N. Katherine Hayles, James B. Duke Professor of Literature, spoke at the 2017 convocation on Aug. 25 at Duke Kunshan University
The Freedom to Teach and Learn: What Responsibilities Follow?
What a beautiful campus we are privileged to enjoy, with its stunning architecture, graceful reflecting pools, and neat landscaping. We are also privileged to be part of a community of teachers and learners. All of us teach in some capacity, for example when you share your ideas in class, or talk with a classmate about an assignment. And all of us are learners. I feel that I learn something in almost every class session, perhaps from a student expressing an idea that hadn’t occurred to me, offering an interesting interpretation of a literary text, or bringing me up to date on some relevant aspect of contemporary culture. This is an exciting time as we engage on these pursuits together—and it is also great fun!
With these privileges also come responsibilities. We are especially responsible to make the best use of our precious time together. I think in this regard of John Milton, an English poet of the mid 17th century. Milton, who devoted himself to creative endeavors and to a life of service, had a keen sense that his time to study and learn was bought at the expense of others who shouldered the daily responsibility for keeping the world running. He felt that he could repay this obligation by being the very best poet he could be. And how do you prepare yourself for being a great poet? Milton believed that you worked on being a great person, and then wrote what came naturally.
Still, he could not help feeling anxious about whether his efforts would be successful, especially after he was beset by blindness in his 40’s, and thereafter required an aide, or an amanuensis, to be able to write and read (this was, of course, before the invention of braille). He kept a rigorous schedule even after his blindness, arising at 4 am, meditating until 6 am when his amanuensis would arrive, then dictating from 7am to 10 am the lines that he had been composing in his head. He thought of this dictation as “milking” the manna that had come to him from his muse during his meditation.
His anxieties about whether he could succeed are expressed in one of his most famous sonnets, written when he was 57 and completely blind. Here is the first line:
“When I consider how my light is spent.”
That line has a slight wrench that gives us a jolt of surprise; the word we would expect is “when I consider how my life is spent.” But no, the poet writes “how my light is spent,” reminding us of his blindness. That jolt then prepares us for the next line,
“Ere half my days in this dark world and wide.”
A dark world indeed; this is a man who knows what light is. He used to have days filled with light, but no longer. Now he wakes in darkness, spends the day in darkness, goes to bed in darkness.
Now let’s have the next few lines:
“And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;”
Talent here has a double meaning—his poetic gift, of course, but also the Parable of the Talent in the Bible, where talent meant a coin that the unwise servant buries and is rebuked when his master returns for not thinking of a better way to use it. So Milton fears that when he meets his Maker, he may chide him for not making better use of his talent, “lodg’d with me useless.” So the poet makes an excuse:
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?
I fondly ask.”
How can he be expected to do more? Doesn’t his Maker know that he is blind and laboring under a severe handicap? But notice he asks this “fondly,” and he immediately fashions a rebuttal:
“But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."
Here the poet reminds himself, and us, that the point is not what his Maker needs. His Maker is “kingly” and has “thousands” at his service; rather, the point is how our service affects us. In that poignant last line—“they also serve who only stand and wait”—we can hear his anxiety and concern. Will he be creative enough? Will his long years of studying and learning finally pay off? Will he be able to repay his obligations to others through his work? What if he fails in his ambition to be a great poet? Up to this point his poetic output has been meager, and now he has his blindness as an additional impediment. The last line is a magnificent resolution of these issues: his consolation is the knowledge that he has already served simply by preparing himself to serve.
What can we learn from his life and poetry? The sonnet resonates across the gulf of centuries because it reminds us that all those who serve in a greater cause are worthy of respect and gratitude, even if their roles are small ones. In our immediate circumstances, this means being mindful of those whose labor gives us the freedom to learn and study. We might think, for example, of those who prepare and serve our food, those who tend the gardens and preserve the beauty of our surroundings, those who clean our rooms and work to create a pleasant physical environment so that we can engage in creative and intellectual pursuits unburdened by daily cares. And how can we show this mindfulness? Through small gestures of appreciation that acknowledge “those who serve” also participate in the life of the campus. No matter how humble the contributions, we should remember that they are contributions to our communal lives together.
In conclusion, you may be interested to learn how Milton’s own efforts worked out. Two years after he wrote that sonnet, he published Paradise Lost, widely regarded as one of the greatest poems in the English language and one that students today still spend many hours studying and learning.
So let us be exuberant in our fun, responsible about our community of teachers and learners, and mindful of and grateful to those from whose service we benefit.