“Such is the Force of Happiness…” (787)
Such is the Force of Happiness –
The Least – can lift a Ton
Assisted by its stimulus –
Who Misery – sustain –
No Sinew can afford –
The Cargo of Themselves –
Too infinite for Consciousness’
“Consciousness” does not occur in the first stanza, and the peculiar grammar of “Who Misery – sustain” makes us wonder if the “Force of Happiness” allows for human agency. A first glance at this poem would lead one to think “Happiness” is uncritically empowering, and misery is merely wallowing in self-pity.
Our suspicions that this first reading may be slightly inaccurate begin with “such” opening the first stanza, implying sorts of things, whereas “who” opens the second stanza. “The Least” need not be people: we do say ‘the least amount of force.’ The “stimulus” inheres in the “Force:” does “Force” only assist itself? “Force” alone lifts, after all – we’ve all seen Star Wars.
“Who sustains Misery” is where the grammar of this poem truly leads. All of us sustain Misery; “No Sinew can afford” us. “Force,” “lift,” “Sinew” all link Happiness to a physical metaphor that stays physical. That physical metaphor is of vertical motion in one direction – up. “Cargo” implies horizontal motion, especially when coupled with “slow:” cargo can be lifted as a generic “Ton,” but why would speed be relevant in such a case? In “The Divine Comedy,” the consistent metaphor for the journey of the soul is a ship.
It seems Misery is all-encompassing in a problematic way: “Consciousness’ slow capabilities” are perhaps trapped by the very cargo they carry. Proust often talks about seeing other people exactly in the way you think of them: others’ features become confirmations of our judgment.
Yet there are clear differences between “Happiness” and “Misery.” The generic “force” denies subjectivity; the physical strength of Happiness is subordinate to the sheer infinitude of misery. Our strength, apart from happiness, is infinite: misery is what we sustain. The mere existential fact of being human sustains even as we grapple with the infinite. The weight of cargo slows us, but we still move rather than sink: no one said “slow” was a bad thing, when you are your burden. Before entering Eden towards the end of Purgatorio, Dante drinks of Lethe.