In last week’s Featured Poem, a magnifying glass was held up to the seemingly straightforward feeling of pleasure, shining light upon it – somewhat appropriately – to reveal its true, ‘shadowy’ nature. Just like shadow, pleasure is temporary; it can be seen, felt but not held onto for very long no matter how tight the grasp. It will eventually softly slip through the fingers and into the realm of memory, only to be revisited retrospectively.
Though pleasure may be shadow-like with respect to time and length, everything else about the sensation is surely the opposite in demeanour? Not dim or dusky but bright, brilliant and bubbly. Just consider an extra-large dollop of cream in a cup of coffee or on top of a mouth-watering dessert or the light-headedness that comes from splashing out on a shopping spree or something else equally enjoyable. A sense of delight seems in-built, the sound of the syllables as you say the word out loud echoing the sumptuous and indulgent nature of its encounters. But indulge mindlessly in pleasure at your peril as according to William Henry Davies, its darkness goes deeper than mere surface. Far from being frivolous and full of good spirit, Davies portrays pleasure as filled with pitfalls and less-than-preferable personality traits that will potentially affect – and infect. It is shallow, senseless and self-centred and almost always tinged with a sense of shame; reading this poem, the term ‘guilty pleasure’ springs to mind and is given something of a new meaning. Instead it is the altogether more modest experience of joy that we should be searching for, striving towards and revelling in; though it might not be as dazzling or obviously inviting, its simplicity will reward us on a deeper, more fulfilling level.
Though he may have a point, Davies is perhaps being rash in dismissing the pleasure of pleasure so swiftly and categorically. Both have their finer points; pleasure is not all black, joy is not all white. In reading the poem, it strikes me that the difference between the two all comes down to a simple matter of semantics; a nuance of meaning barely noticeable in casual use but which makes the apparent synonyms quite distinctive indeed. To me, joy is distinguished as not only nice – as Davies characterises it through comparisons with cute creatures of nature – but pure, serene, unspoilt…even religiously divine. In contrast, pleasure seems to be defined by hedonism and decadence (and dare I say, more than a little bit of naughtiness). Where I may be inclined to agree with Davies in doing down pleasure is in that it often does have the tendency to be one sided and ever-so-selfish whereas joy opens up a two-way process, offering something other than just personal gratification. Just another example of how fascinating the English language can be…but getting back to the point, why should we have one without the other? Surely there’s a time for joy, a time for pleasure and indeed, a time for both joy and pleasure together.
Joy and Pleasure
Now, joy is born of parents poor,
And pleasure of our richer kind;
Though pleasure’s free, she cannot sing
As sweet a song as joy confined.
Pleasure’s a Moth, that sleeps by day
And dances by false glare at night;
But Joy’s a Butterfly, that loves
To spread its wings in Nature’s light.
Joy’s like a Bee that gently sucks
Away on blossoms its sweet hour;
But pleasure’s like a greedy Wasp,
That plums and cherries would devour.
Joy’s like a Lark that lives alone,
Whose ties are very strong, though few;
But Pleasure like a Cuckoo roams,
Makes much acquaintance, no friends true.
Joy from her heart doth sing at home,
With little care if others hear;
But pleasure then is cold and dumb,
And sings and laughs with strangers near.
William Henry Davies (1871-1940)