Filling in the outline


23 Jun 2020

Classic texts speak to us from throughout the ages, sharing pain, sorrow and joy. They remind us we’re not alone.

When I began my Arts degree at the University of Melbourne, I, along with a crowd of other bright-eyed youngsters, took my place, clipboard and BicClik in hand, ready to attend the lectures on texts around which, unimaginably, I would be expected to present essays, and eventually sit exams.

The first-year course in English was a list of about a hundred classic texts – mostly English, American, the Russians, and dramatists and poets including Shakespeare, the Ancient Greeks and a few Anons. The thinking was that if we read them all over the course of the year, we would have achieved a nodding acquaintance with writing that mattered, and books that have changed the world. I never finished the list. I still haven’t, and I’m afraid I lost the course outline.

But somewhere along the line they taught us to read; thoughtfully, intently, seriously. For structure, for tone, for the music and pictures and rhythm of words. Using the work of the finest and best writers, they educated us in the life of the mind, and the waywardness of the human heart through introducing us to literature.

They often referred to ‘the human condition’ – whatever that was.


Now, a life-time later, I think I know what they were talking about. It was the shared sense that we are in this human mess together, none of us exempt from death, or perfect in life. Each of us will face struggle and triumph, and try to make the best decisions we can, in the light we are given and with the hand we are dealt. Who we are, and what we do, matters.

 ‘… No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…. any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,’ the poet John Donne (1572-1631) reminds us. ‘Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’

All of us search for meaning in our lives, hoping that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts; trusting that there is a reason for this hope; that this reason is Love, ‘perennial as the grass,’ which saves us from ourselves.

Here is a religious poem I met that year, and which has stayed a beloved friend ever since. It never fails to inspire me with its beauty, its courage and its honesty.


Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English Jesuit, (1844-89) wrestles with the human condition when he speaks as if standing before God as a plaintiff in a court of law. He begins formally, with a Latin tag, which is translated into English in the following lines, in a cry from the heart rather than the intellect.

‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper?
and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?’

Perhaps, like this poet, you have felt bitter as you observe the triumph of dishonesty over quiet integrity.

‘Oh, the sots and thralls of lust1
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause.’


Who has not asked, struggling with the burden of grief, or illness, or desolation, ‘Why me?’ It is a dark place. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. And why does God not speak?

Yet as the poet walks this wintry path, he discerns tiny fragile shoots breaking though the frozen soil. This image of the first tender herbs of spring, and nesting birds, shows a loving God’s answer to our sorrowing. And we can pray‘Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.’

Reading favourite poems helps me, when I need to dig deep. Someone who lived generations before me speaks across time of shared experience, creating a thing of beauty out of sorrow and defeat. I’m not alone.

Perhaps your comfort is in great music, philosophy or art, biography or history, or a favourite film or garden. The human condition encompasses not only the messiness of humanity – but also its glory and mystery.

I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to study. The very best thing it taught me was how to think; the other best thing is that it taught me how much I have to learn.

1 Drunks and slaves of passion

This article first appeared in Madonna magazine Winter 2020 edition.

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