The Brief Sum of Life–In Praise of the Liberal Arts

 

So sue me.  I’ve never really pretended to a deep acquaintance with, nor understanding of, mid twentieth-century American playwrights and screenwriters.  And so we have Days of Wine and Roses, a 1958 teleplay by JP Miller with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie , which I’ve always gotten spectacularly mixed up with Splendor in the Grass, which began life as a 1961 Hollywood movie starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.  Neither of them has anything to do with Tennessee Williams (although, thematically, perhaps they should have), and maybe this salient fact has exacerbated my confusion over the years.

One thing I’m not at all addled about, though, is the origins of the titles:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass,
of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind–William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Reflections of Early Childhood

William Wordsworth.  Not so daft.  And very fond of recollecting rationally and in tranquility, memories from bygone days.

And then there is:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream–Ernest Dowson, Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam

The rather pretentious Latin title of Dowson’s poem (roughly, and non-pedantically) means something like “Life’s too Short to [Expletive] Around,” although I rather doubt that Dyson would have put it that way.  Pedants, go for it in the comments, if you’re so inclined.

Cannot help thinking that–somewhere–Wordsworth and Dyson were trying to drive the same point home.

At least, they sorta did with me.  And that might be the only lesson I learned from this literary debacle.

As with so many of those lessons which resulted from BA and MA studies in English Literature all those decades ago, while they may not have resulted in opportunities for extensive remuneration in a professional life related to them, they stood me in good stead morally, ethically, and conscience-wise, and I wouldn’t exchange them for the world.

And that’s not nothing.

In memoriam: James Patterson Beymer.

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  1. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    Oh, would that I had gotten my English degree 20 years earlier, so as not to have read more Foucault than Wordsworth. At least I know those lines, but I can’t say whether I originally read them or heard them in the movie. I am so grateful for your literary reflections that call me to revisit works I once read or more importantly, never knew existed.

    Yes, the liberal arts deserve praise. Some of my college professors would agree, if they’re still around.  But I was allowed to wander aimlessly through the curriculum and have felt the gaps in my literary education for decades now. I try to fill them in, often following the current high school curriculum of my daughters. Perhaps if the liberal arts required a competency exam at the end of college, as for professional engineers or lawyers, I wouldn’t have taken so many of the wrong classes. 

    • #1
  2. She Member
    She
    @She

    Lilly B (View Comment):

    Oh, would that I had gotten my English degree 20 years earlier, so as not to have read more Foucault than Wordsworth. At least I know those lines, but I can’t say whether I originally read them or heard them in the movie. I am so grateful for your literary reflections that call me to revisit works I once read or more importantly, never knew existed.

    Yes, the liberal arts deserve praise. Some of my college professors would agree, if they’re still around. But I was allowed to wander aimlessly through the curriculum and have felt the gaps in my literary education for decades now. I try to fill them in, often following the current high school curriculum of my daughters. Perhaps if the liberal arts required a competency exam at the end of college, as for professional engineers or lawyers, I wouldn’t have taken so many of the wrong classes.

    Thanks@lillyb.  It’s a hard row to hoe, these days, that of the proud English major, but I’m glad that I ploughed it in the early 70s, perhaps among the last time such a thing was possible and–even when things got a bit complicated by the Greers, Steinems and Paglias of the world–at least those times were literate, informed and interesting.

    I don’t know if it’s possible to take the “wrong” classes, since no knowledge is wasted knowledge (IMHO) and I always trust in the really smart people to tell the difference.  But I’m still grateful to my teachers, including the late Mr. She (Frank Zbozny), Bernie Beranek, Peg Parker, and the Jim Beymer mentioned in the OP. Among so many others. (Shout-out to Fr. Cornelius Holley, Fr. Frank Meenan, and Reiner Schurmann, a troubled, but incredibly gifted, teacher.  I count myself lucky to have been in a couple of his classes and to have studied with all of them.)

    Jim Beymer was the Chairman of Duquesne University’s English Department during most of my tenure at the school.  A man of great learning and humanity, he’d spent many years in New York, during which he’d hobnobbed, very young, at the Algonquin Round Table/New Yorker with the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Harold Ross, and James Thurber.  He was a gifted teacher and a kind man, someone of whom the knowledge of the plays of Shakespeare was boundless, as was his own understanding of contemporary American literature (something he never quite managed to imprint upon yours truly).

    He never gave a fig for his own literary or scholarly reputation, caring so much more for his teaching and his students.

    I’m gobsmacked, all these years later, to discover that he was only 52 when he died.  He seemed much older to me (who’ll be 70 later this year) at the time.

