So wide the wells of darkness sink,
These having their own light, that are lost with the light,
Appear immersed in mournfulness over the night,
Like things that in sleep will come to the mind’s brink:
The bright Aldebaran, and seven that hover,
Seven wild and pale, clouding their brightness over,
And the flame that fell with summer, and the rose of stars returning,
Like tears piercing the sky;
Glittering without cause, for the piece of a legend,
Wept, I know not why.
O lovely and forgotten,
Gathered only of sleep,
All night upon the lids set burning,
Shaken from the lids at morning.
[Léonie Adams, Poems: A Selection (1954)]
They could grow used to seeing bones
Of buffalo and sometimes men,
They could grow strong on cracking dreams
Of gold to give them rest again,
They could pit happy years to come
Against the prairie’s timeless length,
They had illusions that could calm
The frantic restlessness of strength.
But things like this they had to pass,
Sunk in the sand on the Arkansas,
This rosewood sofa that clutched the sun
With every foot a gryphon’s claw;
They saw it shining far ahead,
They turned to see it far behind,
And dreamed of men who dared not lose
The things they dared not hope to find.
One wagon whistled Money Musk,
Another chattered into laughter,
But no one spoke to anyone
About what they were going after;
An hour creaked by and dreams came back,
The wagons talked with even breath
And grew secure the more they passed
The more familiar forms of death.
[Thomas Hornsby Ferril, “The Empire Sofa,” in High Passage (1926)]
Also, this from Parkman’s Oregon Trail:
It is worth noticing, that on the Platte one may sometimes see the shattered wrecks of ancient claw-footed tables, well waxed and rubbed, or massive bureaus of carved oak. These, many of them no doubt the relics of ancestral prosperity in the colonial time, must have encountered strange vicissitudes. Imported, perhaps, originally from England; then, with the declining fortunes of their owners, borne across the Alleghanies to the remote wilderness of Ohio or Kentucky; then to Illinois or Missouri; and now at last fondly stowed away in the family wagon for the interminable journey to Oregon. But the stern privations of the way are little anticipated. The cherished relic is soon flung out to scorch and crack upon the hot prairie.
A road heads out of town while a street stays there, so you find roads in the country but not streets.
The best streets urge you to stay; the road is an endless incentive to leave.
[Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment (2005)]
His flaggy wings, when forth he did display,
Were like two sayles, in which the hollow wynd
Is gathered full, and worketh speedy way:
And eke the pennes, that did his pineons bynd,
Were like mayne-yardes with flying canvas lynd;
With which whenas him list the ayre to beat,
And there by force unwonted passage fynd,
The clouds before him fledd for terror great,
And all the heavens stood still amazed with his threat.
[Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene]
Only one possible literary genre can accommodate what seem to be alternative, though to the ancients not incompatible, worldviews: the “collection” of randomly arranged, self-contained aphorisms. In this form, the wisdom of more than one age and more than one temper can be stored side by side. It is not merely the literary form of the collection, however, that allows for this ecumenical generosity. Aphoristic expression itself implies an entire philosophy and worldview. According to this philosophy, experience and thought about experience can be stored best in independent short sayings and poems. The aphoristic worldview also implies that no systematic exposition is intended, for any systematic arrangement or exposition would endanger the independence and originality of an insight stored in a small literary unit. The masters of wisdom have no interest in or conception of completeness or logical presentation of their insights and indeed avoid it. Perhaps one can explain the underlying idea in terms of the distinction between “systematic” and “aphoristic” thought. Systematic thought tends to doctrinalism and the development of comprehensive, complete, and finally closed ideologies. Aphoristic thought, by contrast, remains open-ended and fragmentary. One can always add to the corpus of aphoristic expression, for it can never be complete. Thus aphoristic thinking is more a style of thought than a particular doctrine. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz explains, “It comes in epigrams, proverbs , obiter dicta, jokes, anecdotes, contes moraux–a clatter of gnomic utterances–not in formal doctrines, axiomized theories, or archetonic dogmas.”
[Bernhard Lang, The Hebrew God: Portrait of an Ancient Deity (2002)]
But this year a curtain has fallen all along the frontier. From our ramparts we stare out over the wastes. For all we know, keener eyes than ours stare back. Commerce is at an end. Since the news arrived from the capital that whatever might be necessary to safeguard the Empire would be done, regardless of cost, we have returned to an age of raids and armed vigilance. There is nothing to do but keep our swords bright, watch and wait.
I spend my time in my old recreations. I read the classics; I continue to catalogue my various collections; I collate what maps we have of the southern desert region; on days when the wind does not bite so keenly I take out a party of diggers to clear drift-sand from the excavations; and once or twice a week I set off by myself in the early morning to hunt antelope along the lakeshore.
[J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians]
One of the figures said, “What if it doesn’t say anything?” The other said, “It won’t say anything; it won’t just give us simple instructions.” The wind rose; clouds scuttled across the moon. The first figure said, “What if it says just what we want to hear?” The other said, “What do we want to hear?”
Much later, when the night was almost completely dark, and only shifting shadows were to be seen, a voice said, “What if it’s closed when we get there?” Another voice said, “Closed? You mean like a museum or a library or a shop?” The first voice said, “Yes. Or like a ruin or an abandoned house.” The second voice said, “Well, I suppose we would have to tell the story of our journey, what we saw on the way there and the way back, and why we came.“
[Michael Wood, The Road to Delphi]