It is, for me, one of the highlights of English, and I look forward to it with great anticipation. But this time, I find I haven't the heart for it, and that makes me very sad. The story of Chaucer's pilgrims seems completely out of sync with what I am feeling. The bawdy humor of "The Miller's Tale" strikes a not of discord and disharmony as I read and prepare for the discussion in class. I always look to literature for the great truths of life, for balance and solace. But there is no solace in "The Miller's Tale," and no joy in teaching it this time. How does reading English solve problems, heal wounds, comfort the weary, calm the fearful. I think of John Keats, who, having left the practice of medicine for a life of reflection and writing, sought "to do some good for the world" through his writing. .
In reflecting upon the power of words to comfort and heal, I recalled a familiar quotation: "The pen is mightier than the sword." It was written by a prolific but not well-known English writer, historian and political figure of the nineteenth century, Edward George Earle Lytton, first Baron Lytton, son of General Bulwer. The quote comes from a blank verse drama entitled Richelieu, or the Conspiracy, about a French statesman by that name. In Bulwer-Lytton's drama, the character is an anti-hero. The full quotation reads: "Beneath the rule of men entirely great/ The pen is mightier than the sword" (II.ii). Words do have power in them; and those who have words to use ultimately overcome those who wield weapons. I think of those documents that have survived wars--the Bible, the Koran, the sayings of the Buddha and Confucius, the Constitution of the United States, the great poetry, drama, fiction and essays of the world--our stories and our histories. In spite of attempts by despots and terrorists to destroy civilization, the words survive and continue to inspire us. And those who use words for hateful purposes cannot drown out the chorus of words of hope and love and freedom.