The Pedagogue in Revolt

‘STILL less,’ wrote Charles Lamb, ‘have I curiosity to disturb the elder repose of MSS. These varies lectiones, so tempting to the more erudite palates, do but disturb and unsettle my faith. . . . I had thought of the Lycidas as of a full-grown beauty — as springing up with all its parts absolute — till, in an evil hour, I was shown the original copy of it, together with the other minor poems of its author, in the library of Trinity, kept like some treasure, to be proud of. I wish they had thrown them in the Cam, or sent them after the latter Cantos of Spenser, into the Irish Channel. How it staggered me to see the fine things in their ore! interlined! corrected! as if their words were mortal, alterable, displaceable at pleasure! as if they might have been otherwise, and just as good! as if inspiration were made up of parts, and these fluctuating, successive, indifferent! I will never go into the workshop of any great artist again. ’

Why should a perfectly respectable pedagogue, on the rungs of whose professorial chair the dust of the years is gathering, feel an unhallowed joy in reading these words, perhaps seen before but forgotten; possibly seen in youth and frowned upon, as a pebble causing one’s feet to stumble, to be tossed out of the way in climbing the via sacra of scholarship?

Now, the words seemed to set something free, to release something long pent up, long gathering. How many times, in toiling over note and variant, early reading and later reading, in preparation for the solemn task of teaching poetry to the young, have I felt that way, without confessing it to myself or others! Decorum in academic life must be maintained. Yet, for safety, suppressed feelings must come out, in the gospel according to Freud.

Lamb, as usual, is divinely right. His plea for the joy of reception of a poem in its entirety, for that instant flash of meaning from the soul of the poet to your own, bringing an understanding that no amount of comment or exegesis can secure, touches the very essence of poetry. In truest poetry, vital experience, by the transforming power of the imagination and the music of line, is subtly and directly communicated to the listener: it is alive, quickening the life in him.

In this moment of unauthorized pleasure I realize how heavy has been, and is, the weight of learned volumes, of commentary, exegesis, under which both pedagogue and student must stagger in order to fulfill contemporary academic demands. Month by month and week by week they multiply, tomes, articles, pages upon pages upon the reading of a word or phrase, discussion after discussion upon some minute point of fact, as to the authenticity of a perhaps unimportant fragment, or disputed date — discussions often inspired less by passion for truth than by the bitter joy of proving that some other scholar, in a rival university, is in the wrong.

There is a lost sense of proportion in all this. A poem has, in many cases, become less important than the array of facts about it, genuine, or invented in order to prove an hypothesis. Matthew Arnold, in his assertion that poetry is the greatest illuminator of life, says that this is true partly because religion has been materialized in fact. Has not the time now come when poetry also is being materialized in fact? Too often a highly prized poem is as a precious jewel, buried under a haystack of print. How can one even find it again?

Besides the commentaries on variants and facts of date are lengthy volumes, appearing in this country, wherein the lesser man or woman, in this period in which modern psychology has been let loose upon a stricken world, tries to account for every phase of the process by which a given author’s creative act is achieved. Not an assembly of all the phrases he may ever have encountered, paragraphs upon which he may have stumbled through his lifetime, will ever betray his secret. No array of facts, no amount of psychological theory, can interpret that mysterious inner alchemy whereby the stuff of common life is transmuted into gold. Long-drawn-out interpretations of an author’s personality in terms of the critic’s personality are as the conclusions of the measuring worm regarding the size of the mountain on whose side grows the twig whereon it lives and moves and has its little being. Is there no side of a poet’s life experience upon which the modern peeping Toms may not spy? Could we not form an association to protect ‘mighty poets in their misery dead’ from the horrors of post-mortem psychoanalysis?

From the point of view of mass the output is appalling. If huge tomes, giving an omnium-gatherum of all documents, important and unimportant, significant and insignificant, that can in any way be associated with an author, increase and multiply, where will it all stop? Our American passion for size shows as clearly here as in the forty-story skyscraper. Must we look forward to a twenty-volume treatise on a line of mediæval verse or a single speech in an Elizabethan drama? In prophetic vision I see the mountain of ‘high-pilèd books’ without ‘charactery, ’ shutting out not only the light from the poet’s mind, but the very light of the sky.

Did not pure Christianity die by this process, smothered by explanatory words? As the simplicity of its great inner meaning grew less clear, did there not come into being a vast accumulation of commentaries, expositions, vainly trying to expound to the intellect dynamic living truths whose force was less directly felt in the passing of the years?

All this was, and is, a sorry substitute for the ‘vital spark of heavenly flame,’ enkindling human souls to selfless living. In religion, as in poetry, truth distilled from live experience comes to you in its wholeness; apprehension of its meaning requires the whole of a man — feeling, intellect, all he is. You cannot explain the vital, secret processes by which poetry comes into being any more than you can explain the vital secret processes of Christianity.

In my inmost heart, through all my pedagogic years, I have always known this; therefore it is not at all strange that, in the breeze that comes from these refreshing words of Lamb, I feel at this moment like the dying man in Browning’s Paracelsus who

. . . Sat up suddenly, and with natural voice Said that, in spite of thick air and closed doors, God told him it was June.

Here am I who should at this moment be getting ready for my seminar, given this year for the nineteenth time, who have never failed before any meeting to put in hours of preparation, here am I wantonly wasting precious time writing this confession. Is it a touch of spring?

In this primitive mood of freedom I shall not even ask myself if I am ungrateful in my attitude toward various tomes, treatises, commentaries, — none of them among these very latest, — from which I, in the course of the years, have acquired much information.

I am as one stricken. Should I resign?