This Week In My Classes: Regrouping

Waterhouse (Lady)We have had more storms since the last time I posted but happily no more storm days, so we are still on schedule … for now! (In fact, things are looking pretty nice–by January standards–for the rest of the week, especially considering that we’ve been having some days with wind chills in the -20 range.)

In 19th-Century Fiction, it did seem a bit rushed at the beginning of our classes on Austen because of the hour we’d lost, but by our last discussion of Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to me that we had done a good job with the novel. You never address every detail in class, of course: the goal has to be to develop a kind of interpretive map, with central cruxes and questions suggesting possible directions through the text. That way students can consider examples we didn’t explicitly talk about as parts of the patterns we’ve been considering and think for themselves about how they fit–or don’t!

new-austenI really did enjoy rereading the novel this time, especially the reliably hilarious as well as deliciously subversive final encounter between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine. One thing we spent a fair amount of time on in class is the way Austen manipulates us into liking or disliking characters, only, much of the time, to undercut or at least complicate our “first impressions” so that we realize we are vulnerable to the same interpretive mistakes as the characters. In this respect I think even Mr Collins gets a bit of a reprieve from our initial distaste. Not only is his offer to Lizzie actually quite honorable, despite also being laughable, considering he has no obligation to make up to the Bennet sisters for the future loss of their home, but at Hunsford we see that while he is still absurd, he treats Charlotte well and has made it possible for her to live a dignified life. I don’t think there’s any backtracking on Lady Catherine, though: she remains an antagonist to that bitterly delightful end:

“I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”

In her absolute consistency I think she shows both Austen’s brilliance and her limitations. Austen manages to keep Lady Catherine entertaining and provocative without ever making her three dimensional, but if you compare her characterization to, say, Mr. Bulstrode’s in Middlemarch, you realize how much more interesting it actually is to have your worst character be someone so fully developed that your judgment has to sit in awkward company with your understanding. The moral tests are much easier to pass in Pride and Prejudice.

beardsleyIn British Literature After 1800 we are still reading poetry and I am still struggling with “how to balance attention to context and content with attention to form,” as I put it in my last post. After a somewhat sputtering discussion on Friday–which was largely my fault, as I did way too much lecturing, partly as a wrongheaded reaction to my anxiety about how class discussions had been going!–I spent a lot of time on the weekend reading blog posts and articles about improving student discussions (such as this one) and decide that my best strategy given all the variables at play (class size and composition, the nature of the readings, the already established set of course requirements, etc.) was to provide more prompts to guide them during their reading outside of class. The result of this was that I spent several hours preparing study questions for each of this week’s little clusters of poems, starting with our “Victorian medievalism” cluster (Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Epic,” and “Morte d’Arthur”) on Monday. My hope was that the questions would bring them to the room better prepared to try out answers to my leading questions in class, rather than my simply hoping they would be able to generate ideas on the spot.

Lady (Waterhouse)This is hardly a radical strategy, including for me. I do often (and did this term) provide study questions for the novels in my 19th-Century Fiction classes, for example, to help students organize their observations as they read the long books–to know what, of all the many details flooding past them, to really pay attention to. But I also find it pretty easy to ask questions in 19th-Century Fiction that will get at least some answers, and usually lots of them, because we always have plot and character as starting points, from which we can level up to questions about form and theme. Maybe because I don’t teach poetry often, I underestimated the difference it makes to be working on, not just poetry, but poetry much of which is in a somewhat archaic diction. My impression (though I may be mistaken) is that many of the students are struggling with the literal meaning of the poems–their basic paraphraseable content. Perhaps, too, the variety in our reading list that keeps things interesting for me (and is to some extent necessitated by the survey format) is making things harder for them because each poet is so different and thus makes different demands on our attention as readers. With that in mind, in the study questions I came up with I tried to make the assigned poems more legible for them, combining questions about theme with prompts to consider form, and making some connections across the poems.

Arnold

So far, however, even with these questions provided to them in advance, I feel like I am struggling to find the right questions to raise in class that will launch a good conversation–the poetry equivalent of leading off a fiction class with “OK, so which characters do you like or dislike so far and why?” (which is a sure-fire way to get people talking, and almost equally sure to lead after a while to much more subtle and important questions). There are some people talking, which is great, and actually today, in our class on “Victorian Poetry of Faith and Doubt,” there was good participation about the general issue of what religion means to or provides for people in their everyday lives, and thus what people might feel they have lost or want to fight for when their faith is challenged. When it came time to see what our poets were saying or doing about that, though, it got much quieter again. I am not used to “Dover Beach” sparking so little (evident) interest! Well, all I can really do is keep trying different things–and hope that they are just quiet, not bored, confused, or (worst of all!) not actually doing the reading. If nobody can make the case for the Duchess’s innocence in Friday’s class on Browning, that will be a bad sign.

