I would guess most readers have books and authors that school has ruined for them, probably because of a disliked teacher or a bad classroom experience. For me, whenever I come across Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of An Author, I can’t help but think about this one teacher I had who could take the most interesting experimental play and say the most bland things about it. He’d make sure to find a positive message in the darkest, most despairing play we read, and he’d be sure to make the positive message sound as cliché as possible. I always wondered how someone so drawn to sermonizing and uplift came to teach 20th-century experimental drama.
When I took a class in the Romantic period I didn’t have a bad experience, exactly, but something about the class turned me off. Maybe it was a combination of a not-terribly inspiring teacher and a semester of poetry that I had a hard time getting into. We read a Jane Austen novel and Frankenstein, but other than that, it was the six major Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats) and that’s it. I suspect a lot of Romanticism classes are like this, and I felt at the time like I’d had enough. Romanticism wasn’t for me.
But in grad school I needed to take a course in the 19C, and Romanticism it was. This time, however, I learned that there’s more to Romanticism than those six major poets — we did read some of those, but that included plays as well as poetry (Shelley’s The Cenci, for example). And we read other people like the poet and novelist Charlotte Smith and the playwright Joanna Baillie. I learned that there are all kinds of interesting novelists from the time period like William Godwin and Elizabeth Inchbald. I got excited about Romanticism and read as much as I could in the area.
And now I find myself wanting to return to those six major poets again, to see if I feel differently about them out of the context of that first class I took. Authors and books often have a completely different feel to them when we read them for fun instead of for class, don’t they? Shelley for class struck me as inscrutable; Shelley for fun is a lot more exciting. Also, reading for class is often so rushed. I want to read poetry at my own pace now, rather than trying to get through as many poems as I can before class.
So I’m reading some Keats and finding it amazingly beautiful. I’ve only gotten as far as some of his early sonnets, but I am inspired to read more and more, and I’d like to get a collection of his letters also, as I’ve heard he was an excellent letter writer. I feel like I’m giving Keats a better chance to move and impress me than I ever have before. I do sometimes like to give authors a second chance, if they didn’t reach me the first time.
Here’s a piece of his poem Endymion, with a famous first line:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
And endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast,
They alway must be with us, or we die.