Edward Clarke fears his English literature students are too clinical

About 10 years ago, at the end of a paper I had delivered at an academic conference in Grasmere, someone asked me very publicly: “so, what do you understand by literate despair?”

It took me the course of two more questions from the floor to cobble together an answer, and I’ve now forgotten completely what that might have been, although I like to think that I have prepared a better response with each academic year.

I had been trying to explicate a Wallace Stevens poem called A Postcard from the Volcano to a group of muddy Wordsworthians and I suppose at that moment I was suffering a kind of literate despair myself.

Perhaps Stevens was imagining the fate of his poems in the hands of future generations in that poem: “Children picking up our bones/Will never know that these were once/ As quick as foxes on the hill”. As the speaker thinks ahead to the time after his death he sees his “mansion-house” shuttered up as around it “the windy sky/Cries out a literate despair”. Later generations will say of the house that there is a ghost in it: “As if he that lived there left behind/A spirit storming in blank walls”.

If I still have any readers left after quoting so much poetry, then you are the children in Stevens’s poem. I take my job as a teacher of English literature to be to pick up the bones or poems of dead writers like Stevens to make them seem “As quick as foxes on the hill”.

And perhaps that is why my life is filled with so much “literate despair”.

Many of my undergraduates these days are very adept at putting poets in historical context and making grand theories about the deferred meaning of their poetics or something like that.

They are very well versed in all current schools of criticism. Some of them have even met some of the critics themselves. But I can’t help wondering, as I am compelled to give another neatly produced and knowledgeable essay an ‘A’, what happened to our appreciation of the quickened haphazardness of making great literature itself? Have professors made of their precious poets only a cabinet of curious bones?

When students of mine already sound like accomplished academics, I think of Uccello’s painting The Hunt in the Ashmolean. I think of the vanity of chasing the orthogonals of our ambitions and desires in work and love to their inevitable vanishing point in the dark woods of adulthood, whether that’s on LinkedIn and Facebook, or in a conference session and The Bridge bar and club.

When I was an undergraduate, I liked to think of my essays as so many postcards from the volcano, as epistles from an existential brink of my own making. In a slightly ridiculous manner I thought: “I was Keats – I was Blake”, as in Loudon Wainwright III’s song School Days. I’d probably be hard pushed to give those essays an ‘A’ today, but at least I was naively prepared to learn from the poets I loved. Surely college is the very place to step back from the rat race and join the foxes leaping for grapes on the hill.