The Fruits of the Poem

Convocation Address

Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006

by Theresa DiPasquale, Associate Professor of English

Good afternoon. This ceremony is an opportunity for us to come together as a community of higher learning, to celebrate the life of the mind, and to look forward to the challenges of the year ahead. That said, I want to stress that we should think not only of the future, with its promise, and of the present, with its exciting opportunities, but of the past. I want to urge you to study its mysteries and to become conversant with its wisdom. For without the texts and artifacts through which the past lives on, we’re what T. S. Eliot called “hollow men.” If we attempt to leave the past behind us, we will — like Milton’s self-deluding Satan — proudly assert that “We know no time when we were not as now; / Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d / By our own quick’ning power.” But as every parent, grandparent, step-parent, and older sibling in this hall today will testify, that’s just about the biggest lie we could tell ourselves.

At Whitman, the quest to avoid such self-deception begins with Core. But it should be only the beginning. Don’t let your encounter with the foundations of Western culture end with a two-semester syllabus. Go on to read more of the authors you only sample in Core, and seek out the many monumental texts and authors not included in the course. Study the ways in which Aristotle and Lucretius challenge Plato, for example. And after skipping over the 1200-year period between Augustine and Descartes — as you will in moving from Antiquity in the Fall semester to Modernity in the Spring — go back and dig into the Middle Ages. Read Aquinas, Averroës, Giordano Bruno, Dante, Chaucer. And whatever else you do, don’t graduate from college without reading Paradise Lost.

Of course most professors have texts that they will single out in precisely the way that I’ve just singled out John Milton’s 17th-century epic, which is a retelling of the opening chapters of Genesis. But since I have the microphone today, I’m going to spend a little time whetting your appetites for the fruits of Milton’s poem. I’ll focus on a few passages that speak with particular eloquence to our situation as a community of scholars intent on intellectual growth.

Paradise Lost is the story of what human beings are; why we die; what we desire; what ways of knowing enhance and expand our existence, and what particular ways of approaching knowledge — whether in the name of progress or of what we believe at the moment to be in the best interest of humanity — will in fact destroy our peace and unravel the very fabric of our world. I’ll begin with one of my favorite parts of the epic; Milton’s God — who is not a kindly, bearded old white guy, but a rather scary invisible entity who gives off blinding light and spouts theological paradoxes — has just commissioned the friendly and conversationally-inclined angel Raphael to go to earth and warn Adam and Eve that Satan exists, that he’s done something evil, and that he’s out to get them. This plot development in itself will no doubt pique the interest of anyone who reads the Bible’s story of Adam and Eve as implying that they learn about evil only by eating the forbidden fruit and ’til then are blissfully ignorant. That, suffice it to say, is not how Milton interprets the book of Genesis. At any rate, the stern Almighty sends Raphael to bring the newly-created human couple up to speed on Satan, thus insuring that they can’t say he didn’t warn them. Raphael flies straight from Heaven to the Garden of Eden, arriving at high noon; he “now is come / Into the blissful field, through Groves of Myrrh, / And flow’ring Odours, Cassia, Nard, and Balm; / A Wilderness of sweets; for Nature here / Wanton’d as in her prime, and play’d at will / Her Virgin Fancies, pouring forth more sweet, / Wild above Rule or Art, enormous bliss. / Him through the spicy Forest onward come / Adam discern’d, as in the door he sat / Of his cool Bow’r, while now the mounted Sun / Shot down direct his fervid Rays, to warm / Earth’s inmost womb, more warmth than Adam needs.” This passage is remarkable in several ways; it describes a virgin nature not yet deflowered by the follies of man. She is running wild; her streams are in high flood; her scents are intoxicating; her capacity to give and receive “bliss” is enormous — almost monstrously big. And most interestingly, it’s hot. Damned hot. Or rather, since this is a perfectly innocent world without dams of any kind, blessedly hot. There’s “more warmth than Adam needs,” so he’s retreated to the shade of his “cool Bow’r.” No climate control here. This Paradise is made for man and woman, but she also has a life of her own. The sun makes love to earth, inseminating her womb with his “fervid rays,” and Adam is left to make the sensible choice of retreating to a sheltered spot. We can learn much from Milton’s portrait of prelapsarian life. It’s particularly relevant to you who now enter this Walla Wallan Paradise of earthly delights so carefully tended by skilled gardeners, a place designed for your good and your growth. Remember, even as you reap its fruits, that being the center of the universe doesn’t make you the only thing in the universe. Tread lightly, speak reverently, acknowledge the hands that feed you, and listen to your elders.

One of the best pieces of advice they will give you is one of the hardest to take: Get some sleep! In Milton’s Eden, as in the second chapter of Genesis, Adam is just a bit older than the Eve fashioned from his rib, and they are joined in a very old-fashioned, hierarchical, pre-Christian version of marriage ala St. Paul, so he’s the head of the family, and he likes to keep things on a schedule. In Book Four, as evening falls, he tells Eve that they should be going to bed, since it’s getting dark and “the timely dew of sleep / Now falling with soft slumbrous weight inclines / Our eye-lids.” Of course, for you in the 18-21-year-old set, that weighty eyelid feeling is more likely to come over you at about 10 AM (right as you head into Monday Core) rather than at sunset. And the night is, after all, full of interesting things to see and do. Eve feels this way, and after dutifully answering Adam with a response akin to “I hear and obey,” she puts bedtime off a bit, first with a lyrical expression of her love for him, which — as she puts it — makes her “forget all time,” blending together day and night, and then with a penetrating question about the “glittering Star-light” that has begun to shine by the time she finishes speaking: “But wherefore,” she asks, which is to say, “Why?” “Wherefore all night long shine these, for whom / This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?” Eve wants to know what the stars are for. Her question is, like the questions you should ask here at Whitman, at once scientific and poetic. It is a child’s question that no adult should cease asking. Why do the stars shine?

