About the front lawn and on the steps of buildings are draped agile figures in undergraduate uniform -- jeans and T-shirts. In the rather more formal University Board Room, I wait for my first class of the year. It gathers, 31 strong, around the long, gleaming table. Above us, in the frozen self-possession only age can give, hand a gaggle of red and purple ecclesiastical greats to remind us drab moderns of our littleness.
Despite my 30 years teaching, any first session is always nervous, stiff with the pent-up energy that finds release in talk. Underneath pulses a sense of choice, of possibilities, of all the ways I can help an old poet speak to new minds. I wonder at the new beginning and at the newness of the beginners.
I've forgotten my own expectations when I was 18. It's too long ago. This lot is faintly awed by the setting, but that won't last. They wonder what the year will be like, how I will handle it, how they will "do." Most of them are seniors, and so are less nervous and trust the system to deliver recognizable intellectual goods. I'm the system, and I'm not so sure.
I start with a brief introduction, to give them a chance to hear my voice and to see what it sounds like myself. Then I give out cards so I can have phone numbers and know which college and what year each is in; the minor backwash of registration. Nervous chatter gets the year started, eases us over the introductory pangs. We dance around each other warily. We're going to work together, but it takes time to settle into harness one with another.
Our work is the poetry of John Donne. My job is to summon this splendid ghost out of his far century. We begin with what he wrote as a young man, 17 to 19, roughly the age of the students sitting in front of me. The young Elizabethan at the Inns of Court seems so much older and more knowing than young Americans from Des Moines, Bronxville and McLean. Will they ever come to understand his religious struggle and strength? Will they ever take to themselves the mercy of his later comment, "Thou seest this man's fall, but thou sawest not his wrastling"?
Today it's not with the great Dean in his longsince-burned-out cathedral that we deal. This Donne is the young poet, full of life and energy, writing outrageous and rough lines in imitation of Roman satire.
Poetry is to be said, and Domne's is no exception. So we speak it out loud; mostly they do, Jeff a senator, is hesitant and needs to beat the lines out with a pencil. He stumbles over the coloquialisms: We went, till one (which did excell Th'Indians, in drinking his Tobacco well) Met us; they talk'd; I whispered, 'Let us goe , 'T may be you smell him not, truely, I do'.
A few eyes smile at the familiar problem and on we go. Donne waxes sardonic even about poetry. Anne, with an easy voice, reads this, clearly and well: Though Poetry indeed be such a sinne As I thinke that brings dearth and Spaniards in Though like the Pestilence and old fashion'd love, Ridlingly it catch men; and doth remove Never, till it be sterv'd out; yet their state Is poore, disarm'd, like Papists, not worth hate.
As the voices rise and fall, an awareness grows around the table that over long time and under the stiff clarity of Elizabethan speech this man is saying something.
For me, his meaning is as close as the sunlight outside the windows. I listen to Mark's voice (he leads the choir so he gets the rhythm right): To stand inquiring right, is not to stray ; Cragged, and steep, Trugh stands, and hee that will Reach her, about must, and about must goe ; And what th' hill's suddenness resists winne so;
How often these four years will all of them go "about and about." On their young and level plain they can't know how high and hurtful truth stands, nor how much the "hill's suddenness" will slow them. None can understand yet that it grows steeper with time.
But this is no time for foreboding. My joys are too strong. First, the joy of recovery: a working back to a great artist of another time; meeting him with fresh imaginations; watching the long roots start down, even for the young. A second joy is of peace in a job: the students settling in, the familiar pull on the wits, the rich sound of the verse, and all of us knowing that the harness fits and that we will be comfortable in it. It's a good trade, teaching. With any luck, across this table, in talk and laughter and insight, we will come to the beginning of wisdom, that is, to know and love each other.