The Vision of Sir Launfal
Then and Now

While writing late at night, a book in the bookshelf across from me called out my name in a somewhat muffled voice. While I understood my name even if the sound was garbled, the tone of voice was like that of an old schoolteacher in a high school class when the students were not responding as the teacher wished. I turned toward the section of the shelf that had mentioned my name.

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As I stared at the shelf, I knew instantly, which book that was talking to me. Thus began another late evening chat with another one of my treasures. It was Mrs. Davis' Adventures in American Literature textbook. I got up and took it down from the bookshelf, placed it at the end of my desk, and opened it to hear its voice more clearly. Ironically, I opened the book without noticing what was on that particular page. It happened to be The Vision of Sir Launfal by James Russell Lowell.

The book asked whether I recalled this poem, which was a strange inquiry. I memorized many stanzas of this poem a half century ago while in high school. As a retort to the book's question, I rattled off several of the stanzas.

Not only around our infancy
 Doth heaven with all its splendors lie;
 Daily, with souls that cringe and plot,
 We Sinais climb and know it not...

'T is heaven alone that is given away,
     'T is only God may be had for the asking;
 No price is set on the lavish summer;
 June may be had by the poorest comer...

And what is so rare as a day in June?
     Then, if ever, come perfect days;
 Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
     And over it softly her warm ear lays:
 Whether we look, or whether we listen,
 We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
 Every clod feels a stir of might,
     An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
 And, groping blindly above it for light,
     Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;

I did not have the nerve to ask the book whether I impressed it with my memorization skills. I thought it best to leave well-enough alone. Nevertheless, the book said, in the same tone of voice that it first uttered my name, "When you opened me, I purposely picked that poem. Do you know why?"

I replied that it probably knew that the poem was one of my favorites. That seems apparent since I could still recall large parts of the poem, which I memorized decades ago. Then the book continued its late night chat with me. "Your attitude toward memorizing poetry or prose has certainly been bi-polar; hasn't it?" I admitted that when I was in high school, I loathed the requirement immensely. On a weekly basis, I would find myself standing in front of an English teacher, in this case Mrs. Davis, reciting parts of this poem to her.

Interestingly, after graduating from high school, college, and graduate school, I visited Mrs. Davis in Florida. She and her husband, Charlie, had retired there. I told her about how much I dreaded the memorization, but how much I am glad that it was required. Nonetheless, no day goes by without me remembering one or more poems.

Mrs. Davis told Charlie to get her old textbook from their study. It surprised me that she still had her copy, which she had used for more than a dozen years at Mt. Lebanon. Then Mrs. Davis proudly gave me her book; it was her academic gift. I instantly recognized that book. While she taught at Mt. Lebanon, her book had doubled its thickness due to her additions, which she had inserted between most of the pages. These clippings were about the author, the author's work, or another piece of poetry or prose having to do with that unit in the textbook.

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The book continued, "It could have been worse; the selections could have been picked by the English teachers." I nodded in agreement. Mrs. Davis did not select the poems or prose. Then the book asked a quasi-zinger, "Why did you chose this poem? What reason did you have for memorizing The Vision of Sir Launfal?"

To be honest, that was the first time in over a half century that I even thought about why I picked that particular poem. I was silent for a moment as I attempted to reconstruct a possible reason. Initially, all that I came up with was that I liked the iambic tetrameter and its rhyming.

However, after a few more moments of pondering, I told the book that I liked Launfal's dream and the mental conflict regarding the quest of the Holy Grail. Launfal knew that other knights of King Arthur's Round Table, like Sir Galahad, spent much time looking for that legendary chalice. After Launfal's long dream and wrestling with that issue, he realized that the Holy Grail was found only when the chalice stood for how we deal with each other in life and not an actual object. Lowell wrote,

The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another's need,
Not that which we give, but what we share,
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who bestows himself with his alms feeds three,
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.

I continued my explanation that Lowell rewrote the meaning of medieval England's quest for the Holy Grail by applying the quest to his time. "Lowell lived in the middle of the 19th century and was an extremely strident voice against slavery. He wrote The Vision of Sir Launfal in 1848, which was a mere dozen years prior to the Civil War. For Lowell and Launfal, their hungering neighbors were the slaves." The book agreed about my comments about both Lowell and Launfal.

Then the book did what GiGi would often do during our conversations by adding, "And...?" That is GiGi's way of forcing me to continue thinking. I call it her Socratic method.

I told the book that I did not understand the question. I just liked the poem and the message. The book's retort was, "So you memorized a poem about looking for the Grail in a different place. And...?" I must have looked lost. The book added, "Do you see anything else? Look at your life."

Again, the books tone of voice was a bit shape and jaded. I happened to mention that the book sounded like Mrs. Davis if a student was not addressing her question correctly. The book said that after spending over a decade with Mrs. Davis that it picked up some of her terseness. Then it quickly readdressed its question, "Look at your life."

Perhaps, I should have kept my comparison to myself. Regardless, I pondered the book's question. Finally, the pieces started to come together. I started telling the book about graduating from high school and going off to college in 1961, which was a century after the Civil War. America was still attempting to deal with racism a century after that war.

I ended by musing telling the book about going to Ozone, TN while in college. "I helped lead a work camp of high school students one summer. While outside of Ozone, I experienced for myself white racism, which could have resulted in some Klansman killing me."

The book replied, "I am well-aware about Ozone due to your writing about that event. However, other social movements aside from racism drive you. You include those issues in your teaching, interviews, and writing."

Then, for the first time, the book paused as if to think about how to complete its thought. Finally, it continued with its psychoanalysis of others and me "It is interesting to us, the so-called inanimate objects around your home that people seem to be driven toward issues, which are important to them. In your case, human rights in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Ko Naing, and the protest rally at Sule Pagoda are topics that motivate and invigorate you. Perhaps, humans ought to spend more time in the humanities. They need to read poetry and understand history if humans wish to enjoy the gift of life."