‘O May I Join the Choir Invisible’
O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.
So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better— saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shaped it forth before the multitude
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reference more mixed with love—
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread for ever.
This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.
George Eliot (1867)
Whether you believe in any sort of afterlife or not, to live on ‘in minds made better by [your] presence … in pulses stirred to generosity’, is perhaps the best kind of immortality. And writers, especially when they write as powerfully and meaningfully as George Eliot (pen-name of Mary Ann Evans, 1819 – 1880), have a better chance than most of achieving it. Her works are used frequently and to great effect in Get Into Reading groups (where she continues to be ‘to other souls / The cup of strength … a good diffused’) and her words are never far from conversations about the relationship between life and literature. In fact, more than any other writer, her spirit seems to happily haunt the desks and shelves and printers and carpets and corridors that constitute The Reader Organisation.
We learn words by rote, but not their meaning; that must be paid for with our life-blood, and printed in the subtle fibres of our nerves
George Eliot, The Lifted Veil