The Unpoetic Undergraduate Rises to the Occasion

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Shoot for the moon! Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. As an undergraduate English major, I should probably have a stronger repertoire of aphorisms up my sleeve than this overused cliché. However, this cliché accurately captures my thinking when I enrolled in a graduate-level English class this spring as a junior. My advisor suggested I test the waters in this class in order to get a better picture of what graduate study in English could be like. So, aiming high, I enrolled in my first 5000 level class at UVA: The Sonnet Revised and Revisited.

I woke up on the morning of the first class nervous as hell. I spent 20 minutes picking out an outfit that would mask my undergraduate age. Not today, lulu leggings. I walked down the Lawn, inching closer to the bottomless perdition waiting for me in Bryan Hall.

I walked into the classroom at 9:25 a.m., five minutes before class should have begun. The room was packed, every desk full. My peers chatted nonchalantly as if they had been seated and settled for the past 15 minutes. Who gets to class that early? Who are these people? Tweed blazers, leather shoes and briefcases abound. I felt childish carrying my Swell water bottle, strapped into my purple North Face backpack. Was I the only undergraduate in the whole room? I sat down at the very edge of the semi-circular desk arrangement, the only open seat left. No one so much as glanced in my direction.

The professor walked in. Of course, she’s British. I didn’t know much about poetry and I certainly didn’t know much about sonnets, but damn sure with that accent she could read one aloud like no one else.

The rest of the first class passed in a nightmarish haze. Poetic terms such as “enjambment,” “iambic pentameter,” “octave” and “sestet” whizzed around the room. Did I know the difference between a Shakespearean sonnet and a Petrarchan sonnet? Certainly not. Who is Petrarch, again?

I tried to play it cool as the professor, who already knew all of the Ph.D. candidates by name, referenced various dissertations my peers are writing and how so-and-so peer-studied Modernism undergrad at Harvard. The professor asked us to go around the room and quote a line from our favorite sonnet. Great.

My mind started rolling through iambs and stanzas desperately. Shakespeare. Something about a hawk and a handsaw…no, wait…that’s Hamlet. Damn. Something about a mistress and her eyes? Something about a summer’s day? Or was it a midsummer’s dream? No! Plays, get out of my head! Brain, give me a sonnet! Any sonnet! What do I do? I drew a total blank. I started to sweat. A brilliant thought popped into my head: I’ll just steal. I’ll thieve my way through this first test and then return to my morals, defending truth and dignity once this dreadful moment passes.

I pulled myself together by the time my fellow sonneteer—probably the author of some brilliant dissertation on why Medbh McGuckian changed the spelling of her name to the traditional Irish spelling—passed the sonnet baton on to me. I, the lowly undergraduate, said, “My favorite sonnet of all time, happens to have been spoken already! It’s the lovely Keats sonnet you over there recited so beautifully—Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art….You all know the rest.” With a small smile and a very British nod of her head, my professor continued on with the rest of class.

Just when I felt like I was finally catching my breath, a fleeting glint of gold catches my eye. A wedding ring? On the hand of my classmate? 20 years-old and nervous as hell, I began wondering what I had gotten myself into.

Now, 10 weeks have passed since this memorable and terrifying beginning of my journey: Molly and The Sonnet Revised and Revisited. Now, I get to class more than five minutes early. I do my homework and I read my sonnets out loud in hopes that some of the lines will stick in my head. I still don’t have many friends beyond the cup of coffee by my side always, but I did learn the word “aphorism” that I used in the first paragraph of this article in class. This semester, I have learned something. I have learned lots. I’ve risen to the occasion. I have yet to land on the moon, but I suspect I am somewhere among the stars, perhaps my own Bright Star.

Molly is a senior (or fourth year, as we like to say) at the University of Virginia studying English and Studio Art. Yes, she's really artsy, and yes, she spends too much time reading and pretending to know a lot about coffee.

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