Monday, June 02, 2008

Clare Day

Of the many sad things in Karen Armstrong’s twin memoirs of her inability to live a human life inside a convent and to find a complete one outside it, one of the saddest is this:
“Only that afternoon, I had been giving a tutorial on the Romantic period to three students. They had been quiet, docile, and attentive, carefully noting down my every word—even the jokes—but had not seemed at all excited by Coleridge’s poetry. None of them had asked me anything, except how to spell a word or repeat a date.
“What do you want to do next week?” I had asked at the end of the hour.

They gazed at me blankly. “Dunno,” one of the boys eventually volunteered.
“You must have
some idea,” I had said, a little testily. Silence. “What about Keats?”
“Oh no,” the girl groaned. “Oh no—anything but Keats.”

“What have you got against Keats?” I demanded. What could anyone have against Keats? Didn’t they admire those extraordinary odes, the sonnets—the letters, for heaven’s sake? The students continued to look at me expectantly, and for a wild moment I longed for one of them to get up and yell that he absolutely hated Keats, that he thought Keats was insufferably indulgent, pretentious, and overrated. I would have welcomed any sign of involvement or commitment. “Do you really not like Keats?” I asked again, hoping to coax them into a reaction.

They shrugged and smiled sweetly. There was no hostility; they were perfectly … pleasant. I gave up. “Well, what about John Clare?”

“Okay,” the girl replied equably, “I’ll do Clare.”

—Karen Armstrong,
The Spiral Staircase

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