Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Teaching Lear

Lear Banishing Cordelia by Henry Fuseli, c. 1785

Recall Notice
Gone now the young professor
Who took pleasure in hauling Lear
Before the court of a sophomore classroom
And pronouncing the old king headstrong,
Hungry for praise, intemperate,
And flagrantly ignorant of the world,
Confident he can cede his kingdom
And still retain his kingly authority.
Gone the old professor the young one became,
Who taught that Lear deserves to be praised,
After the arrogance of Act One,
For shaking his fist in the face of calamity
And asking what can be made
Of the nothing he’s left with,
Or the next-to-nothing.
Gone the students taught the old view,
Whose notebooks the old professor
Would have liked to recall for some serious
Alterations in focus and tone.
Or if not the notebooks of all,
Then those of the few who paid attention
And remembered the class long afterward.
Rebecca Bryce, for instance,
Who sat near the front, head bent,
Taking every word down,
While most of the others studied the rain
Soaking the hemlocks outside the window.
To her he’d have been happy to send a note
Expressing the hope no lecture of his
Berating Lear for trusting in flattery
Left her suspicious of friendly overtures,
Reluctant to let her guard down for a minute.
To her a note hoping his pious praise
Of Lear’s belated humility and contrition
Didn’t induce her to suffer injustice tamely.
Gone from the world the belief that the two
Can talk about it in some other life,
A life that now only imagination
Finds room for. There he’s delighted
To learn from her that his worry
Is more than a little ridiculous,
His claim to an influence
He never came close to possessing.
There he has a chance to be foolish,
Like Lear at the end,
Oblivious to the issue of royal authority.
And after the end, when the king
Chats over there with Cordelia all afternoon,
The professor makes sure that the pair
Are not interrupted. There he goes,
Patrolling the perimeter of the country cottage,
Turning messengers from the Court away.

Mr. Irving and Miss Terry in King Lear

For the second time, I hope to promote Callings, the latest book by Carl Dennis. This current sample (about teaching King Lear over the course of many years) offers an engaging surface with many extra layers of meaning underneath.