I spent the first years of my childhood in a small Arkansas town, then we moved to one much smaller. My world shrank in all kinds of ways. As I would discover, my older sibs had received a much better education in terms of literature. Before we moved, I used to look through their old textbooks out of boredom as much as anything else. When I found the lit books, I fell into a completely different universe.
At least five members of my extended family used these books, and on some pages, you can barely make out the text, given the bored doodles, underlinings, the circlings of important phrases. Not one picture of a poet or writer has been left alone. All manner of black eyes, dark blue lips, inked eyebrows, furrows on the brows, crossed eyes, extra hair and eyeglasses embellish the portraits. For some reason, they left the drawing of Gunga Din alone. The illustration of The Lady of Shalott is unadorned. Maybe they just didn’t get that far.
Therefore, not too long after I learned to read, I was exposed to the world of Lilliput, Gray’s country churchyard, Kubla Khan, and the use of ‘Childe’ as a first name. I wondered why Lord Byron had two names. This new universe had a completely different language. I had questions, but no one was around to answer. Being the youngest in a family has its advantages, but I felt the disadvantages far outweighed any perks.
Later on, I found Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes’ . When you say the words ‘The silver snarling trumpets ‘gan to chide’ in my part of the deep South, you will be speaking the new language, which was frowned upon or laughed at, so I kept silent. But it bounced around in my head, like many of the phrases both underlined and not.
Was literature taught in my schools? We got a brand new graduate from the university one year, and she taught us Macbeth. I think we spent the entire year on it. We memorized some lines, the farm kids complaining loudly the while. Not once during all those years did I hear the name ‘Keats’ or ‘Coleridge’ or even ‘Nathaniel Hawthorne’. Poe maybe, maybe not.
After seeing Bright Star last night, the lines from Keats came back. (The movie is great, btw, but be prepared to get misted up toward the end.) I was too sad to sit through the end credits, and hear the recitation of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
But I went to the bookshelf today, and took down one of those old lit books. Thumbing through it, I landed straight in the middle of my early childhood, when I was lucky enough not to have a faculty decide what I should or should not read, or could relate to, or comprehend.