On the Doorstep of Valhalla
One of my many regrets—and there comes a time in life when regret is almost inseparable from memory itself—is that I received no formal literary education, at least not after the age of sixteen. Such as I had until then received came to an abrupt halt, soon after a teacher of English gave me one of the greatest intellectual pleasures of my life. She was teaching the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but not in a didactic way. Instead she drew from us, by the Socratic method, the meaning of words that had at first seemed to us used arbitrarily, or at least eccentrically, with whimsical neologism piled on ungrammatical solecism. I cannot now recall the actual content of what we learned, but the pleasure of its discovery remains with me much as the grin of the Cheshire cat remained after the cat itself had disappeared.
Even now, nearly half a century later, as I walk through the woods around my house in France and the sunlight comes variegated through the leafy canopy, I cannot but think of the poem that begins: “Glory be to God for dappled things—/ For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow.” I thank my teacher. And thanks to her, I realize that there is no nobler or more honorable calling than that of teacher: for a good teacher hopes, knows, and accepts that some of his pupils will outstrip him in learning, accomplishment, or social status. Indeed, this is the very consolation of a teacher’s declining years. Genuine rejoicing at the success of others is by no means a universal human trait, to put it mildly, and therefore is much to be celebrated where it exists.
After my sixteenth birthday, more or less, I was left to my own devices as to what to read and how. On the whole, I accepted the world’s judgment of what was good and bad, and when I disagreed with that judgment I assumed that the fault was mine. I had been left without systematic or objective criteria by which to judge; I assumed that such criteria were necessary, that they existed, and that they were rigorously applied by proper critics.
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Posted on 03/05/2011 7:10 AM by Theodore Dalrymple