Andrew Marvell’s saddest and most thoughtful poem, ‘The Definition of Love’, is all about lines that are determined never to cross. If 2013 was defined by anything, it’s how life defies those who try too hard to make them cross.
Last year, I travelled down pathways I should never have entertained, determined that flickers of hope were better than none at all.
Doing this repeatedly takes you to a private and shameful realm of destitution, where core motivation disappears and the mind caves in on itself.
Perhaps worst of all: I deliberately maintained this self-destructive behaviour under the precarious assumption that any upsetting outcomes would benefit my research.
It worked. My unsuccessful attempts to chase away loneliness only tightened my relationship with poems I’d increasingly felt were built around the same painful antecedents and biting dilemmas.
Creating Darkness to Find Light
There’s an uneasy truth to last year’s statement that I had become a character actor, purposefully seeking out the dark and difficult life I was surveying.
When you engage in research that you identify and sympathise with, the will to embody it can become overpowering. Like many destructive behaviours, it becomes a web that you ensnare yourself within.
The effect, nevertheless, has been profound. The turmoil drove my academic writing to new heights, culminating in a thesis that has brought pride, quiet accomplishment, and no little sense of personal justice.
Following an autumn of infection and then a stoic and disciplined December, I shook hands with a formidable examination team to earn my title. Tired eyes found a sense of fun again, and hope took a seat at the table.
The spine of the year felt difficult, but 2013 certainly had its moments to treasure. A January weekend spent in Cheltenham with university friends was a welcome distraction before my lecture on ‘Literature and the English Civil War’ enticed a full house of second-year undergraduates.
April saw ten years of fellowship with the Knightmare crowd – an affiliation that has never ceased to amaze. Finding a group that offered unconditional (if sometimes tough) love was a springboard for the mentality that has pushed me to the limit and ultimately inspired the memoir.
It was a phenomenal year for Knightmare (more on which in this fabulous review). Repeats in January as part of an anniversary weekend were followed by a new run on Challenge, a professional reproduction on stage, and a brand new episode for YouTube – most of which I was privileged to share with the crowd that has sheltered me for so long.
Ten years ago, I was a melancholic idealist – the burning romantic, who took the beauties of each day as the greatest treasure of self-worth and survival. The struggle to find anything I hoped for only seemed to intensity the belief in heights and sensations, dreams and perfections. Now I wonder what has dampened this ardour.
It’s a question I had to leave behind behind in June, when I attended my first ever wedding as an usher to my own best man. The event was simply beautiful.
It served as a worthy valediction too. At our age, it’s about new lives, less about friends and more about family. Separation becomes more pronounced.
That’s why, even if the dreams grow dimmer, it gets harder and more painful as we grow older, and we take more risks in making one line derail its way towards another.
The second half of the year was about unremitting hard graft – such that a sideways bloom from green to pink faded before it began and the garden remained characteristically empty.
But early July was memorable for one of those days of rich coincidence that powers the spark of serendipity.
Speaking on Marvell and ekphrasis at the Andrew Marvell Centre in Hull saw a reunion with Bristol’s Dr Stephen Cheeke, who has long remained the inspiration behind my step into research.
The impact that Stephen had during undergraduate days was no less pronounced seven years later. Two days in his company did plenty to offset the many doubts that have clouded the previous two years. If that was to be my final conference, it was memorable for all the finest reasons.
There is also a mention for mid-September, when three rare meetings with friends combined during a special day that paved the road to submission. All were commemorated in the Acknowledgements, and, as ever, it is to my complete discredit that the positivity evinced from days like this never seems to generate the momentum that its patrons deserve.
Many of the people I most admire, including those of that enlightened day, do not live easy or effortless lives. They face incredible battles and display extraordinary strength to keep themselves afloat.
And perhaps, finally, they did enact a change. The mortifying episode that instigated ‘One out of Ten’ in October made me realise that it was finally time to make a leap of faith in the right direction rather than the wrong one.
There can be rewards for courage, but the right kind of courage – that which lives in the real world and not in fantasy land.
The time to commemorate this properly will come, but the Student Minds team at Leicester became an invaluable source of help this autumn. It has turned around my year, started me back on the road to stability, and spurred me to try things I never thought possible.
Everything about 2013 was hard, and it told. Somewhat unexpectedly, 2014 opens with possibilities anew that have all stemmed from this step into the light. And everything seems a shade more vibrant and colourful and alive than it did before.
There is an awful long way to go, and knowledge of this keeps caution at very close quarters. This archive of poignant overtures is well versed in the art of grasping loss from the jaws of gain.
But the sensation of heading in the right direction is a breakthrough. It is more than I ever could have asked, and it is an opportunity I simply cannot afford to let pass.
It’s time for a Restoration, and maybe a dream or two.