Tears, Idle Tears

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

Let’s hear it for sadness. No need to whoop and holler, but let’s hear it anyway. Sadness is sadly underrated.

Let me quickly say that I am certainly not talking about depression, and if you have ever been clinically depressed you know what I mean. Depression is a thirsty leech on the soul and we will speak no more about it.

Sadness—the sadness that I am talking about—is a condition of living and can affect even the determined optimist. (Well, I take that back. I suppose there are people who are so optimistic, so disposed to be cheerful from the rising of the sun until the going down of same, that they should get a pass. And I feel, well, sad for them.)

I’m talking about sad as in bittersweet, sad as in weltschmerz, that feeling one gets from time to time that there are things in this world and in this life that are worth being sad about. Sadness is about loss, and loss is about worth, about value. Some sadness we can even smile about, like the sadness of the teenager’s first crushed love. Just as he was moony in the throes of love, now our young hero—let’s call him Werther—parades his pain as if he is the first ever to suffer it. More bitter than sweet, but eventually more sweet than bitter, he will survive. Thus inoculated, he will grow stronger.

Puppy love aside, there is a nobility to sadness that I think we all recognize. Poets don’t just know sadness, they embrace it. Sadness is one of their bona fides. Little Johnny Keats, who died so young, probably carried off the palm when he wrote “Ode on Melancholy.” “But when the melancholy fit shall fall,” he says, for goodness sake make the most of it (since it is going to fall sooner or later anyway). “Glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,” he exhorts us. Keats knew the paradox at the heart of sadness:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

Wordsworth knew it too, knew there are thoughts that “do often lie too deep for tears.” And I have taken the title of this wonk from Tennyson, no slouch in the long thoughts department. He talks in that poem about the melancholy of things past: “So sad, so strange, the days that are no more…O Death in Life, the days that are no more.”

And is there any sadder yet more beautiful melody on God’s green earth than Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”? Music! Give me a cello and my eyes well up; throw in a French horn and I sob outright.

Everybody gets the blues now and again. I wonder why it came to be called the blues and not, more appropriately, the grays or the browns? Of course we do have “brown study,” which I have always thought closely related. This is—we are back to the poets—Emily Dickinson’s “certain slant of light” that “oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes.”

Let’s not forget that one of America’s greatest contributions to music is the blues.

If you don’t know Delight (as Keats has it) you can’t know sadness. That’s one part of it, and it makes me wonder if those congenital optimists who always and everywhere see delight are fully human. That’s why I said I feel sad for them.

And if sadness is about loss, then it is about being human and (more to the point) mortal. We will, so goes the quip, never get out of this world alive. That, I submit, is the root of sadness in its many guises. We rehearse small losses to steel ourselves for the ultimate loss, the last goodbye and the journey to that undiscovered country.

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