So Good-Luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night;
Not all at once, but gently,—as the trees
Are by the sun-beams, tickled by degrees.
I was reading through the Faber Book of Epigrams and Epitaphs yesterday, mostly for pleasure, but also with half a mind for a short blog post this weekend; and I enjoyed by and by the snark and sarcasm, pithy wit and bitter put-downs of the great wits of the ages, from Martial through to Belloc, and the touching or tetchy memorials to the great and the good, and the neither. But this was something quite different, this little lyric of Herrick’s, a poem I must have scanned over a few times without really digesting it.
But this time it got me, like a Zen koan, a brief moment of enlightenment: yes – yes, this is what luck is really like, this is happiness, what Herrick is talking about here.
We’re not so different from the medievals sometimes, I think, with their idea of Fortuna and her great wheel, and us all wheeling from moments of great fortune and achievement to disaster and failure, and back again – but what if we could, as Herrick does here, instead view luck and happiness as something more humble, something everyday, something – as in the three similes here – received slowly and surely while we hardly notice.
Having said that – and this admission makes me feel rather petty bourgeois – that line about the snow reminded me of the last time we had heavy snow in England: a tile came off and the guttering was dislodged in the thaw. I called a roofer, who came round, took a quick glance and said ‘seventy five quid, that.’ For a half hour’s work? I grudgingly paid up. The point is, snow can be a pretty thing, but it can also be a troublesome one. Morning dew is a picturesque thing too, but for many people, it will remind them of wet and cold boots – or the discomfiting fact of having been up early in the first place. There is an aftertaste of arduousness in these images after all. Even that sun on the trees reminds us of ageing – of death even. And perhaps that is why we don’t notice the kind of luck and happiness this little poem is about, because it comes to us mingled with hard work and mundane tasks, all mixed up with the business of living one’s life.
That luck alighting on the roof brought another strange and contrasting association to mind. Some British readers will remember the adverts for the National Lottery back when it started in the mid-Nineties: a huge golden hand descended from the sky pointing at an unsuspecting suburban house – ‘It could be you!’ said the otherworldly voiceover, promising incredible fortune. Herrick instead realises, ‘It is me’ – that is, I have lived a good life, I have been happy, known good friends, seen and experienced wonderful things -and thus, fortune or no, I can count myself lucky