“Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses!”
—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Literary types, being more sensitive than slabs of concrete, may find themselves embarrassed. When cities are on fire, when pestilence is raging, when victims cry out for justice, what good is literature? What do we think we’re doing at a time like this? How shall I presume to teach literature—at a moment of crisis?
One suggestion I have is teaching the lives of the poets. I have known seasons of close formal analysis and I have known seasons of intertextuality. In our current season, it feels like topicality is everything. At least we are not the first to experience such compression.
Students may be interested to learn that Chaucer and Shakespeare saw plagues and rioting. Andrew Marvell saved John Milton’s life. Lady Montague contracted smallpox and took up the cause of inoculation against it. Swept up by moral fervor, William Wordsworth went to France and sowed his wild oats. Walt Whitman nursed the wounded. (Emily Dickinson labored in seclusion.) Rudyard Kipling chronicled the waning of Empire. William Butler Yeats wondered if a play of his had gotten certain men shot. Wilfred Owen died a week before the armistice. That visionary Zora Neale Hurston fought flood and fire while flaunting a romantic edge. Virginia Woolf visited Hitler’s Germany—accompanied by her Jewish husband, Leonard, and their pet marmoset, a creature named Mitzi, who apparently charmed the natives. Samuel Beckett risked his neck for the French Resistance. Elizabeth Bishop visited Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
I suspect these fleeting reminders touch off innumerable associations in your mind, a civilizing reticulum, a help in the constant effort at achieving perspective. Some of this is due to great literature, some of it simply to seeing great writers straitened by historical circumstances, as we all are.