One evening in junior high I was sitting at our kitchen table (which was my great grandparents’ kitchen table and is now my kitchen table) studying for a test on the explorers, and at some point I asked my mother if she’d quiz me. Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Ponce de Leon, all that was fine. But then we got to Cortez. “Oh,” said my mother, and went off to fetch a book. “Listen to this,” she said, and then she read me
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
. . .
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific
Now of course Cortez did not discover the Pacific. (Neither, technically, did Balboa, who usually gets the credit — the Pacific did not require discovering — it was there already, it’s just that Europeans hadn’t run across it quite yet.) In any case, I pointed out that this poem, however lovely, was unlikely to be of much help to me, since it was inaccurate, and my mother said that it did not matter that it was inaccurate because it was so good. Such was the danger of asking my mother for help with school work. In high school, our geometry textbook asked us at one point why the Greeks considered the 30-60-90 triangle to be the most beautiful triangle. I thought my mother might have something pithy to say on the subject, so I went to ask her. Several hours and multiple volumes of C.S. Lewis and Plato and probably something else I’m forgetting later, I still didn’t have a pithy answer, but I had learned quite a bit.
“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” is one of the first poems I ever deliberately memorized, and so it floats through my head fairly often. I’ve said to myself while waiting in lines or trying to fall asleep. I said it the first time I ever gazed on the Pacific, standing on Ocean Beach in San Francisco the summer I was twenty.
The poem ends not simply with Cortez staring at the Pacific, for there are others with him:
— and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
As I’ve read The Darien Statements, and the various reactions to them over the past week or so, Keats’s lines have been floating through my head a bit more often, and so has that evening when I was trying to remember the date Magellan circumnavigated the globe and my mother first read those lines to me.
Some days it’s important to remember the dates and places and times. Some preliminary knowledge about the world and its shape and its features and its history is useful — even necessary — for getting by in it. But some days — not all days, perhaps, but some — it’s also important to stare at the Pacific, to glance around at your compatriots with a wild surmise, to stand silently and contemplate the awesome mysterious wonderfulness of it all.
Similarly, it’s important to run your library. It’s important to get the books on the shelves correctly, to have a diverse and up to date collection, to provide timely reference services to your patrons, to keep your public computers running. That’s all important. But sometimes it is important to stand back from that for a few moments and think about what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If the Darien Statements do anything, I hope they help us all feel for a moment like the men on that other Darien, as though we’ve discovered a new old world, or an old new world, all over again and ought to contemplate just what it is and what we are and what we should be doing and why.