I don’t know if the public declarations of massive declines in reading are true or not. But I do know we don’t do a very good job of reading our past.

A homeless friend in my faith community, while discussing some theological concepts in a small group setting, mentioned that we shouldn’t expect to experience external peace—like the cessation of war and political conflict and so forth—until we can all experience individual, internal peace. Wise words.

That may be a reality when it comes to reading our past as well. We aren’t very good at seeing our collective history rightly. But we can’t hope to read history with a modicum of authenticity until we learn to read our individual pasts honestly.

A poem by Richard Wilbur got me thinking about this.

Wilbur is one of my favorite twentieth-century poets. He left us in 2017 at the ripe age of 96. His new poems from 2004 include one entitled “The Reader.”

Here it is:

She is going back, these days, to the great stories
That charmed her younger mind. A shaded light
Shines on the nape half-shadowed by her curls,
And a page turns now with a scuffing sound.
Onward they come again, the orphans reaching
For a first handhold in a stony world,
The young provincials who at last look down
On the city’s maze, and will descend into it,
The serious girl, once more, who would live nobly,
The sly one who aspires to marry so,
The young man bent on glory, and that other
Who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does
What will become of them in bloody field
Or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times
She sees their first and final selves at once,
As a god might to whom all time is now.
Or, having lived so much herself, perhaps
She meets them this time with a wiser eye,
Noting that Julien’s calculating head
Is from the first too severed from his heart.
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some Natasha in the ballroom door—
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.

III

On the surface it is a poem about his wife as she re-reads stories she’s read before. But it is as much about what we know and how we know it as it is an elder reader settling down to revisit the stories of her youth.

There is a wisdom in this particular way of the reader’s knowing which elicits the poet’s observations. The problem, which the subject of the poem has solved, is that we have forgotten how to read our history, our former selves, our pasts. The result is that we have also forgotten how to know ourselves.

In twenty seven short lines, Wilbur offers a remedy to our forgetfulness summed up in the “blind delight of being.”

I either ache for the good that was, or I feel the shame of all my mistakes.

The setting of the poem presents us with an activity that modern humanity is loathe to do, and not very practiced or effective at when it is tried: going back. We don’t want to go back. I know that when I begin to drift into dwelling on my past, I either ache for the good that was, or I feel the shame of all my mistakes; at least all the mistakes I’m so far aware of.

But the reader in Wilbur’s poem returns to her past, through the stories she first encountered as a younger mind and readily calls these stories great.

As a western culture that has, by choice or by default, forgotten its history, we would do well to name the traditions in our rearview mirror as great. Even when and if we determine it is right and good to re–narrate the tradition, or to let the tradition experience its death so that something new can be born, we are admonished by the poet in the “The Reader” to not dismiss our past, because it is indeed great. Why? It is the very emerging reality and inherent potentiality that our past once possessed which makes it great.

III

The reader of the poem reads through these stories of her past, after many years, remembering the “orphans reaching / For a first handhold in a stony world.” The past, our past, was at one point, when it was present, full of potential and promise. The characters of our past had yet to find their stories. This is a salient reminder that we share so much with these past characters because we, too, have been orphaned and looking for our stories, clinging to the stony chaos of uncivilization before growing into “young provincials” who will eventually descend into the maze’s of our own civilizations.

The characters in these stories of the past illuminated in the poem remind us of the universal humanity that spans time and culture. There is always and ever the “serious girl … who would live nobly,” and the “sly one who aspires to marry.” There is always and ever the “young man bent on glory” and “that other / Who seeks a burden.”

And we cannot discount this very striking image of the Christ figure as the one so often labeled differently as “that other” because he so often strangely “seeks a burden.”

Just as the reader “knowing as she does / What will become of them,” so we may know what becomes of these ancient characters because their types are still evident in our contemporary lives. Our humanity is shared across the generations. We have simply forgotten, perhaps, how to read.

This becomes a gentle corrective to us.

But not so this aging reader of the poem who “sees their first and final selves at once.” It is with experience and practice in going back to remember what was great that she, and we, can be the wiser for observing the lives that have been lived. Indeed, “having lived so much herself” she cannot help but re–encounter the past again with “a wiser eye.” This becomes a gentle corrective to us. We must live with eyes open to what was so that we may know more truly what is.

We must live with eyes open to what was so that we may know more truly what is. Click To Tweet

The final subversive instruction Wilbur gives us in “The Reader” comes in ironic form. The reader knows about consequences, both because she has read, repeatedly, about her past with eyes wide open, and she has seen the complex gamut of consequences in her own life well lived. And yet, or as Wilbur so often makes the turn in his poetry: Still.

Still she “turns enchanted to the next bright page.”

reading our past

III

How can a reader be enchanted with a narrative when already aware of the course of events and the consequences? By embracing the “blind delight of being” which is the ironic abandoning of experience into the joy of re–experience. It is the pervasive “still.” It is the past re–narrated for the present which is one of the highest aims of the anyone who wants to know themselves rightly.

In this brief poetic glimpse into an aging reader’s visit with characters from past stories, we are encouraged to confront our modern problem of misreading and reading wrongly all the past has to offer.

How do we read our past, and ourselves, rightly? By ironically looking at the past with eyes wide open while embracing the blind delight of being.

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