Idylls of the King

John Derbyshire still publishes a monthly memo that I very occasionally read. The most recent one includes quite a bit about poets, first at the beginning and then later on.

[O]ld-style colonialism was constructive as well as destructive, spreading the glories of our civilization world-wide. Today's educators, by contrast, only destroy—a colonial type of activity that they have the gross impertinence to describe as "decolonizing." To replace what they have destroyed they offer only worthless, soul-less dreck like Critical Race Theory.

A school principal in Massachusetts has boasted of removing the Odyssey from the curriculum. That, too, is cast as "decolonization." It is beyond ridiculous. For many decades, we have been tossing classical education into the ditch. Forget about studying Latin or Greek. Very few college students will have read Milton. Almost none will have read Tennyson. Most will not have heard of this Victorian poet; I know this from long experience.

That shocked me perhaps more than the average reader. For one thing, I am a major fan of Tennyson.... For another thing there was a memory from my days teaching English literature at a college in communist China forty years ago. My teaching materials were of course government-approved, the commentaries following the Party line. The classic English poets were well represented: Shakespeare (Marx was a fan), Shelley (major lefty), Burns (a peasant!), even Wordsworth (praised the French Revolution … at first).

Tennyson, however, didn't even get a mention. Why not? I consulted a standard 1979 ChiCom encyclopedia, which I still own. Here is the entire entry for Tennyson:

Dingnísheng (Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892). English poet. Born into a clerical family. All his poems beautify capitalist society and bourgeois morality and ethics. In 1850 he was made Poet Laureate. His works one-sidedly promote lyricism and become merely ornate. His most important poems are "The Princess," "Maud," "In Memoriam," "Enoch Arden," "Idylls of the King," etc.
So, a class enemy. Just another reminder, if you needed one, that there isn't much daylight between the ideology that has taken over our schools today and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought.

It occurs to me that an academy that is disposing of the Odyssey would of course not teach Tennyson. If you have gotten as far as disposing of Homer you have certainly disposed of Sir Thomas Malory, without whom Idylls of the King would make little sense. Idylls is too long to try to teach to contemporary undergraduates anyway; more likely, you would teach Ulysses for its heroic and inspiring close:
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
But how would they understand this story, if you have disposed of the Odyssey

It's not just that he is a class enemy, though he is also that. It's that his grandeur comes precisely from standing within a powerful tradition, one whose chief currents he could shape to new heights like Elrond bending the Bruinen into a flood of wild horses.  

Without the river, what power does even Elrond have against the Nine? Without that current flowing from Homer and Malory into Tennyson's hands, what power has he against the evils and corruptions of our own day? Little; none, except in the resistance he may still encourage in those few of us left who do know how to see the flood. 


james said...

To properly shape new human minds free from the cancerous effects of any impurities, you must begin by clearing away all the old lessons. Clearly, since they did not shape "the perfect man" before, they must be tainted and must be removed.

That's giving the erasers the benefit of the doubt, of course. I suspect that envy plays a huge role.

When I wandered about in Berlin in between meetings a few years ago, it struck me how many references that area had to musical giants of the past, and I wondered how daunting it must be for a would-be composer to be compared to them. The temptation to use shortcuts must be huge.

David Foster said...

In the history museum in Santa Fe, there is a quote from an American Indian woman who attended a white-run Indian school. I don't have the exact words, but the sense of it was:

"They taught us that our religion was false, that our food was bad, that the way we dressed was wrong, that..."

Isn't this precisely what is being taught to the people of the western world by the 'woke'?

Grim said...

Excellent point.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You may recall the comment at my site by Unknown/Douglas2 about using current woke rules to cut off our culture from thousands of years of wisdom

I have made observations similar to James's, above, that to progressives, the annihilation of the past is the point, not an unfortunate side effect on the way to a larger goal. I could stomach that latter reasoning, even though I think implementation is suicidal. This is the prism for viewing progressives that I offer, that destroying any previous viewpoints (even those I think were destructive and would be happy to see disappear) is the parallel goal to teaching woke sentiments. No competitors must be allowed on the field.