Tuesday, September 02, 2008

I is for Inspiration (using one of my favorite poems)

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us; visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled,
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
“Intellectual beauty” could be translated as “inspiration”, “imagination”, or even “God”. I think of it as all three, and it plays a major part in my teaching. Notice the repetition of “inconstant” in this stanza. For me, teaching is new each moment, constantly changing. This is what makes it both exciting and exasperating. I like the idea that “inspiration” is “dearer for its mystery.” Teaching grows more mysterious each year for me.

Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o'er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
This stanza reminds me that, in the classroom, inspiration is often
totally absent, both for me and my scholars. English class can sometimes seem “vacant and desolate”, just as the sky can seem dreary after “rainbows .. fail and fade”. It’s just the everlasting pattern of life: day-night, sun-rain, birth-death, joy-sadness. My scholars and I simply have to learn to be patient. The light always returns.

No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
To sage or poet these responses given:
Therefore the names of God and ghosts and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose uttered charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o'er mountains driven,
Or music by the night-wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream.
Continuing from the previous stanza, I realize in this stanza that “doubt, chance, and mutability” will play huge roles in my life as a teacher this year, as they always do. Things – including my feelings and thoughts – will be endlessly changing (like “moonlight on a midnight stream”), and all I can do is patiently look for inspiration’s “light alone”.

Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
Thou messenger of sympathies,
That wax and wane in lovers' eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Depart not as thy shadow came,
Depart not--lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
I especially like the first two lines of this stanza. The beautiful things in life – like “Love, Hope, and Self-esteem” – will visit the scholars and me only occasionally thus year. They will be “for some uncertain moments lent” to us, and then will disappear for awhile, and then return again. It’s the recurrent theme of the poem: thought (inspiration) constantly alters, comes and goes, lives and dies, is bright and dark. We have to learn to accept, and even enjoy, the changing patterns of our minds as the year progresses.

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard; I saw them not;
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of buds and blossoming,
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!
Young people are always “[searching] for ghosts”, which I translate as “looking for the truth”. I’m lucky enough to be teaching them at a time in their lives when the search often pays off, when the “shadow” of inspiration could fall on them at any time, causing them to figuratively “clasp[] [their] hands in ecstasy”. I think the scholars and I do a lot of this kind of metaphoric ‘hand-clapping’ during the year. Lucky me!

I vowed that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in visioned bowers
Of studious zeal or love's delight
Outwatched with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illumed my brow
Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate'er these words cannot express.
The poet uses the word “dedicate” in the first line of this stanza, and, of course, dedication is a big part of any teacher’s life. Like Shelley, I want to dedicate this year not to any personal goals, but, as he says, to “thee and thine”, which I take to mean intellectual beauty, or inspiration, or imagination, or God, or the Universe (take your pick). Good teaching doesn’t depend on a personal teacher called “Mr. Salsich”. It relies solely on the inspiration of wonderful ideas from some mysterious source that I can’t even begin to understand. I’m going to simply relax, accept the ideas that come, and be grateful.

The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past; there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Thus let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm, to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.
A wonderful final stanza! It’s fitting that he refers to the “harmony in autumn”, that season in which we begin our teaching and learning once again. This year, my 42nd as a teacher, my hope is that the Universe (what Shelley calls “intellectual beauty”) will “let [its] power […] supply its calm” to my life. For me, calmness is the best measure of excellent teaching. The calmer I feel, the more in touch I am with the infinite Universe, and the better my teaching will be.

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