Why Heaven?

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   September 27, 2022

Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp – or what’s a Heaven for?”

This quotation, from Robert Browning’s long poem, “Andrea del Sarto,” may be all anybody remembers of that work (if any of it is remembered at all). But the idea itself is certainly worth thinking about. Whether or not you truly believe in a life after life, the concept certainly has its appeal – suggesting that, if you didn’t get what you wanted this time, there may still be some more satisfying outcome waiting for you, next time around.

As a professional writer of epigrams – (though hardly in the literary class of a Robert Browning) – I find the same Heavenly subject often referred to in my own works. Indeed, one of the most popular lines I ever wrote – at least, in the region where I happened to be living at the time when I wrote it, was the one that says:

“There may be no Heaven anywhere,
But somewhere there is a San Francisco.”

That expression still circulates in many media, including even the ceiling of a hotel room which looks out on the Golden Gate. But its most enduring form has been the original one, which was the Postcard, a medium on which all my work first appeared. There is, in fact, one bookstore in Berkeley which still orders them in the hundreds.

Of course, San Francisco is not the only place that can be poetically equated with Heaven. The same might be said, by many people, about Santa Barbara, or Montecito. But I don’t think New York or London could quite fit into that category. Paris would do, during its relatively peaceful periods, which seem to come and go. One of the saddest songs I know was written by an American, Jerome Kern, just after France fell to the Nazis in 1940. It was called “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” and is full of nostalgic reminiscences about how Paris used to be, but concludes with the sorrowful thought, that:

No matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way.”

But, speaking of songs, there are any number of romantic melodies comparing the state of being in love with that of being in Heaven. To cite just a few:

“Heaven, I’m in Heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak…
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.”

Then there was:

“Just Molly and me – 
And baby makes three – 
We’re happy in My Blue Heaven.”

To cartoonists, Heaven always has a haloed Saint Peter at the gate, deciding, of the various applicants, whom to admit. But the same kind of subject matter has, of course, been treated much more seriously by such literary super-heroes as Dante Alighieri (whose guide to “Paradiso” in the last part of his Divine Comedy is Beatrice, his imagined, almost mythical, real-life girlfriend) and John Milton, with his Paradise Lost, and Paradise Regained. So “Paradise” is another name for Heaven. The word can be traced to numerous Middle Eastern languages, where it had various meanings connoting an enclosure or “garden.” It is this that leads us into the Book of Genesis, and its concept of a “Garden of Eden,” where, at first, it was all Heavenly, until something happened to spoil everything.

We might learn from this to be careful how we name places. Remember the Northern California town of Paradise, so-called since its founding in 1868, which, only a few years ago, was utterly devastated by the most deadly and destructive wildfire in California history. Despite this irony, I haven’t heard of any serious proposals to change the name of that town’s remnants. 

A much more pleasant connection can be made with the work of the Medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam, which was almost unknown in the West until, in 1859, some of it was translated by the English writer, Edward Fitzgerald. Among its best-known lines, with their own memorable conception of Paradise, are these:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Ah, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

The word “enow” is an archaic form of “enough,” which, I suppose, Fitzgerald chose to use for the sake of the rhyme. I can also accept the tree, the jug, the loaf, the implied passion, and even the Wilderness – but, for the Book of Verses, why not a Book of Brilliant Thoughts?  


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