"I weep for Adonais — he is dead!/ Oh, weep for Adonais!" These opening lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley's elegy for the poet John Keats could be a dirge for our times. It's a poem about a young man whose petals were "nipp'd" before the wind blew them away, a poet who died before "the promise of the fruit."
Not so long ago, it was a poem studied by high-school scholars as a reflection of romantic lyricism, a poetic form to mourn; to experience grief with words of solace; to vent anger through poetic imagery, powerful metaphors and similes; to lament loss and express rage, sadness and helplessness in confronting the death of a young man or woman who had promise and the years ahead to redeem such promise.
"Woe is me!" wails the poet.
"Woe is we!" echoes the unspeakable tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
We don't live in a time when tears find lyrical solace. How can we be comforted when 17 students and adults died in a massacre orchestrated and played out by a teenage madman? How do we express our anger, anguish and frustration multiplied by the number of families, friends — an entire nation — who followed the details of the tragedy on multiple methods of communication, imagining the cries and whispers of those huddled in hiding as shots rang out in their hallways? Adrenalin screams, "Do something! Do something! And do it now!" and back comes a cacophony of politicians' and policymakers' voices as if shouted from the Tower of Babel.
We look for answers, for solutions, for people and places to blame in a polarized culture where argument for one point of view quickly demonizes those who dare to hold a different one.
The megaphones with malodorous messages crisscross in conversations. But deeply felt emotions find few outlets. Reasoned discourse is difficult in our deeply divided country when the people who live here are more concerned with attack rather than creation, the clever put-down down rather than the encouraging word. Scoring verbal points is more fun than crafting workable policy.
Some cry to narrow the Second Amendment right to own a gun, others to put the crazies in asylum to prevent them from getting guns. Nobody knows exactly how to do that, and still, others find an answer in arming teachers, many of whom don't want to be armed. When Sarah Lerner, a teacher of senior English and journalism at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, heard the proposal to require teachers to carry a gun in their classroom, she demurred, "I wouldn't expect the first responders to come in and teach Shakespeare, and I shouldn't be expected to take down an active shooter with a gun." She described to The New Yorker how many of her students reported the tragedy in real time on social media: "This is what we teach the kids. To get the story, to document the story."
So, this is not the time for the poetry that stirs emotions. Elegies become digital as tragedies become instant news. Mourning becomes electronic. Sadness is sacrificed in the search for quick solutions.
To sift and sort through the social media that ignites instant conflict between the red and the blue in 140 characters, a grass-roots bipartisan organization called Better Angels has emerged. It takes its name from former President Lincoln's first inaugural address, in which he urged us to find something better within ourselves and within the institutions that we could build together. Better Angels posts essays about polarized positions on issues such as immigration, health care and, of course, guns. The angels stretch to find a common denominator and the elusive common sense everyone craves. The devil in the details howls at our clumsy efforts to bring red and blue Americans together into a working alliance by "building new ways to talk to one another, participate together in public life, and influence the direction of the nation."
They warn against the heated language and name-calling that appeal more to emotion than reasoned thinking. Partisans on either side are encouraged to take off their blinkers, to quit cherry-picking facts and statistics that distort reason. The angels caution against trivializing language so that it reinforces bias. Those on each side are urged to listen for clues as to what everyone can agree on.
It's an idealistic attempt — some would say naive — to improve a culture in splintered times when pessimism reigns. Nevertheless, it's an attempt to find a different way to mourn the dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, in the hope articulated in a passage from another Lincoln speech: "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." With Congress back in town, we'll need all the better angels we can find.