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After the Exile: Poetry and the Death of Culture


We are a people now illiterate in a way that is unprecedented for the human race. We can decipher linguistic signs on a page, but we have no songs and immemorial stories in our hearts.

In February 1893, shortly after the death of Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry van Dyke published a tribute to the great poet in The Century magazine. He wrote:

For this generation, at least, the poetry of Tennyson, which has interpreted so faithfully our aspirations and hopes and ideals, which has responded so directly and so strongly to the unspoken questions of men and women born into an age of transition and doubt, must continue to be a vital influence. It has woven itself into the dreams of our youth. It has helped us in the conflicts of our days of storm and stress. Our closest bonds of friendship and love have been formed to the music of “Enoch Arden” and “The Princess,” “Maud” and the “Idylls of the King.” And when those bonds have been broken by death, we have turned to the pages of “In Memoriam” for that human consolation which is only less than the divine. I suppose that there is only one Book which, for these last forty years, has done more to comfort sorrow. Men do not forget such a debt as that. They cannot. It has become a part of life, and the evidence of it is written on all the things that are seen and heard.

I have lately begun to wonder whether a good gauge of what I and other professors in arts and letters accomplish might be this: to raise up a few students every year who could read my old issues of magazines like The Centuryand understand half of what is there.

Academe has largely become an institution devoted to the destruction of cultural memory. Most of my best freshmen Honors students have never heardof Tennyson, much less had their imaginations formed by his eminently humane and approachable poetry. That is no reflection on Tennyson in particular. They have also never heard of Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, and any number of the great artists in what is supposedly their mother tongue. “Who the heck is Spenser?” asked a friend of one of my old students now pursuing a Master’s degree in English at an elite university. That friend was studying for the same Master’s exam along with others who had never heard of Spenser or never read a thing he wrote.

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