonious union of change and permanence, the separation of which corrupt into distraction and monotony respectively. Now let me posit the first half of my thesis: not only are these corruptions mala in se, they also inhibit the attainment of what would be their complement had they not corrupted.

Let me translate that philosophical jargon into a clearer picture of how we actually experience the world. Distraction is a problem in itself, but it also actively prevents us from realizing permanent things. We can hardly contemplate first principles while scrolling interminably through our Twitter feeds. We cannot pray while we worry idly about what we’ll write for our next essay assignments. Likewise, monotony is bad as we know it, and beyond that, being stuck in a rut also stymies our natural love for creative change. How many run-of-the-mill investment bankers write poetry in their free time? Who among us at Princeton makes time to read purely for leisure in the midst of our regular academic exertions? Even the desire to write poetry or read for leisure wanes on account of monotony; instead, we seek distraction.

Now for the second half of my thesis: just as our natural loves of change and permanence complement one another, so too do our perverted habits of seeking distraction and plodding through monotony build on one another. The more we spend our days in drudgery, the more we spend our nights in dissipation. To halt this vicious cycle, we need poetry.

By poetry, I mean leisure. Leisure is neither the high stimulation of distraction nor the monotony of idleness. It is the perfectly virtuous mean between the extremes. In leisure, we are actively passive—a wonderful paradox. Consider the act of writing poetry. In so doing, the poet actively channels what she passively receives. She engages with inspiration, perhaps observing the change of the seasons in a pale bud of growth on a tree or the coming of a thunderstorm in the furrowed brow of a passerby. She enshrines experience of change in the permanence and rhythm of verse, much like Bernini put Daphne’s flight from Apollo into marble; the dynamic is rendered in the unchanging.

The fifth century BC Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.” The modern version we’ve all heard is that ‘change is the only constant’. Of course, this isn’t quite true; there are impassive constants: I’m thinking of things like Goodness, Truth, and Beauty; in a word, all that is Divine. Yet we do experience the world immediately around us in a state of flux, as Heraclitus and popular wisdom suggest. Lest we be absorbed by the changing world as ever-turning cogs therein—the experience of which is total monotony—or lest we make worldly flux of our lives—complete distraction—we must seek to be ‘in the world but not of the world’. I think the latter state is one of contemplative prayer, perfect leisure.

In a sense, then, our lives must be liturgical to be lived well. We need to participate in the creativity of the Divine, but the Divine is also the eternal, the permanent and unchanging. There is something particularly youthful about this union of creative change and permanence, which Lewis called rhythm. Given the youthfulness of spring, I think it’s only fitting to conclude with this delightful passage from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

TZ Horton is a senior from Dallas, Texas majoring in the Philosophy Department. He can be reached at thorton@princeton.edu.

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