Adam answers her as best he can. He acts as if he knows what he’s talking about, and his response is pretty good. He tells her that the stars fend off total darkness and provide a nurturing environment for all growing things, and that there are non-corporeal “spiritual creatures” who behold the splendors of creation even when human beings and animals are asleep. Not a perfect answer, but not bad for a guy who’s only been alive a few days and has only begun to observe Nature or to ponder the mysteries of philosophy and religion. What’s really exciting, though, is that when the angel Raphael arrives to have his chat with Adam and Eve, Adam takes the opportunity to follow up on Eve’s question. The angel being one of those “spiritual creatures” to whom he had referred, Adam has the feeling that Raphael will be able to clear up his lingering doubts about the nature of the universe. So he asks the visitor to tell him about the creation of the sun, moon, stars, and earth, and to explain the apparent disproportion involved in having “So many nobler bodies” seemingly revolving around “this Earth a spot, a grain, / An Atom” when compared with the “Spaces incomprehensible” he sees above him in the night sky. Ontologically and astronomically, what’s the deal? The angel answers ambiguously, declining to clear up the Copernican vs. Ptolemaic debate about whether the earth is circled by the sun or vice versa; but he is clear on one point: the big, mighty and bright are not served by the small, fragile and dim. On the contrary, he explains “that Great / Or Bright infers not Excellence: the Earth / Though, in comparison of Heav’n, so small, / Nor glistering, may of solid good contain / More plenty than the Sun that barren shines, / Whose virtue on itself works no effect, / But in the fruitful Earth; there first receiv’d / His beams, unactive else, thir vigor find.” In other words, you can be the hottest star in the heavens, but you’re made not for yourself, but for something or someone else. Your mission is to shine on the non-luminous bodies you encounter, to give those who seem to be your inferiors — and maybe even are your subordinates in intellect, power, talent, or goodness — to give them what they need to grow and bear fruit.

One way of doing so is to follow the examples of Adam and Eve in the episodes I’ve just recounted. Reverence authority, listen to it, absorb its wisdom, but also question it, put it on the spot, make it stretch its boundaries, challenge its frame of reference. To commit oneself both to respectful listening and to clamoring for answers is not easy. But the combination is essential to life and growth. SO: Get some sleep, know that you’re not the only thing in the universe, always try to give the best answer you can, know that your answer can probably be improved upon, listen to your teachers, and question your teachers. Oh: and one other thing. EAT RIGHT!

This is, as you may not be surprised to hear, one of the most important themes of a poem about two people who eat something they shouldn’t oughta. But it’s not just the fruit and the other high-sugar and high-fat intake you need to handle with care. Raphael puts it well in counseling Adam and Eve when he says that “Knowledge is as food and needs no less / Her Temperance over Appetite to know / In measure what the mind may well contain, / Oppresses else with Surfeit and soon turns / Wisdom to Folly, as Nourishment to Wind.” The point here is not that some knowledge is off limits. Raphael has earlier speculated that “time may come when men / With Angels may participate, and find / No inconvenient Diet, nor too light Fare.” But babies need breast-milk first, rice cereal later, and proceed to beef vindaloo or vegan brownies only a bit later. To avoid intellectual flatulence and mental indigestion, think sequentially: algebra precedes calculus and you need both before you can be a physicist or an astronomer; to produce wise and effective rhetoric or to tell a story well, you must first learn the arts of grammar and logic. If you want to be a social scientist, you’ll need to master statistics. And more broadly speaking, one prepares for the thrills of interdisciplinary research by mastering a discipline, whether in the humanities, the arts, the sciences, or the social sciences. Sample many departments’ offerings, explore; but then choose a field that excites and motivates you, and train rigorously in its methods, its vocabulary, and its theoretical underpinnings. And in every class you take, from Buddhist Civilizations in Asia I to Intermediate Ancient Greek, read slowly, carefully, with an eye for detail. Whether your text is an early modern poem, a set of data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the results of a carefully-worded questionnaire, or a verse from the Qur’an, read deeply, richly; as Nietzsche urges in the Preface to his Genealogy of Morals, become a cow: which is to say, don’t just swallow anything whole. Instead, graze and ruminate: chew, swallow, regurgitate, chew some more, swallow, transform, absorb.

But enough advice. I’ll end with a final observation for the benefit of first year students. Today, you bid farewell to the Paradise in which you’ve dwelt til now. Whether you’re leaving a realm where you felt confined and limited, shaking your fist like Milton’s Satan and blazing out of your parents’ house in proud rebellion, or taking your leave of Eden as Adam and Eve do — sadly, slowly exiting the gates of a Garden you loved: either way, there’s a great poem ahead of you, a rich text to read, to digest, and to interpret dynamically and originally. Welcome to the life of the mind. Welcome to Whitman College.