Herman Melville, Lincoln’s Inn and Serendipity

Lincoln’s Inn–London (photo courtesy of Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn)

One of the things I love doing as a teacher is creating opportunities to become a student again. It renews the love of learning that is at the heart of my profession but sometimes gets lost under the mind-numbing bureaucratic tasks and pointless political pandering that has become so much a part of what it means to be an educator.

It’s at times like these that I most need to remember how exciting it is to learn something new, to read and study a work I’ve never encountered before, to visit places I’ve never been. My trip to London in the fall of last year provided me with many such opportunities.

Like the day I discovered Lincoln’s Inn.

I say discovered because I hadn’t gone looking for Lincoln’s Inn. I didn’t know it was there. I didn’t know anything about it. I certainly didn’t know that a month later I would be writing a lesson on Herman Melville for my new online American Literature I class and encounter Lincoln’s Inn once again.

It happened this way:

I woke up the first day that I was alone in London, finally free to do some serious walking and exploring. I planned out a trip that I had been longing to take ever since I developed a sample travel project for my British Literature II class several years ago. I decided to walk from my hotel in Russell Square to the Sir John Soane Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Sir John Soane was a famous and wealthy Regency Era architect who designed the Bank of England and other famous landmarks, including his own house that he willed to his country.

Not knowing how long it would take me to walk there, I sat out rather early, clutching my google map instructions tightly in my hands. I made quick work getting there, too quick in fact. The museum was not yet open. With more than 20 minutes to wait, I decided to cross e street to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and walk around. Although it is a beautiful little park with its trees at their peak of Autumn foliage, I still had about 15 minutes to spare after walking the perimeter.

I decided to explore just a little further, and noting the street names began to head towards the most interesting brick building. As I approached, I realized that there were other similar buildings. Then, I passed through what looked to be a very old tower gate, and I realized I was in some sort of compound–beautifully landscaped and tended–the large main building almost like a church with beautiful stone accents and stained glass windows. I saw that there was a library  in the building and got a hint to its use when I saw a man traditionally dressed in barrister’s robes walking up the sidewalk towards the building.

I returned to the Morton Hotel after many more wonderful adventures, including the Sir John Soane Museum that I finally got to see (it was magnificant), an outdoor art display by Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts (incredible), lunch at a classic London Pub (tasty onion and mushroom pie) and a trip to the British Museum (I love that place). Even though I visited the British Museum on my first trip to London, I went to rooms I didn’t get to see that first time–my favorite being the Ancient European room and the clock room.

After a bite to eat from the little Tesco down the street and a hot shower, I settled in to find out what exactly that incredible building was. I quickly discovered that what I had been looking at and admiring was none other than Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, which are the professional organizations for all barristers in England and Wales. I researched and read until late in the night, fascinated and excited to learn something new that would help me read, study and teach more effectively as well as humbled, feeling that I, as a teacher of British literature, should have known more about these things already.

When I returned home, I immediately found ways to incorporate what I had learned in my British Literature I class. That goes without saying, but I had no idea how my experience of discovering Lincoln’s Inn would enhance my teaching in American Literature until I read Melville’s “A Paradise of Bachelors.” The setting is one of the Inns of Court where the main character in this highly autobiographical story goes walking through the streets of London just as I did and is impressed with the beauty and grandeur of the grounds around the Temple Bar, just as I was.

IT lies not far from Temple-Bar.

Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.

Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street — where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies — you adroitly turn a mystic corner — not a street — glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors. Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning London.

Melville’s description spoke to my experience so completely. His observations so piquant that I immediately found renewed admiration for this, one of the greatest of American writers.

“Found in the stony heart of stunning London.”

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2 thoughts on “Herman Melville, Lincoln’s Inn and Serendipity

  1. Katie Winkler is an adventurer and her students learn that and so much more from her. A writer and teacher needs to be an adventurer and explorer if they are to excite and inform their students.
    A teacher who reads a text book and lectures exclusively from that text book is not worth the title of teacher.

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