First things, last things

We had our last official class session last night. Next week will be devoted to exams, final portfolios, and packing (and, for me, completing a few blog posts that have gone by the wayside in the course of the semester).

I bookended last night’s session with segments on “first things” and “last things.”

We started by going back to the beginning, to the two “academic axioms” we discussed on our very first day of class in January, when we shivered in the chill of the room (windows left open to prevent Covid circulation) and the Liverpool skyline was too dark to discern. Those axioms were and are:

  • Incarnational learning: the deliberate synergy of experience and academic study. In this program, our bodies are not mere carrying cases in which we’ve brought our brains to Britain; they are themselves the instruments of learning. The accents, flavors, textures and temperatures of this place are all part of the curriculum. We study our experience by writing thoughtfully about it, and we experience the books we study by going to actual sites connected to them.
  • Dialogue: literally “across-words” (dialogos) a verbal connection built across a difference. The connection part is actually fairly easy for American students in Britain; the difference is that part that always concerns me. Everyone knows that great things happen when you encounter a foreign culture. But of all our university’s international offerings, Britain is the least foreign. And especially when traveling with a close-knit group of fellow Americans, it can be a challenge to keep Britain sufficiently different. I presented this challenge to students already beginning last August, in their initial interviews for the program. And we talked last night about how it has gone.

Much of our final session was devoted to a discussion of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, a novel set in the area of East London where we’ll be staying for our final week. Here, at last, the differences are sufficiently pronounced: the book tells the story of a woman who immigrates to London from Bangladesh as part of an arranged marriage, and several chapters are dominated by letters from the woman’s sister back in Bangladesh. All of the characters in book are some kind of Muslim: devout, zealous, hypocritical, nominal, lapsed. No Christians.

Beneath those differences, however, are some fairly ready connection points. One doctor names what he calls “Going Home Syndrome,” the inclination of Bangladeshi immigrants to return to their homeland after achieving success in England. They haven’t come to say. Nor have we: we all traveled to Britain on round-trip tickets, intending to mine the riches of intercultural experience and then go back home.

The characters in the novel are all somewhat adrift between their home culture and their host culture, as are we. I think most of us are both eager to return home and regretful to leave the last three months behind, because we’re Americans who have now made ourselves home in Britain.

So as we read Brick Lane, we have the two basic ingredients with which to build a dialogue with the book: connection and difference.

Last Things

Our final texts came, of course, from George Herbert. With the poems that conclude “The Church,” his main collection of poems, Herbert alludes to the so-called “four last things” in the Christian tradition: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. By the time Herbert was writing, these four concepts were deeply familiar as appropriate topics for sober meditation and spiritual alignment. 

If you were to approach a Liverpudlian and say, “John, Paul, George, and…?” they’d fill in “Ringo” immediately. The “last four” went together as tightly as the “fab four”: an early modern reader would just have automatically completed “Death, Judgment, Heaven…” with “Hell.”

Herbert completes his book of poems with one called “Death,” two called “Doomsday” and “Judgment,” one called “Heaven” and a final one called… wait for it… “Love.”

Not “Hell.” It’s not that Herbert is denying doctines of Hell—he’s simply taking his sequence in an ostentatiously different direction.

If you had asked me two years ago what we’d be doing in class last night, I would have said—without pause for thought—“Love (3).” That poem (the third which Herbert entitled “Love”) is the natural culmination of our weekly study of Herbert. It’s also my favorite poem, period.

Last night, though, we did something I’ve never done before: we approached “Love (3)” through the poem that precedes it, “Heaven”:

Oh who will show me those delights on high!
        Echo: I
Thou Echo, thou art mortal, all men know.
        Echo: No
Wert thou not born among the trees and leaves?
        Echo: Leaves
And are there any leaves, that still abide?
        Echo: Bide
What leaves are they? Impart the matter wholly.
        Echo: Holy
Are holy leaves the Echo then of blisse?
        Echo: Yes
Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?
        Echo: Light
Light to the minde: what shall the will enjoy?
        Echo: Joy
But are there cares and business with the pleasure?
        Echo: Leisure
Light, joy and leisure; but shall they persever?
        Echo: Ever

I read the long lines, and students read the echoes in unison.

I have to say: I don’t think this is Herbert’s best work. It’s a nifty gimmick, but nifty gimmicks alone do not make a great poem. Some of the echoes are a bit of a stretch (“bliss,” “Yes”); some of the lines are a bit strained (“Impart the matter wholly”) to set up the echo; some of the concepts are not altogether clear (“Bide”?).

The thing is, though, the poem makes a profound and moving point. I’m not sure that the nifty gimmick is alone here. Heaven is among us. It’s not some far-off land; it’s not the great beyond. Or if it is both of those things, it is so expansive that it also extends into the very words we speak. The answers to our questions are already there—in part, at least—in the questions themselves. In fact, the poem rather suggests that it is not the “Echo” lines that are the actual echoes: those lines convey eternal truths. It is the speaker’s words that inadvertently echo those truths.

The “four last things” pointed medieval Christians beyond their earthly experience, past death, to heaven and hell. Herbert will revise that ultimate chapter dramatically, but he also revises this penultimate chapter by bringing heaven down to earth—“heaven in ordinary,” as he describes prayer in another poem.

Even the imperfections in this poem seem productive: we do not see heaven fully or clearly, though we do see it among us and in us. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Love (3)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
           Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
           From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
           If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
           Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
           I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
           Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
           Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
           My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
           So I did sit and eat.

“Love (3),” on a literal level, is about a guest with dirty feet showing up at home of a gracious host and reluctantly accepting the meal that is offered. It is a poem all about hospitality, and we know a bit about that, after three months living far from home. We know, for instance, that one of the hardest aspects of hospitality is accepting it—which is the central conflict or plot of this poem.

On a less literal level, the poem might be about a soul’s arrival in heaven, as suggested by the poem “Heaven” that precedes it. Here is where the poet sees face to face; here is how he knows as he is known by “quick-eyed Love.” One student commented that the “dust and sin” gesture gently toward the Hell that a reader might have expected to find here.

But the poem is also about the Eucharist, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There is an implied pun in the poem on the word “host,” which means a person who entertains a guest but is also a liturgical term for the bread used in the Eucharist. When Love says that the poet “must sit down and taste my meat,” the “my” signifies both the bread that I am offering and the bread that is me.

In short, the poem blends the glorious grace of heaven with the weekly human liturgy. The best line of the poem is the last one: six plain monosyllables to express the speaker’s humble acceptance of the fullness of heaven. For all of Herbert’s poetic acrobatics and linguistic hijinks, at the end of the day, it really is that simple.

When we got to the last line, I put on our screen a picture of the plain meal prepared for us by Johnnie Briggs, our host in Haworth. This experience has emerged in student writing as a high point of the entire semester, and I agree, if only because it was the perfect preparation for “Love (3),” which we had effectively studied before we even read the poem. We’ve studied its theme with dusty feet, tired legs, and stomachs hungry from hiking on the moors.

Heaven is above us and beyond us, but it is also among us, partially and imperfectly present in homemade green soup and freshly baked scones with clotted cream. We know what grace feels like when it is expressed through simple hospitality.

* * *

The very last thing students did before leaving class last night was to sign a homemade thank you card to Johnnie Briggs. We needed to thank him, and we decided—given his fondness for the handwritten letters of the Brontës—that an email would not suffice. One of our students is a bit of a calligrapher, and last week we all drafted a simple note that she could write and we could sign. It goes in the post today.

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."