    Rest in peace, Jim.  We’ll do our best to stand athwart the times and hold the torch high.

    • #2
  3. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    Hear, hear!!

    My UPenn, Class of 1969, major in English lit caused/enabled me to learn a huge amount of the history of our language, as well as to learn some Old English (read Beowulf in the Anglo-Saxon), Chaucer and Middle English, Shakespeare of course, and 18th C. poetry and narratives (early novels), as well as esoteric thinkers like William Blake and later, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I idolized one professor who boasted as having never taken any courses in literature later than the 18th Century. Heh.  But I enjoyed 19th C. literature as well as the survey courses required in Roman and Greek material in translation, of course.

    Bottom line: studying real, enduring classical literature gives a young person a glimpse and some understanding of human nature, and thus prepares one for the vicissitudes of adult life.

    Nowadays? I think not so much. Pity. 

    • #3
  4. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    Fritz (View Comment):

    Hear, hear!!

    My UPenn, Class of 1969, major in English lit caused/enabled me to learn a huge amount of the history of our language, as well as to learn some Old English (read Beowulf in the Anglo-Saxon), Chaucer and Middle English, Shakespeare of course, and 18th C. poetry and narratives (early novels), as well as esoteric thinkers like William Blake and later, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I idolized one professor who boasted as having never taken any courses in literature later than the 18th Century. Heh. But I enjoyed 19th C. literature as well as the survey courses required in Roman and Greek material in translation, of course.

    Bottom line: studying real, enduring classical literature gives a young person a glimpse and some understanding of human nature, and thus prepares one for the vicissitudes of adult life.

    Nowadays? I think not so much. Pity.

    I read Beowulf and Chaucer in high school, along with Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, etc. I never read the Russians in high school or college but did revisit Shakespeare. It was Critical Theory that really threw me for a loop, but I don’t regret taking it given its current popularity. I think you’ve summed it up perfectly: “studying real, enduring classical literature gives a young person a glimpse and some understanding of human nature, and thus prepares one for the vicissitudes of adult life.” 

    • #4
  5. She Member
    She
    @She

    Fritz (View Comment):

    Bottom line: studying real, enduring classical literature gives a young person a glimpse and some understanding of human nature, and thus prepares one for the vicissitudes of adult life.

    Nowadays? I think not so much. Pity. 

    Yes indeed.  I’ve written before here about the classics of my childhood, and why I think they’re also so important, not least because they formed in me

    an understanding that what I was reading, reciting, or singing wasn’t always “real,” but that some of it might be true

    I think that’s also the case with adult literature.  We can view archetypes of great literature and stories, and see ourselves in them.

    It didn’t used to be that the “archetype” we were following had to be exactly like us, in terms of skin color, economic circumstance, language, gender, disability, timeframe, lived experience, or anything else, lest we could not identify with him.  The ability to identify with our common humanity, no matter the source, is the point of the “archetype,” after all.  I can see myself in Othello and Lear.  Or in Gilgamesh.  Or in Odysseus. And in so many more.

    Such a leap requires imagination, something else that seems to be in disfavor at the moment.

    Pity indeed.  I am sorry for the young people of today.  They largely didn’t invent this mess. But they have to live with the consequences, one of which is that they’ve been taught that there is nothing that’s happened to this date in history that is relevant to their own struggles or which can teach them anything about life.

     

    • #5
  6. She Member
    She
    @She

    Lilly B (View Comment):
    I read Beowulf and Chaucer in high school, along with Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, etc. I never read the Russians in high school or college but did revisit Shakespeare. It was Critical Theory that really threw me for a loop, but I don’t regret taking it given its current popularity. I think you’ve summed it up perfectly: “studying real, enduring classical literature gives a young person a glimpse and some understanding of human nature, and thus prepares one for the vicissitudes of adult life.” 

    Yes, so much used to be covered in high school.  I’m a graduate of US public high school education myself.  We studied Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear.  The school district (Bethel Park, PA) was experimenting at the time with a two-part course called “Humanities,” which was a high-school version of what colleges called “Western Civ.”  That’s where I first met epic heroes like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and later writers such as Hrothswitha of Gandersheim and Hildegard of Bingen. By the time I got to college, and thanks to Bill Switala, my high school teacher, I’d already surpassed many of the requirements.

    I’m encouraged by recent chats with my granddaughter (now in tenth grade, and in the Upper St. Clair School District, which is next door to my own Bethel Park.  They seem to be doing a very decent job).  But I don’t think our mutual experiences are all that common these days.

