Friday, October 01, 2004

thanatopsis

Today I read William Cullen Bryant's poem, "Thanatopsis," with my third period. That's the class I was with while the fights were going on yesterday, when I locked the door and we wrote. That's the class with the girl whose cousin was killed, the same girl who said that thing about sitting in the back of the bus. The same class, I found out today, with a girl whose stepfather got killed day before yesterday.
Here's the poem:

Thanatopsis
by William Cullen Bryant

To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;--
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around--
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--
Comes a still voice. Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mold.
Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world -- with kings,
The powerful of the earth -- the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, -- the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods -- rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste,--
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom. -- Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings -- yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep -- the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest -- and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men--
The youth in life's fresh spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man--
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn, shall follow them.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

I hope I didn't bring this poem in too soon. I keep asking myself if I made a mistake and keep trying to convince myself that I didn't, but I'm not a hundred percent sure. Can poetry be a bad thing? Part of me thinks it is never a mistake to feel. Another part of me remembers a time in my life when it was necessary not to. I'm forever on the fence about this. The girl I mention above, L, told me she had to leave (but she listened so intently while I was reading), then put her journal in our file cabinet drawer, looked at me to show me that she was for real (which I never doubted), and left the room. On her heels two other girls left (the one whose step-father was killed and her friend who also lost her father by murder). I don't trust these girls (I know this sounds harsh, but I don't believe their hearts were stung. I think they were just taking an easy path out the door). But once L left, what could I do? Put them on trial for depth of feelings?
There was another girl in the room I know of who needed to hear this poem, the girl whose mother died in May unexpectedly. She was also following the reading intently. She writes and reads about her mother all the time. She brought me a picture of her mother. She is also the girl who sings and dances in our class (I know that sounds crazy). She's precious, and I wanted her to hear this poem about how maybe that when people die maybe they do pull the sweet wrappings of the earth around them and sink into somewhere with the people who died before them. Kings and mothers and such.
I'm upset because I see that a poem upset several people I read it to, and I wonder if it's possible that it can be wrong to read poetry sometimes. And then I think about The Republic, and how in that famous text the poets and philosophers were the only ones allowed to read poetry because it was considered too incendiary for regular people to deal with. And that so pisses me off. I'm thinking about bringing that into my classroom and reading it and pushing the point even further. But something in me thinks I should ease off a little and save Plato for later. But I don't know. How hot can things get before they explode or melt down? What would Langston Hughes say?

Melanie Anne Plesh

3 Comments:

Blogger Ally said...

I think you were right to trust your instincts and to read it. If a poem speaks to someone deeply then it is a channel for them to use or a handle for them to grasp. They don't need to use the channel or grasp the handle just because it is there though.

I wish I could write as well as you - every time I come here I am more and more impressed and touched.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hey:

I think if you care deeply enough a piece of literature, even if it does not speak to the students itself as it speaks to you, then at least YOU are speaking to the students, and they will profit by listening to you and to your enjoyment of the work. I've never cared for this particular poem, and as I read it, I kept saying to myself, "Ever heard of brevity as the soul of wit, buddy?" But that's just me. Because it meant something to you, and you mean something to me, I read it (and like Dilsey, "endured").

But we always need to be aware of our students' tastes, too, and look for balance in what we give them. You know what I would suggest? Download Spike Harris's SONG "Margaret Bourke" from SLWP's Marathon website, and play it for them. Better yet, let them read a transcript of it first. THEN play it for them. The subject is the same as Emerson's, the approach different, and maybe might speak to more of them.

rl

3:54 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hey:

I think if you care deeply enough a piece of literature, even if it does not speak to the students itself as it speaks to you, then at least YOU are speaking to the students, and they will profit by listening to you and to your enjoyment of the work. I've never cared for this particular poem, and as I read it, I kept saying to myself, "Ever heard of brevity as the soul of wit, buddy?" But that's just me. Because it meant something to you, and you mean something to me, I read it (and like Dilsey, "endured").

But we always need to be aware of our students' tastes, too, and look for balance in what we give them. You know what I would suggest? Download Spike Harris's SONG "Margaret Bourke" from SLWP's Marathon website, and play it for them. Better yet, let them read a transcript of it first. THEN play it for them. The subject is the same as Bryant's, the approach different, and maybe might speak to more of them.

rl

3:55 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home