From LRB, 19 March, 2015
“Faith in the value of a humanist education is beginning to look like an antique romance. I flattered myself that by teaching I could perhaps make a difference, spark a young mind, foster an older, returning student’s aspirations, and act as the catalyst of that self-discovery described by Seamus Heaney in The Redress of Poetry when he writes, ‘we go to poetry to be forwarded within ourselves’; literature, Heaney says, gives ‘an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering’. I think we could say that we go to education, too, for these experiences, to be forwarded in ourselves and to recognise things we only glimpsed dimly before. Despite the warnings against cruel optimism, I still hold fast to the life of the mind – its beauty, its necessity.
From LRB, an old piece about Coleridge, and how it might have been better had he died young:
He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – – found that he knew not what to do.
After the first glorious days of his friendship with Wordsworth, Coleridge set about – or perhaps only resumed – a course of procrastination and ruin from which it seemed decent to avert one’s eyes. His life grew complicated and his poetry sparse, and his achievement took forms that required sometimes unreasonable effort to value.
In December he recognised that ‘I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, – that I mistook a strong desire for original power.’ By March 1801, Coleridge had decided it was all over: ‘The Poet is dead in me.’
Whenas the rye reach to the chin,
And chopcherry, chopcherry ripe within,
Strawberries swimming in the cream,
And schoolboys playing in the stream;
Then, O, then, O, then, O, my true love said,
Till that time come again,
She could not live a maid.
George Peele (1558-1598)
Some days were running legs
Some days were running legs and joy
and old men telling tomorrow would be
a fine day surely: for sky was red
at setting of sun between the hills.
Some nights were parting at the gates
with day’s companions: and dew falling
on heads clear of ambition except light
returning and throwing stones at sticks.
Some days were rain flooding forever the green
pasture: and horses turning to the wind
bare smooth backs. The toothed rocks rising
sharp and grey out of the ancient sea.
Some nights were shawling mirrors lest the lightning
strike with eel’s speed out of the storm.
Black the roman rooks came from the left squawking
and the evening flowed back around their wings.
Iain Crichton Smith from ‘The Long River’ 1955
A Scottish poem I used to teach, and had almost forgotten about, resurfaced yesterday, and here it is, in all its old glory.
Here’s a passage which pretty much speaks for itself, and which I’ve quoted at length below, from the L A Times:
“Melancholia, far from error or defect, is an almost miraculous invitation to rise above the contented status quo and imagine untapped possibilities. We need sorrow, constant and robust, to make us human, alive, sensitive to the sweet rhythms of growth and decay, death and life.
This of course does not mean that we should simply wallow in gloom, that we should wantonly cultivate depression. I’m not out to romanticize mental illnesses that can end in madness or suicide.
On the contrary, following Keats and those like him, I’m valorizing a fundamental emotion too frequently avoided in the American scene. I’m offering hope to those millions who feel guilty for being downhearted. I’m saying that it’s more than all right to descend into introspective gloom. In fact, it is crucial, a call to what might be the best portion of ourselves, those depths where the most lasting truths lie.”
Read more here. It’s well worth the time.