The Art of Seeing

I sit in the backyard of the Vines, ready for dinner. A friend was scheduled to cook, but she is off in London for the day, so I assembled a Greek salad, toasted the pita, and poured milk into a mason jar. It’s October, and I know it’s not going to be warm for long. Things are beginning to turn the way they always do. I wish, like Lewis, that we could escape the circle and undo the spell, that summer will come true, but I know it won’t. So I am content to dine in the great feast hall of temperate weather, if only for this week.

Daylight is fading. I look out to the green of the grass that never fails to make my heartbeat speed up a bit, and past that bright, excited green to the darker green of the trees bordering the garden, and then past that to the sky that looks like it’s been the unfortunate, or perhaps deeply fortunate, canvas of a watercolor spill. A single bird flies across my field of view, and the rich hues of the sky contrast with its winged frame so that it appears that the bird is the darkest black.

Tomorrow both my tutorials begin. Tonight is, in a sense, my last night of freedom, and in another sense, the eve of a great adventure. Tomorrow will be quite the day, with a seminar, two meetings with tutors (I’m studying Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins), several auditions, and a movie night. I’ll again be taking up the wonderful burden of a schedule, after the week of break that I’ve just finished. I spent this afternoon drinking sparkling wine at Turl Street Kitchen, looking over lecture lists and planning. There are too many to attend. There is too much to know about Renaissance literature, about the medieval understanding of sickness, about Victorian poetry and film criticism and Pre-Raphaelite art. I’ll never have the time to learn all of it, and it is indeed “one of the great griefs of youth,” as Dr. Cary says. There is too much to read and so much to write.

This term, I will write more than I’ve written before, and I’ll write better. And as I sit outside and watch the daylight fade, I think to myself something I’ve thought many times before: that writing well is really the art of seeing. It has never been the words themselves that were the power; it has always been what the words signify, and what they suggest with the rhythm and sound, not the rhythm and sound themselves. The writers who’ve made my heart race, who’ve made me feel, as Emily Dickinson says, that the top of my head was taken off, are not only those who are the masters of language, who can make language dance; instead, they are the ones whose eyes are beautiful, or painfully bright, or perhaps even nothing but desolate grey, but still vibrant. Felicity of style could never be enough; good writing makes me see the world anew. As one of my poetry students at Governor’s School wrote, “The world seems quieter after reading poetry.” I think that learning to see muffles the endless noise, and reminds us that, as Mary Oliver writes so exquisitely, “the earth is exactly as it wanted / each pond with its blazing lilies / is a prayer heard and answered / lavishly / every morning.” So perhaps even more than learning to write this term, I hope to hone, at least a bit, the art of seeing.

The lamp of the body is the eye. One of my favorite moments of King Lear is when Lear shouts at Kent, “Out of my sight!” I imagine Kent simply looking at Lear, pained at his foolhardy pride, as he responds, “See better, Lear.”

If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.

I finish eating, pick up my dishes, and reluctantly walk inside as everything gradually grows dimmer. Another day in Oxford, singing in chapels and discussing art, reading and cycling. It’s difficult for me to imagine a place lovelier than this. I just finished C. S. Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy, and I was surprised to realize how accurately he describes my experience of being here. Joy: that intangible something that makes you feel like you are treading lightly through the world, like things are beautiful and bright. It’s always accompanied by a mysterious sort of longing. But, as always, Hopkins says it better than I could in “The Windhover,” so I defer to him.

“And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous / O my chevalier!”



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