Advice from Dead Poets (And Some Living): W.H. Auden on making the leap

This morning, a friend showed me a video of myself that was taken almost two years ago on my 20th birthday. In the 90-second clip, I am holding court over a living room of our friends, unable to finish a sentence without laughing, my hair bleached from two months of tour guiding. I look blissfully bewildered.

That summer was the halfway point of my time at Tufts. I was embedded in Somerville, had an emotional attachment to Packard Avenue and felt more at home with my friends than I’d ever expected to feel with anyone — but I was getting ready to leave. I would spend the next semester studying in Spain, a transition that I handled without grace or courage, in spite of my intentions. I clung ruthlessly to the familiar, afraid that what I loved most about Tufts would vanish while I was gone.

“The sense of danger must not disappear,” the poet W.H. Auden writes at the beginning of his famous poem, “Leap Before You Look” (1940). “The way is certainly both short and steep, / However gradual it looks from here; / Look if you like, but you will have to leap.”

Auden inverts a famous proverb, “Look before you leap,” in order to counsel action, rather than caution. His poem’s structure — four-line stanzas written in iambic pentameter with an abab rhyme scheme — creates a feeling of inevitable forward motion, ushering the reader toward that imminent leap. “You cannot prepare for what comes next,” Auden seems to say. “Your plans, expectations and well-thought-out concerns will not cushion your fall.”

Lately, I have been in the business of looking backward, not forward. I think of the summer after my sophomore year in particular, maybe out of some belief that there is meaning contained in the middle. At the halfway point of my time at Tufts, captured in that 90-second video, I had elaborate expectations for what the next two years would hold. I was wrong about almost all of them.

The camera shutter closed, the summer ended and I embarked on a long, reluctant fall forward. What came next was beautiful: I had experiences that forced me to grow, some of my closest friendships developed with people I’d met on a whim and there were nights even more joyful than my bewildered 20th birthday. But, as I approach graduation, I feel some grief, too: for the plans that didn’t come into being.

What I appreciate most about Auden’s poem is that the leap is not made to seem wholly joyful or without fear. It’s not exempt from difficulty or regret. The leap is only promised as something necessary.

This is the last month of my college career and the last column that I’ll write about dead poets (and some living). If I’ve learned anything over the past three months, from reading and re-reading their words, it’s that meaning is created in the place where things appear to go wrong. So is life.

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