15 July 2009

He's Dejected!

Today was Coleridge day in my classes: in both of them we worked through a Coleridge poem, although in one case it was twinned with a Wordsworth poem. Here's all you need to know about Coleridge: he's dejected! You know this is so because he tells you so, in a poem entitled Dejection: An Ode, and if you keep this in mind you will also have a surefire rubric for analysing every poem Coleridge wrote. Trust me, this is true.

You may remember Dejection as the poem that quotes my all-time favourite line of poetry, or strictly speaking, line and a half of poetry: "...I saw the new moon / With the old moon in her arm" (taken from The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, itself a wonderful poem). Today, however, I was teaching it in Advanced Romanticism in conjunction with Wordsworth's Intimations Ode, a poem with its own difficulties and delights. One aspect of the poem that is simultaneously both of these is Wordsworth's assertion that despite the fact that he has lost his "visionary gleam," his ability to intimate and grasp at (although not grasp) the ideal Platonic experiences that we can access in childhood (those "High instincts before which our mortal Nature / Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised" - a great couplet), he has gained something equally valuable: the ability to empathise with his fellow men, and the life experience that shows him the beauty and emotional richness of everything.

I really like my Advanced Romanticism class. They remember that we all agreed that "I have God in my pocket" is an excellent pick-up line, and today they both let me assert, after explaining to them that Wordsworth's problem was that he had "been dumped by the Muse," that Dumped by the Muse would make an excellent title for a scholarly work on Wordsworth, and allowed me to explain how this might feel by using the analogy of Adam Ant. In other words, they're quite at home with my tangents and tilt. But in the course of trying to explain how human understanding might be abundant recompense for the loss of your poetic mojo (quite difficult to justify, to one way of thinking), I told them about how, this morning while I was getting dressed, I suddenly thought to myself how much pleasure I get from Romantic poetry, and then thought to myself that five years from now everything else in my life will have changed, but I will still be teaching and loving Romantic poetry. Which is not to say, as I said to them, that what I now see that I didn't see before is how important Romantic poetry is, but rather that what I didn't see was that, when placed in the context of life, the problems of a certain period of life are utterly trivial. And, frankly, if I had lost my poetic mojo, I would think that discovery was abundant recompense. So I offer it to you for what it's worth.

As I said to them, I sit there sometimes while I'm teaching, and I think to myself, These people think I'm deranged. But these insights and the examples in which they are couched are what I have to offer, so there you go. And I did somewhat balance this one out by telling them that Wordsworth's experience of this loss was like those moments each of us has had, where something terrible happens to you, and after the dust of first emotion clears and you are, at least for a brief period, back to performing your everyday activities, you think to yourself, "What happened? Last week I was a totally different person - in the space of one instant I was made a person utterly different from the person I was then. How did that happen?" So I retain some tatters of teaching dignity.

Something weird is happening to my right leg when I do rond de jambe a terre with the left as my gesture leg. My foot is straining - it actually hurts. I need to sort that out.

And here is today's picture. It's a bench I pass on campus as I walk home:

It just looks like a regular bench, and I suppose it is, but what strikes me about it is, that it's not at all weatherbeaten, as are most versions that you see of such a bench. The wood of the arms is still pale and unmarred, and so clean that it looks somehow pure, and because of that purity striking beautiful. When I reached out my hand and stroked one of the arms today in the hot afternoon air it was like touching warm satin, a sensual experience rendered intense by the curious sensation that I always have when I touch the smoothest surfaces: that I am feeling something that feels like nothing; that the essential quality of true and ultimate smoothness is the absence of feeling, and the result a kind of fascinated exultation, because it is as if the air has become material and you are grasping it - holding a presence that is really absence made present.

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