An English major on the trail

| 29 Apr 2016 | 12:05

The heath is a great place to vent. Just ask King Lear. Fresh from a row with his “pernicious” daughters, he rushes outside, bareheaded, his Fool in tow, imploring “all shaking thunder” to “strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!”

We’ve all been there. Lacking a heath, and being pretty sure I’ve never seen one, I’ve made do with mountains and ridgetops whenever I’ve felt the need to express impotent rage. Try it sometime. If you’re short on words, borrow some from Shakespeare, so flat and cumbersomely footnoted in your Riverside edition but so luscious in your mouth as you speak them:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

Doesn’t that feel good? So much better than shouting at your television. Everybody’s shouting in this crazy political season, our one vote a measly sop in the face of so many problems requiring our attention. With glaciers melting and inequality growing, who will pay attention to my particular grievance? Which is: Shakespeare is no longer required of English majors at most American universities. You read that right. English majors. They’ll be collecting their sheepskins without ever having to read so much as a sonnet, or a couplet, written by the Bard. I walk onto a flat rock overlooking the badlands at Minnewaska State Park.

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!

Tom hooks his finger into the back of my collar and pulls me away from the edge.

Universities are more worried about growing the next generation of app makers, I shout into the wind. What will we all be working for, then? Where will our culture come from?

Tom studied science. He shrugs.

I’ve never done any canvassing but I’ll bet English majors make up a disproportionate number of people on the trail. The language’s greatest masterpieces have very much to do with Nature, and we English majors, four-eyed, overwrought, blinking in the sun after days hunched over a 900-page novel, want to experience firsthand those golden daffodils we’ve been ruining our corneas reading about. Maybe, like Wordsworth, we want to wander “lonely as a cloud/That floats on high o’er vales and hills.” Maybe, like the characters in The Canterbury Tales, we want to make a long pilgrimage, “For ever yet I loved to be gay,/And for to walk in March, April, and May.” We might be feeling mighty superior, like Thoreau, who spent four hours (at least!) every day “sauntering through the woods...absolutely free from all worldly engagements,” while looking down his nose at the mechanics and shopkeepers who sit inside all day and “deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.” Maybe we want to shake off our demons, like the tormented Samuel Johnson (“When I survey my past life, I discover nothing but a barren waste of time”), who regularly walked the 32 miles from his home in Lichfield to Birmingham and back.

But the book that brought me to the vow of poverty that is declaring one’s major in English was “Wuthering Heights,” written by a girl not much older than I was when I first read it. A discarded boyfriend beats his head bloody against a tree! A dead girlfriend claws into her lover’s bedchamber in the middle of the night! Best of all, Kathy and her mad gypsy boyfriend, Heathcliff, promise each other to “grow up as rude as savages,” which meant doing lots and lots and lots of walking -- that heath again!

Charlotte Brontë had me at this: the conspiratorial lovers, after a day of gamboling in the bog, watched, from outside in the dark, the vapid goings-on inside the ornate drawing room where the wealthy Lintons spent away their evenings. “We laughed outright at the petted things,” Heathcliff says. “We did despise them!”

Would I be on this mountain, with my own dark, curly haired Heathcliff, if I were just a math head? Does Tom know how much he owes to Great Literature?

I lean down to stroke his hair as he gazes into the far distance, lost in thought. His attention breaks, and he smiles up at me.

‘What?” he asks.

A beat passes. He stands up, clouds billowing in the bright blue sky behind his halo of curls.