The Great Throwing-Away: Back When I Was Smart

One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.

~A. A. Milne

Last night, embroiled in the Great Throwing-Away, I made surprising discoveries. I found

*The senior will, which I read at the junior-senior banquet (1969)

*The judge’s comments on ten pages of a novel I submitted to the Writers’ League of Texas (2007), not as bad as I remembered

*The essay, with judge’s comments, that I wrote for the state Ready Writing contest (1969), during which I was imprisoned in a classroom with other students from all over Texas for two hours or until I’d written a 1000-word essay, whichever came first. It was torture.

*Several pages–or maybe all–of a story I wrote in the early ’80s for my fellow teachers to read in the teachers’ lounge or (surreptitiously) in meetings. In chapter one, the principal expires while eating poisoned chocolate mousse prepared by home economics students.

*But the big, really big, surprise was the discovery of a paper I wrote in grad school for a Tennyson/Browning class and presented at the Conference of College Teachers of English back in 1984, my first year as a college teacher of English. I’d thought it was gone forever.

The paper is titled, “Sickness and Death in Tennyson’s ‘Lancelot and Elaine,‘” from Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King. I wrote it six months after my father died unexpectedly. If that year had been happy, I might have seen something happier in the poem, but it was a miserable year, so I saw sickness and death.

It was a miserable year for Lancelot, Elaine, and Guinevere, too. Guinevere, Queen of Camelot, is sick and can’t go to the fair jousts King Arthur has arranged. When she tells Arthur she can’t go, Sir Lancelot, his closest friend, says “‘Sir King, mine ancient wound is hardly whole, / And lets me from the saddle.'”

I’ve forgotten how he got his ancient wound, but it’s healed; he could sit in that saddle if he wanted to. When he claims to be ailing, he’s lying through his teeth. He doesn’t want to go to the joust. He wants to stay with Guinevere.  Although Tennyson doesn’t come out and say it, he makes it clear that Arthur knows–or at least suspects–it’s not a wound that’s keeping him at home.

Then there’s Elaine, the Lily Maid. Lancelot dreams about her and then meets her, and she immediately falls in love with him. She’s young, lovable, sweet, and pure.  After Lancelot is wounded in a joust–he went to the fair joust after all, but in disguise–Elaine cares for him. Her company has a healthful effect on him. But his spirit is also sick–carrying on with your dearest friend’s wife and fibbing about it and then becoming semi-involved with another woman will do that to you–and Elaine can’t restore his spirit. And, unfortunately, although he’s attentive, he’s not in love with her.

Elaine isn’t in good health either. She lives in sterile, self-imposed isolation, refusing to express emotion. She wants Lancelot, but he can’t live in her fantasy world, and when she realizes he doesn’t love her, the mirror cracks from side to side and the curse comes upon her. Infected by reality, she decides to die.

(The mirror and the curse are in “The Lady of Shalott,” not the Idylls, but Tennyson wrote both, and he wouldn’t mind my combining them).

Well. If this weren’t enough, Guinevere is behaving badly. She starts out by rebuking Lancelot for lying to Arthur. When she sees he’s become fond of Elaine, jealousy overtakes her–spiritual sickness runs rampant in this Idyll–and carps at Lancelot unmercifully. She doesn’t have one good word for the man. Granted, she’s been sick, but I don’t think that excuses the carping.

When Lancelot brings her a gift of diamonds he’s won in a series of jousts, a gesture most women would appreciate, she throw a hissy fit and tells him to give them to Elaine, then changes her mind and says, “She shall not have them,” and throws them out the window into the river. Then, while Lancelot is leaning on the window sill, watching his diamonds hit the water, here comes a lifeless Elaine, floating down the river on a barge.

Not a good day. A triangle with two sides sick and the other dead.

And it doesn’t stop there. The last line of the poem predicts that Lancelot will “die a holy man.”

“Lancelot and Elaine” tells a sad story. It could be a downer, especially for someone not in the best state of mind. Looking back, I can see that focusing on sickness and death for several weeks while I studied the text and wrote the paper was depressing.

But now when I think of the the Idyll, I remember not sickness and death but a beautiful image. Ironically, it grows out of Guinevere’s rage, when she exclaims that Elaine shall not have the diamonds.

Saying which she seized,
And, through the casement standing wide for heat,
Flung them, and down they flashed, and smote the stream.
Then from the smitten surface flashed, as it were,
Diamonds to meet them, and they past away.

When the diamonds, flashing in the sun, hit the surface of the stream, water splashes up, droplets flashing in the sun like diamonds.

More than thirty years after first reading the Idylls, I retain that image: diamonds meeting diamonds.

Those are some of the loveliest lines I’ve ever read.

