”The Past is a Foreign Country…”

“… they do things differently there.” So goes a very quotable aphorism by the otherwise obscure novelist named L. P. Hartley. There are things about its people, their mindsets and habits, that seem utterly foreign: like alchemy, or absolute monarchy. But we measure their distance also by things they did that we can’t do, like building temples or writing epic poetry.

Their poetry is also, paradoxically, where we can find familiarity. Sure, past writers use antique formulations and words, but their underlying emotions can be human in a transcendent, trans-historical way. We can feel their urgency.

The main reason I read and teach old books isn’t to vex students with difficult language (but it helps); it’s to empathize with writers in order to understand them, and thence to understand myself through them.

On the verge of teaching seventeenth-century poetry again, I’m reflecting on all of this because Donne’s conceits and Milton’s epics and Bacon’s essays can seem foreign. But their century is also the bridge between Shakespeare’s supernatural witches and fairies and the rise of the novel; between absolute and constitutional monarchies; between alchemy and the scientific method. Their experiences in their century help us, in the twenty-first, see how change is the only constant.

The course outline also reflects how we read now, in 2019; we augment our critical faculties with machines, and build databases of texts like sonnets. We’re cognizant of old forms even as as we embark on our future. Let the foreign journey begin.

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