The pervasive “world” is a man-made complex of ambitions and obligations, a dense social and cultural and financial web that captures us and estranges our experience from the primal realities of earth and sky. We need to remind ourselves of the blessedness that can come even in the midst of the busiest days, that subtle shift in disposition that opens the gates of wonder.
On a recent webinar for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, I expressed my dismay that many people dislike poetry, though it is not hard to see why they might. Instead of being allowed to feel the pleasure of language (read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” or W.B. Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” aloud), students have sometimes been made to believe that poems deploy ordinary-looking language in a code understandable only by the professoriate.
At Wyoming Catholic College, where poetry is part of our institutional genome, students memorize poems by ear, so that the language and form of poems live in their memories before they ever read them on paper. One of the first poems that students at Wyoming Catholic College memorize is William Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us,” which the faculty chose because it gives freshmen an immediate sense of the difference between the cosmos of Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey they are reading in Humanities, and the worldly everydayness of modern commerce and technology.
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,” writes Wordsworth, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; — / Little we see in Nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Wordsworth’s pervasive “world” is a man-made complex of ambitions and obligations, a dense social and cultural and financial web that captures us and estranges our experience from the primal realities of earth and sky, ocean and starry night: “The sea that bares her bosom to the moon; / The winds that will be howling at all hours, / And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; / For this, for everything, we are out of tune; / It moves us not.”
At Wyoming Catholic College, we try to keep a difficult balance. On the 21-day backpacking expedition that begins their freshman year, our students leave behind their cell phones and the rest of the “world” and enter the primordial earth and sky of the mountain wilderness. But after those three weeks, when they reenter the front country (as it’s called in Wyoming), the world begins to reassert itself: long reading assignments, work-study jobs, quizzes, mandatory evening lectures, papers. Phrases like “time management” begin to come into play. Some students begin to falter. But just in time comes the respite of the Outdoor Week in locations all over the Mountain West—rafting or kayaking, rock climbing or backpacking or horse-packing or mountain biking, or perhaps going on a pilgrimage like the one currently underway down to New Mexico—and then the return this weekend and the long stretch of hard work until Thanksgiving.
Becoming an adult, like it or not, means having to live in “the world” that lies well outside the boundaries of Eden. Wordsworth’s phrase “late and soon” rings true, though it might take a while for the oddity of it to register. For example, I used to think it meant “late and early”—getting and spending from early in the morning until late at night. But the brilliance here is pairing “late” with “soon,” a pure adverb, to capture the sense of haste and stress, deadlines and anxiety, that characterize the world that is too much with us. It’s already late. How soon can you have it? Time is always running out, and our habitual tendency is to keep intensifying the pressure.
There must be a recourse. Wordsworth imagines it through a mythological capacity to get outside chronological time and make Nature ours by understanding it intuitively through the human form: “This sea that bares her bosom to the moon,” for example, a bridal image both intimate and primordial. He longs to see the shape-shifting Proteus, famous from the Odyssey, or to hear old Triton’s horn—though poetically he has already evoked both of them. The old gods make guest appearances in his sonnet, but Wordsworth seeks not so much to revive them as to find in his own time the range and power of the ancient poets who wedded the human world to the natural one.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman recognizes the poetic answer to “getting and spending” in the Benedictine order. In a wonderful part of his meditation in “The Mission of St. Benedict,” Newman thinks how much Virgil would find compatible in the life of the Benedictine monks.
He who had so huge a dislike of cities, and great houses, and high society, and sumptuous banquets, and the canvass for office, and the hard law, and the noisy lawyer, and the statesman’s harangue,—he who thought the country proprietor as even too blessed, did he but know his blessedness, and who loved the valley, winding stream, and wood, and the hidden life which they offer, and the deep lessons which they whisper,—how could he have illustrated that wonderful union, of prayer, penance, toil, and literary work, the true “otium cum dignitate,” a fruitful leisure and a meek-hearted dignity, which is exemplified in the Benedictine!
If Wyoming Catholic College embodies the “Benedict Option,” in Rod Dreher’s now-famous term, it does so by regularly and deliberately seeking this kind of otium cum dignitate. In an All-School Seminar this month, students, faculty, and staff will read and discuss Josef Pieper’s great work, Leisure, the Basis of Culture. We will need to remind ourselves, as always, of the blessedness that can come even in the midst of the busiest days, that subtle shift in disposition that opens the gates of wonder.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “The Valley of Wyoming” (1865) by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.