Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Today my students surprised me. I expected the conversation to be about the much celebrated carpe diem, seize the day, but it turned into a conversation about immersion. There’s a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” that has stuck with me ever since I read it in college. She declares that she is like the seal in her poem, “a believer in total immersion”. Immersion, however you define it, is the main objective of all art, and all living. This line could be a statement about writing poetry, how we jump into a moment when we relive it. Or it could be about how she lives, how she tries to become involved with what she sees in the moment.
Last week, we looked at William Blake’s “The Fly” and today, a group of six students presented on “The Sun Rising” by John Donne, and “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” by Dylan Thomas. I told them that the topic of time connected all three poems and let them run with it.
Normally, my students struggle with John Donne’s poetry because of the metaphors that might not be metaphors. Donne might actually believe that his reality becomes the thing it is not. William Blake’s metaphors, on the other hand, make more sense to them, because at first, they look simple, and then become complicated later. For instance, the speaker becomes a fly in “The Fly”:
For I dance
And drink and sing
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing
Is the “blind hand” the ignorance of the powerful? Politicians that create laws? Parents that set boundaries? Our teachers? Bosses? Cultural norms? Who unknowingly limits our “wings” or our liberty? Wings could represent celebration, leisure, wildness, and fun, but they might mean recklessness, too. The terrifying and destructive randomness of the blind hand justifies having fun and being free.
When my students encounter “The Sun Rising” by John Donne, they find it hard to grasp the metaphors. At first, they immediately connect the sun to an alarm clock. The sun rises, the alarm clock goes off, and that means they have to go to school. They have responsibilities and expectations that they need to meet. But, at the end of the poem, why and how has the sun become the room the speaker lies in with his lover? How has the speaker learned to mentally stop the passing of time, and in doing so, found the beauty of the moment? Donne transforms the sun from the tyrannical alarm clock to a sun that “warm[s] the world.” The speaker addresses the sun: “This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.” The speaker has gone from being a victim of time, to controlling it mentally, to creating an altogether new reality for himself. The sun is him, his bed, the room, his lover, every person in the world, and the whole universe at the same time. Only through the language of metaphor did that feeling become a reality.
We then compared “The Sun Rising” to “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”, by Dylan Thomas. The metaphor is obvious in this case: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But here are the lines that stick out:
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Does Thomas mean that a wise man does not care about fame or recognition? Does he mean wise men rarely prevent lightning, or the destructive forces of society, from striking? Or that people don’t tend to listen to a wise man’s words, only an entertaining man’s words? The loudest one, not the humblest one? Is this a poem for his father, for himself, or for all of us?
All of these poems, on some level, speak to doing the thing you want to do without fear or deliberation. The speakers acknowledge the forces of the rat race of life, the busyness, the pressure to be successful, and all the unreasonable expectations placed on workers, parents, and children. The feeling that we must work first and live second. These feelings get in the way of our relationships. Forget all that, the poems say, make the most of life before you die. However, they also acknowledge “the green fuse that drives the flower”, the spirit, the joy, the love that moves us, and allows us to grow. On a deeper level, the poems speak to immersion, that moment that we dive into each other’s seas. The belief that we are each other’s seas. Literary immersion happens when consciousnesses connect. Virginia Woolf writes about the same artistic process in Moments of Being: “the whole world is a work of art … we are parts of that work of art.” Beauty sits there, in life and on the page, waiting for us to read it.
teacher-driven professional development for high school English teachers