Burned onto flimsy wooden signs in souvenir shops, quoted to death on Facebook, memed on Instagram, and included in semi-inspirational books of every sort, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words continue to resonate nearly two hundred years after his death:
One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, and see a fine picture.
Oddly, Goethe himself never spoke or wrote those words as actual advice. The line belongs to one of Goethe’s characters: a theater manager named Serlo who appears in the novelWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. It was Serlo who said:
Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect; that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things.
For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not accustomed to the taste of what is excellent that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new.
‘For this reason,’ he would add, ‘one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.’ [Book V, Chapter 1]
Setting aside for a moment the possibility of speaking a few reasonable words — a phrase generally omitted from the quotation — the relevance of Serlo’s assertion is undeniable. In a world awash in silly and insipid things, it becomes ever easier for our spirits to become deadened to the beauty and creativity surrounding us: both that contained in past tradition and that which arises from our present lives.
Spending hours each day caught up in social media or in activities more habitual than pleasurable, we say we have no time for the difficult, the unfamiliar, or the arcane. And yet, by declining to engage with the wealth of music, literature, and art available to us, we cut ourselves off from the pleasures and possibilities that accompany such engagement.
Implicit in Serlo’s musings is the suggestion that the ability to speak “a few reasonable words” is linked to study of the best that surrounds us in arts and literature, in science, in history, and in philosophy.
It’s an association that has a long history, and that still is promoted today. The first writing advice offered to me was, “Be selective in choosing those to whom you listen, because their voices will influence your own.” Later, I found an echo of that advice in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:
The writer… is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.
In the world of today’s programmers and computer scientists, the truth is pared down to an even simpler form; the quality of output is determined by the quality of input. In other words: garbage in, garbage out.
None of this means that we should reject Homer Simpson in favor of Shakespeare, or Leonard Skynyrd in favor of Leonard Bernstein. A variety of voices have legitimate places in the world, and we are free to honor and enjoy them all. But allowing the worst voices to crowd out the best is short-sighted at best, and soul-deadening at worst.
With this in mind, I’ve made three commitments for 2018. Each is based on Serlo’s advice to make room in each day for a little poetry, a bit of music, and the joy of art.
Intrigued by a year-long reading plan that takes participants through the complete works of William Shakespeare, I purchased the Second Edition of The Oxford Shakespeare, and will spend a portion of the first day of 2018 with Two Gentlemen of Verona. As the year unfolds, weekdays will be devoted to the plays; weekends will be reserved for sonnets and other poems.
In addition, I’ve subscribed to Exploring Music With Bill McGlaughlin, a marvelous way to keep up with nightly programs as well as to explore other composers’ work and less familiar musical genres. Certain program are free, as are portions of every program. Coincidentally, the first week of music will be from London:
Bill will stroll the South Bank, now a rejuvenated part of London, but in the past home to brothels and bear fighting arenas, plus Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre… We will listen to Thomas Tallis, court composer to Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, hear Purcell and Elgar carry his English sound into their compositions, and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, based on a psalm that starts, “Why fumeth in fight.”
Given the number of photographers and visual artists whose blogs I follow, there isn’t a day that I don’t enjoy at least a few images. Still, the wonder of the internet has made worldwide collections available: Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the National Gallery of Art, and the British Museum all can be virtually toured.
Links to each museum are available here, as well as information about other, smaller sites that can be visited. Obviously, seeing artwork in person rather than on a computer screen is best, but when the best isn’t possible, very good will do.
It’s an open question whether I’ll be speaking more reasonably when 2018 is over, but I certainly anticipate having fun with this project, and learning a good bit as well.
In the end, who could ask more of a New Year? May yours be fully as rewarding and pleasurable, however you choose to fill up its days.
Comments always are welcome.