Coming across the paper on “Lancelot and Elaine,” was true serendipity. A delightful surprise, because it reminds of me of a time when I was smart. When I was a scholar. When I engaged in literary criticism. When I could write formal prose. When I would never have inserted an incomplete sentence into a formal composition. Or in an informal composition. When I had a personal lexicon of more than a dozen words. When I could spell.

And when I would have floated down the river on a barge before I’d let anyone read what I’ve written in this irreverent little post.

 

***

Images

“How Sir Launcelot Fought with a Fiendly Dragon.” Arthur Rackham. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.

Guinevere.” Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941). {{PD-US-expired}}

“The Lady of Shalott.” Henry Meynell Rheam{{PD-US}}

“The Lady of Shalott Reaches Camelot.” Author unknown. From “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
{{PD-US-expired}}

Then the Real Critics Come In . . .

If you haven’t read the preceding post, “Disregard 15 Pages,”
please do so before reading on.
That post isn’t very long, but if you read it first,
you’ll get more out of this very short one.

*

So finally, after revising and revising and revising, you give in, and give up, and stop, because you know it’s as good as it’s going to get—

and because the person you’re writing it with said she’ll “put you in a straightjacket if you try to change it again”—quoted verbatim from her email—

and you believe she’s capable of it—

and you think maybe it’s not the gosh-awful purple-prosed horror you dreaded—

and maybe it even has a couple of redeeming qualities—

and maybe you won’t be embarrassed to have your name on the cover—maybe—

and someday you might even tell people you did it—

and then the real critics come in—

and they put their heads together and consult and confer and say—

“Meh.”

She Likes Me, She Really… Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Snoozing chimp
Snoozing chimp (Photo credit: World of Oddy). [Not my cousin MV]
I’m sharing a hotel room with my cousin MV following this afternoon’s bridal shower for our great-niece and this evening’s dinner with great-niece’s grandfather.

(Don’t waste time on the relationships. Only the cousinship applies here.)

MV crawled into bed early, turned on the TV, and channel surfed, but could find nothing interesting.

“I need someone to read me a story,” she said.

I volunteered to read the latest version of my Molly manuscript. She said something like, “Oh goody.”

Booting up the laptop, I located “The Definitive Summer 2012 Version” (so named to distinguish it from the other 3,243 Molly files) and crawled onto the queen-sized bed opposite hers. And I began to read.

I had reached the last paragraph of page 11 when I heard snoring.

Could this be, I thought, an omen?

And if an omen, is it good or bad?

I never stood on ceremonies, but–when your own blood kin, whom you’ve known for over half a century (wow!), whose infants you fed and diapered and lugged around as if they were your favorite baby dolls, for whom you served as target for the all the slings and arrows of outrageous cousinhood she let fly–like the time she was visiting you and she got all wasp-stung picking Kentucky Wonder beans off Mr. Armentrout’s fence and went to bed with an ice pack on her hand and in the middle of the night she laid it on your mid-section just to see what you would do and you were only sixteen and she was thirty and old enough to know better–well, when your own blood kin can’t stay awake to see what happens at the end of chapter one, then you might do well to find something to take the place of novelizing. Like playing Bookworm for eight hours straight without guilt rather than with it.

So. I sat for a while in contemplation, and then I emailed several friends for opinions on the omen question, and then I checked what’s happening on Facebook. And about the time I got to the fifth cat picture of the evening, I had remembered several circumstances that might be called extenuating:

1. MV liked the very first draft I wrote and keeps telling me I’ve ruined it and I need to toss all my (years of) revisions and bring back the original. It’s nowhere near publishable, but she liked it.

2. She laughed at all the right places, or most of them, while she was awake.

3. She’d had a long day and was tired.

4. She might have been motivated by revenge because I told her she was old. Which I’ve done several times on this trip. Like when she wanted to lift my suitcase onto the luggage rack for me. I mean, my doctor has referred to me as an “older person,”* but she’s been eligible for the senior citizen breakfast at IHOP for years. And just minutes ago, at midnight, she racked up another birthday.

In short, it’s possible her untimely entry into the land of Nod is a non-ominous omen, having zilch to do with literary criticism, and therefore no reason to get my knickers in a twist.

I’ll interpret it that way anyhow.

About paragraph #9, above, MV woke up and walked to the refrigerator for a bottle of water. On the way back to bed, she noticed me sitting on the sofa where I am still parked, composing.

“You’re not going to want to get up in the morning,” she said.

“I never do,” I replied.

She didn’t ask what I was doing, so I didn’t tell her I’m writing about her. I didn’t tell her about the photo I’d already chosen to illustrate this piece either. She’ll find out soon enough.

She’ll also learn what happens to kinfolk who fall asleep during a dramatic reading of Kathy’s Perfectly Polished Prose.

*****


Happy Birthday, Mary Veazey!

*****

* But he did it only once.

*****

Photo of Snoozing Chimp by World of Oddy via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).