So they ask you to think about first place, that is, the first influence of locale on your life. If you’ve a gift for early memories you may find sorrow in the exercise. Yeats remembered it this way:
“I am sitting on the ground looking at a mastless toy boat with the paint rubbed and scratched, and I say to myself in great melancholy, ‘It is further away than it used to be’, and while I am saying it I am looking at a long scratch in the stern, for it is especially the scratch which is further away. Then one day at dinner my great-uncle, William Middleton, says, ‘We should not make light of the troubles of children. They are worse than ours, because we can see the end of our trouble and they can never see any end’, and I feel grateful, for I know that I am very unhappy and have often said to myself, ‘When you grow up, never talk as grown-up people do of the happiness of childhood’.”
There are three kinds of sorrows in this passage: already the boy sees the toy is eluding his grasp; the damaged toy is eluding him; The uncle says the sorrows are commensurate with youth itself—which will mean a great deal (an agon) for the imagination—the child’s and the man’s.
What to do about this?
Deep in the night and half awake I hear apple branches sway in a light breeze. What a good life. I think of William Shakespeare toasting his actors in the Anchor pub where I too have toasted others. What a good life. I get up early and walk in a gentle rain. Laugh. Thinking of Hegel. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” A good life. And how good my shoes feel. Hegel: “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history.” A good life. Cold water in a coffee cup.
Of course Hegel thought you could write history. Yeats understands its already slipped away.
I’m one of the only readers I know who thinks of Yeats as a pragmatist.
A small poem from one of my notebooks:
Morning. The maples heavy with rain—
And before life has begun one thinks,
How a human mind starts up
Cold, still dark.
Who taught me
About life after life?