In Assigning Seniors Somber Sonnets

In his collection of poetry on loss and lament, Poet-Priest Malcolm Guite offers the following comparison of the use of a Drone in some forms of music to the experience of Loss in our lives. He says,

“[“Drone” is] the word that describes that continuous repetitive sound we hear in some early forms of music, especially the Gaelic lament. The drone of the bagpipe grounds the higher, skirling, wailing notes of the tune; the drone string on a stringed instrument gives rhythm and harmonic grounding to other elements in the music. Perhaps there is also something of the rhythmic, repetitive work of the worker drone going on in the darker cycles of pain that still accompany our recovery, and in the new music we need to make with the rest of our lives.”[1]

This school year, I will be leading our Seniors through their final class of Rhetoric before they graduate. The infamous Senior Thesis is a significant portion of this class but certainly not its entire focus. This year, we are planning to spend a significant amount of time reading and writing poetry. As resources, we will be reading together two collections of poetry, both compiled by Malcolm Guite.

They are:

1. Love, Remember: Poems of Loss, Lament, and Hope

2. Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter

As you can tell from the titles of these collections, they are both rather somber collections—the first focuses on death and the second on the season of Lent. So why have I chosen such somber collections for a bunch of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds who are full of optimism, energy, and zest? Isn’t that too heavy? Won’t that be a real “mood killer”?

Last March, Fr. Nate Carr gave a talk at The Classical Thistle conference in Branson. In his talk he expressed that the most concerning thing to him about this current culture of students is not the typical “Culture Wars” that we often fixate upon, but rather Acedia. Acedia is one of the “Seven Deadly Sins” that we most often call “Sloth”. While we tend to think of Sloth as being lazy, this is not what is necessarily meant by Acedia. How it seems that Acedia manifests itself more commonly in our culture is through over-activity and busyness. For our youth (and many of us adults), it also manifests itself in the disposition that everything is a joke. Nothing is serious. Every discussion presents itself as an opportunity for disdain, mockery, levity, inside-jokes, pop-culture references, and sarcasm. Many of our classically educated students are particularly apt at these things because they have become very sharp and quick-witted, trained to give logical and clever responses that can make the rest of us feel ill-prepared or like we missed something along the way.

At the same time, many of our students are rather naive (which is a truly good thing), but they have few personal encounters with many of the traumatic life experiences that children who grow up literally just across the highway from them have grown up in (e.g. fatherlessness, violence, meth-addicted mothers, etc.). Certainly, I do not desire them to experience these things themselves, but this does create dissonance between them and many of their contemporaries. This dissonance is a breeding ground for contempt.

Much of what we read in our classical literature and in the Scriptures reflect on these ills (dare I say “traumas”). This somber diet of poetry is introduced in that same vein—that they may experience vicariously that somber reality of Death in all its manifestations. And in light of this, that they may become better priests—able to sympathize with the pain and hurt of others, even as Christ is able to sympathize. Becoming a better priest is what Martin Luther meant by “priesthood of the believer”. When we hear that phrase, we often focus on “how we can go straight to God without a priest intermediating”, but that’s not Luther’s primary emphasis. His primary emphasis is that each one of us is called to serve as a priest to one another. Instead of a theology of hyper-individualism (“I don’t need no priest to get me to Jesus!”), it is a call to community—to love one another well.

One of my hopes is that they will have a steady diet of a weighty seriousness as they go out into a world that is broken and hurting. That they may love well. That they may be better priests.

The second of my hopes is that these collections of poems may remind them of their own deaths—Memento Mori. In a recent episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill in an interview of Dr. Russell Moore, Dr. Moore laments that churches no longer have cemeteries. While theses cemeteries were on the one hand a real reminder of the communion of saints across the ages, they also served as a reminder that each one of us will end up there one day. That shapes the way we live, the way we worship, and the way we interact with others.

As Malcolm Guite describes in the quote above, reflecting upon loss and death actually serves to give depth to our lives. In some ways it allows us to experience the goodness of Life.

So, it is with these ends in mind that I venture into this final school year with these students—certainly with trepidation but also in eager anticipation. Perhaps in a year from now I will write a follow-up to this post, in which I can share to what extent this was a success or failure.

In the spirit of having these students read and write somber poetry, I have written the following sonnet. Memento Mori!

“In Assigning Seniors Somber Sonnets”
In assigning seniors somber sonnets
I hope from a new vista they may see.
Although many a mount touched may be,
Just stand, kneel, feel you are small upon it.
Youthful naïveté finds adventure.
Its boundaries still seem beyond the frame.
And Time appears to them a fruitless name
For that which keeps them from potent futures.
But this Future will lose it euphony
When life’s frailty and loss have had their day.
The face they must face in mirror they see
Reflects a cost they knew not want to pay.
“Remember your Death” is an ancient call,
Lest blind Pride in your heart forecast the Fall.

[1]Malcolm Guite, Love, Remember: 40 Poems of Loss, Lament and Hope (London, UK: Canterbury Press Norwich), 135. Emphasis added.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s