The Ungentle Theme-Writer

I HAVE read with sincere appreciation the plea of the gentle theme-reader for the sympathy of his fellow men. It has touched me deeply, for I am one of those responsible for his sorrows and self-consciousness — an undergraduate.

What an indictment against me! My talk is banality, my enthusiasm does not ‘lift its thoughts to the skies.’ My emotions contribute no ‘bacchic dances’ to the drab sobriety of scholastic life.

Well, it is true, and my sense of responsibility is extremely heavy, for the Lord knows there is need, a serious impelling need, for bacchanalities in the life of every theme-reader.

I have no purpose to seek an escape from my sense of responsibility. I accept it full-chestedly, but I have the dispassionate attitude of youth, which ever seeks the cause of things. And I find that there is a cause other than the mere absence of ideas in undergraduates, for the lack of individuality in undergraduate themes. It may be traced to the doors of classrooms and the chairs of college professors. For, in college, literature is not a thing of the spirit but of the mind, and you will find above the door of the English Department the scholar’s first and last commandment : ‘Beware of your emotions.’

There is no escape for those who enter, so have done with your adolescence, which has given you to understand beauty and freshness of phrase. You are face to face now with form, with technique, and with the history of literature. You came lugging your Shakespeare because you liked it, did you, and you entered the classroom eagerly, as one about to experience some new joy. It was to be expected, then, that you would struggle a little with your disappointment when that first precious hour went wholly to a discussion of the date of Romeo and Juliet. You did not lose heart, however, for you realized that you were still unsophisticated in scholastic methods. Besides, in due time the date was established.

Then, before you could slip back into your old emotional habits, you were introduced to various editions. You told yourself that this was important knowledge for the student of literature. You tried the harder to be philosophic because in your heart you knew that you were not, and there was added to your disappointment a sense of dread lest your unscholarly impatience come into open conflict with the system.

The days slip by. Now you have to do with the history of the story in its many translations. You learn their differences, their likenesses, their unimportant dates, and wearily you ask yourself if there is yet another dull fact about Romeo and Juliet that remains to be learned. Of course there is the old play. It is extant in a Dutch translation. How did it get into Dutch? It appears that the Earl of Leicester’s players carried it to Germany and so to Holland. In your innocence did you imagine that you could escape the Earl of Leicester’s players? But you do not despair. Some day, some remote but glorious day you will come to the poetry. The dear hopefulness of youth!

You never do come to the poetry because in college there is no poetry; there is only poetic form. And so you fill your pages with discussions of troches and iambi, of antitheses and ploces and oxymorons, and then you read that some theme-reader has died, and the guilt of murder is on your soul.

Now it seems to me that here is a case for investigation. It is necessary to know of what our theme-reader died. Was it from poverty of ideas or from poverty of emotions in the themes among which his poor lot was cast? For if, from those thousands of pages, not a single idea flashed upon this deserving life, then must the undergraduate stand sentence. But if it were warmth that lacked! If it were the chill of those pages that benumbed him to his young death! My sense of justice demands a shifting of responsibility in this. Let it rest where it belongs, on the literature department, which cannot see the relation between its cold intellectuality and the tender lives of theme-readers. As for the undergraduate, too often the unwitting instrument of torture, let him look to science for his spirituality if he would avoid the melancholia of the falsely accused.