One of the poems we read for today is Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” which (atheist though I am) I always find extraordinarily beautiful and moving. I really liked the slide I made for it, so for no better reasons than that, here it is!

English 2002 Faith and Doubt (Winter 2020)

This Week In My Classes: P&P and Poems

new-austenWe are well into Pride and Prejudice in 19th-Century Fiction this week and I have to say that while my reservations about teaching a novel that is so intractably popular remain (and I have seen some of the same symptoms of dealing with a ‘fan favorite’ in class discussions as in the past), overall I think it’s going well. I am certainly enjoying the novel, and the energy in the classroom seems very good: participation is robust for so early in the course, which may of course be a side-effect of that same level of pre-existing comfort that sometimes makes the novel hard for students to approach critically.

I am continuing the effort I’ve been focused on in recent years to wean myself from my lecture notes, and that too is helped by my own familiarity with the novel and the questions I want us to gnaw on collectively. Looking at the fairly detailed notes I have used before, I see that the price (if that’s the right word) of loosening my grip is giving up the more careful “laying out of interpretations” that I used to do, which I always thought of as usefully modeling the construction of literary arguments and the use of literary evidence. Our more free-wheeling discussions–though never, I hope, simply unfocused or scattered–do not necessarily “add up” in the same elegant way that is possible if I’m really controlling the pace and flow of information. The benefit, however, is having the students generate more of the material and then see (as I do my best to organize and shape it on the fly) that they know how to proceed towards those kinds of conclusions themselves. The other thing I’m trying to remember to do is explain the process of our class time in a way that connects it to the process for their assignments–this is something that I realized some years ago that I was taking for granted but needed to make explicit. A key point about process I make over and over is that students often try (as I see it) to skip steps when they begin work on an essay assignment: often when they come to see me I realize that having chosen their topic, they think their next step is to come up with a thesis statement and then work back through the novel to figure out how to support it. As I point out, that’s backwards: a good thesis is much more likely to emerge from their rereading, thinking about, and doing some open-ended writing about the novel with their topic in mind. Their method accounts for why we so often see the best version of an argument in the conclusion, rather than the introduction, of student papers–because that’s the point at which they have actually worked through their ideas and examples closely enough to realize what they want to say. pride-and-prejudice-penguin

minor point of concern about how the popularity of Pride and Prejudice might affect the rest of the course is that in a show of hands yesterday it looked like nearly half of the students have decided to write their first essay on it (they get to choose among our first four novels for this assignment). That might be as much about wanting to get the essay done early, before they are busier with their other courses. Whatever the reason, though, it’s a much larger proportion of the class than usually does any one novel, never mind the first one of the term. I really hope it doesn’t mean they will be less engaged with our next books, especially Waverley. They will have to write short tests on all of them, which is one of the coercive elements I build into the course requirements in the interests of sustaining everyone’s attention. Of course, I always hope that our books and conversations will keep everyone’s attention because the novels are great and the discussions are interesting! But I’m not naive enough to think those intrinsic qualities will be enough to coax everyone along.

broadviewIn British Literature After 1800 we are skipping briskly through our small sample of Romantic poets. The rapid pace is at once the blessing and the curse of a survey course with a mandate to span more than 200 years of writing in multiple genres: we don’t spend long enough in any one place to go into a great deal of depth, which means we also don’t spend long enough on any one topic to get tired of it. I enjoy the variety myself, including the chance to talk about genres and examples that don’t come up in the courses I teach more often–such as Romantic poetry! In fact, because the introductory courses I’ve taught for the last several years have been either Introduction to Prose and Fiction or Pulp Fiction, I’ve spend hardly any time on poetry at all except for Close Reading, and the last time I taught that was Fall 2017. So I’m having fun, but also feeling a bit wobbly about how to balance attention to context and content with attention to form.williamwordsworth1

