One of classical education’s biggest draws in our current age of distraction is its unabashed focus on beauty. James Ranieri’s recent articles for Circe highlight a nuance in classical thinking. Yes, we teach kids how to think, but we also “teach kids what and how to love.” Philosophically, I find this call to molding my students’ affections among the most honorable vocations. Pedagogically, I struggle.
In this year’s delirium, when I, like so many classroom educators, felt unmoored from my curriculum, it was a delight to sail into the poetry of Emily Dickinson. There I found two poems that helped me wrestle with this noble calling, giving voice to the Romantic quest for Truth and Beauty.
The first one describes an unsolicited moment of beauty:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
The poem opens in a forest, with light slanting through the trees on a winter afternoon. Quickly, Dickinson’s simile in the third line shifts us into an interiority, away from the landscape’s openness and into the cloistered cathedral that “oppresses.” What is doing the oppressing? This Slant of Light. Filtering in through stained glass now, this Light awakens an austerity, a reverence. The weight here is subjective—for Dickinson, this is “Heavenly Hurt,” “internal,” and personal. Because “we can find no scar”, “heavenly” might be synonymous with spiritual. In the next stanza, this is “an imperial affliction.” A Light that stuns, transfixes, and hurts.
Before we explore the reason, it’s worth noting that Dickinson offers a subjective experience with nature in this poem that starkly contrasts the reigning thinker of her day, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay Nature, Emerson encourages his readers to leave the suffocating walls of society to breathe in the refreshing air of nature. He is concerned that “most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing.” If seen correctly, nature would shine “into the mind and the heart,” producing an ultimate transcendence:
Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
This is Emerson’s church, his worship. In communion with nature, he experiences beauty in a spiritual way, internally “where the meanings are.” His attunement can be likened to an old radio dial. When finely adjusted, it sings. In Emerson’s “perfect exhilaration,” man “beholds [something] as beautiful as his own nature.” Man, the apex of nature, finds consonance and plentitude amidst the brooks and forests.
But Dickinson’s “Heavenly Hurt” isn’t exactly transcendence. The poem’s conclusion describes two contradictory movements, an inhale and an exhale. When beauty slants across our path, it arrests us. Everything slows into sublimity. The Light hits just right, illuminating the mind and the heart. But when it leaves, its absence is debilitating. We are rushed forward along the linear path of our life, blurry-eyed as we jettison past future events to that final fixed point on the horizon: “the look of Death.”
What should we make of this vision of beauty? A beauty that terrifies, oppresses, afflicts? Keats famously articulated the Romantic aesthetic in the concluding lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” If beauty hurts us, what does that mean for truth?
Truth is a tricky thing for Dickinson as well.
In another wonderful poem by Dickinson, what starts as a simple injunction to dress truth up in a pleasing guise (be it with a spoonful of sugar or through a parable), ends with a tremendous instability:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
An inspection of the poem reveals a host of paradoxes. Slant truth cannot be real truth. The real truth, which is too bright for us, exposes our weakness, but it also questions our ability to understand it. We are not fit for the truth, in Lewis’ phrase “until we have faces,” but if no refashioning occurs, truth passes us by. Truth, like lightning, dazzles, but can anything dazzle gradually? If truth must dazzle gradually for us to understand it, then is it truth at all? What first seems like a lightning that blinds us can now be read as a light we never see. If truth cannot be expressed gradually and we are not fit to understand that truth, we can never know the truth, so we are blind to it. Or worse, if truth is unknowable and inexpressible, is there truth at all?
Like the Slant of Light, the Lightning in this poem does the oppressing—it represents the stark reality of truth that reveals our insufficiencies. But unlike the Lightning, which reveals our blindness, the Slant reconfigures its subject: “We can find no scar,/But internal difference/ Where the Meanings, are.” If the dazzling truth blinds us, if we are incapable of knowing the truth, then the truth stands outside of our experience—stark, cold, and objective. This Slant of Light, however, moves inside us, oppresses us from within by reshaping our meanings.
The beauty of the Slant awakens in us the longing for a deeper truth. It shows us the reality of our mortality: it discomfits us, disturbs our complacency. Its oppression awakens our reverence, our lingering suspicion that there is more to explore. We, like Hamlet, could be bounded in a nutshell and count ourselves kings and queens of infinite space were it not for this certain Slant of Light, this bad dream.
