Oh mirth. I wish I could get with you. Everybody is dealing with the some handful that stacks against them, and we hear that even the royal flush is hard to hold. As the Ancient philosopher Zeno said, and here I use the paraphrase from my son’s pre-K class last year, You get what you get and you don’t get upset.
Dear readers, Milton famously tried to figure what to do with life and what kind of art to make and decided with some certainty different things at different times. Shall we call it checkerboard doubt? Here is a wee chunk of “L’Allegro,” in which he is certain that the sorrow of life, which is real and blood-speedingly impressive, is to be shunned. Instead he is turning to Mirth and, here below, he’s trying to call her over.
Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and Wreathed Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Com, and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastick toe,
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty;
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crue
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreproved pleasures free;
Isn’t that just so tasty? Come here gorgeous let’s screw around and rhyme liberty with free. I will honor you right off that bar stool if you will just let me be part of your crew. Gonna run this town tonight.
Pretty Hebe, goddess of youth, was the cup bearer on Mount Olympus. Daughter of the hottest couple, she was later married to Hercules. It is from Hebe’s cups that we can taste a little hard drink and ambrosia, if you know what I mean.
As is evident from my emboldened type, I called this meeting to discuss the light fantastic. To trip was already a common way to say "to dance" in 1632 when Milton wrote this. You could trip across the dance floor. In The Tempest there is already (1611) even the toe -- the metaphoric dance scene of life is described with “each one tripping on his toe.” Then, after Milton, there was also the light fantastic. Words are thrown together all the time but they almost never stick. Yet sometimes they do. You can put a few together so well that they won't break apart again, for centuries.
Two hundred years later, 1832, a report of a bash noted: “The ball room in evening at the Royal Victoria was crowded as before by fashion, youth, and beauty; and many tripped it on the light fantastic toe, ‘till bright Aurora tinged the morn.’”
Of course there’s also Il Penseroso, a poem twin to L’Allegro, which leaves Mirth to her own devices and chooses thinking and feeling over playing and forgetting, even though it hurts and is difficult.
Both certainties are right of course, I hate to have to break it to me, but both are right. The pensive labor creates the lovely. Sourpuss in the lit up tower wrought the light fantastic toe. Come and trip it as you go, on the light fantastic toe. So good. Then switch fantastic to fandango, and you've got a wilder shade of pale.
Well, okay, you have your instructions.
ps If you thought I was going to talk about how philosophers ought to take a serious hallucinogenics at least once in their lives in order to have some sense of how much the brain can invent, is inventing all the time, then you may find yourself disappointed. For that and other reasonable claims, see my book The Happiness Myth. For a poem on this matter I recently posted on my odd poetry blog see my odd poetry blog Dear Fonzie.
pps If you're coming to the BAP book party tomorrow, come over and say Hi.