Tillie Olsen meets “Maud Muller”: “To Soar on Wings of Hope”

Author Tillie Olsen generated a thoughtful comment from a student.

Recently while concluding a writing course at Indiana Wesleyan University’s Columbus, Ohio Center, I happened to think of a student’s response to one of the questions regarding “I Stand Here Ironing,” an essay by Tillie Olsen, a somber unfolding of unfortunate circumstances that contribute to the fractured relationship between a mother and her now adult daughter.

I taught the course for the first time almost a year ago at the IWU Center in Louisville, Kentucky.  As I was grading the responses to questions for the essay, I came across a particular response that arrested my attention. One of the students in the English 141 in Louisville wrote the following regarding the Olsen essay:

Is this story bleak, or do you see it as hopeful?  Explain.

This story to me is very bleak, and I believe that a chance of a positive relationship may be hard to achieve.  The mother now wants a relationship with her daughter, but I do not believe that the daughter wants a relationship with her mother.  It is difficult to rekindle something that you never really had.

In reading that most insightful comment, I experienced a remarkable moment of enlightenment, as the rivers of understanding flowed together, erupting into a splendid epiphany while reflecting on relationships that I had endeavored to “rekindle” but failed to do so, despite my best efforts. I now realize that the relationship that I thought I had never really developed in the first place. Most remarkably and ironically, the student who wrote the comment is a funeral director. If anyone knows the truth of such situations, he would certainly know.

In addition, I happened to think of a line from a poem that I first encountered as a freshman in high school, when Mrs. Frances Uncapher, my freshman English teacher, introduced our class to One Hundred Narrrative Poems, one of which was “Maud Muller” by John Greenleaf Whittier.” I wrote a reflective essay in which I celebrated my journey into teaching on the university level and paid tribute to some of the teachers who have influenced me, one of whom was Mrs. Uncapher. This is how I describe her:

I was introduced to the power of poetry in my freshman year of high school when Mrs. Frances Uncapher, my English teacher, read aloud the narrative poetry of William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Whitcomb Riley, and other “three-named” authors. She read their works and discussed their poetry as if she were personally acquainted with each author.

 Click here to read the entire article: http://www.nea.org/assets/img/PubThoughtAndAction/TAA_03_06.pdf

Maud Muller, a simple country maid, in the narrative poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.

John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Maud Muller” depicts a simple country maid who meets a young judge, but they depart ways before any serious relationship can develop. The poem ends with these tragic and often quoted lines:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

I had written a trio of poems on faith, hope and love, and the one on hope contained a literary allusion to the last lines from Whittier’s poem. The statement “It is difficult to rekindle something that you never really had.” brought to mind the poem on hope to which I added to the quote from my English 141 student. Here is poem with the two quotations:

 Beyond Whittier to Soar on Wings of Hope        

It is difficult to rekindle something that you never really had.”

                           Jonathan Harris

                

Knowing the best lines are yet to be sung.

                      Lonnell E. Johnson

At times we seek to capture the fleeting what never was;

While the distant past seeks to satisfy, it never does.

Whittier’s poignant lines “Of all sad words of tongue or pen,”

Cause me to consider “The saddest these: it might have been.”

But wasted efforts seek to recapture things left behind:

Fragments of those distant memories, vestiges of the mind.

Though my life has not unfolded as many thought it would,

Now I know that all things have worked together for the good.

Each glorious triumph and disaster, I choose to forget.

As I savor the goodness of God, I have no regret.

I must leave behind all of the hurt of the past somehow,

For all life crescendos into the ever-present now.

Although the past attempts to sway me from my destiny,

I soar on wings of hope–the best is always yet to be.

Larnelle Harris and the Brooklyn Tabernacle close this commentary on a hopeful note with this reminder of where our hope must be found.

Similarly, Donald Lawrence, offers a final reminder of the truth expressed in the closing phrase of the poem which is similar to title of this song: “The Best is Yet to Come.”

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