“This is a long road in a dubious mist” . . . but still one that is well worth walking


Back in 1983/84 in Bury St Edmunds, I bought a secondhand copy of the “Selected poems and prose of Michael Roberts” (ed. Frederick Grubb, Carcanet Press,1980). Michael Roberts (1902–1948) was an English poet, writer, critic and broadcaster who made his living as a teacher. He is most well-known for being the editor of the first “Faber Book of Modern Verse” (1938).

I was very taken by many (although not all) of the things he wrote about but, in particular, one thing he wrote has stayed with me constantly because it seemed to be saying something to me personally even though for most of the time I have had no good idea of what that something being said was. The piece in question is his early poem, “On reading some neglected poets.” Of course, I might still not have understood this something that was being said to me but, this morning, I had one of those epiphanal moments where I felt I might have “got it.” 

I suspect this moment occurred now because the continuing profound effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have over the last year and a half encouraged me to focus much more clearly on in what my own religious and philosophical faith actually now consists and, therefore, on how I, as both an individual human being and as a liberal minister of religion in Cambridge, intend to go on living in the years to come.

Perhaps what follows is just nonsense but, perhaps, not . . .   

But, first, here is Roberts’ poem:


ON READING SOME NEGLECTED POETS

by Michael Roberts


This is a long road in a dubious mist;

Not with any groan nor any heard complaint

We march, uncomprehending, not expecting Time

To show us beacons.


When we have struggled on a little farther

This madness will yield of itself,

There will not be any singing or sudden joy,

But a load will be set down.


And maybe no one will ever come,

No other traveller passing that way,

Therefore the load we lifted will be left,

A milestone, insignificant.

—o0o—

In my recent, close re-reading of Tanabe Hajime’s “Philosophy as Metanoetics” and Paul Wienpahl’s “Unorthodox Lecture” [alongside my continued commitment to a certain kind of Christian Atheism (highly influenced by Thomas J. J. Altizer]) I can see more clearly than before that I have been walking a very particular, if still unusual, road less travelled for a long time now. 

In short, I can see that this has been a long road in a dubious mist along which, without any groan nor any heard complaint I, and (thankfully) two other philosophically and religiously inclined companions (one of whom is Susanna, my belovéd wife and friend), have been marching uncomprehending, not expecting time to show us beacons.”

Our hope — which does not feel unfounded even as we fully acknowledge that it may well turn out to be illusory — is that when we have struggled on a little farther the madness of undertaking this journey will yield of itself, at which point we have a strong premonition that there will not be any singing or sudden joy but, thank goodness, a load will be set down. We will have arrived at some interstitial “place” (or, better still, entered into a certain mode or way of being/acting) that makes it possible for us to be religious again after the death of God but now with genuinely clean hearts and full belief (pathos).

Naturally, as we continue to travel this long road in a dubious mist, we have little choice but to acknowledge that maybe no one will ever come, no other traveller will pass along this way, and so the load we have lifted (passed on to us by key thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Tanabe, Wienpahl and Altizer) will be left as a milestone, insignificant. 

But that is fine, because this is always how it is on any true religious and philosophical journey. We are all simply making transient footprints on the ever-unfolding path of life; footprints which just might, at their best, act for others as encouraging and inspiring marks/milestones as they pursue the adventure of life along their own long roads in dubious mists.

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