A Caryatid Condition

Warning: This is not your typical blog post. I get deep and intellectual. Reader discretion is advised.

Okay, here's a challenge:

You are a student at the prestigious Luther College, enrolled in a January Term study abroad course in Europe. As an accomplished male athlete and a student who always puts his best foot forward in his academics, you are tasked with not only participating in the class and completing the course requirements, but also with beginning and maintaining a blog while abroad. This blog requires that you update the various interested parties in the situation of the course, the activities its members have been participating in, and a fair amount of academic analysis to prove that you are learning things while abroad. You are to enjoy this task and complete it every night with a gigantic smile on your face. Begin.

Believe it or not, I just told you a big, fat lie. I do participate in athletics at Luther (Go Norse!) and I always try my best in class, but my job as the course blogger is a privilege that I gladly accept and enjoy. I am honored to continue updating everyone with the happenings of the course. In fact, in that little self-aggrandizement above, I introduced you to the subject of this blog post and the topic that, for me, has encompassed everything we have learned here in London.

Before I explain what that topic is, let me clear that title up for you. Unless you are an architectural genius or a master of the Romantic language, such as our dear Dr. Amy Weldon, you probably don’t know what a caryatid is. In fact, I just learned what it is this morning. As the group was walking down Easton Square in Bloomsbury, Dr. Weldon had us take a moment to look at the St. Pancras New Church at the corner of Easton Place. On the far side of the church there was a portico, a fancy term for a deck, which was covered with a roof held up by the pillar-like statues of four women. These stone women, holding the roof up with their heads and hands, are called caryatids. They are a frequent structural and decorative piece used in ancient European architecture.

The reasoning behind my use of caryatid in my title can be wrapped into one word: privilege. In the past five days, this group has been studying the various Romantic poets, writers, and political activists of the 19th century who have had an impact on the London scene. These individuals include Lord Byron, John Keats, Mary Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Out of this cast of characters, there has been one clear dividing line that separates some of these men and women from the others—their upbringing and the privilege they were provided with, free of charge. Some of these individuals, namely Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, were born into wealthy families and privilege. They didn’t have to worry about money or their next meal. They let others do the heavy lifting for them. These two poets were free to question the traditional ways of life, as they often did. Shelley was a self-professed atheist and an advocate of free love—two ideologies that were very scandalous in the day. Byron, the immortal bad boy, is famous for little more than being a giant nuisance, as we learned on Friday when we visited his boyhood residence, Harrow School for Boys. The introductory paragraph that I began this blog with is an example of that privilege. In that example, even though I realize that I attend a great school such as Luther, participate in athletics, and am in Europe (!) for a J-Term course, I still manage to find something wrong with my situation. I am privileged, but I do not see how much I have been gifted. This perspective can sometimes be seen in Percy Shelley's writings, and is almost always seen in Byron's.

The other members of this group, on the other hand, did not have this luxurious privilege. Mary Shelley, born to Romantic forerunners Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, was never allowed the security of a mother, as Wollstonecraft died soon after Mary’s birth and Godwin never acted as the loving and supportive father that is suggested he would be in his own writing. Later in her life, she lost three of her four children in their infancy. John Keats lived a life scorned by tragedy. It was a life constructed of death. As we learned when we toured Hampstead, the neighborhood where he spent much of his life, Keats was born into a family of hostlers in Moorgate, London. In 1803, Keats' father died when Keats was a mere eight years of age. Soon after, his mother abandoned him and his siblings for another man. Four years later, she returned in failure of beginning life afresh, only to contract tuberculosis and die when Keats was fourteen. In fact, tuberculosis, a near incurable disease in that age, took the lives of not only his mother, but also his brother, and eventually Keats himself. He died in 1821, only twenty-five years of age. Keats and Shelley had to do the heavy lifting. They had to be the caryatids, carrying the heavy roof of their tragedies over their heads.

Yet, even through the obvious strain that tragedy, illness, and death had put on the shoulders of our Romantic caryatids, they were able to join with the likes of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Even though Mary and Keats had experienced more pain and suffering by the time they were twenty than either Percy or Byron faced in their entire lives, they managed to match, and perhaps surpass their contemporaries in their fields of interest. Where Byron is famous for his naughty antics, Keats is remembered for his poems of love and wonder of the world around him. While Shelley is well-known for his various poems and letters, his wife, Mary, is world famous as the author of Frankenstein, a book that arguably defines Romantic literature.

Do not be mistaken, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron wrote some very smart, very poignant poetry. They did change the face of literature as we know it. Mary Shelley and John Keats did experience much joy and fortune in their lives. While they knew tragedy and death well, they died knowing that their lives were full and that many people loved them.

But, that doesn’t mean that this dividing line of privilege doesn’t speak volumes. It does. It shows that, even though life doesn’t always go according to plan, one can still live the life they want to live. One can still achieve the greatness that is regularly reserved for those who are privileged from birth. This is what I have learned as this group has traveled from one end of London to the other. It’s okay not have everything under control. It’s okay to experience tragedy. In fact, embrace it—be a caryatid.

I’ll leave you with a few lines of John Keats’ sonnet, “Bright Star”:

“Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft swell and fall.

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death—”

Byron's name carved into the wall of a room at Harrow School For Boys - this was carved by Byron himself.
Mary Wollstonecraft's grave at the Old St. Pancras Church Yard.
Me and John Keats posing for a picture at Keats House Museum!
Dr. Weldon and her boyfri...err...favorite Romantic Poet, John Keats at Guy's Hospital. And James, because he's ALWAYS in the way.
A street side view of Harrow School and its surrounding campus. Such a beautiful place.
All the Frankensteinians at Keats House Museum in Hampstead, along with our tour guide, Anita Miller!