Yesterday I would have had a different answer to the question I pose today. Now, however, after a bit of recreational clicking around the Web, I have a different idea of size and significance. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a victory’s a victory no matter how small.
How small am I talking about here? Grab your electron microscopes and follow me, boys and girls. We’re going to be working on a sub-atomic scale.
One long ago summer I took a graduate course on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and, I think, Wallace Stevens. In accordance with the syllabus, Eliot was up first. We read the heavy hitters—The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, and so forth—but the reading also included a poem called Sweeney Among the Nightingales. I hadn’t read it before,1 and I couldn’t make a lot of sense of it.
The editor of the anthology we were using, however, had anticipated such difficulties. The poems were heavily annotated. A note at the end of Sweeney informed me that Sweeney is murdered in the poem.
I plowed through the poem several more times, but I just didn’t get it. Class discussion turned to the significance of Sweeney’s murder, and erudition blazed around the room. But I didn’t get it. Finally, in desperation, I raised my hand and said, “You have to help me here. I just can’t see where the murder happens in the poem.”
The class fell silent. The professor scanned every face in the room, then asked, “Does anyone want to comment on that question?” It turned out no one did. My question went unanswered, and class discussion resumed.
By the time the class ended, I knew I was an idiot. I had asked a question so phenomenally stupid that no one had had any idea where to begin to answer it. I was stung with humiliation and never asked the question again, although I never figured out the answer on my own. Years passed, and I stopped thinking about it.
Snarky Fast Forward
Today has been cold, gray and rainy in these parts. It is April, and to my mind the weather should be springlike. There is still a foot or more of snow in my backyard. I actually took a picture of it out the window. I had planned to post that picture here, in a bald attempt to gain the sympathy of readers in warmer climes.
Then T.S. Eliott came into my mind. “April is the cruelest month…” and all that. What, I wondered, was Eliot actually referring to with that image?
I Googled the question and found myself picking through densely argued scholarship intent on telling me way more than I wanted to know. Then I saw the word “Sweeney” in the middle of a paragraph, and the old question came back to me. “There’s too much stuff to read about The Waste Land here,” I thought, “but maybe I can finally learn where Sweeney dies.”
I narrowed the Google search to Sweeney, and a handful of sources came up. Before I knew it, I was reading these words: “As America’s leading Eliotist, Grover Smith, tells us, though, ‘nobody murders Sweeney’…”
The relief, the self-satisfaction, the outright vindication that I felt reading those words is surely out of proportion. You couldn’t tell me where he was murdered, you miserable poseurs, because he didn’t die!
He. Didn’t. Die.
Yes, I have my answer, but by any measure, it’s 30 years too late. There is nevertheless something to be learned from this. The concreteness of thought that led me to ask “Where?” was probably what later turned me away from literary studies and led me first (unhappily) to the law, then (enthusiastically) to computers and the Internet.
And I just feel so damn much better about Sweeney.
1Note to those about to begin graduate literary studies. In grad school you are never reading anything for the first time. You are always and only re-reading things. It’s an institutionalized lie that grad students and their professors tell to each other and that all conspire to believe.