Poetry & Physical Science: Becoming a Renaissance Man

During this semester, my last as an undergraduate at BYU, I’ve been furiously finishing up my Honors thesis, working towards writing a capstone English paper, and preparing for life after graduation. I’ve also been reading pages of physical science and attending Zoom lectures with a bunch of wide-eyed, mostly freshman, students. Although the lectures are somewhat interesting and my professor does a great job of making them fun, I often find myself wishing I was somewhere else. It feels like my time could be better spent doing something related to my major, law school applications, or finishing up my leadership tenure in one of BYU’s many clubs and organizations.

This train of thought embarrasses me as an Honors student, because I’m an advocate of interdisciplinary thinking. Some of my favorite courses at BYU have combined disciplines I love, such as literature and sociology, with ones I was more apprehensive of, such as geography and biology. When I first registered for physical science, I initially thought of using the lessons I learned as fodder for poetry, but that wasn’t meant to be. Instead, I’ve struggled through thinking how I can apply the laws of Newtonian Motion or the structure of an atom to my daily experiences or my future career as a lawyer.

During one of my rumination sessions, I thought back to my experience in comparative literature as a sophomore. During a lecture on Goethe’s Faust, our professor introduced the concept of the Renaissance Man. Originating in Italy, this term refers to someone who is knowledgeable about and successful in a number of different fields. The quintessential Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci, is known as much for his paintings, such as the Mona Lisa, and his work in the sciences, including his explorations in anatomy that led to his sketch of the Vitruvian Man.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I feel an almost spiritual duty to be a Renaissance Man. In D&C 88:79, we are taught to learn “Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—” [i]. Both these examples remind me of the great things humans can accomplish when we think outside the box of rigid academic disciplines. However, it sometimes feels like modern industrialization and specializations have made it impossible to be a Renaissance Man. I feel like the further I go in my education, the more I’m expected to pick just one lane and stay in it. 

I’ve spent hours curating my resume, social media pages, and LinkedIn profile to tell a certain narrative about myself, an accomplished English major with a love for poetry, and I’m scared to step out of that story and explore another facet of myself. Fortunately, thinking back to an Honors course I took a couple years ago helped me think through this predicament. In biology-letters, we explained the relationship between disease and literature, reading texts like Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. When we finally got to William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force,” I was surprised to learn that the poet famous for works like “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This is Just to Say” had a long and fruitful career as a physician. Before this class, I had only known him as a writer, but now I knew that he had an entirely different day job as well. 

This revelation shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. Before MFA’s and professorships became a popular career path for creative writers, they frequently sustained a variety of day jobs in order to sustain their writing. T.S. Eliot, for example, worked at a bank for many years; and even today, poets have multiple careers, including Thomas Lynch as an undertaker and Katherine Larson as a molecular biologist. In light of my future goals, I found it especially exciting to learn that the poet Lawrence Joseph has worked as a law professor in addition to his writing [ii].

Some of these writers engage aspects of their other careers in their literary work, using their day jobs as inspiration for themes or images. Others keep their lives rather separate. All of them prove to me that the ideal of the Renaissance Man isn’t dead like I had feared it was. Indeed, Joseph’s varied career brings me comfort as I approach graduation with the knowledge that I will be headed to law school in the fall. I had been feeling a little bit guilty for turning my back on the humanities by getting a law degree, but now I’m excited to use my experiences as an English major in my work as a lawyer, and my experiences as a lawyer as I continue to write poetry and indulge in my love of reading throughout the rest of my life. 

I’m sure that I’ll groan a little bit when I see the grade on my next physical science test, but I’ll also think about da Vinci and Williams and the type of person that I’m trying to be. Although I only have a limited number of hours in each day, acquiring knowledge doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Studying science won’t erase my knowledge of sonnets; in fact, it might make my descriptions of human emotions even stronger or my approach to legal problems more efficient. For me, the greatest gift of the humanities has been shaping how I see the world, and putting on another pair of glasses from time to time can only add more value to my life. 

This post was written by Alixa Brobbey, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow. 

[i] Doctrine and Covenants. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2013. 

[ii] Orr, David. “From Dissections To Depositions, Poets’ Second Jobs.” NPR, 19 Apr. 2013, www.npr.org/2013/04/29/177986761/from-dissections-to-depositions-poets-second-jobs 

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1 Comment

  1. Nick Mason says:

    What a terrific essay, Alixa. Eloquent, thoughtful, and inspiring.

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