Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Sill of the World

It's almost the end of the school year. I'm trying to tie together the loose ends as I prepare to send my students off to Whatever Comes Next. Today in class we were talking about the items in Mel Levine's Cognitive Backpack, about which I wrote yesterday, and that led me into a mini-digression about deductive and inductive reasoning, which led me to the dilemma of Galileo. Confronted with the self-assurance of his Inquisitors, who knew by ironclad deductive reasoning that the earth stood still at the center of the universe, he was made to recant his own publicly stated conclusions, based on inductive evidence, that the earth itself moves around the sun. So I decided that for tomorrow's lesson we would consider George Bradley's poem, in which explores the inner workings of Galileo's mind in at the moment of his recantation:

E Pur Si Muove

Of course it had been madness even to bring it up,
Sheer madness, like the sighting of sea serpents
Or the discovery of strange lights in the sky;
And plainly it had been worse than madness to insist,
To devote entire treatises and a lifetime to the subject,
To a thing of great implication but no immediate use,
A thing that could not be conceived without study,
Without years of training and the aid of instruments,
And especially the delicate instrument of an open mind;
It had been stubbornness, foolishness, you see that now,
And so when the time comes you are ready to acquiesce,
When you have had your say, told the truth one last time,
You are ready to give the matter over and say no more.
When the time comes, you will take back your words,
But not because you fear the consequences of a refusal
(Who looks at the night sky and imagines a new order
Has already seen the instruments of torture many times),
Though this is the conclusion your inquisitors will draw
And it is true you are not what is called a brave man;
And not because you are made indifferent in your contempt
(You take their point, agree with it even, that there is
Nothing so dangerous as a new way of seeing the world);
Rather, you accept the conditions lightly, the recantation,
Lightly you accept their offer of a villa with a view,
Because you have grown old and contention makes you weary,
Because you like the idea of raising vines and tomatoes,
And because, whatever you might have said or suffered,
It is in motion still, cutting a great arc through nothingness,
Sweeping through space according to a design so grand
It remains, just as they would have it, a matter of faith,
Because, whether you say yea, whether you say nay,
Nevertheless it moves.

And then, as I was looking through my folder o' poems for that one, I came, in one of those instances of odd and serendiptious juxtaposition, across this poem by Richard Wilbur, which has been one of my favorites ever since I heard Donald Graves give a speech about the writer's life, in which he kept repeating the unfamiliar phrase "the sill of the world" all the way through, provoking wonder and confusion and a little frustration for all of us, until, at the end of the speech, he stopped, and by way of illustration and conclusion, recited this entire poem from memory, snapping all his previous remarks into focus. I read this poem now and think of my granddaughter, now visiting us, and of my students at the end of this challenging and sometimes frustrating school year.

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where the light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking.
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
He we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove,
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait there, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

May we all—as students, as writers, as teachers, as daughters and granddaughters and parents and grandparents—from time to time clear the sill of the world and fly free.

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