Last week–after a frozen oven pizza, countless tea and hot chocolate breaks, rambling calls home to avoid writing, three unstable trips to the library with a backpack full of books, round-robin editing sessions, the death of several pterodactyl-sized moths, and two nearly sleepless nights–the first of my Oxford courses was marked complete.

This one, called British Landscapes, is literally as excuse for our program to tell us how great the history and landscape of Great Britain is–especially compared to the upstart culture of those rebelling Americans. But truly, the course was an engaging and colorful march through British history studded with field trips, guest lectures from the some of the best lecturers the University has to offer, and narrated by the only slightly snobby voice of Simon Schama, England’s premiere narrative historian.

We were also required to write three 2,500-word papers in three weeks, with the last two due simultaneously on the morning after a fieldtrip to London. We were allowed to choose questions that interested us from an exhaustive list that covered everything from Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana to the Bayeux Tapestry and Karl Marx to Thomas Cramner. Eyebrows would be raised, we were told, should our papers incorporate any less than eight supporting texts outside of the primary source–but twelve to fifteen should be sufficient.


What followed was a mad dash for the libraries and many many many hours spent poring over critical essays, dog-earring and deeply underlining pages (don’t worry–only in the books I bought!), and rotating the pages of my new notebook to decipher my surely-I-was-inspired-at-the-time notes. What also followed was a systematic pursuit of tea houses close to the library and a detailed ranking system factoring in the extent of their beverage list, the quality of their tea cakes, and the generosity of their condiments–my new favorite foods, clotted cream and jam.

What resulted were three essays painfully over the word-limit and a subsequent effort to bring them into line, effective but as delicate and as joy-filled as pulling teeth. Our essays are submitted online and whisked away to the very mysterious “readers,” likely sitting in book-lined offices chomping cigars and contemplating their next Nobel-Prize-winning research venture while they wait for my poor unassuming please-I-just-got-off-summer-vacation essay to land on their desks. When they’ve thoroughly sliced and diced and occasionally scrawled words that might possibly be construed as encouragement, they send the essays back to us.

In reality it’s not nearly that bad, and the feedback I’ve received so far has been remarkably positive, except for the time I referred to the fourteenth century as the twelfth–that darn addition, it’ll get you every time. But for a taste of what I’ve been studying, and also possible insight into my decreasing stages of sanity and coherence, I thought I’d give you a snippet of each one of my essays so far–the prompt question and an amended version of my conclusion. Don’t be too harsh on the poor Oxford student.

How did religion and madness intersect in the writings of Margery Kempe?

This is the intersection of madness and religion—a psychotic episode which made Margery frighteningly aware of the spiritual world, not only the denizens of hell but the saving power of Christ, and which is the beginning of her life of faith…Yet still we cringe at the directness, the transparency of Margery’s faith. For centuries, intimacy with God had been the secret of private rooms and hushed churches. Margery brings this intimacy out of the cloister and into the open—her life in all its strangeness is a “public witness to God’s love.”…Margery is unashamed to proclaim the joy and emotion her faith brings her, unabashed to be a “mad fool” for Christ. The failure of her audience’s ability to accept this does not make her mad but her observers shallow. Need there be a remedy, or a return to normalcy, after seeing the face of “our merciful Lord Christ Jesus, ever to be trusted, worshipped be his name”? Should we not be, as Margery is, “seized up / without a part left over, / not a toe, not a finger, and used, / used utterly” for his glory?

Does an understanding of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life aid or hinder an appreciation of her works?

Wollstonecraft is not writing a manual on how to improve half the world’s population any more than she is offering herself up as the example of a perfect woman. She is critiquing not a docile womanhood or even a dominant manhood, but a society that has not allowed women to be human beings….An investigation of her life shows she is anything but free or virtuous, chained to her parents’ ambivalence and her lovers’ whims. Yet this makes her critique all the more potent; society’s refusal to grant her humanity limits her response to the tragedies of her life. But if it also allows us to write her off—as the borrower of others’ ideas, the domestically-scarred child, the emotionally dependent woman—we too are that society that allows “the prejudices of [our] age or country” to undermine a woman’s humanity. Focusing too much on the events of Wollstonecraft’s life renders her a caricature of hypocrisy and vanquishes her request that women, herself included, be viewed “as that Being views us who seeth each thought ripen into action, and whose judgment never swerves from the eternal rule of right. Righteous are all his judgments—just as merciful!” May we look at women, and Wollstonecraft, in the same way—as human beings created equal in the image of God.

In what sense did British war writer Wilfred Owen speak for a generation?

Owen’s poetry cannot offer a twenty-twenty hindsight assessment of the war but instead captures its sensations in present time….Because his writing is firmly situated within the war and enjoys no knowledge of future events, Owen believes his sacrifice and his words have purpose—this is still the war that will end all wars. He knows his poetry is “to [his] generation in no sense consolatory” but he hopes it may be to the next.While Owen wrote to give voice to “the sighs of men, that have no skill,” it is future generations that are his intended audience, those “who might find consolation later in the knowledge that a true voice had managed to speak.”But Britten’s incorporation of Owen into the War Requiem speaks to the tragedy that greater wars have come and that this true voice remains unheeded, that we continue to say “No Compris!,” and that we still sing “Lord, have mercy upon them.”


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