Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Word of the day: eremite

Back in high-school chorus days, my daughter and son were singing Randall Thompson’s setting of Robert Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star”:

And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
Someone piped up: “What’s Eremite?” And the teacher explained that it was an element Keats had discovered.

It could be that this teacher was passing on misinformation that had come his way. Or he could have been winging it. From what my children have told me, the second possibility sounds more likely. The teacher might have been working from so-called context clues: the poem’s reference to chemical elements (“Tell us what elements you blend“), perhaps the strange capital E (though it’s chemical symbols, not the names of elements, that begin with capitals). Either way, the teacher was leading a chorus in a song whose words he had not taken the time to understand. He had not practiced what I like to call defensive reading: reading that requires a sure grasp of details, because somebody might ask you a question.

Eremite of course has nothing to do with chemistry. Frost’s poem makes reference to John Keats’s sonnet “Bright Star” (one of my favorite poems of eros). The poem’s speaker wants to be both like a star and not like a star— as “stedfast” as a star, but not a solitary contemplative:
    Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
    Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
    Of pure ablution round earth’s human
The speaker of “Bright Star” would prefer to be “still stedfast, still unchangeable” with his head resting on his beloved’s breast, where he can remain “Awake for ever in a sweet unrest” or swoon to death. What the speaker doesn’t want to be is alone. He doesn’t want to be an eremite. From Merriam-Webster:
noun er·e·mite \ˈer-ə-ˌmīt\
: hermit; especially : a religious recluse
The only good response when a student asks a question that the teacher cannot answer is something along these lines: “That’s a good question. We should know that, shouldn’t we? Let me see what I can find out.” Sending the question-asker in search of the answer teaches students that they’re better off not asking questions. Offering to find out is an appropriate combination of curiosity and humility. Nobody knows everything. But yes, the curiosity that might prompt a search for keats eremite should have been there to begin with.

I wish the question-asker in my children’s story had followed up the malarkey about a scientific discovery by asking, “Keats who?”

Related reading
Keats’s “Bright Star” : Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star” : Randall Thompson’s setting of Frost’s poem

comments: 4

Chris said...

"Eremite" should have promise as the trade name for a kind of construction material capable of completely isolating the purchaser from the outside world. I might invest in a few panels myself.

I love the adjective "eremetical."

Anonymous said...

The eerie mite refused itself to recuse,
And the recluse spider was forced to choose
Between Keats' blues beats and Frost's cues tossed,
Like a salad of green words properly tossed
Down with Keats' scotch and Frost's chilled gin
Which makes insects rhyme like a Mickey {Michael) Finn.
Many's a good question, but what the hell,
Better off with some question not asked too well.
Cheers and bottoms down.

Frex said...

This so made me laugh, the picture of Keats at his chemistry workbench...
But then, being curious, I googled "Keats chemist" and by gum!
He was one!

Or an apothecary, anyway, which is close.
[Per the British Library:]

You knew that, eh?
I didn't.
And did the teacher who said Keats discovered the element of Eremite?
Either way, it was a funny lie.

Michael Leddy said...

Chris, your flight of imagination made me smile.

Anon., likewise.

Fresca, I think of Keats and medicine, but yes, apothecary too. I doubt the teacher knew Keats’s background. Maybe we should think of eremite as an element Frost discovered — in Keats’s poem. :)