Looking at these two poems together, and with Keats’ phrase in mind, perhaps we find a path towards truth. Beauty, properly Slanting its light across our path, begins to refashion us. Its oppression and weight subtly shift our internal meanings, reordering our understanding, and preparing us for the truth. If properly embraced, beauty serves as the midwife to the dazzling revelation of truth, slowly opening our eyes so we might see it in the first place and not be blinded in the process. Unable to tell where one ends and the other begins, we can say with conviction, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
As an educator, I find this an exhilarating relationship, because if I’m honest with myself, many if not most of my goals in the classroom are Romantic. I want my ideal student, as Whitman said, “not [to] look through my eyes… nor take things from me,/ [but to] listen to all sides and filter them from [himself].” I want my ideal student to embark on an academic journey of “Self-Reliance” to recognize that:
Envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. (Emerson)
But I also want him to ground his understanding of his own individuality within the larger scope of beauty, faith, goodness, virtue, fidelity – to exercise his gifts for and toward something grander than college readiness or mere careerism. I’d like him to drink deeply of those Pierian springs: “There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again” (Pope). To open himself to the great books, the great ideas, the great works of art and music, to see his particular place as an opportunity because when Hildegard van Bingen wrote “O Frondens Virga” in the 12th century, the only way you would’ve been able to hear that was if you were a person of some means within traveling distance of her monastery in Germany, but now you can listen to it whenever you want to for free on YouTube. To listen to this song today would be to welcome in oppressive beauty, beauty so pure and crystalline that it hurts.
But Dickinson says of this beauty, “None may teach it—Any—”. On some level, perhaps this sounds like explaining a joke—once explained, it can’t be funny. Or like telling a dream, the closer you get to it, the harder it is to grasp. Or maybe Dickinson wants us to think about all the things that obstruct the light.
A cynical response to this would presuppose that there’s no moving my students. Beauty could be dropped in their laps, but since they’re tik-toking themselves senseless and drinking cotton candy vape juice and for some reason re-discovering late 80s, early 90s fashion, it won’t affect them. How could a 12th-century Gregorian chant oppress us in any way today other than by causing boredom and contributing to our complaints of curricular irrelevance? Dickinson’s internal resonance with this Slant of Light is a result of her subjectivity, who she is, not the emblazoned Lightning of revelatory truth. Perhaps I ought to shrug and say, like Wordsworth, “For this, for everything, it moves us not./ We are out of tune.”
But learning to respond out of an abundance of the heart to truth and beauty is not a new problem. Augustine struggles with an internal response to the lesser beauty, pitying Dido rather than his own fallen state. Hamlet, also responding to The Aeneid (or at least Aeneid fan fiction since the monologue the player performs doesn’t occur in the epic itself), criticizes himself for failing to embrace the same emotion an actor conjures up over Hecuba: “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba/ That he should weep for her?/What would he do/ Had he the motive and the cue for passion/ That I have?” Mustering the proper emotion to life’s beauties, even the beauties that point us towards death, is not a modern problem-it’s a perennial flaw of fallen humanity, continually prioritizing the dust even in the face of the glory.
The problem is all too familiar. The solution evades us. I can teach content and form, I can teach vocab and memorization, I can teach concision and thesis writing. Can I teach an approach to the world? An openness to the possibility of beauty in quiet, small spaces? Sometimes I fear my efforts to teach truth obscure my efforts to teach beauty, and vice versa. I think of my own waywardness, the stiff-necked I proffered teachers who attempted to wrestle my attention towards beauty. And I think about those teachers who got in the way, who I’ve had to work past in order to see beauty with my own eyes rather than through theirs.
That’s humbling. And there’s hardly anything more humbling than self-reflective teaching, a kind of beauty in and of itself.
To enter my classroom with humility in the face of my own weaknesses seems daunting, but it is actually freeing. The solution would fixate less on castigating students for their slugginess, distractedness, or boorishness, but rather on creating as many possibilities for the slants of light to come in. The Romantic Teacher I long to be must wrestle with the cynicism of our time, exacerbated to its nth degree by Zoom meetings, hybrid classes, a host of never-really-working online tools, the nihilistic emptiness of turned off mics and cameras, the alien isolation of only seeing half-faces (apparently the saddest half). The Romantic Teacher in me must create spaces for students to engage with the truly good and beautiful and must allow them to engage with beauty as they discover it. If I can serve as a guide to beauty, then beauty can guide students to the truth. All I have to do is let the light in.