Elegies, Part 2

Peter Wood

Cultural loss is seldom far from the minds of cultural creators. The Aeneid looks back to its hero’s flight from Troy, carrying over his shoulder his aged father, who clutches the household gods. In Lysidas, Milton mourns the death off the coast of Wales of his Cambridge classmate Edward King, but also conjures a whole new world alive “with the fresh dews of night.” Elegy necessarily looks back but often, more subtly, it looks forward too. Aeneas will carry those household gods to Rome, and Milton’s shepherd will rise “To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.”

The journey from loss to restoration ought to be among the central themes of liberal education at all times but especially at this moment in our history. So much has been whirled away by the centrifugal force of new technology, abraded by the sandstorms of illiberal ideology, chucked into the trash by nouveau epistemologies, or has been left absentmindedly on the chair as we wandered off into other conversations. Andrew Delbanco in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be mentions as one of the “qualities of mind and heart” that college should cultivate, “a skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.”

An accurate sense of the past would register that the particular discontent with the present that bears on higher education goes back a long way. Matthew Arnold published Dover Beach in 1867, where he famously registered the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith,” leaving us stranded on the “darkling plain.” Nearly 150 years later, we can relax: that plain is now illuminated by millions of iPads and cellphones and, as the country singer Chris Young reminds us, by “Neon, the light they always leave on.”

Delbanco is worth invoking here as someone who is clearly not a cultural conservative but who shares some of these worries about the texture of contemporary liberal education. He is “skeptical” about “the digital revolution as an advance for learning,” while realizing that we have to adapt to it. He would like to uphold the ideal of college as “a community of learning” but admits that is seldom an option in mass higher education. “Keeping the college idea alive for more than the privileged few is a huge challenge.” Nonetheless, Debanco assures us that “the vast majority of college students are capable of engaging the kinds of big questions—questions of truth, responsibility, justice, beauty, among others—that were once assumed to be at the center of college education.” And he explicitly says he doesn’t want his work read as “elegy (gone are the greats of yesteryear).”

I take Delbanco’s point. As I said in my last essay, regretting cultural loss is valuable if it points a way forward. But let’s be fair to elegy. Often it does have some important bearing on where we go next.

Since I began this by citing some poets, I’ll stick with that. A new collected edition of a recent poet who has already had two collected editions has appeared:  Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett. The book touches elegy in several ways.  Larkin (who was a university librarian for most of his working life) wrote plain, often acerbic poems, that are steeped in regret. Of the sexual revolution, he observes unhappily, “I know this is paradise/Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—” Even Spring has no charm for him. Of trees coming into leaf, “Their greenness is a kind of grief.” The saving grace in Larkin is something austere. He ends a poem, “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photographic Album”—

In short, a past that no one now can share,

No matter whose future; calm and dry,

It holds you like a heaven, and you lie

Unvariably lovely there,

Smaller and clearer as the years go by. 

Larkin has admirers but he is far from universally esteemed among critics and it is interesting that Burnett has taken the trouble to produce one of those editions that collects and collates every scrap of poetry, published and unpublished he left when he died in 1985, and to date and comment on them all. It is remarkable scholarship and itself elegiac in spirit—the academic’s equivalent of carving a memorial into hard stone.

That is the sort of elegy we need for higher education: devoted and scrupulous attention to the past to preserve a legacy for the future.

Another collected edition just published is Jack Gilbert: Collected Poems. Gilbert is still with us and we can trust that “collected” doesn’t mean “complete.” Gilbert has little in common with Larkin by way of style and temperament, except that, like Larkin, he published sparingly and he avoided the limelight. But his sun-drenched poems are often elegies, or perhaps preludes to elegies. In “Everywhere and Forever,” Gilbert describes in bright detail a visit to an Aegean villa by a man and “a Japanese lady.” It seems an idyll until the last lines:

The sky is vast overhead.  Neither of them know

She is dying.  He thinks of their eleven years together.

Realizes they used up all their particular time

Everywhere in the cosmos, and forever.

The woman is probably Michiko Nogami, his wife and the subject of many of poems. I don’t know where Gilbert stands in critical estimation. I’ve been reading him for years mostly for his astonishing juxtapositions:

Where the worms had opened the owl’s chest,

He could see, inside her frail ribs,

The city of Byzantium.

That’s not the Byzantium of Yeats, or a bird “Of hammered gold and gold enameling.” And it isn’t sensual music. Gilbert is in that line of poets who attempt to do away with the artifices of language in order to get directly to the real, which in Gilbert’s case is the bitterness of loss and regret. He mostly seems to be, as he says at one point, “trying to figure this painful/model I have carpentered together.”

When a poet takes up elegy and does it right, he creates something. Contrary to Delbanco’s formula, elegy doesn’t have to be “gone are the greats of yesteryear.” But let’s allow that some of them are gone. We don’t have the cultural equivalent of a Virgil or a Milton. It ought not to be impermissible to ask why, or to wonder—perhaps with a little sadness—how we have come to make so little in higher education of the cultural inheritance we do have?

I started this rumination (this being the third of three articles) noting the near disappearance of Western civilization survey courses. Those were never the main pedagogical context for encountering great works of literature, though some programs, such as Columbia’s Core Curriculum, incorporate them. The greatest value of such courses in my view lies in their providing the context for everything else. Perhaps this can best be seen—possibly it can only be seen—in retrospect. “Smaller and clearer as the years go by.”  The Byzantium that the worms reveal in the chest of Minerva’s dead pet. Or, perhaps this is all wrong and we  should agree with Chris Young as he twangs, “The light at this end of the tunnel is Neon.”

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on June 29, 2012.

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