So for the last few months I've been dipping into my copy of Selected Poetry and Prose of John Dryden. Yes, I was one of the English Major People. You're not surprised.
(This book caused a "Huh?" moment back in college. I bought a copy, used, then after I'd started to read from it I read part of the syllabus telling me to read the selection that starts on Page 435 or whatever, and I flipped through the book and saw it had about 350 pages. Took some digging to find out that the edition of the book I was supposed to get had 550 pages. The longer edition looked almost exactly the same, same cover text and cover font and cover color, with nothing obvious on either the front or the back to suggest it had been published at two different lengths: just that certan copies were thicker than others. Back to Smith Family Bookstore I went.)
College is one of the few places where you're encouraged to write in books. I've been reading this book close to linearly, with some jumping around based on what I had time to read and absorb at any particular time, so it wasn't until a few days ago that I reached a section I'd read before. I knew because College Me had left notes. It was Dryden's Annus Mirabilis, his poem about Britain's naval victory in 1666 against the Dutch followed by the disastrous Great London Fire the same year. My notes start in the London Fire section: noting Dryden's hatred of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, reinforcing some of Dryden's points and allusions so I'd be more likely to remember them (Line 892 "And sings their Sabbath notes with feeble voice" has the note Fire broke out on Sunday; not even religion protected the city), and attempts to be a little poetic myself (Lines 851-852 "His birth, perhaps, some petty village hides/ And sets his cradle out of fortune's way," followed by the note As if he [Cromwell] had to sneak into life). I made it more obvious that, for personal or political reasons, the poem is a love letter to King Charles II (Lines 957-960: "More than his guards his sorrows made him known,/ And pious tears which down his cheeks did show'r;/ The wretched in his grief forgot their own/ (So much the pity of a king has pow'r)." Note: He hurts for his people). I noted where it got really melodramatic (Lines 1035-1036 "An infant, waking, to the paps would press/ And meets, instead of milk, a falling tear." Note that follows: pathos).
I'm noticing different things now, like the evidence that apparently in Dryden's time one was less likely to pronounce H sounds at the front of some words -- "an hermit" suggests that -- and of course at least I'm still noticing things, but now I'm getting nostalgic for deep reading. Directed, really-paying-attention, getting-help-picking-up-nuances reading. I was never going to pick up all of the details, because I didn't live 350 years ago when the events of the poem were in recent memory; still, I learned stuff. (True story: back in college I was part of a film class and I analyzed part of an animated short, and when a student who knew more modern French history than I know said that a certain image in the film was a slam at Charles de Gaulle, I got a little annoyed with myself for not knowing that. C'mon, Chris, you hadn't had a reason to know that. It's good she added that so you could learn something! Learning happens when you don't already know stuff!)
Reading this led to me feeling a little insecure that I'm not paying enough attention when I'm reading now. Then I remember that it means I have the skills to still deep-read. 1990s Me learned a lot; maybe I wouldn't learn at the same rate as then -- and, honestly, I didn't learn nearly as fast back then as I could have -- but jeez, Chris, go easier on yourself: you, can, learn. You want to learn. There's more cool detail to absorb. You could go back to classes, even, if'n you wanted that getting-help-picking-up-nuances reading thing again. It's allowed. What's stopping you?
There. Pep talk done.
Meanwhile I keep reading. Including Dryden's satirical poem MacFlecknoe, about a dull prince named Sh----, almost certainly meant to make 17th century readers think of the word "Shit." (Lines 102-103, describing dismembered bodies of contemporary dull playwrights: "Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogilby there lay,/ But loads of Sh---- almost chok'd the way.")