This problem wasn’t helped by last week’s snow storm, which cost us a class meeting. Because I didn’t want to cut back time on specific poets any more than the survey format already requires, I decided to sacrifice the class I’d set aside to talk about poetic form, including scansion. I’ve been trying to make up for this by integrating discussion of poetic form into our other classes, which of course I was going to do anyway but not starting from scratch. The students have a varying degree of experience with things like scansion: some of them are clearly at home with it, and with talking about poetic devices and forms, while others have looked bemused, frustrated, or completely blank when asked to think or talk about these aspects of our readings. Well, all we can do is keep moving along: I hope that with repetition and coaching from me and practice from them, we will all get more comfortable. For yesterday’s class I decided to do more of the talking myself than I had on Monday because on Monday it seemed to me a lot of them were still very uncertain about what it meant to discuss the relationship between form and meaning in poetry: it’s a bit harder (in my experience, anyway) to teach this through open-ended discussion with poetry than with fiction, where you always have the option of starting with “easy” things like plot and character as a way of opening up thematic and structural issues. I also point out that those of them who feel completely at sea need to put in some time: our readings so far have been quite short, which may be deceptive in terms of the amount of work it requires to read them well.

We’ve read some Wordsworth, some Shelley, and some Keats so far. Tomorrow we’re doing a small cluster of poems by Felicia Hemans and EBB on women and poetry, and then next week we’re on to the Victorians–some Tennyson, some Browning, and a cluster on faith and doubt including some Arnold and Hopkins and some excerpts from In Memoriam. Fun! I hope they think so too.

 

This Week In My Classes: The Radicalism of Aurora Leigh

aurora-leigh-oxfordIn my seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we started work last week on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 verse-novel Aurora Leigh. It’s usually kind of hard going for the students: although it does have many of the familiar features of a Victorian marriage plot novel, it also includes (among quite a bit of more miscellaneous material) long meditations on, and also arguments about, the nature and purpose of poetry in the modern world — and its 9 books of blank verse add up to a total of approximately 15,000 lines of iambic pentameter, which, let’s face it, is not the easiest reading even when the verse itself is thrilling … which, frankly, for long stretches Aurora Leigh is not.

And yet, having said that, there are plenty of things that are thrilling about Aurora Leigh. The challenge is just helping students to get excited about some of them before they’ve completely disengaged from the effort to tramp through EBB’s often ungainly poetry. One of them is the sheer bravado of the exercise itself: an epic poem, on the scale of Paradise Lost, but about the life of a nineteenth-century woman poet. This is probably the single most daring thing about Aurora Leigh, that it insists on, not just the importance, but the epic potential of contemporary female life, at a time when such a thing seemed both artistically and socially inconceivable. “The critics say that epics have died out,” says the eponymous narrator in a famous passage in Book 5; “I’ll not believe it,” and in particular she refuses to accept that her own age offers no heroic subjects suitable for epic treatment:elizabeth-barrett-browning_engraving

Nay, if there’s room for poets in the world
A little overgrown, (I think there is)
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,–this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles.

“Never flinch,” she advises the modern poet,

 But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon a burning lava of a song,
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
‘Behold,–behold the paps we all have sucked!
That bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating. This is living art,
Which thus presents, and thus records true life.’

The whole poem is an extraordinary appropriation of epic conventions in the pursuit of revising gender conventions — and, as that excerpt shows, it does have some moments of great poetic vigor.

EBB works out her theory of poetry in other fascinating and sometimes exhilarating ways across the course of the poem — I get particularly excitable about the sections of Book VII in which Aurora begins to draw connections between her initially very high-minded idealism and the more material kinds of social reform which the poem also advocates but she at first disdains:

                                            Thus is Art
Self-magnified in magnifying a truth
Which, fully recognized, would change the world
And shift its morals. If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist’s ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working-day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyphic of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man,–
Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns
Make offal of their daughters for its use…

But usually, and understandably, Aurora’s (and EBB’s) developing theory of poetic double-vision is less engaging to students than Aurora’s resistance to the traditional marriage plot. (The two aspects of the poem, as I hope they realize by the end, are of course connected.) It is very common for the first proposal in a 19th-century novel to be rejected, but Aurora’s reasons are not common — and neither is the explicitness with which she lays them out to her hapless suitor. He appeals to her to give up her idle fantasy (as he sees it) of writing poetry and (St. John Rivers-style) join him in his work of social reform. “Men and women make / The world,” he says earnestly, “as head and heart make human life”;

                                  ‘Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and chaste wives.
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,–and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.’

For its time, it’s a perfectly conventional vision of the sexes and their separate spheres, but Aurora is having none of it:the-tryst

With quiet indignation I broke in.
‘You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement
Of his sex merely. You forget too much
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death.’

