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October 2, 2005

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  • "Compositions merely pretty have the fate of other pretty things, and are quitted in time for something useful: they are flowers fragrant and fair, but of short duration; or they are blossoms to be valued only as they foretell fruits."
      — Samuel Johnson: Waller (Lives of the Poets)

    Okay, a show of hands (yes, I'm watching...): how many people heard a tune like Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achey Breaky Heart" or Todd Rundgren's "Bang the Drum" and tsked, "I could have done that," envying the cash flow each received in response?

    Johnson's "compositions" wasn't a reference to music but poetry, but it's the same thing. "The Cremation of Sam McGee" is a fun poem for a fourth or fifth grader, but well, we have to put childish things behind us.

    Pleasures and novelties have their place: they make life more enjoyable, and they add variety to days which are by and large the same as each other. There's no way I would suggest a complete stripping down, "why I went to the woods"-type experience. Life just has too few pleasures, and while we may be richer for what we can afford to let alone, completely setting aside all the small joys is not a richness I seek.

    And I don't think Johnson is recommending that, either: he recognizes the place that beauty deserves, and doesn't suggest that beauty be ignored. Rather, he talks about its limitations. Enjoy the momentary pleasure, but don't tarry too long: move on to something more useful.

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