Students, Fling Up Your Windows!

Carl Wilhelm Anton Seiler

My poor students are in crisis mode at the moment. Three of them are working on long senior projects (each around 80 pages) which must be submitted to the Records Office on Friday. All three essays promise well but Caitie, Erica and Evan have miles to go before they sleep. We have been e-mailing back and forth.

I shared with them some comforting words from my son Toby, who remembers how his own St. Mary’s Project (we call them SMPs) crystallized in the final week. His SMP, on Wordsworth’s Prelude, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Eliot’s Wasteland, was so ambitious that only an undergraduate would dream of undertaking it–which is what I love about this age. (I remember my Carleton senior project was on whether the French Enlightenment, specifically Jean Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, caused the French Revolution.) He told me to remind my students that extreme pressure can result in diamonds.

Of course, he also noted that it’s no fun being the lump of coal.

Here’s a Stephen Vincent Benet poem for all those students in America and around the world who are frantically writing essays and madly cramming for exams. We your teachers have been there ourselves and feel your pain.

Or should I try to placate you with such nostrums as “no pain, no gain”? Which may be true but is hardly consoling.

Or should I say that, having been abused ourselves, we are now abusing you in turn?

Here’s the poem, which was probably inspired by Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.” And maybe also by Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” (which has the line “We murder to dissect”). Use it to vent a little, just as the student  in the poem literally vents (flings up a window). And good luck.

Before an Examination

By Stephen Vincent Benet

The little letters dance across the page,
Flaunt and retire, and trick the tired eyes;
Sick of the strain, the glaring light, I rise
Yawning and stretching, full of empty rage
At the dull maunderings of a long dead sage,
Fling up the windows, fling aside his lies;
Choosing to breathe, not stifle and be wise,
And let the air pour in upon my cage.

The breeze blows cool and there are stars and stars
Beyond the dark, soft masses of the elms
That whisper things in windy tones and light.
They seem to wheel for dim, celestial wars;
And I — I hear the clash of silver helms
Ring icy-clear from the far deeps of night.

“Lies” is a bit strong and, of course, students today might regard Benet’s own writings as “the dull maunderings of a long dead sage.” In defense of those of us who assign the writings of the long dead, I could point out that if one has read, say, The Iliad, the work can enhance the star gazing experience. How else would one find oneself musing upon “celestial wars” and “the clash of silver helms” as one looked heavenward? Still, I get Benet’s point.

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  • Sue

    Love it! Hope your students finish well, and enjoy the benefits their own wisdom will bring. Especially those wrestling with some deep issues.

  • Ah, SMP time. I remember that my senior year I had to write a big paper for one of my music classes, and I had my heart set on writing a paper on whether or not Beethoven’s song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte” was actually the first song cycle that we know of. I only gave up when I was informed that not only was this more acceptable for a doctoral thesis than an undergraduate paper, but that in order to find the sources necessary to write this paper I would have to translate several primary and secondary sources from the German and possibly even go to Germany myself. But the motivation was there!

  • Robin Bates

    In graduate school, Florence, your wonderful motivation has to trade itself in for a narrow, carefully circumscribed topic that you can master. There are reasons for this, but there’s also something to be said for the wide-ranging ambitions of college students who are excited by the realization that everything is connected and who don’t know enough to realize they can’t trace all the connections. As a result, some wonderful syntheses emerge.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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