The University hosted a talk entitled Imagining Harmony: Loss, Literature, and Human Flourishing on Monday, March 4. The event took place at 4:30 pm in Wilson Hall as part of the Distinguished Speaker series, run by the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
The talk was led by Adam S. Potkay, English professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He is also the author of a wide variety of articles and books, including “The Story of Joy from the Bible to Late Romanticism” which won the Harry Levin Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association. In addition, he had “Wordsworth’s Ethics” published through the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2012.
The intention of the talk was to discuss the strange correlation between loss and human happiness by focusing on William Wordsworth’s narrative poem “The Ruined Cottage.”
Wordsworth (1770-1850) is widely considered to be one of the founders of romantic poetry. He later attended Cambridge University. In 1838, he was given an honorary doctorate in civil law from Durham University, then received the same honorary degree from Oxford in 1839.
The poem is about a small house that has fallen into disrepair, since those who once inhabited it passed away some time prior. Despite seeing a formerly happy home overrun by nature, the narrator, Armytage, turns away in joy, a paradox that confuses some. Potkay would not only discuss this scene, but its extension onto literature as a whole.
After a brief introduction by Jeffrey Jackson and Dr. Lisa Vetere, both professors of English, Potkay stood in front of a full room to discuss and critique “The Ruined Cottage”.
The discussion featured a powerpoint presentation that started with a single quotation from the aforementioned poem. These lines, which happen to be the last two in the piece, read, “I turned away/ and walked along my road in happiness.” While the loss of a home is typically a sad event, the lines project the image of someone who is glad to have nothing, preferring the openness of the path in front of him, never looking back.
Potkay didn’t reveal their source at first, instead challenging the audience to think of how a story that begins in such a way might end.
While the audience was mulling over the question, he reminded them of various other situations of loss in classical texts. He pointed out instances where looking back was very costly, such as with Lot’s wife in the story of Sodom from The Bible. After being commanded to flee and never look back, she turns to gaze upon the city anyway and is turned into a pillar of salt.
He moved on to define two ways in which one feels happiness. There is the subjective, which is when one “feels good,” such as when someone drinks and becomes more euphoric. Then there is objective happiness, which he explained is more like understanding and contentment. The latter, he said, is most often felt by those who are “free from an undue dependency on things.”
To support this notion, he referenced Socrates, who is purported to have been walking through a market place and remarked, “How many things are here that I do not need?”
The discussion then focused on “The Ruined Cottage” and, of course, Armytage’s ending remark. He noted that the house in question was once inhabited by an elderly woman whose husband goes off to war but never returns, prompting her to obsess over his absence to the point where her sons die and her home is overrun by wild plants. She ultimately passes on as well.
Potkay then turned to the sources of happiness, which for the purpose of his talk, he said were “deep anthropological humility” and “the elevation of human consciousness over nature.” These, he indicated, led to happiness because it prompts the person to understand his or her place in relation to others and the world at large, in that the final result is the same for everyone: our life ends, and the things we love return to the earth beneath us.
The speaker also drew on the notion of humor, indicating there is an almost laughable quality in how the widow performs the same robotic actions repeatedly- not because her situation was a joke, but because laughter is the way mankind marks and, for some reason or another, admires unusual behavior.
In closing, he spoke about Jack Gilber’s “A Brief for the Defense,” noting “the sweet happiness of leaving it all alone.” He added, “Consciousness and well-being is often at its highest when it’s threatened, triggering attempts to find protection against its loss” before opening the floor to a question and answer session.
Jackson stated that he found Potkay to be very insightful, noting his appreciation for the idea of “anthropological humility as grounds for solace” in a life that might otherwise seem stressful and full of pain.
Frank Cipriani, a professor in the Foreign Language Fepartment, also enjoyed the discussion. “I felt your description of comedy is the antithesis of happiness. It struck me [that] happiness really isn’t funny,” he said. To this, Potkay smiled, noting how humor tends to revolve on pain, injury or confusion in media from The Looney Tunes to Shakespearian theater.
However, not all audience members were in agreement on the quality of the final lines. Prescott Evarts, professor of English, commented on the ending of “The Ruined Cottage” by saying “it’s bologna!” and that Wordsworth “stacked the poem against his own ending.” He felt the joyful closure was at odds with the morose nature of the rest of the text, and removing the final lines would’ve been an improvement.
This hour-and-a-half event drew to a close, allowing interested attendees to meet Potkay. Classic literature is known for having many interpretations that can astound or enlighten the reader, but this discussion was certainly a rare gem. The English department welcomes all majors who wish to attend such an event in the future.