Changing my Mind

Within the next month I have two term papers due. For Brit Lit, I was going to write about George Herbert for my daddy, because I like him, and for Civilization I was going to write about characterization in the medieval mystery plays. It was all decided, then I put away the ideas and forgot about them. But now warm, compact things have been happening which are forcing me to learn one of those wuthering life lessons college so eagerly shares. I am learning how to change my mind.

It all began several weeks ago when Dr. Brown was teaching the mystery plays. She was talking about the role of guilds in the plays’ production and performance and that was when this sort of hazy glow began. At first, I couldn’t really tell where it was coming from. It certainly wasn’t the powerpoint, and I didn’t think it was Dr. Brown herself. Maybe it was her words. Yes, that was it, they were  shimmering visibly in the blank semi-circle at the front of the room, busily building a medieval village out of their own translucent gold letters. I watched the mussed organization of the little whoville take shape. Clattering bright wagons, laborious heirloom costumes, then the strange timbre of one voice projected loud over a silent, crowded street. “…the piece was then judged by the guild, and if they approved it, he became a master, a member of the guild. Therefore we have master…piece…” And that was when the singing started. I knew exactly where it was coming from this time. A soft, angelic cooing, right from the center of my chest. The village in front of me picked up the pace. The master masons (masters of pieces!) ran round behind their wagon half in and out of costume, clutching treasured bits of script and calling to their overwrought apprentices to “Make haste!” There was a smell in the air as if everything had just been dragged out of the attic, and every villager was taking short, arid breaths, and thinking colorful, interested thoughts. I felt a whelming sense of scarlet and brown belonging. It was magic. I wanted in.

So, I basically had to change that particular thesis. I had already had my original, boring topic approved, but how could I write about characterization, for goodness sakes, when there was a bustling village inside my head? So I came up with a very correct, and secretly exhilarating thesis, spent quite a while emailing back and forth with Dr. Dupree. And…then it was approved. And I rejoiced.

The paper for Dr. Brown is tremendous. It is not long in reality, but it casts a huge shadow. I’m not frightened. I love all papers without exception, but everything about it must be beyond my highest standards, and that includes the topic. As for Herbert, who I had planned to write on, well, he is dear, but there is someone else. He is a comfortable cousin, whose company and wisdom I appreciate,  but John Donne is my lover. If you have ever read any Donne, you will consider that a highly appropriate image. “We can die by it, if not live by love,/And if unfit for tombs and hearse/Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;” I realize he is quite dead, and wrote every poem for a woman other than I, but such separations mean nothing. “Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime, / No hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.” You laugh, but “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,”  “For love all love of other sight controls,/And makes one little room an everywhere.” Humph. So there. And I haven’t even mentioned “To His Mistress Going To Bed”. In comparison, George Herbert is “Most poor:” and “Most thin.”  “He is a crazy brittle glass,” “A broken altar,” who merely “did sit and eat.” I cannot “love both fair and brown.”

Of course, I am being quite silly, and it has been fun, but be assured, I am really not throwing Herbert out with the bathwater. I promise. It’s just that Donne has found his way into my eternal soul and made himself comfortable there, or at least his words have. “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/A year or two, but wallowed in a score?/When thou hast done, thou hast not done,/For I have more.” I am not a poet, and these are words I could never write, but, at the same time, they seem to have been born of the most secret, quiet part of my being. “Batter my heart, three-personed God…/Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” That is almost worthy of ink and needle and permanence on my skin.

Herbert is home and dinner and small, palmable books. He is “a ragged noise and mirth,” and “a box where sweets compacted lie.” But…I got a ninety-five on the Donne quiz today. He and I are meant to be. The two are brothers, though, in a sense. My two metaphysical darlings…I will write about them both, mayhaps. I do know I have changed my mind, (or rather Donne has, or God,) but I’m not sure what to. We’ll see. Dr. Brown will tell me what’s best. I’m flexible.

3 thoughts on “Changing my Mind

  1. Dearest Alice,
    You will have to make sure Dad reads this–although come to think of it, it might hurt his feelings.
    Come to think of it, your Professor Brown might get a kick out of it, too. . . . If it were creative writing class, you’d easily score an A! Make sure you tie your academic papers down to the earth: that can be fun, too.
    Love you.

  2. Alice: When I was your age, I read Donne for the first time and was enraptured too, and still am every time I pick up and read the Songs and Sonnets and the Holy Sonnets–from a teacher’s point of view, there’s no lyric poet I know of who grabs students so consistently and firmly by the lapels and says, “For God’s sake, listen!”

    I didn’t read Herbert until I was done with college–strangely enough, he wasn’t even mentioned in my undergrad Renaissance lit class, so when I discovered him I was in Berkeley in the midst of studying the Reformation and was astounded that a man 400 years back had not only captured the gospel so perfectly in his poetry but also spoken my own spiritual experience so thoroughly and intimately.

    And you’re right–Herbert’s your friend, Donne’s your boyfriend–more’s the pity that Peter O’Toole has never to my knowledge played him on stage or screen, because he’s always been my idea of Donne’s passion, wit, devastating charm, and heartrending tragic sense of life. And a certain crash-and-burn quality.

    So Jack’s perfect for a freshman lit essay–gaudeamus igitur, juvenescum sumus! But remember that George will always be there quietly ready to help you pick up the pieces.

    Love, Dad


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