Last week, in honour of Independence Day, we took a celebratory nod towards all things American. This week, we’ll go much closer to home and turn our minds towards the characteristics of this humble little island; the markers of ‘Britishness’, if you will. There’s an amount of distinguishable physical landmarks that can be easily listed – black cabs, red telephone boxes – as well as culinary customs – without being too dismissive surely fish and chips, cream teas and endless cups of tea have more appeal than greasy burgers, hot-dogs and fizz-filled soda. But perhaps what really makes Brits stand out from the crowd is not in the tangible but instead in ways of acting, doing and being. This may have changed somewhat over time – I’d venture that the stiff upper lip has become a touch more pliable and buttons are not quite so tightly fastened to the collar anymore – but there still remains a crucial part of our collective nature that seems to be steadfastly apparent and ingrained to our very British core: the capacity to complain. Without subscribing to too much of a national stereotype, complaining is the pastime to which nothing else can come close; except, perhaps, for queuing (complaining while in a queue – there’s a double whammy of outstanding British behaviour).
Although perhaps we’re not that good at complaining, really, especially when it comes to taking things further than shaking heads and tutting several times; that’s where the restraint comes back into play. It’d probably be more accurate to say we possess the ability to be unfailingly dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction seems to come naturally; it might be said that we’re not really satisfied unless we’ve got something to be dissatisfied about, even in the rosiest of times. Take a prime example – the weather (talking about the weather: another mark of a true Brit). The great British summer and all its volatility is the cause of much dissatisfaction. When it’s raining incessantly, being the cause of deflating days out and soggy picnic sandwiches, there certainly is some validity. It seems slightly stranger to find things on the other scale unsatisfactory but alas, we do: as humidity levels rise, so does dissatisfaction; on such days, it’s too hot to sit, too hot to sleep, too hot to cool down…too hot to do anything but be disgruntled. It turns out that the grass is always greener on the other side (unless of course, there’s a drought…).
Yet, I think due to the uniquely jumbled, muddled (in a good way) quality of British life that it’s perfectly acceptable for us to be contrary and contradictory. I’d go so far as to say we’re entitled. So it seems only right that someone very British – indeed, who has been called the ‘Father of English Poetry’ – should offer up a portrayal of a man completely conflicted between the most acute extremes of emotion. Although, to add to the jumble, this is one of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s imitations of Francisco Petrarch’s sonnets, Pace Non Trovo; so, an expression of a state of feeling tied so closely to British sensibilities which has its origins in Italian poetry. But that just adds to the universal applicability of it. Though tumultuous, tormented, and more than a little dramatic at points, this isn’t a grumpy complaint as such – more a stoic statement of such utter contradiction. And although it appears that the cause of the conflict in this case is the ‘helplessness’ of love – it is a sonnet after all – its soaring highs, crashing lows and overall sense of dissatisfied deflation could apply to almost any situation, even complaints about the weather (‘I burn, and freeze like ice’ being an appropriate line). I particularly like the closing lines which bring to mind those strange situations whereby in the midst of happiness, without knowing why, melancholy can still close in. Unexplainable but certainly identifiable.
I Find No Peace
I find no peace, and all my war is done.
I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not—yet can I scape no wise—
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
Without eyen I see, and without tongue I plain.
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.
I love another, and thus I hate myself.
I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both life and death,
And my delight is causer of this strife.
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)