In my Sixteenth-Century British Literature class, truly one of the most invigorating classes I’ve ever been part of (read: almost every day I am Just Blown Away), we’re working our way through Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I. This is an almost unbearably complicated work, but it’s also almost unbearably compelling, for the richness of its imaginary landscape, the beauty and care of its poetic craft, and the intensity of its observations regarding the tangle of human experience at every level. Yesterday we lighted on the topic of despair, one of Spenser’s great concerns. There in the middle of talking about Una’s despair over the Red Cross Knight’s abandonment of her, I was trying hard to push at the largest sphere of human concern in the context of Spenser’s allegory, namely, the utter certainty that, to quote C. S. Lewis once more, if you “give your heart to anything it will most certainly be wrung and quite possibly be broken.” Leaving aside the question of betrayal and misunderstanding, we must finally confront the Great Betrayer, death itself. Unless we are Baucis and Philemon and blessed by the gods with simultaneous deaths, we will always be either abandoned or abandoning. At that point, one very serious student who sits near the front raised her hand and told the story of having to put to sleep their family’s beloved dog of fourteen years. As she told the story, she got to the point of telling us about the anguish her child in particular felt over the dog’s death. And then she took it a step farther, weeping as she did, and at the same time doing beautiful justice to the depth of Spenser’s great poem. She told us that she knew her child would eventually want another dog, and that she would indeed get her another dog, knowing as she did so that she was getting another inevitable death to wring their hearts.
How amazing to have a class where students weep ("and know why"...). Yet, for the same reason, I use dog ownership as a way to illustrate Romantic Irony - that sense of the fleetingness of existence yet determination to stand up to it, to "drink deep" of the melancholy knowledge of inevitable death and love something more in the face of it.
PS - I don't seem to be able to get the "blockquote" tag to work - consider the quotation indented, please!