Thursday, December 31, 2015

'Ring out, wild bells!': The fatal lure of old marginalia as the door opens to a New Year full of blank pages and limitless margins

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take a step forward.
    — "Marginalia," by Billy Collins


I don't think I'm entitled to take that step, though a cursory examination of three books I used in
Billy Collins: Chummy poet forced me to come to terms with my old marginal self.
college courses didn't happen to turn up "Man vs. Nature." I left off my search after browsing the collections of Keats, Tennyson, and Whitman I once pored over as an English major at Kalamazoo College a half-century ago.

I sensed  that "Man vs. Nature," if I ever wrote it on some page now inaccessible to me, would look almost brilliant compared to some of the marginalia I discovered, mostly in light pencil. In a half-hour today, I'd learned quite enough about my post-teen self, marginalia division, in addition to the fact that my penmanship was only marginally better than it is today. But, oh! the verbal flatulence I wafted over those borderlands! The impulsive snarkiness! The belaboring of the obvious!

Here's what I dashed off beside one of the most famous sections of Tennyson's "In Memoriam." It's apt especially as 2016 arrives because the passage is the poet's apostrophe to bells signaling the turn of the year, starting "Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky." Tennyson raises his head briefly from lamenting his friend's death to praise the dawn of hope each New Year awakens. The word "ring" is repeated to such clarion effect that the verse itself starts ringing, even when read silently.

In my callow youth, I didn't appreciate this, apparently. In the fifth quatrain, I bracketed this pair of lines: "Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, / But ring the fuller minstrel in" and wrote sneeringly: "Yes, please do!"  I was in the 106th division of this monumental elegy, and I must have become tired of it. Today, I might urge the arrival of "a fuller minstrel" less sarcastically.

Collins' poem, a lighthearted personal survey of the centuries-old habit of scribbling notes in the page margins of books, ends with a punch line he sets up elaborately.  But at midpoint, the stanza quoted above addresses the reader directly, as is Collins' chummy habit.

Endymion, the sleeping shepherd; I was the apparently sleeping student.
My hackles often rise when he does this, but I felt challenged by this particular nudge. As I said, the game palled quickly, especially after I came across this gem near the end of Keats' "I Stood Tip-Toe."  It stood in faint pencil near  the lines "Cynthia, I cannot tell the greater blisses / That follow'd thine, and thy dear shepherd's kisses."

I was appalled to find that I had circled "shepherd's," drew a line out from it to the right-hand margin, and written "Who?"

This at the end of reading a poem that clearly identifies the shepherd as Endymion, youth beloved of the moon goddess, variously called Diana or Cynthia, after the Greek divinities Artemis and Selene. This, in a volume of Keats that also includes one of his most important early long poems, "Endymion." And finally, I need hardly emphasize, in a volume belonging to an English major.
The evidence: Shepherd? What shepherd?

"Who?" indeed!

I can forgive myself for writing, in my Whitman book, "C'mon, Walt, you're slipping!" somewhere next to the longueurs of  "Salut au Monde." A reader might justly write that in the margin at countless places in Whitman, because Walt does slip from time to time, occasionally in a line that also contains something great. But that Keats-defiling "Who?" really sticks in my craw.


Anyway, Collins ends "Marginalia" with an example he discovered long ago in a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye." He imagines it having been written by a beautiful girl he would never meet. It reads: "Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

I'll go along with Collins' fantasy, extending it with the hope the beautiful reader wasn't in love with Holden Caulfield. Or anyone like him in real life.

That wouldn't have ended well. More than egg salad would have been spilled, I'm sure.

I prefer to think the girl was really hoping — as we all are — to "ring the fuller minstrel in." Young love, involving a little messiness with egg salad, was a place for her to pause along the way, scribbling an apology while looking ahead, as we all do.

In the meantime, I won't be taking a step forward for refraining from "Man vs. Nature."  I'll shelter in place instead, wishing the world a Happy New Year from the margins.