    • #6
  7. Raful Member
    Raful
    @Raful

    Lilly B (View Comment):

    Oh, would that I had gotten my English degree 20 years earlier, so as not to have read more Foucault than Wordsworth. At least I know those lines, but I can’t say whether I originally read them or heard them in the movie. I am so grateful for your literary reflections that call me to revisit works I once read or more importantly, never knew existed.

    Yes, the liberal arts deserve praise. Some of my college professors would agree, if they’re still around. But I was allowed to wander aimlessly through the curriculum and have felt the gaps in my literary education for decades now. I try to fill them in, often following the current high school curriculum of my daughters. Perhaps if the liberal arts required a competency exam at the end of college, as for professional engineers or lawyers, I wouldn’t have taken so many of the wrong classes.

    In “the old days,” unlike today, the college degree itself certified competence in one’s field of study, just as the high school diploma certified mastery of high-school-level academics and basic literacy, numeracy and critical-reasoning skills.   Perhaps there’s a business opportunity in creating a competence-validating liberal-arts equivalent of the Fundamentals of Engineering exam?   This would help employers separate the intelligent wheat from the grade-inflated chaff.

    • #7
  8. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    If not for a crush on Natalie Wood, I would not have endured Splendor.  Too heavy.  And Days of Wine & Roses was just depressing.  Jack Lemon does not grow on you.

    Maybe we are due for remakes with Adam Sandler or Vin Diesel with Tina Fey.

    • #8
  9. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    She: The rather pretentious Latin title of Dowson’s poem

    More charitably, I believe educated British readers of Dowson’s time (born 1867) would likely have learned Latin and Greek in school and so such titles would have been understandable and not at all surprising. And those were the intended audience.

    • #9
  10. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    Raful (View Comment):

    Lilly B (View Comment):

    Oh, would that I had gotten my English degree 20 years earlier, so as not to have read more Foucault than Wordsworth. At least I know those lines, but I can’t say whether I originally read them or heard them in the movie. I am so grateful for your literary reflections that call me to revisit works I once read or more importantly, never knew existed.

    Yes, the liberal arts deserve praise. Some of my college professors would agree, if they’re still around. But I was allowed to wander aimlessly through the curriculum and have felt the gaps in my literary education for decades now. I try to fill them in, often following the current high school curriculum of my daughters. Perhaps if the liberal arts required a competency exam at the end of college, as for professional engineers or lawyers, I wouldn’t have taken so many of the wrong classes.

    In “the old days,” unlike today, the college degree itself certified competence in one’s field of study, just as the high school diploma certified mastery of high-school-level academics and basic literacy, numeracy and critical-reasoning skills. Perhaps there’s a business opportunity in creating a competence-validating liberal-arts equivalent of the Fundamentals of Engineering exam? This would help employers separate the intelligent wheat from the grade-inflated chaff.

     

    But the “chaff” would go find grievance lawyers to sue for “disparate impact” discrimination. That theory led to many industries abandoning aptitude tests for job applicants altogether.

    • #10
  11. She Member
    She
    @She

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    She: The rather pretentious Latin title of Dowson’s poem

    More charitably, I believe educated British readers of Dowson’s time (born 1867) would likely have learned Latin and Greek in school and so such titles would have been understandable and not at all surprising. And those were the intended audience.

    Oh, sure they would have known.  (It’s a quote from Horace.)  But even back then, most poets didn’t do it.

    • #11
  12. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    Fritz (View Comment):

    Raful (View Comment):

    Lilly B (View Comment):

    Perhaps if the liberal arts required a competency exam at the end of college, as for professional engineers or lawyers, I wouldn’t have taken so many of the wrong classes.

    In “the old days,” unlike today, the college degree itself certified competence in one’s field of study, just as the high school diploma certified mastery of high-school-level academics and basic literacy, numeracy and critical-reasoning skills. Perhaps there’s a business opportunity in creating a competence-validating liberal-arts equivalent of the Fundamentals of Engineering exam? This would help employers separate the intelligent wheat from the grade-inflated chaff.

    But the “chaff” would go find grievance lawyers to sue for “disparate impact” discrimination. That theory led to many industries abandoning aptitude tests for job applicants altogether.

    That wasn’t my first thought, but it’s a good point. I was thinking of how often I hear teachers, college professors, and university presidents say, “we don’t teach you what to think; we teach you how to think.” I heard that back in college, and I still hear it constantly. I get it, but I think they are missing the point that you still have to know certain basic information about history, religion, civics, math, science, and literature – including having read classic works – to truly be educated. Without the foundational information, you cannot properly evaluate what you’re learning. Based on the ideas coming out of many universities today, that actually seems like the point. 

    • #12
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