Thursday, July 26, 2012

England in Literature

A few years ago, I was known to haunt used book fairs and come home with bags chock full of what I called “great buys” and my wife called “more books?!” I would usually look for two kinds of books – texts about speeches and speechwriting, and old literary classics, both fiction and poetry.

At one of those fairs, my eye fell on a piece of my own educational history: England in Literature, originally published in 1963 by the Scott Foresman Company. My high school didn’t get the book until my senior year (1968-69), which was the year for taking English literature (with one six weeks period devoted to world literature, which in the case of our class was Don Quixote by Cervantes).

But there it was, sitting in a pile of other textbooks, with its distinctive cover photo of waves crashing upon rocks. It was priced at all of $1.

Yes, I bought it.

I took it home, sat in a quiet spot, and began to look through it.

I was back in Miss Shorey’s 12th grade English class.

Miss Shorey lived with her sister on one of the wealthiest streets in New Orleans, in a large red-brick colonial with white columns in front. She had an undergraduate degree in physics, but she loved literature, and she eventually gained enough tenure to teach what every English teacher in our all-boys public high school wanted to teach – 12th grade English Lit. She was in her early 60s and was all of 5’2”. Her dresses were always high-necked, with a lace collar.

She also wore white gloves.

She spoke very precisely, enunciating each word perfectly in her (very) slight New Orleans accent. She believed it was important to set an example for speaking properly for her students – classrooms full of 17- and 18-year-old boys with last names like Boudreaux, Melancon, Guidry, Sanchez, Gonzales and Hebert (pronounced A-bear). And one named Young.

She led us through Beowulf, helping us to imagine fighting Grendl. She had us read a censored version of Chaucer. And Shakespeare, of course. “No one can be considered educated unless they have memorized at least one soliloquy from Shakespeare.” That is a direct quote from Miss Shorey. We were required to memorize and recite one; I chose the dagger speech from Macbeth and still remember most of it today. (The textbook included Hamlet; the class also read Macbeth.)

And she introduced us to the English poets – Sidney and Spenser, John Donne, Herrick and Lovelace, and Milton (she liked Milton; the class didn’t), Gray, Burns, Blake, and all of the Romantics. And Tennyson and the Brownings. She didn’t neglect the 20th century, either: the World War I poets, and Yeats, Eliot and Dylan Thomas. And we read Pygmalion by Shaw.

I leaf through this old textbook today, and I see what gave me an abiding love for literature, and why I tool English literature in college with the English majors when everyone else took the American literature classes. I know why old editions of certain books sit on my bookshelves, like Eliot’s The Hollow Men (bought for a project for Miss Shorey’s class), and the Poems of Rupert Brooke, and several volumes of G.K. Chesterton, and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

And Don Quixote. She required the class to read only the abridged version; she said she simply couldn’t force teenaged boys to read the unabridged with its close to a thousand pages and no pictures. But two of us read the whole thing – Jesse Stephenson and I. I remember how we talked ourselves through it, and say at lunch discussing it, and kept each other on track to finish it.

England in Literature. I loved the book. I loved the class. And Miss Shorey.

MacBeth, Act 2, Scene 1

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.


Louise Gallagher said...

Miss Shorey did a good job! She helped inspire your words, your writing, your heart, your creativity.

And we all benefit!

nance said...

i agree with Louise.
Miss Shorey did a good job.
and i like the story.

S. Etole said...

Always enjoy the history you share.

Megan Willome said...

What a great remembrance!

Ms. Rose Potter had us read the unabridged "Don Quixote" in Spanish my senior year (Spanish 5). It was so hard, but we got it. We also listened to the soundtrack to "Man of La Mancha" first, so we'd have the gist of it.

Liz said...

I'm with the class when it comes to Milton - three years' study and I still couldn't get into him. Prometheus Unbound also left me cold, but Eliot came easy. Dylan Thomas is best read aloud, especially if it's by Richard Burton :)