April 11, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Divine truths revealed in the study of English literature

Cynthia DewesHaving just seen the new movie version of Beowulf, I was moved to take my old textbook down from the shelf and look up the poem that I had read in English Literature class long ago.

Not long ago enough to have read it in Old English, mind you, but long enough to wish that I had had the movie available then to explain the poem to me.

At the time I read it, ancient legends, pagan and early Christian beliefs muddied the waters of understanding for me, as it were. It was hard to relate to dragons and magic spells and all that while plowing through murky archaic language. Besides, I was just a kid with limited experience in mystical symbolism, having no Harry Potter on hand to guide me.

Reading Chaucer was a bit easier, although we struggled through part of the Prologue in Middle English. By Chaucer’s time, medieval Christianity was the norm and primal myths were not essential to the story. The lives of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner and the other characters were presented in pithy vignettes of human trial and error.

It turned out that Chaucer not only had a good eye for skewering human behavior on his literary spit, but also had a sense of humor. His tales were often slyly funny. I learned that literature, the “classics” so dreaded by young readers, could actually be fun to read.

Milton’s work was another matter. His poems were lofty and grand, but also humorless and rather depressing in their Puritan emphasis on the sinful human condition. Paradise may have been lost and regained in his greatest poetry, but it lacked the inherent optimism I felt in Catholic works.

By the time we worked our way through the centuries to the 19th century Romantics, we had learned of various attitudes toward work, marriage, gender roles and all kinds of other things. Religious faith was still an important part of life then, but social attitudes were changing. Lord Byron and others led the way with new opinions about sexual freedom, human rights, and the importance of art and beauty.

In short, college literature classes made me think about the big questions: Who am I, and why am I here? How should I live my life? They complemented my other reading. For instance,

I read The Imitation of Christ and The Power of Positive Thinking at the same time, both offering different ways to find truth.

All of these ideas added to opinions gained earlier from reading childhood classics like Little Women. We’re still gaining these insights.

At a recent literary tea, I heard the participants identifying some of the then-radical ideas as expressed in this book, including women being independent of men and parents raising children by sparing the rod.

Another children’s story that influenced me was the Elsie Dinsmore series following Southern post-Civil War Elsie through her Girlhood, Womanhood and Motherhood. Elsie was so pious that she refused to play the piano for her father on the Sabbath and was forced to sit there all day as punishment.

As a virtual sponge, I absorbed Elsie’s piety and ideas about courage, honor, duty, patriotism, loyalty, you name it, from other series, such as Tarzan, Oz, Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew. Somehow, with God’s grace, all this reading, all these ideas, came together to create a spiritual model for living.

Being an English major sure worked for me. Still does.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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