This is the time of year for lists of things, or at least this is the time of year when people are persuaded that it’s good to follow a list of things: New Year’s resolutions, for example. And there are dieting checklists, and exercise checklists, and lists of types of behavior to follow in the quest for a successful job interview. There are even checklists to follow in choosing the new family pet, the new family car, and the most recent repair people to visit the house. We are simply inundated with lists of organized considerations for how to do, how to ask, how to be. Is it any wonder that it occurs to me to write a list (or at least to think that it’s once again time for someone to write a list) of the tenets of friendship, the more especially as this is the time of year when we are reevaluating things and people in our lives, and deciding which ones will continue to “do,” and which ones simply won’t?
The problem is, as I am sitting here typing, it occurs to me that in the deepest sense, friendship has no tenets, but only a soul (because if you have to make rules, it means you’re playing a game, not living a life). And I ask myself, what is the best way to conceive of the love of friendship, without setting out a whole host of considerations for tying tight knots and binding others in uncomfortable ways which speak more of the ardors of Fifty Shades of Grey than of a loving and equal relationship? And it follows that I find myself thinking of some of the nicer and more resonant things said by writers and poets about friendship. Here’s a few of them:
As George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron once wrote, “L’Amitié Est l’Amour sans Ailes” (Friendship is Love without his wings!”). A moment’s thought and a brief factoid about Byron’s private life will inform the average reader that this means that while Love may fly away, true Love (Friendship) doesn’t, in the poet’s august opinion. Certainly, Byron was an authority on Love with women flying away, whatever he was on the subject of Friendship.
As to the unknown features of what makes friendship tick, as Ibycus said in 580 B.C., “An argument needs no reason, nor a friendship.” Thank God, that saves us making another list, a list about what makes friendship! (Though I suppose I’m coming close to doing so in this post.) Probably this will remind most people of the friendships they formed either while young in age or young at heart, those friendships that just seem to depend on a certain proclivity for the other’s company that isn’t easy to explain.
Speaking for the vitality and occasional storminess of friendship, the Marquise de Sévigné once said, “True friendship is never serene.” I suppose that means that a living, growing friendship keeps us always on our toes, because as it grows we have to grow and change with it, to accomodate its differences and the changes of the other person(s). Ralph Waldo Emerson expatiated even more on this thought by saying in his Uncollected Lectures: Table Talk: “Keep your friendships in repair.” Not a bad thought, though I hope it doesn’t make you feel tired when you are hovering here on the brink of a new year and just getting started with another winter season.
Following from the last paragraph above, I think of one of my own favorite poetic disquisitions on the difference between friendship and enmity, by William Blake, called “A Poison Tree,” based on the metaphor of boys stealing apples from others’ orchards. I’ll quote it in full, from David V. Erdman’s Doubleday Anchor edition of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake:
“I was angry with my friend; I told my wrath, my wrath did end./I was angry with my foe;/I told it not, my wrath did grow,/And I watrd it in fears,/Night & morning with my tears:/And I sunned it with smiles,/And with soft deceitful wiles./And it grew both day and night./Till it bore an apple bright./And my foe beheld it shine./And he knew that it was mine./And into my garden stole,/When the night had veild the pole;/In the morning glad I see;/My foe outstretchd beneath the tree.” This poem is a bit overbalanced by the “poison apple” motif (which of course like evil or negative outcomes in other poetry and fiction is more “dramatic” and so gets more “airplay” than the good and the happy), but the first two lines contain the true moral of the story, not the “twisted” moral which is the subject of examination in this poem as it is contained in Blake’s “Songs of Experience.” “I was angry with my friend; I told my wrath, my wrath did end” is the happy ending of the poem, though it occurs at the beginning, and Blake gives us a “taste” of the poison of the apple festering in the speaker’s soul so that we are also “outstretchd beneath the tree” if we don’t see that. Of course, we’ve probably all had situations in which we’d like gleefully to see a “foe” at a disadvantage, and temptation being what it is, I can’t deny that the negative part of the poem has a real force to it, but having written my share of poetic and literary broadsides about people who’ve offended me in some way or other, I can tell you that I generally prefer sharing anger straightforwardly with friends to letting resentment build up for months or years and getting even with persons who’ve become enemies instead of friends. This is because focusing on anger and negative emotions I’ve felt toward enemies causes me to “taste the poison” again too, and I would far rather be “keeping my friendships in repair” than revisiting old quarrels (though quarrels are so very good for fiction and poetry that I am occasionally inconsistent).
Finally, the timing of friendship’s formation is an uncertain measure, more like a sea (and a boundless soul) than something from a checklist of characteristics. As James Boswell said, “We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”
The factors listed above are some of the things I would consider important when attempting to suggest what I think the soul of friendship is. But there’s one more thing that I consider valuable, and that is that my friends (and many of you who respond to my writings, whether by this blogsite or by e-mail, are friends)–my friends are those who encourage me when they see me at my best, who may shake their heads privately at me when they see me at my worst but still bear with me, and who tell me what they think, even when I offend or irritate them. They are people who are working at keeping their friendships in repair and who don’t plot to feed me poison apples, and they are worth loving for those features alone, though they have others equally endearing. So this is my time to say “Thank you” to all of you who have participated in reading and/or commenting on my blog for the last six months, since July 4 when I started writing here on WordPress.com. Thank you for being first willing readers then interested acquaintances, then finally friends who tell me what they’re up to and who also give me good reads on their own sites and in their own forums to keep me going. I appreciate all your comments, and hope you will keep reading and continuing to “feed” the soul of friendship by keeping them coming!