Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air

sunset beach kites

Mask thy wisdom with delight

Hear what British Merlin sung,
Of keenest eye and truest tongue.
Say not, the chiefs who first arrive
Usurp the seats for which all strive;
The forefathers this land who found
Failed to plant the vantage-ground;
Ever from one who comes to-morrow
Men wait their good and truth to borrow.
But wilt thou measure all thy road,
See thou lift the lightest load.

Who has little, to him who has less, can spare,
And thou, Cyndyllan’s son! beware
Ponderous gold and stuffs to bear,
To falter ere thou thy task fulfill, —
Only the light-armed climb the hill.
The richest of all lords is Use,
And ruddy Health the loftiest Muse.
Live in the sunshine, swim the sea,
Drink the wild air
‘s salubrity:
Where the star Canope shines in May,
Shepherds are thankful, and nations gay.
The music that can deepest reach,
And cure all ill, is cordial speech:

Mask thy wisdom with delight,
Toy with the bow, yet hit the white.
Of all wit’s uses, the main one
Is to live well with who has none.
Cleave to thine acre; the round year
Will fetch all fruits and virtues here:
Fool and foe may harmless roam,
Loved and lovers bide at home.
A day for toil, an hour for sport,
But for a friend is life too short.

by Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)
preface of Considerations by the Way
included in The Conduct of Life (1860, revised in 1876)
image – tibchris

Mask thy Wisdom with Delight

I had to do a little research to unmask a better understanding of this poem.

First off, Emerson tells us to “hear what British Merlin sung.” Arthurian legend was hot stuff from about 1850-1900, as a Gothic Revival influenced art and architecture. In 1860, Emerson may have been familiar with some of them; Richard Wagner’s Tristand und Isolde was completed in 1859. Many, many artists were to be influenced by this trend, including William Morris, Alfred Lord Tennyson and even Mark Twain, whose story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court would eventually become a Disney movie.

He’s telling us not to try compete with each other for “riches,” suggesting that they’re only yours until the next guy comes along – “Ever from one who comes to-morrow men wait their good and truth to borrow.” If what you have will belong to the next guy anyway, isn’t being in a position to give giving better than hoarding for its own sake? Instead of going for a seat of power, he suggests the taking long view and adopting the relative freedom of minimalism – “wilt thou measure all thy road, see thou lift the lightest load.”

Tracking down the reference to Cyndyllan (Cynddlan) took some doing. Cyndyllan was a well-to-do Welsh chieftain, known for his generosity. He may have been one of King Arthur’s counselors, if you believe Arthur dates from about 5th or 6th century, and not later. These lines are from The Death-Song of Cyndyllan, written soon after Cyndyllan’s death in battle with his sons and the sons of his friends. In this version, every stanza starts with “Grandeur in battle” and describes some horror of war. The language is old, but the meaning is eternal.

Grandeur in battle! Do you see this?
My heart burns like a firebrand.
I enjoyed the wealth of their men and women.
They could not repay me enough.
I used to have brothers. It was better when they were
the young whelps of great Arthur, the mighty fortress.
Before Lichfield they fought,
There was gore under ravens and keen attack.
Limed shields broke before the sons of the Cyndrwynyn.
I shall lament until I would be in the land of my resting place
for the slaying of Cynddylan, famed among chieftains.
from The Celtic Heroic Age (2000)
Poetry Relating to Cynddylan
by John Carey, John T. Koch
also online, from Early Welsh Saga Poetry: a Study and Edition of the Englynion (1990) (out of print)

I could not track down Emerson’s reference to “where the star Canope shines in May.” Canopus is the second brightest star in the sky, for people living far south enough to get a good look; it’s visible in the Winter sky south of about San Francisco. Latitudes of 15 degrees North to 35 degrees South should see Canopus overhead in May, but that’s a lot of territory. If you know what he’s talking about, let me know!

In general —
Treasure what you have, not what you covet.
Material riches are fleeting – do not let them encumber you.
Remember that sometimes the poor will give more than the rich.
Mask your wisdom with delight – get over yourself and be happy.
Don’t go looking for trouble.
Life is short, and friendship is precious.

Wash off the history and the poetic attitude, and these messages work just as well for today as they did for Emerson and even Cynddylan’s warriors, between battles at least!

Only the light-armed climb the hill.

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