Shelley and that Contentment Surpassing Wealth

Shelley makes reference to “that content surpassing wealth/The sage in meditation found,/And walked with inward glory crowned” (Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples).  The poet laments that he doesn’t have that content, but notices that, “Others I see whom these surround–/Smiling they live, and call life pleasure.”  It’s likely not my place to say whether I walk with inward glory, but I do number myself among those who have that content surpassing wealth.  That is, usually I have that content surpassing wealth.  Lately, I’ve been telling my acquaintances that I’m wealthy.  When they raise their eyebrows, I clarify by saying that I feel wealthy.  I have everything I want.  An outside observer, looking at my possessions, likely would wonder how I could feel that way.  My condo is small, I drive a 10-year-old Honda, my material possessions are few, my clothes are not expensive.  But the possessions I do have satisfy my wants superbly.  The contentment surpasses wealth probably because it depends on a certain attitude toward wealth.

 

When an individual isn’t concerned with wealth, then lacking it doesn’t sting.  Then there are the other things a person can concern oneself with that don’t cost much, but reward much.  A good paperback book doesn’t cost much.  And the satisfaction one receives from a good book contributes greatly to the contentment sages in meditation find.  A good book and reflection on it, is a sagely undertaking.  A Beethoven symphony can be downloaded for $9.99.  Time spent with a Beethoven symphony is a sagely undertaking.  Each piece of great art works on the soul, making the individual different after each encounter.  Art and knowledge form a person’s psyche.  A psyche who seeks an encounter with something spiritual, like a Turgenev novel, will find contentment.  My edition of Turgenev cost me $21.00, and will last me weeks, and then the lasting satisfaction my soul will enjoy after my encounter with it.  But a psyche who chases wealth, power, status, and fame will likely not find contentment.  They are all unquenchable cravings, and no matter how much of each one possesses, it will never be enough.

 

Lately, my spiritual seeking has been leading me into discontent.  I am planning to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which is being held in Toronto this year.  Finding lodging I can afford, securing a flight, and negotiating the public transportation of a foreign city are all anxiety provoking, and a strain on my modest finances.  But having attended the previous one in Salt Lake City, I anticipate an ultimately rewarding and fulfilling experience in Toronto.  The temporary anxiety that goes into the achievement of this spiritual goal will be rewarded with a lasting spiritual formation in my soul, during and after the event.  With my aspirations set on humanistic and spiritual acquisition, I expect to continue through my life, as I do now, according to Shelley’s words, “Smiling they live, and call life pleasure.”

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Fame

Fame and success are not always meted out in a person’s lifetime.  Some great artist were relatively obscure in their own lives, and did not know that they would be important later, after their demise.  All they knew was that their work didn’t catch on.  And they were unknown–and that, for their whole lives.  They didn’t make it.

William Blake was known to some of the Romantic poets, but achieved no real fame.  Shelley wrote these verses about his own life,

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,

Nor peace within nor calm around,

Nor that content surpassing wealth

The sage in meditation found,

And walked with inward glory crowned—

Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.

Others I see whom these surround—

Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;

To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had fame and money, but failed to find critical acceptance as an artist.  His greatest novel, The Great Gatsby, didn’t sell much and went out of print in a few years.  Fitzgerald died thinking himself a failure.

Now we study Blake, Shelley, and Fitzgerald in literature classes, and all these writers are considered great.  Every high school student in the United States reads The Great Gatsby.

Hemingway and T.S. Eliot had fame all through their lives, and the respect of the artistic community.  Hemingway also had wealth.  Intellectual fashion is now debating whether they are still as great as they used to be, but I suspect the laurel wreath will not be taken away in the end.

But Shelley and Fitzgerald had respect among the community of artists in their day.  Coleridge and Wordsworth knew and respected Shelley.  And Hemingway was Fitzgerald’s close friend.  Even in Hemingway’s scathing stories about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway praises Fitzgerald as a great artist.

Fame may not be the best measure of a person’s worth.  Respect from one’s peers, self-respect, believing in oneself, and the joy of creation alone are not fame, but are abiding satisfactions in lieu of fame.  While an artist wants recognition, it is satisfying to enjoy one’s own creations privately, while perhaps also enjoying favorable reception from a few who matter.