Ode to Serendipity

Even the best lines can't guarantee you'll get the girl.

November/December 2014

Reading time min

Ode to Serendipity

Illustration: Raúl Colón

WHEN I WAS IN 10TH GRADE, I fell in love with the Romantic poets. While my classmates at Palisades High groaned at assignments to memorize the readings for Miss O'Brien's honors English class, I relished the opportunity to crack open the anthology and recite the words of those lyrical geniuses, until lines like Wordsworth's "The world is too much with us" became grooved into my mind.

When the Girls League announced an upcoming dance, I tried to put my passion for poetry to practical use. "Betty," I began, after cornering the petite brunette in the hallway, "I'd really like you to be my date this Friday, because, after all, 'the world is too much with us, late and soon . . . getting and spending. . . .' "

By the time I made it to the third verse, Betty was already long gone. Mistakenly, I concluded that I needed to choose a more compelling poem to win a girl's heart. Enter Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." Even by today's standards, it stands out as the work of an experienced pickup artist. The poet insists he would spend 200 years "adoring" each of his beloved's breasts; time, however, is running out—and he wouldn't want to consummate their relationship in a marble vault.

Armed with that one, I waited for 11th-grade homecoming to cast my spell on an AP chemistry classmate. Finding her at the bus stop clutching a stack of textbooks, I announced that I had something to say to her. When she looked up, I launched into "Coy Mistress." Our school bus, spewing diesel fumes, mercifully chortled to a stop before I could get to the juicy parts.

Stanford proved more fruitful for my dating life, mainly because my Madera dormmates went en masse to keggers and football games. I learned to dance and make small talk, although my nerdy side emerged at the mention of Cold War politics. Inspired by classics professor Antony Raubitschek's musings on Odysseus, I set out to memorize Tennyson's "Ulysses"—without any romantic aspiration.

Still, I held out hope for Byron's "She Walks in Beauty." On a day trip with a lovely friend to sunlit Pescadero Beach, I gave it a shot as we strolled across the wet sand. Her mouth curled into an odd smile, but she did not run away.

"Why do you memorize those poems?" she asked, as we drove back to Palo Alto.

"I don't know," I lied, afraid to share my original intent. We rode back quietly as a fog fell over the Coastal Range, and we kissed goodbye at her dorm. After that day, I gently closed the door on my years of reciting someone else's lines in an attempt to capture a woman's heart.

After graduation, I found myself humming passages from Yeats and Thomas as I tackled the mountains around Los Angeles, or trekked to the summits of Mount Whitney and Telescope Peak. On those adventures, the poets became my steady companions.

One autumn morning years later, I stopped in a snowy Cascade forest and summoned Robert Frost. "The woods are lovely, dark and deep," I whispered. These poems were my better friends, I mused, and they had served me well in moments of both hope and despair. I had been wrong ever to have thought they would win over intended lovers, but that misguided notion had enticed me to build a bottomless treasure chest of indelible words. 

Alex Alben, '80, JD '84, lives in Seattle.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.