My sunburn’d brain

There are days when I do not understand my life, when I fail so far in grasping my calling — as husband, as father, as writer — that I doubt there is such a thing as a calling to anything. One can fail so far as to doubt whether one has really lived at all, despite the memory and intimation that still plucks at your sleeve. Today is one of those days. So I have been thinking of a poem by Sir Philip Sidney, a poem that I first read a long time ago. It would have been about the spring of 2003 that I read it, the first poem in Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (that would be Star-lover and Star in the Greco-Latin).

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”


I used to love the poetry of Sidney’s time. Still do, come to think of it. I wonder if a poem like this one means more to me today than it did when I first read it fifteen years ago. I don’t have much to say about this poem right now, only a desire to share it and ask if it makes a kind of deep sense to anyone else. I am thinking of the last line — though of course you have to read it as a last line, with everything that went before it, and not take it on its own as a sort of maxim. When I first read that line it was like a prophecy to me. Today, because it is one of these confused misgiven days, I am not so sure what it means.

I do know, though, that my brain feels sunburned on a day like this, as red-gold as the Lake Michigan light glinting at me through foliage of sassafras and oak, like it does on this part of the shore. That is to say, paraphrasing the poem: I’ve read too damn much, or too errantly, or too something. And it seems to me that I gave up a lot for that reading, presumably with a definite notion of what as a writer I’d get in return: that notion is long gone now. But if it was a poor decision, it was also perhaps not a decision I knew I was making. Don’t ask me to explain how that works. In any case, this is only how it seems to me on odd days in middle June, when I just can’t get into the moment and the place, and of course I can’t get back to anything either.

The sun over Lake Michigan has become just the deep red I have long imagined for the sunlight of Earth in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. And thinking of that, I am put in mind of an old book of astronomy I had when I was a kid. It was beautifully and very unscientifically illustrated, and probably unscientific all around. But it had a kind of poetry to it. For example, along with some image of a mellow forest glen bathed in liquid gold light (not this superannuated ruby light that is all around me now for a few fleeting minutes, and in Jack Vance’s stories) there was a description of what the book said would be the last perfect day. Yes, according to this book, the Earth would one day, in the course of her gradual ruination by the sun’s natural expansion (I think astronomers still say this will happen), enjoy a last perfect day, after which every day would be too hot, until eventually life would no longer be possible on the Earth. Can you imagine how futile writing would seem on that last perfect day? Music I could see playing — but writing?

All this is to say that I am going to write as soon as I can, probably starting Sunday or Monday when I get home, on the question: What is the use of writing? Ananda Coomaraswamy and David Jones and Wolfram von Eschenbach and Dante and Spenser and Milton and one or two others of more recent advent and who don’t belong in that company will be helping me out. And you can help me out by telling me what you think it means to look in your heart and write. Or for that matter, what you would do on the last perfect day.

6 thoughts on “My sunburn’d brain”

  1. It is probably a common plight, this particular anguish, Jonathan. I certainly can’t answer for Sydney or the perfect day. For that matter, I believe in an eschatological perfect day, perhaps there is always a teleology attached to perfection, a nunc stans that is the living vitality of any present moment glimpsed in a more quotidian “perfect day.” What I do know is a weary, dull spiritual pregnancy, pulling around unborn words, stories, half-built architecture of some melange of epic, dramatic, lyric impulse towards an unsayable aseity. And I know the vocation that is both gift and curse, chosen and not chosen, the sort of gift that makes you unfit for almost everything, judged a child or a fool, a disappointment or a mad dreamer. It’s difficult to bear all that. Myself, I’ve grown bitter and angry and mired in sadness. Yet would I trade a so-called “happy successful life,” a blithe, amiable contentment at ease with this world for the fruits of long solitude, this erudite misery? Fool that I am, I would not.

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  2. Jonathan, this is a hard hitting reflection, thank you for being so lucid. There’s something to be said for the meaningfulness of a pursuit that by most accounts seems meaningless. I can’t say there is much balm for those of us who are compelled to write, the prospects for success are so small, but the driving need to create bears down on us with such force that the choice seems to either be crushed by writing or to be crushed by not writing. The same can be said of reading, especially as we seek to learn what it means to fashion worlds with words, and how to do it well. But, there are those rare moments when the act of creating itself becomes transcendent, where we touch on something immortal and grasp for the language to order its aesthetic truth – often failing to do so. I suppose the best we can hope for is to fail well. Keep at it, and I hope you stumble on those indelible moments, fleeting as they are, as you set out to write. You’re not just doing it for yourself, you do it for the rest of us poor bastards who try to do the same.

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  3. Your post and the last sentence on the Muse in the poem made me remember what Ray Bradbury wrote in his book Zen in the Art of Writing. Talking about the Muse he said that it feeds on everything we read, watch, see or experience in our lives. It’s a mixture of all these impressions that makes the Muse feel good and help us write from the bottom of our hearts. It’s a wonderful thing, and I can say that Bradbury’s approach is true and working for me. That’s why even a short walk in the woods can be illuminating and refreshing.

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    1. I had no idea that Ray Bradbury had published such a book. Thank you for mentioning it, I am going to have to read it… As to walking: I find it essential for writing. I don’t get to go in the woods as much these days, but I still walk a lot — usually pushing a stroller. I’ve always enjoyed walking in both city and woods, in all seasons and weathers.

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      1. I hope you enjoy it! It’s a great read and I like returning to it from time to time.
        It’s good to walk. In our fast life walking — when it’s a leisurely stroll — helps us slow down, watch the world around us, maybe even switch off. It’s a wondrous thing!


  4. Jonathan, in a sense, the last perfect day is but a distant memory. That’s why the despair which leads to questions like yours is so poignant: there really does seem to be no meaning at all in searching for inspiration, to life itself.

    It also speaks well, in its own way, to a common problem amongst those pursuing the Vedic schools of spirituality. Reading, and hearing, and speaking – the experiences of the world about us – can become either an obsessive or a narcotic venture. At some point, one must confront one’s own heart in silence, and abandon the posture of distance.


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