When I was in college, I opted to pursue an Honors degree in English. Part of the requirement for this was to write a sort of mini-thesis that incorporated some concept that one could trace through several different works and then defend before two professors and a peer.
In the Liberal Arts Seminar that consumed most of my freshman year, I had been introduced to the pre-Romantic poet William Blake and his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, books of poetry that he illustrated with his own woodcuts. The idea that we all start out life innocent (think Adam and Eve in Paradise) but then inevitably have to pass through the fires of experience seemed to keep turning up over and over in the books I read throughout college. Blake’s vision wasn’t entirely bleak, thankfully, since he implied that if one learned from the experience, “organized innocence” –wisdom–would result.
So in my paper I talked about innocence, experience, and wisdom in Blake’s poetry, in William Wordsworth’s Prelude, in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. I defended it successfully, and I got that Honors degree. Did I understand what I was writing about? Probably not.
But most people who have made it to (ahem!) middle age would understand, and they wouldn’t need an Honors degree to do it, either. Because by now all of us have passed through the inescapable fires of experience, and we hope that we are at least a little wiser.
Last night I attended a production of The Fantasticks, the longest-running musical EVER, put on by the KCHS Theatre Department. My son Jake played El Gallo. Twenty-seven years ago, my husband played Amos Babcock Bellamy. He admits that he and his friends didn’t really understand the play then, and Jake admits that he and his friends don’t really understand it now. Our younger kids attended with us last night, and they enjoyed it, but they didn’t comprehend it.
How could they, when it is an extended metaphor about innocence, experience, and wisdom, and when you are in high school you don’t know or believe any of that. Who doesn’t want to believe that first love will last forever? Who wants to think that being buffeted and scarred by the world not only confers benefits but is actually necessary to growth? Who wouldn’t rather stay in the garden forever, with no need for eventual redemption?
I started crying last night as soon as Jake appeared onstage singing Try to Remember at the opening of the play. Part of that had to do with parental pride and my feelings about my son, but part of it sprang from the sadness of knowing (as the song says) that “without a hurt the heart is hollow.” The play has a happy ending of sorts, but still I saw my husband wiping his eyes at the end. Because even though we both know that innocence comes to an end, that experience is unavoidable, that the wisdom we’ve gained since we were in high school is valuable, irreplaceable–we wish it didn’t have to be that way.
Thank you to Palo for the beautiful featured image.