As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Glee (July 2021)

This morning I want to tell you about being gleeful: I want to encourage you to be filled with glee this summer, but I want it to be the right kind of glee so this is how the assembly is going to work: first I’m going to unpick the meaning of the word glee; I’m then going to highlight the potential pitfall if you get glee wrong; then with impressive verbal agility, I’m going to switch direction to apply glee to scholarship and take a few examples of suitably gleeful scholars before I wrap it all up by making some suggestions for your summer. Ready?

Our word glee comes from the Old English gliu meaning “entertainment, mirth, music or mockery” and became obsolete in about 1500 which could be why Shakespeare never uses it. He does, however, use the word “gleeful” exactly once which is a phenomenon that fills me with glee because it allows me to use the phrase hapax legomenon. A hapax legomenon is, you see, a word or phrase that occurs exactly once in a body of work – a googlewhack of literature – and it is a phrase that delights me both in its exactness and in its sound. Our hapax legomenon appears in Titus Andronicus – Shakespeare’s first, and arguably worst, tragedy. It is, by the way, both interesting and unsurprising that Shakespeare’s early plays should be less wonderful than his later ones: even geniuses get better with practice and so I say to you that if you want to write an absolutely brilliant play then you should get started and write some pretty rubbish ones that you can improve on – without Titus Andronicus we never get Hamlet or King Lear. The key line from Titus Andronicus, as far as we’re concerned today is Tamora, queen of the Goths, who says “Wherefore look’st thou sad, when every thing doth make a gleeful boast”. To be gleeful is to be filled with exuberant or triumphant joy – and to be joyful is to feel, express, or cause great happiness.

So, I want you to spend your summer exuberantly feeling and causing happiness. What’s not to like? Why should I need to warn you? Well, two things in the wrong order – secondly I don’t think that you can feel happy simply in order to follow my instruction – saying “cheer up” is not my purpose this morning - something has to spark that joy, fire up the glee in your soul (and we’ll come to that in a minute), but firstly there are some words that have come up in the definition that I’ve carefully cut out of my summary. If you remember the Old English we had mockery as well as mirth, Tamora’s glee was attached to a boast (there are, by the way, scholarship points available here for anyone who reads Act 2, Scene 3 of Titus Andronicus and takes issue with my out-of-context quotation), and glee is not just exuberant but triumphant. Joy may be a word with entirely good connotations, but glee is not – you can have devilish glee, you can gloat gleefully over the downfall of your enemy, you can dance a gleeful jig when you finally take possession of your precious. You can, but you shouldn’t. I want you to cause joy as well as feel it, I want you to be exuberant rather than triumphant, I want you to delight in building something wonderful, not tearing someone else’s work down. The people who do best at Harris Westminster, who get most out of it, who go into the wider world most ready for success are those who offer most to it, who practice their skills of building, of creation – after all, who wants to employ someone whose only talent is to bring others down?

So how do you build gleefully? Where does that spark come from that allows your joy to become exuberant? Well, I’ve told you before that learning is amazing, and I’ve said that scholarship is the search for knowledge that is extensive and exact, thinking that is scrupulous and critical, but what I think sometimes gets lost is that nowhere have I said that learning and scholarship should be restricted to the content you learn in lessons – in fact I think that they shouldn’t be – I think that learning is too good to be limited by subjects and that scholarship is an enthusiasm for every part of life, that scholarship unrestricted is essentially gleeful, and so I want to encourage you to apply your critical and scrupulous thinking to all questions, not just those that turn up on exams, I want you to gain extensive and exact knowledge of niche topics that amuse and interest you, I want you to write stories, have ideas, earnestly discuss problems that might have seemed ridiculous before you applied yourself to them. Randall Monroe used to run a website (it still exists, just isn’t updated any longer) using hard-nosed physics to answer ridiculous questions: what would happen if a baseball was thrown at close to the speed of light, if I had a mole of moles, what would that be like, can you fly a Cessna light aircraft on any of the planets except earth? Well, you can find out, answer those questions and more: What-if.xkcd.com look it up. On a similar note, there’s an amazing interview with Stormzy that you should also look up: he went into his old Primary School to take questions from the Year 3 children. It is a joyful thing: the kids on a mat on the floor, Stormzy sitting in a primary school chair (he’s not a small man) and them asking him “Why don’t you like wastemen – they come on a Wednesday and take your rubbish away?”, “What’s a Peng Ting” and “How did you become a celebrity” and he takes them seriously, does his best to answer. You should watch it – the moment when the whole class is shouting “we’re all peng tings” is a thing of beauty, but perhaps more relevant is his answer to the third question “How did I become a celebrity? I worked hard at what I loved – you shouldn’t try to be a celebrity, you should do something you love”.

Being a gleeful scholar is doing something you love, it’s a little mischievous, it’s finding a way to cleverly subvert the question, to do something brilliant, but unexpected, to amuse yourself whilst you educate your audience. An example of this is the poetry of e e cummings – he refuses to be boring, to fit your expectations, to even capitalise his own initials, and the first verse of one of his poems goes like this:

Anyone lived in a pretty how town
With up so floating many bells down
Spring, summer, autumn, winter
He sang his didn’t, he danced his did

Nonsense, right? You’d be forgiven for thinking so, but in this poem cummings tells a story through nonsense, he hides meaning in the words you dismiss – he’s gleefully rejoicing in the jumble of sound, subverting the idea that you need to talk sense to communicate, turning your concept of poetry upside down. Listen now to the whole thing:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)
they said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

So, this autumn, winter, spring, summer, be gleeful. Have fun with your thinking – don’t stop thinking in order to have fun. Do something you can be proud of. Do something worthy of just how amazing you all really are. Enter the Wigoder Essay prize and write something funny, quirky, interesting – find an idea that just seems a little strange and throw yourself into it, let yourself go wild, let yourself be filled with glee. Write poetry. Write bad tragedies. Dance in the rain. Tell stories. Search Shakespeare for a hapax legomenon of your own and then use the phrase hapax legomenon to describe it even if nobody around you has a clue what one is. Use words that delight you. Having fun with ideas that amuse you is a way to generate happiness – over the summer you’re unconstrained by the requirements of exams so don’t impose them on yourself – learn what you want to, read what you want to. But in your glee, make sure you cause as well as take joy, don’t mock, don’t laugh at the person that asks what a peng ting is, take a leaf out of Stormzy’s book and affirm them – we’re all peng tings to someone, you’re a peng ting, I’m a peng ting, we’re all peng tings.