More Golden Numbers

palms
Palm Trees outside the Camellia Shopping Centre in Kotor, Montenegro

Yesterday I started reading ‘Sweet Content’ by Thomas Dekker.

Sweet Content

ART thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplex’d?
O punishment!
Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex’d
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

Canst drink the waters of the crispèd spring?
O sweet content!
Swim’st thou in wealth, yet sink’st in thine own tears?
O punishment!
Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

I was beginning to think that the poem offered a flexible series of  possible thoughts  – are you poor yet content, are you rich yet punished … thirdly,  whether you are rich or poor;

Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex’d
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!

Are you free of vexatious concerns about money?  ‘Golden’ here seems a false word, as if  ‘golden numbers’ are anything but – they seem meaningless partly through repetition, but there’s also that obsessive feeling of worry, ‘golden numbers golden numbers’, the same old thought going round and round. Free of that? Oh sweet content!

Then we come to a bit which seems at odds with what has come before:

Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!

Like the mention of ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ at the opening, the word ‘work’ seems to set off chain reactions of opinions in readers.  This poet, someone will say is telling poor people they should work hard to be happy. Yes, another will agree, it is the protestant work ethic enforced by the elite.

Oh dear oh dear my friends,  I  think it is much odder than that. But please – let’s read what is there rather than knee jerk our own pre-judgement. The three lines seem to me all different.

First – ‘work apace, apace, apace, apace;’ feels frenetic – four repetitions? –  and I’m not sure  it is offered as a command. Perhaps  a feeling of what it is like to be working ‘apace’. I looked up apace- thinking it meant ‘fast’ but actually the dictionary offers  at a steady e.g walking, pace. Perhaps it means ‘be steady’.

Honest labour bears a lovely face;

This is the line that always gets someone’s back up. Perhaps it is that old class warfare scars run deep. Perhaps readers are scared of being judged as ‘masters’ who would enforce’ labour’ from workers. Whatever the underlying trauma, it is the wrong reaction because there’s no evidence here that  the poet is trying to inflict this – with or without irony – on anyone.  It is a statement. You might agree or disagree with  it.

Does honest labour bear a lovely face? I’d say it is does. Why honest? and I wonder now if there is a connection with the line that came before? If ‘work apace’  is about steadiness rather than a more modern frenetic activity…might ‘honest labour’ be the same as ‘work apace’ – work steadily.

A new thought now occurs to me: could this be a poem against gambling? or something like gambling – the creation of money out of money?

And ‘hey nonny nonny’?  It’s nonsense – like tra-la-la or oooh ah  in a modern lyric.

The second verse follows the same pattern, and the point at which I’d want to concentrate reading energy is the central line which seems to offer a balance point, where calm becomes gold, and gold ceases to be about money:

Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!

There’s a difference between being told to bear your burden patiently by someone who has power over you (and is suffering no burden) and learning to bear your burden patiently yourself.

What would you do, I ask myself, if you were reading in a group and someone  continued to keep reading as if this poem were a piece of class warfare?

I’d  let them  have their say, but at the same  I’d be looking for other people in the group who  wanted to read differently, closer to the actual text, from a less pre-set place. I’d be asking people to test certain of the poems  lines against their own experience, lines where those pre-formed notions will break down a bit. honest labour bears a lovely face is one of those.

At the conference in Newcastle, one of our readers described the difference in trying to sleep when you’ve done nothing all day and  then how you feel when you’ve walked the dog, been to the gym, done things.  That may not be paid labour but it is  labour and perhaps bears a lovely face. Doing things feels good.  Why is it ‘honest’?   You put the work in… dishonest labour? You get the reward – free money!! – without the effort.

is there an underlying principle about honesty and  the lovely nature of  labour? I think  there is – that is a truth almost like the truth of physics – if you   put the effort in here, then this follows….

So can you patiently bears want’s burden? and if so, does the burden disappear?

Then he that patiently want’s burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!

This poem is about mind-control, how we think about what we (must) do.  If you can control your own mind, or rather your mind’s response to external reality, then you do have absolute power: you are a king. You can’t change ‘want’, you may not be able to change how rich or poor you are, but you can change the way you feel and mentally respond to your situation.

Can only a rich, powerful person think this? I would be asking this to get my group thinking beyond the bounds of rich and poor. Part of the poem’s purpose is to ask us to ditch those easy distinctions.

The poem seems to argue  that the rich powerful person can’t do this – this person is a fool, vex’d by ‘golden numbers’.

If we move the conversation from the arena of rich and poor and into a more personally worked example  – what do you do with a thing you can’t change, an illness for example, a chronic condition… I know in most Shared Reading groups there will be at least one person living with such a condition, and learning to become the person who ‘patiently want’s burden bears’.

 

2 thoughts on “More Golden Numbers

  1. loubyjo July 14, 2017 / 4:02 pm

    I have read this a few times over the years and yer i am prob guilty of the class war thing and agree once it starts hard to stop but actually think with a lot of people they know that all the money in the world wont change their situation !!!

    hONEST LABOUR BEARS A LOVELY FACE MAYBE honest is not in way we think of it but just enjoying what work we may do, might not be paid i always think it is easier to do dishes etc if listening to something such as radio .
    To actually enjoy your job umm not sure what the % of people do my mum enjoyed teaching til became so filled with form filling !! i enjoyed reading with school kids til they decided to get make displays !!!!!
    reading it first time u think their is a difference between poor people and rich sleep patterns but perhaps making the best of yr situation years ago we had little money so stayed at my nains for 6 weeks well it was great just doing the simple things in wales !!!!

    vexed by golden numbers maybe something to do with age if u live to a good honest life will live along time ( hope not )

    the crux of the poem i think is saying the human race is the same and everyone has some sort of problems what ever your social situation

    i have always liked the line nonnny nonny thin throughit gy like thats the way life is tough so get through it

    unless someone has been through mental distress i doubt they could ever get it !!! one of tthe most difficult things you can do to change thought patterns in brain would reckon easier to win the lottery and that would bring new problems !!!

    tired now

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