Thursday, November 27, 2008

Wild Surmise

Last Monday our little group of Empty Nesters met at Pat and Rich’s home for our monthly meeting, a short discussion, and refreshments. As anyone with a calendar could have anticipated, Pat’s lesson focused on Thanksgiving and the spirit of gratitude. After her introduction, all of us were asked to express that singular thing that we were most thankful for; we had been warned prior to our get-together that our little moment in the sun would take place. Needless to say, most of our friends spoke about their spouses and family, their good health, and their religious life. In nothing were they cavalier about their feelings; their sincerity was real. Having been prepared by Pat’s phone call, I had given the assignment some thought, but it was not until we were sitting in our friends’ living room that my contribution came to me.

How important is it in our daily lives to breathe, to have our bodies refreshed and nourished by food and drink? How vital is it to be clothed, sheltered, and comfortable? I could not exist upon this sphere without any of these things. Likewise, life would have no meaning or substance without Trillium, our seven children, their spouses and their quivers full of grandchildren. I had thought of these as obvious objects of our gratitude and said so. Beyond the obvious, however, there was one aspect of my life for the which I could not have more thankfulness.

I have been modestly graced with language, the power to read, write, and make vocal utterance. Admittedly some of these expressions are lengthy, verbally ponderous things. I am not certain why that is so, but I have found it difficult to be otherwise. Aside from my writing, I enjoy reading at length. During the past year I have consumed several novels, biographies, and classic volumes from different eras in English and world literature. In my reading I have been able to connect with the minds and hearts of men and women whom I would have otherwise never met. Imagine that! Here in the middle of Utah Valley, without leaving my home, I have travelled thousands of years and hundreds of thousands of miles in my mind to be with individuals whom I have come to appreciate. Even in a bad translation, the descent into Dante’s “Inferno” is an extraordinary affair.

Since Monday I have had occasion to ponder the continuing unfolding of my mind and heart as I have read from the writings of Adam Clarke, the thoughtful observations of Bruce R. McConkie, and the considered opinions of the editors of the NIV and the New Jerusalem Bible. I have come to understand the Apostle Paul in a way that few people in the world have, not because I am particularly brilliant, but because I can read. It is a wonderful thing to have an insight into the experiences and teachings of a man who lived nearly two thousand years ago, to sense his emotions, his deep and abiding love for a people who looked to him for the truth, his determination to protect them from the prospect of persecution and the possibility of personal regret for having entered into the covenants associated with Christianity. There have been times when I have felt as if the spirit of that great man was at my elbow, helping me to comprehend his words, to set them properly in the context of his world.

In conjunction with the fixing of my mind on this wonderful linguistic gift, I thought of John Keats, one of the great Romantic poets of the 19th century. In October 1816, Keats was introduced to the translation of Homer’s works as freely paraphrased by the Elizabethan playwright, George Chapman. One of Keats’ boyhood friends, Charles Crowden Clarke, showed him the book one evening and they stayed up until dawn to read the volume together. Clarke said that at times “Keats shouted with delight as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination”. At mid morning, John Keats presented to his friend the text of the following sonnet. As little points of interest, the reader might like to know that the planet Uranus, a celestial body unknown to ancient astronomers, was discovered in 1781 by Sir William Hershel. That discovery is certainly the source for one of the lines below. We ought not to be distressed that it was Vasco de Balboa and not Hernan Cortes who stood on that singular peak in Panama, a fact that Keats’ friend immediately pointed out to him. “Balboa”, however, has three syllables and “Cortes” but two; to correct the history would have been to destroy the line and Keats let it stand as he had written it in the fires of his epiphany.


On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


“Wild surmise”! That is at the heart of all good reading, the sudden awareness that someone somewhere has changed your life forever.
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1 comment:

shydandelion said...

You have inspired me! I have been pondering about different subjects I would like to delve into, but haven't gotten up and done anything about it. And I can't tell you how many times I think to myself, "Gee, I really ought to be as well read in the gospel as Dad..." and haven't done anything about that either...It sort of makes my soul wince when I think of all the time I have wasted on things that don't matter and how much more fulfilled and enriched my life would be if I would make good use of my time and do something worthwhile. So, thank you for being verbose...it reminds me there is more to do. :D