You can paint the spaces around it, that is to say, but not it. For centuries happiness has been symbolised in white. The Ancients, like Catullus, spoke of marking a happy event with a white stone, and you remember the sudden brightness of the moment when you opened a certain letter or saw a certain face.

That marks happiness off from mere contentment, as in the poems of Horace, or Andrew Marvell’s ‘Garden’ – ‘a green thought in a green shade’. It is intense, and its intensity evades all description and debate. The Garden of Eden, St. Augustine once explained, was planted in the east, which is why light comes at dawn – unless, he adds confusingly, Genesis is translated out of Hebrew into Latin, in which case it means a feast. But then happiness is only figuratively a place at all. ‘Such joys rise above the earth,’ said Augustine, ‘and are not overwhelmed by the tangles of earthly desires.’ So, wherever it is, happiness paints white, and you strive at best to recall its confines and edges to recapture it at all.


An example from outside religion and innocent of all mystical content may help. It has nothing to do with love either, or friendship or gardens. An old lady in Paris after the war once tried to recall a moment in June 1944 when she heard of the Normandy landing on her radio. By then she had been active for years in the French resistance. She had hidden gold coins in the hollow stem of her supper table against the day when paper money would count for nothing; she had survived several interrogations by the Gestapo and learned to use back alleys around her home that her German pursuers did not know. Liberation was news she had hardly dared to hope, and as she heard it her mind went blank with joy. The next moments were unaccountable. She found herself cleaning the bath in her best dress, with no memory of changing, and moments later she found herself walking down her familiar high street in suburban Paris clutching a pot-plant in her hand.

So happiness is hard to find, hard to hold and, above all, hard to describe. Wordsworth called his joyous moments ‘spots of time’ and spoke of their vivifying virtue; but they baffle interpretation and defy the skills of the greatest novelists. Nobody claims them of right. Hap means chance, after all. In July 1776 a celebrated declaration of independence spoke of life and liberty as inalienable rights and tentatively added the pursuit of happiness. That implies, presumably, that no one has a right to it, still less a right to keep it. It was prudent of the founders of the American republic to promise no more. Americans have been pursuing happiness for two centuries, and one can only wish them good hunting.

No one, after all, can reasonably promise it or predict it. ‘Wish me partaker in thy happiness,’ says one young man to another at the start of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, seeing him off on a journey, ‘when though dost meet good hap.’ You do not have to be intelligent or deserving, just lucky. The mad are not exempted. ‘How pregnant sometimes his replies are,’ Polonius remarks of Hamlet, thinking him insane – ‘a happiness that often madness hits on,’ meaning the right word or phrase. There is no knowing when it will strike, or whom.

It can, however, or so some think, be planned. As general of the Venetian army in Cyprus, Othello orders his troops to put themselves into triumph when the joyful news comes of the Turkish fleet lost in a storm. As a bluff soldier he believes there are two kinds of people, or at least two kinds of young men: ‘some to dance, some to make bonfires.’ On that simple, oddly plausible view, mankind is divided into dancers and pyromaniacs. It is a useful working hypothesis. I have been lighting fires since childhood, literally and figuratively, and I do not dance.


One might make a game of it. W. H. Auden, in his last years in New York, had a diverting hobby: he would ask people at first meeting what they hoped heaven would be like if they could choose. What would you eat in heaven, and drink? What games would you play? What would the climate

be, and the company? What language? One young woman, over breakfast at Grand Central Station, had no doubt about that one. ‘English,’ she said, since it was the only language she spoke well. Auden corrected her: ‘Italian, I think – God speaks English.’ But then he spent his summers, in those years, on the Bay of Naples.

Joy can mislead. In The Prelude Wordsworth tells how as a Cambridge undergraduate he got drunk for the first time in his life. It was also his last. Biographers do not question his veracity, and his excuse is endearing. He was sitting in Milton’s room, as it is called, in Christ’s College, and when his host mentioned it he lost all sense of time and place, putting glass after glass to his lips. Suddenly he found he was drunk and in danger of being late for evening chapel at St. John’s College, which in those days was compulsory. So he ran unsteadily back, and narrowly made it. His story is not much impaired by later research which has shown that the building Milton occupied in the 1620s was pulled down in the eighteenth century. Wordsworth can be forgiven for his drunkenness too, and it is almost certain it never happened again.

In English, at least, happiness found its bard late. Thomas Traherne (1637- 74) died in the same year as Milton, but his writings were not discovered till the 1890s. Arthur Quiller-Couch was so stirred by their images of joy that he quoted Traherne to Cambridge undergraduates in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme; and the excerpts he included in his Oxford Book of English Prose are so startling that they look unsurpassable. They are not surpassed, certainly, by his verse. Traherne was a country clergyman in Herefordshire who had been disappointed by his time at Brasenose College, Oxford, where the tutors (he complained) had failed to teach felicity. That sounds like a lot to ask of any college, even Brasenose. But Traherne soon found what he wanted in a remote country living called Credenhill, near his birthplace; though he ended his short life seeking church preferment in Teddington on the Thames as chaplain to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

His Centuries of Meditations (1908) are in prose paragraphs numbered in hundreds, and they are grander than his verse. They speak of a rural existence that Teddington is unlikely to have offered even in the age of Charles II. ‘You will never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.’ That sounds like ultimate joy. It can ignore hunger, bereavement and homelessness. It can ignore bank failures and ethnic crises in distant places. Shakespeare called it good hap, but it is not all hap or luck. You can, after all, pursue it.

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