on first looking into the Darien Statements

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.

So go read the Darien Statements, if you haven’t. And if you’d like, you can read the rest of Keats’s sonnet, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. The Wikipedia page on it is not half bad, either.

6 comments

  1. Martha Hardy

    Oh, that is lovely. I agree, we need something on which to set our sights.

  2. Kathryn Greenhill

    *Wowza* Thank you. This explains some things that I hadn’t even thought about.

    I think you are right about the need to stand with compatriots and stare at the Pacific. For me, the process of thinking and talking and considering the issues was much, much, much more important than what we came up with….

    I hope that even people who disagree with everything we said will start thinking about how they would have explained it differently. What is it that all librarians have in common – and are we somehow working together for something larger than just throughput in our buildings?

    I think I have developed an intellectual crush on your mum :)

  3. Judith

    Oh, my, the things I did to your education. And don’t regret any of them. Nor, after a few years/decades, do you, I hope.
    Remember the union label…
    love, Mom
    PS, Cindi, I followed your link. What you guys are saying about openness sounds rather like what some of us are saying about church. I’ve been reading Sarah Miles, Take This Bread.

  4. Catherine

    Oh, this is beautiful! I thoroughly agree with your distinction between running a library and thinking about The Library, but drawing it all into the Keats sonnet is just fantastic, in both the literal and the colloquial senses.

    And if I can give half as good an education to my son as your mom gave to you, I’ll count my parenting a success.

  • 10 April 2009 at 2:56 am Jenica
    Today, you are my favorite Laura. (Shhh, don't tell the others.)
  • 10 April 2009 at 2:57 am maʀtha
    I bet you say that to all the Lauras.
  • 10 April 2009 at 3:01 am maʀtha
    *tips her hat to the eloquent laurax*
  • 10 April 2009 at 3:01 am Marie
    really, that was a beautifully written post.
  • 10 April 2009 at 3:03 am LB: Ratchet Bear
    /me Elbows Laura X out of the way, then realizes Jenica makes an excellent point. Kudos, LX! :)
  • 10 April 2009 at 3:05 am lris
    wonderful wonderful wonderful
  • 10 April 2009 at 3:19 am laura x
    Thanks, fellow Laura!
  • 10 April 2009 at 4:05 am Kathryn is a free elf
    *Wowza* Thank you. Like Iris' post, you've explained some things I hadn't thought about.
  • 10 April 2009 at 4:11 pm Steele Lawman
    Quite wonderful. If I can come up with a more substantive response, I'll put it on the blog.