"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

13 November 2006

"To a discerning Eye -- "

What constantly startles me about literature, no matter how many times I see it in play, is just how revealing it really is, how there are always connections upon connections, how it helps us see and understand.

I taught the following Emily Dickinson poem in Intro to Lit recently, and the students were quick to come up with all kinds of good examples of the concept in action in our world:

“Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain – “

I taught the poem because I like it, and it’s true, and I like to end our unit on poetry with poems that speak to students at this Christian college of matters of faith. They loved it, and I was happy with a good class day.

Then I went to my freshman comp class the next day, for which they had read a piece defining the two words “deft” and “daft,” which happen to have the same root. The writer ends the piece with “These days it is usually considered much better to be deft than daft. But don’t be too sure. It is good to remind ourselves that one person’s deftness might very well appear as daftness to another.”

Now the writer might, I suppose, just be a relativist (a la ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”). But I liked the paragraph, and when my students had trouble with it, I put the first three lines of Dickinson’s poem on the board to discuss. And then they got it.

Then I watched Criminal Minds that night. (I like it partly because of the characters and story lines but partly, I confess, because every time I see Mandy Patinkin, I can say, “I went to college with him!” It makes watching Princess Bride even more satisfying. [No, I didn't know him. But I saw him play a stellar Guildenstern in R & G are Dead and Hamlet on alternating nights on the KU stage. That's gotta count for something.])

In the course of the particular episode, a woman finds herself in a car with a bomb beneath her seat set to go off if she gets up. So one of the younger team members, Derek Morgan, stands by the car door and holds her hand, encouraging her, and refuses to move when one of the team leaders tells him to because he isn’t about to let this woman go through the terror of the bomb’s defusing alone.

Gideon (Patinkin), the team’s older leader, isn’t there, but tells someone he is interviewing that “a young man I care very much about is putting his life on the line right now.” Reid of course passes this on, Morgan asks Gideon about it in the plane on the way back to Maryland, Gideon admits to it -- then tells Morgan, “What you did with the bomb? That was stupid.”

Morgan is crushed. When Gideon looks up and sees his face, he adds, “I didn’t say it was wrong.”

“Much Madness is divinest sense.”

A belated thanks to all our vets who often must look mad to the oh-so-sane world, and to all others as well who madly put themselves in harm's way (physically and in other ways) for our protection.


Cindy said...

This is one of my favorite blog posts ever. It says a lot. Thank you, Beth.

The Dickinson poem, by the way? Inscribed inside the cover of my current journal. Once I used it in a paper for N.W. and was surprised and touched by her very personal response to it. It's a powerful thing. (As is the other quote you used, as well.)

alaiyo said...

Thank you, LuCindy! I'm sure you know what that compliment means to me!

I am finding the poem more apropos every day . . .

Megan said...

I also consider this one of my favorite posts ever! The Dickinson poem is another favorite! Three students in my class chose Dickinson poems to memorize for our poetry recitation and, even though they didn't understand them completely, they loved some of the imagery and the meter!