“Strange fits of passion have I known…” William Wordsworth circa 1807 by Henry Edridge. Courtesy of the Wordsworth Trust.”
Poor Ken Mannion’s struggling with the essay he has to write for his 19th Century British Literature class. The topic’s Wordsworth’s “spots of time” as they appear in “The Prelude.” He doesn’t have to focus on the whole poem. Just on Book XI.
Ken’s enjoying the course and likes the professor. The essay, however, has him filled with self-doubt and confusion. He asked me to give him some advice, so I took a look over the assignment. My heart sank. The professor’s very exacting. He’s given his students a long list of Do’s and Don’ts, Musts and Must Nots. I understand what he’s trying to do and I applaud his goal. He’s teaching his students how to think and write critically, how to develop a thesis and argue from evidence, and if he’s successful they’ll have learned lessons that will be useful not just in all their future classes but in their future careers. This is good.
But he’s not teaching them to love poetry. Not with this assignment. There’s nothing in the assignment that even suggests poetry is meant to be loved, can be loved. There’s nothing to make them love this poem or love Wordsworth. (Actually, I don’t think you can love “The Prelude” unless you already love Wordsworth.) There’s no need to love him or it or anything to ace the paper. You just need to know stuff. And when they’re done, if they do it right, they’ll know stuff about Romanticism. They’ll know what marks Wordsworth as a Romantic, the Romantics’ Romantic, in fact. They’ll know his themes, his techniques, his conceits. They’ll know what he meant by “spots of time” and why he felt they were so important that he built a fourteen book epic poem around them. But Book XI contains one of Wordsworth’s most famous set of lines---
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven...
That’s evidence to argue from right there. It needs to be in the essay and I told that to Ken when I recited the lines for him. But there’s nothing in the assignment that tells you that those lines are meant to be recited. There’s nothing that makes you want to recite them. Nothing about the assignment that will stamp those lines on your heart in a way that you’ll remember twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years from now so that they’ll come bursting out of you spontaneously, rapturously, lovingly, for no reason you can explain except that you needed to hear yourself say them. You like the sound of them that much. And that’s the problem.
You can understand the themes, know the history, be able to put it all in a critical, literary, and biographical context, but if you never really hear it, if you don’t know and love the sound of it, you’ve missed the point.
You’ve missed the poetry.
I don’t know what if any good I’ve ever done as a teacher. I suspect not much. That’s why I take comfort in what Wendell Berry’s said about there being “no teacher meter”:
A teacher’s major contribution [Berry writes] may pop out anonymously in the life of some ex-student’s grandchild.
Now that I think about it---and I’d rather not think about it---my first group of students is old enough now that a few of them probably are grandparents. It’s still maybe twenty years down the line, but when these grandchildren start popping up regularly in my classes I’ll know it’s time for me to shuffle off the stage.
There’s at least one good thing I like to think I did do.
I saved a marriage.
Not on my own.
Me and Wordsworth.
There was a young married couple in one of the freshman comp classes I taught in Indiana when I was just out of grad school. They’d met in Korea when he was in the Army and stationed over there. They’d fallen in love despite their cultural differences, which didn’t include the one you’d expect, that she was Korean and he was a Hoosier and about as Midwestern an American as you can find, and did include one you might not expect---I didn’t, at any rate. She loved English poetry, the Romantics particularly and Wordsworth especially, and he…didn’t.
He didn’t get it. Any of it.
Wordsworth might as well have been writing in Korean as far as he understood a line of what he wrote.
It happened that I’d turned those comp classes into Intro to Poetry classes (The department chair let me get away with this.) so we were reading some Wordsworth. Not “The Prelude”! “Daffodils,” couple of sonnets, including one I’m going to get to. She was thrilled. He was in despair. It wasn’t that he was worried about flunking the class. He was scared he was flunking his marriage. She struck me as already pretty well Americanized, but she wanted to become even more American so that she could get a degree in English Literature and become a teacher herself. I don’t remember if she wrote poetry, but it seems likely. But her main ambition wasn’t to be a poet but to help students to love poetry as much as she did. And it hurt him that there was this whole important side of her that he couldn’t talk about with her. He felt left out. He felt left behind. He wasn’t angry about this or resentful. Just sad. He felt sad for her. Sad she was stuck with him. Sad at that thought that it would eventually dawn on her she didn’t have to stay stuck with him.
This wasn’t something I knew from watching them in class. To see them together was to see a very happy couple. And I don’t think they were pretending. They were in love. But they both told me about it separately, she before and he after. In her telling, it wasn’t a major problem, just a bit of a disappointment. She loved poetry and she wished he did too so she could share her enjoyment with him. In his version, it was looking like the end of all their happiness, until…
By the way, neither one came to me to confess anything. They’d both showed up at different times during my office hours to talk about their rough drafts for different assignments and things just came out. I can’t remember for certain which assignments. I had my students write a standard critical essay, although I wasn’t anywhere near as exacting as Ken’s professor, but I also had them write a personal essay about a poem, any poem, their pick, from our anthology in which they found parallels with their own lives or from which they could draw lessons that applied to their own experiences. This is anathema among many English professors because it was essentially assigning them to pick a poem they liked and tell why they liked it, guaranteeing, supposedly, that the most critically exact phrase put to work in every essay will be “I could relate to this.” Probably she came in to discuss the personal essay and he dropped by to go over the draft for the critical essay because that’s the order I assigned them. I know she wrote about Wordsworth. I don’t think he did. But we talked about him.
We talked about him because they’d talked about him.
They’d talked about him because, to his surprise, he could talk about him.
It was thanks to me, he said. Well, thanks to my class. Something I’d said, something that got said, something we read, had caused a switch to flip in his head. Suddenly he understood poetry.
He wasn’t claiming anything like a critical appreciation. He simply meant that when he heard a poem he heard it as ordinary spoken English and not a foreign language he needed somebody to translate for him. And when he said he heard a poem he also meant when he read a poem because now when he read one he heard it in his head. He heard a human being talking. He wasn’t always sure what that human being was trying to say, but he understood there was something being said and that he could understand it the way he could understand anything anybody said if it was said well and he thought about it. He could follow the conversation. So he and his wife had spent an evening talking about what the poets in our textbook were talking about. Which is another way of saying they’d spent an evening together talking.
And on top of that, he now had a poem by Wordsworth that he loved.
It was one I’d read in class. We read all the poems we discussed out loud. Usually I had students read them. I wanted them to hear the poems as spoken words but I also wanted them to hear their own voices. I wanted them to hear and feel themselves speaking in poetry. I wanted them to feel the poems belonged to them. But now and then I’d take over to show them how it was done and because I wanted to hog a poem I loved.
So that’s how Wordsworth and I saved a marriage. I don’t know if we saved it forever. Life doesn’t work out neatly that way. I hope they’ve been busily and happily saving their marriage for themselves again and again the way couples have to do over the course of time. I lost touch with them after I left Indiana for Syracuse. But I like to think that they’ve been talking about poetry and many other things ever since and I like to imagine that for their twenty-fifth anniversary they traveled to England and took a tour of the Lake District where Wordsworth lived. I like to imagine her delight as she showed him around Dove Cottage and I like to imagine his delight at her delight. And of course I like to imagine one of them saying to the other, “Remember that instructor we had back in college? What was his name? Manning? Meehan? I wonder what became of him.”
By the way, that poem I read? I didn’t read it. I recited it. I had it memorized. I still do. Most of it, anyway. It’s not the only poem by Wordsworth you should read, but it is the only one you need to understand him and his spots of time and his fellow Romantics.
Here it is.
Make sure you read it out loud.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.