The Power of the Pen

In the early morning light on this island in the tropics, I drink my coffee outside on the lanai, as it is called here. The trade winds had moved on and the canal along the building where I live is calm. Dover Beach drifts into my mind.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Two stanzas later it concludes:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

And then I am reminded of a section in Ian McEwan’s Saturday where Dover Beach came to the rescue, indeed, saved the lives of Henry Perowne and his family. Perowne, a well-established London neurosurgeon, returns home after a harrowing Saturday in 2003 as America is about to launch its second war in Iraq. On the way to his early morning squash match, he is involved in a minor automobile collision with a criminal that Perowne immediately recognizes has an irreversible brain disease.

Later that day, the criminal returns to Perowne’s elegant home to take revenge on him and those who have gathered to welcome the return of his daughter, Daisy. Baxter, the criminal, is holding a knife to Perowne’s wife, Rosalind, and asks Daisy, whom he has told to strip, to read from her newly published book of poems. She is terrified, doesn’t know if she can begin or what to read, and looks to her poet grandfather, Grammaticus, for a hint. He senses her dilemma and tells her to read one that she used to recite for him. Daisy catches the hint at once and begins reciting Dover Beach.

Baxter is transfixed by the beauty of the poem. “You wrote that. You wrote that,” he says in amazement. He asks her to read it again. When she is done reciting, Baxter’s mood changes suddenly. He is thoroughly disarmed, overcome, as McEwan writes, by “a yearning he could barely begin to define.” He removes the knife from Rosalind’s neck, puts it back in his pocket, and tells his sidekick he has changed his mind; the tension is broken, the threat is over, and the eventual overpowering of Baxter can begin.

Here, in the extreme is the power of literature. In fact, it saved the life of Perowne and his family. The experience is not only the stuff of fiction. While not exactly a work of literature, reading from a book called The Purpose-Driven Life played a central role in saving the life of Ashley Smith, who was a year or so ago held hostage for hours in her suburban apartment near Atlanta by Brian Nicholas, on the run after killing two people during his escape from a courthouse trial for an earlier murder.

Smith claims that reading and speaking with Nicholas about the book gave her a chance to simply talk with him and begin the process of gaining his trust so that he would allow her to leave the apartment to see her daughter. Once out of the apartment, she called 911; Nicholas was captured moments later. Who knows what might have happened had she not been able to read sections of the book to Nicholas?