In his The Story of Christianity, David Bentley Hart repeats a story popular in the early days of Christian asceticism, told to demonstrate the moral strength of early desert ascetics. Satan is receiving the reports of his high-ranking devils and passing judgment on them. One demon comes forward to report that he has caused riots, wars and bloodshed. This sounds impressive, but when Satan hears that it took the demon a month, he punishes him severely. A second has raised storms at sea and sent many men to their deaths, but this took him 20 days; he is punished too. A third demon sowed discord at a wedding, which led to the death of the bridegroom, but this took him 10 days – it is the scourge for him.
Hard one to please, is Satan. But then a fourth demon comes to tell of his exploits. He has been tormenting a hermit monk in the desert, and after 40 years has finally succeeded in making the hermit have a lustful thought. The demon is crowned and Satan proclaims, ‘You have performed a brave and mighty deed!’
One lustful thought in 40 years is nevertheless an impressively low number. But the hermit is, after all an ascetic, and thus held to extraordinary standards of purity and self-restraint. As for the rest of us, I think the Welsh poet W.H. Davies has it about right:
One hour in every hundred hours
I sing of childhood, birds and flowers;
Who reads my character in song
Will not see much in me that’s wrong.
But in my ninety hours and nine
I would not tell what thoughts are mine:
They’re not so pure as find their words
In songs of childhood, flowers and birds.
W.H. Davies was of course no ascetic, but a kind of ‘Tramp’ poet, who wandered Britain and North America, begging, borrowing, doing seasonal work and occasionally committing petty crime. He famously lost a foot trying to jump on a moving train. His most well-known poem is Leisure, an ode to the pleasures of gazing idly at woods and streams as opposed to working. But his poems, as much as they owed to his enjoyment of nature, also display the kind of pithy wit that must have served him well in the rough and tumble, hand-to-mouth life that he led.
Davies’ confession does not specify the exact subject of the impure thoughts that occupy his ninety-nine hours out of a hundred: probably sex, violence, revenge, envy, murderousness contempt, power and all the usual human vices – but probably most of all sex. I don’t know, the poem just has that sort of twinkle in its eye. He is paying his slightly tongue-in-cheek respects to the conventional morality of his age, with a deliberately twee description of what is a moral and ‘pure’ subject for poetry. Childhood, birds and flowers: sugar and spice and all things nice. To that same morality, it was sex that was the great unspeakable, Victorian prudishness surviving into the 20th Century at least a few decades. Long enough anyway, for Davies to refrain from sharing his seedier thoughts with us. Mind you, some of those poems about flowers and birds aren’t half as innocent as they might seem…