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Come Dine With Me: Dead Poets Society

Faraz Maqsood Hamidi dines with Khalil Gibran, Emily Dickinson and A.E. Housman.
Published 08 Jul, 2024 12:31pm

Author’s Ridge is a scenic promontory on the edge of Sleepy Hollow – a verdant cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. It is named so because it is the burial site of several authors of classic American literature, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott (and their families).

I first went there as an undergraduate, about halfway through the start of my fall semester, when I was studying transcendentalist poetry. Paying homage to the masters was a sort of literary pilgrimage. I remember how New England, as it turned towards winter, had set its foliage aflame with autumnal crimson, scarlets and gold. A last hurrah, of sorts, before it covered itself in the inevitable pall of snow. A couple of friends and I had morbidly planned to picnic with the dead poets. So, there we were – having settled into our posthumous fan moment – on the edge of the Ridge, surrounded by greats, reciting poems back to those who wrote them. It felt transcendental. Otherworldly. It was almost as if the words that were being read carried a renewed vigour, a life of their own, as they mixed with provenance and divination.

When I decided to relive that moment more recently, I asked three others to join me. All three were contemporaries of each other (more or less), and they were all poets: Khalil Gibran (from Boston, MA), Emily Dickinson (from Amherst, MA), and A.E. Housman (mostly Cambridge, UK). They all shared an indefatigable artistic spirituality that defied the boundaries of their time. I figured that company like this would only amplify what I had felt back then, breathing new soul into the fleeting feeling of awe that I had once experienced, and resurrecting that moment through the power of their intellect and poetic imagination.

And yet, I wondered, as I packed the hamper for my fellow time-travellers, aren’t our memories welded to the people and feelings we experienced when we first visited a particular place? Sometimes the emotional scent of a place remains, but, more often than not, both the feelings and the places we inextricably owned once are erased with the rub of time.

As I placed the spiced grilled meats, aromatic rice pilaf and savoury stuffed grape leaves for Gibran into the wicker’s shallow compartments, I thought I could ask him more about his Lebanese roots and how they specifically helped him arrive at his brand of spirituality and philosophy – how the human spirit, so to speak, can actually be entwined with the divine. Or, I could turn to Dickinson and come to grips with her brand of metre, rhyme and timelessness? How she so effortlessly delved into themes of introspection and solitude, together with the enigmatic nature of life, death and immortality? But not before I added cucumber sandwiches in Indian rye bread, lavender-infused lemonade and coconut sponge cake for a poet who was also an accomplished baker.

Maybe Housman’s lyrical works, which were doused in romantic pessimism in his spare, simple style, might shed a slant of light on my dilemma. His themes of fleeting youth, unrequited love, nature, and beauty all describe a tension between longing and belonging that remains forever suspended in the airs and graces of regret.

“What? Just gravestones?” asked Housman the moment we reached the promontory. He was digging into an assortment of traditional English fare: steak and kidney pie, salmon and watercress finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam (followed by the ageless Devonshire quarrel of whether it is the jam or the clotted cream that is spread first). I realised then that I had chosen the wrong venue.

What I had described to him as one of my favourite places was just neurological cinema: a pattern of past memories, feelings, and associations projected onto the canvas of my hopes. He was right. The place was just a motley of epitaphs on a stretch of barren land. The view didn’t align with the map I had constructed, nor did it deliver on the image I had advertised. Its beauty dwelled in the past, buried with the experiences I had had there. I figured Housman, together with Gibran and Dickinson, had already absorbed my predicament – for it wasn’t long before they took turns reciting one of his most trenchant poems from A Shropshire Lad:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Over their voices and under the canopy of trees, a couple of thoughts occurred to me: It’s probably best to revisit the places you called your own only in the landscape of memory, across the horizon of the mind, but never in the world, for fear that they may cease to inspire the life you are looking to rediscover. And, you always spread the clotted cream first.

Faraz Maqsood Hamidi is Chief Creative Officer & CEO, The D’Hamidi Partnership, a worldwide partner agency of WPI.