Johanna Sommer ’23
Killed With Delight
Johanna’s essay was developed as part of a nature writing unit during the spring 2022 section of The Art of the Essay, an elective course for Literature and Journalism majors, as well as those interested in taking an additional writing course.
My favorite thing to do is walk. I know this may make me sound incredibly dull and I accept this, but it is just who I am. I don’t like amusement parks or going to the beach, nor any thrill-seeking activities, for no part of me has ever been allured by the prospect of skydiving. For me, the greatest joy is to be able to walk, preferably in a familiar place where I don’t have to get fixated on directions, but rather on music, a notebook, and no time constraints. Ideally it will be around sixty-six degrees and overcast, but I am accustomed to adapting. After all, I am from Buffalo. I have spent countless hours of my life playing out this routine since around age thirteen, when I was first allowed to wander my neighborhood on my own. Walking has been perhaps the most stabilizing activity throughout my development, just sitting among trees and watching how the grass bends. I would refer to this practice as a “depression walk” in my high school years, since it was the only thing that seemed to aid the rage I did not know how to contain, and so I would go on walks daily.
I remember being fourteen and consuming sidewalk after sidewalk in the Buffalo winter, a period that really lasts closer to seven months than the typical four. I would reach the end of Bidwell parkway, encountering a roundabout, and then go lie in the middle of it. “Candy Says,” by the Velvet Underground would play in my headphones, and I would look up at the sky as Doug Yule sang, “I’m gonna watch the bluebirds fly/ Over my shoulder/ I’m gonna watch them pass me by/ Maybe when I’m older/ What did you think I’d see/ If I could walk away from me,” and it became a sort of preservation tactic. Six years later, I don’t feel very distanced from this image. I sit in front of a plot of barren trees and attempt to write them into meaning, churning the Earth’s beauty into a tortured mosaic of my own worth. I pass a lone birch sapling adorned with thorns and think it wishes to be held. I walk through the paradise of my mother’s island backyard and attempt to articulate emptiness. I have looped the loop my campus inhabits more times than I can count, and even if it is rated one of the ugliest schools in the United States, I am indebted to the many ways walking its perimeter has eased my spirit. When it all feels so heavy, this is my reaching for lightness, for the success rate in which walking has mitigated my chronic restlessness I believe to have kept me alive.
I know taking walks is not outlandish or uncommon, but I also know not everyone spends multiple hours every day on such an activity, which I tend to do if my schedule allows. At the same time, I don’t immediately think of myself as someone who is “nature-oriented,” as I don’t particularly relish in any of the activities associated with those who consider themselves to be. I will hike, kayak, swim (albeit badly), or ski if I absolutely have to, though I would much rather just walk. And this is why I unfortunately find myself increasingly akin to the Romantic poets.
Upon my first introductions to Romanticism, some of which were through William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” I found the poets to be overly sentimental and entirely removed from our current way of life. I must give a disclaimer that I am amateurly versed in this topic and have yet to be three full years into my literature degree, but still, how could these grown men be weeping over a mere landscape? When Wordsworth writes a waterfall had, “Haunted [him] like a passion,” I imagined there must have been some opium in the picture to induce such fervor, for what alone in the natural world could stir him with such a lucid intensity? The reactionary rejection of the Enlightenment had sent these poets devoid of any logical grounds in my eyes, and their writing came off as indulgent and self-revolvent in its focus on lives that lacked any true suffering. It wasn’t until I read Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther that I realized I was frustrated with these poets because I am one of them.
There is something about Goethe’s Werther that I find myself mirrored in, and I don’t write this with amusement. I believe I come off as confident and unbothered to those I do not know very well, and while at times these qualities may ring true, the lingering effects of crippling social anxiety of my youth forbid me from ever feeling true inner peace. I am doomed to repeat mildly awkward conversations over and over again like a tape recorder, and would rather dwell on a potential love interest for ceaseless months instead of enduring the two-minute conversation of asking them out. I cannot recommend this way of life whatsoever, but like Werther says, “How clearly I have always seen my condition, and yet I have acted like a child;” (31). This phrase alone felt like a slap in the face when I read it, as what happens when great poetry is read at an opportune time. Besides other choice lines of Werther painfully speaking the dilemmas of my personality [“I laugh at my own heart– and do what it wishes” (57) or “Does not the disorder which is consuming his energies at the same time rob him of the courage to free himself?” (31)], I find myself graciously seen by his take on nature. A line from the very beginning of the novel has given me great comfort: “Must we be eternally tinkering when we are to experience a natural phenomenon?” (10). Werther writes this in reference to having witnessed a scene that would “yield the most beautiful idyll in the world if it could be told accurately,” and I appreciate it for a couple of reasons. First, and most prominently, is how the line reminds that as creative people, or people who rely on creative output for their economic and mental survival, that not every experience and observation must be whittled down to a product. Some things can exist in real time and live on alone in memory, and this must not be met with guilt. Secondly, I feel this line hints that every person has probably witnessed something worthy of “the most beautiful idyll in the world,” which does not make each individual experience less meaningful, but rather emphasizes nature’s unyielding charm that can touch each person with such specific ferocity. Finally, the line calls attention to the relationship between the natural world, the act of immortalizing nature through writing, and how that writing provides solace to readers for years to come.
At times Werther also becomes completely consumed by the sheer beauty of his surroundings, causing him to feel a certain severity. He writes, “I am so happy, my dear friend, so completely absorbed by the feeling of peaceful existence, that my art is suffering. I couldn’t draw now, not a line, and yet I have never been a greater painter than I am in these moments.” He pairs this bliss with a violence on the following page, writing, “My friend- but this will destroy me, I am overwhelmed by the power of these glorious visions” (3). I constantly swoon at the parallels of nature’s delicacy and its intensity. In the Mary Oliver poem “Mindful,” she writes, “Every day/ I see or hear/ something/ that more or less/ kills me/ with delight,/ that leaves me/ like a needle/ in the haystack/ of light.” I think Werther would very much enjoy this poem, and feel the notion of being “killed with delight” to be a leading theme in his fictional little life, and perhaps one in mine as well. Something about the stillness of any scene in nature, even one interrupted by the dissonance of traffic lights and simulated pathways, contains a shocking serenity. I have returned to some of the same parkways and benches throughout my youth and found continual peace in the patches of grass contained by side streets. It is not ideal perhaps, but in our current world it is close enough, for even in man-made parks, the trees can still conjure a violent elation within me, and for this I am grateful.
Though I have come to terms with the similarities I may share with the Romantic poets, and celebrate certain virtues their work has emphasized in my life, I still cannot ignore the selfish aspect that also exists, both in the poetry and myself. In the Minutemen song “Maybe Partying Will Help,” written by the late great D. Boon, he sings, “As I look over this beautiful land, I can’t help but realize/ That I am alone/ Why am I able to waste my energy/ To notice life being so beautiful?” There is a privilege that comes with being able to spend many hours a week drifting about the world. I rationalize this privilege because it causes me to feel so much better about whatever relatively painless muck I find myself drowning in, but ultimately time is a currency that I am able to spend lavishly. Like Boon’s pondering of helpless excess, I too find myself with empty hours to dwell on loneliness or self-pity, or even the world’s beauty, which many do not have. I am all too conscious of how often I needlessly think of myself every day, and can only hope upon hope that the thoughts of myself can translate to others in some beneficial way, like the Romantic poets, and most of literature, has done for centuries before me. After all, the novel is called Young Werther, and I am still just Young Johanna, and I will continue to reach beyond myself with this aim.