Mutter in secret … a sullen joy

“How vainly seek
The selfish for that
happiness denied…
And sigh for pleasure
they refuse to give, –
Madly they frustrate still
their own designs;”

from “Queen Mab”
by Percy Bysshe Shelley


I.

Did you notice that the scenario–click to enlarge– is the same as the previous post? Think of the gentlemen’s club as the billboard; both have a naked woman attended to by empty suits as well as cash nearby. Both, too, are well lit in as theatrical/commercial way. In both postings there are exhibitionists.

Shouldn’t the youthful exhibitionist in the previous post be an romantic artist in his studio creating something personal, honest, and original, instead of taking a pseudo-revolutionary stance, merely reacting to someone else’s work in a comic book cliché borrowed for the occasion? More reactionary than revolutionary he postures before an image of an image. Yes, he could fall, tragically young. But he fears more a fall on the street, comic and amusing– at his expense–to the mob there. So safer he feels, up there.

Fast forward 40 yrs; The nude and suits of the billboard “art” have now come to life at a gentlemen’s club where each member of that mob has grown up to be either a plutocrat “…the wearer of a gilded chain That binds his soul to abjectness, the fool Whom courtiers nickname monarch, whilst a slave Even to the basest appetites they joyfull watch,” or an ecdysiast whose “…features were fixed and meaningless, Yet animal life was there.”

And the youthful exhibitionist has become bitter and old; he has finally read “Queen Mab.” As an undergrad he, solitary on his romantic ledge, paid no more attention to poetry in Eng lit 201 than he did the politics in the street. But things aren’t all bad for our ex-romantic. He’s stepped off  his youthful perch, not by a leap but a cautious descent to the now safe street where he’s neither watched nor judged. Invisible, he gets into the show for free. He watches but can’t touch or take; but he is neither touched nor taken. He feels he’s safe down here now, an exhibitionist still.

II.

“… How vainly seek
The selfish for that happiness denied
To aught but virtue! Blind and hardened, they,
Who hope for peace amid the storms of care,
Who covet power they know not how to use,
And sigh for pleasure they refuse to give, –
Madly they frustrate still their own designs;
And, where they hope that quiet to enjoy
Which virtue pictures, bitterness of soul,
Pining regrets, and vain repentances,
Disease, disgust and lassitude pervade
Their valueless and miserable lives. …”

Or made into prose, sorry Shelley: …How the selfish vainly seek the happiness denied to them by their lack of virtue! They are blind and hardened. They hope for peace amid the storms of personal troubles. They covet power that they don’t know how to use. And they who sigh for pleasure that they refuse to give. Madly they frustrate their own designs; and where they hope to enjoy that quiet which virtue pictures, they find bitterness of soul, pining regrets, vain repentances, disease, disgust and lassitude pervade their valueless and miserable lives….

I read the whole thing quickly and that chunk caught my eye so I parsed it. Shelley, being a poet and all, mixed content up with rhyme and meter. But I, being poetry blind, to get at the content have to break it up again. Sorry again, “substance über form,” I’m just trying to understand what you said.

So who’s who? Who are the “The selfish”? “Who covet power they know not how to use, And sigh for pleasure they refuse to give”? Who “Madly … frustrate still their own designs”? An finally what is “that quiet to enjoy/Which virtue pictures”? These days certainly not the plutocrats Shelley condemns elsewhere in the poem. They don’t covet power, sadly what they covet is more of it, and that power is the pleasure taken, not given. Worse still, it’s the quiet of no morality–that which psychopaths enjoy–that the virtue of power pictures.

No, it’s more the artist who’s selfish &c. it’s the artist who covets power he wouldn’t know what to do with; who wants to be pleased but pleases no one. It’s the artist who neurotically frustrates his own plans; who knows no quiet of the virtuous. Shelley in his notes to the poem says “…employments are lucrative in an inverse ratio to their usefulness: the jeweller, the toyman, the actor gains fame and wealth by the exercise of his useless and ridiculous art…” Who more useless and ridiculous than an artist, be he young romantic or old cynic?

III.

You wrote this clever rant 200 yrs ago, you were 1/3 my age at the time, so I’m sure you’d understand my problems translating your florid language. Some things have changed. Love, while not free, can now be bought and sold legally by both sexes. Vegetarian options are on every menu. God has retired, laid off actually. But some things haven’t. Yes, the church and monarchies have fallen on hard times. And there have been many revolutions, but all that was changed is back or getting there. Really, only the costumes have changed; secular, self-made plutocrats are sitting where priest and king once did.

“Commerce has set the mark of selfishness,
The signet of its all-enslaving power,
Upon a shining ore, and called it gold;
Before whose image bow the vulgar great,
The vainly rich, the miserable proud,”

“When merciless ambition, or mad zeal,
Has led two hosts of dupes to battle-field,
That, blind, they there may dig each other’s graves
And call the sad work glory,”

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