She insists, that is, on her autonomy, on her right to an independent identity defined not by her relationship to any man but by her own choices and actions: “I too have my vocation–work to do” she tells him defiantly, “Most serious work, most necessary work / As any of the economists.'” And (having also rejected his attempt to give her financial support for this “necessary work”) off she goes to London, to live as a single woman supporting herself by her writing.

As if that’s not radical enough, Aurora Leigh also unabashedly takes on the plight of ‘fallen women’ and the sexual double standard that shames an unwed mother while shrugging off men’s culpability. “God knows me, trusts me with the child; but you,” exclaims the “murdered” Marian Erle, “You think me really wicked?” It is hard to grasp today how boldly EBB defied propriety with this plot line, something she has Marian herself call attention to, along with the hypocrisy that propriety relied on:

‘Enough so!–it is plain enough so. True,
We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong,
Without offence to decent happy folk.
I know that we must scrupulously hint
With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing
Which no one scrupled we should feel in full.’

She not only tells Marian’s story, but insists on Marian’s untainted purity, again, in defiance of Victorian norms. Something I expect we’ll talk about is why she does this — what strategic and political purpose it serves — but also what the limits are of this approach to the fallen woman.

ebbgordigiani1That Aurora Leigh has not lost its radicalism — that we are still fighting on some of the same fronts — was made unexpectedly clear to me this past weekend, as with so many others I watched the story of Donald Trump’s now-infamous bus tape break, and then one pontificating man after another denounce it in the name of his daughters (or his wife or his great aunt or whatever). For some men — too many men — women are still seen primarily as complementary, their value uncomfortably entangled with ownership (all those possessive pronouns!), their right to respect and dignity somehow contingent on their belonging to someone else (someone else male, of course). My tweet quoting that excerpt of the poem got liked and retweeted more than any other tweet of mine that I can remember. Emphasizing the arguments of the poem, though, as I have also done here, while wholly consonant with some of EBB’s aims, is not meant to reduce her achievement to a social or political one, one with purely ideological value. This genre-bending work also offers what, to me at least, are some really wonderful poetic moments. Appropriately, as the love story and the aesthetic theory reach their convergent culminations in the final volume, it’s there that the verse itself rises to its most ecstatic heights:

But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,–
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason’s self
Enlarges rapture,–as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!

For once, our Victorian heroine (like her author) ends her story without compromise — and with poetry too.

To Robert Graves: Thank You For All That!

There’s one way in which Robert Graves is important to me that has nothing to do with Goodbye to All That or any of the other significant contributions he made to literary history, and that’s his role in turning me from a history major into an English major–and thus steering me down the whole professional road I have since followed. I told most of this story once before, in a post I wrote appreciating the important teachers in my life. I had always been a passionate reader but a skeptic about the idea of literary criticism (anyone can read, right? so what is there to study?). History, on the other hand, was about something measurable. But things changed, ultimately in my view of history and the degree to which it too is literary, but first in my attitude towards literary criticism:

one day we had read a poem I really liked (it was Robert Graves’s “The Cool Web“) and I finally put my hand up and ventured some replies to his questions about Graves’s language and how particular words fit the central ideas of the poem. He seemed pleased! My answers were good! I knew what he was talking about! Things started to fall into place. He wasn’t making things up, because I could see them there too, in the poem, and thinking about how the details of form and language built up the whole piece made the poem better, more pleasurable, more exciting to read. It was like something coming into focus, something I (as someone who had always loved to read both fiction and poetry) had always seen, but had never really looked at.

I began contributing more often to class discussion (though I never became particularly voluble as a student–despite being, um, chatty in real life, I always felt both shy and nervous about speaking up), and more significantly I became absorbed by the process of literary analysis and interpretation. My first-year experience motivated me to enter the 2nd-year English pre-Honours program U.B.C. then offered, and in a little twist of fate, the sight poem I was given for my oral exam in it was “The Cool Web.” I felt almost like I was cheating because I knew the poem so well! The exam went well (don’t worry, there was more on it that “The Cool Web,” so it’s not like I coasted completely!) and the next year I started my combined Honours program in English and History, a combination of interests that sustained me through an Honours thesis on Carlyle’s The French Revolution and Middlemarch as ‘novels’ and ‘histories,’ then a Ph.D. thesis on gender and genre in Victorian historical writing…and on to the emphasis I still put on historical contexts and historiographical interests in the texts I teach. (From my fall course evaluations: “Too much history for an English class.” Huh.) I didn’t much like the Graves I met in his autobiography, and I don’t know much about the man himself beyond that, but I will always be glad I happened upon him in that form at that moment. “Who can tell what may be the effects of writing?” George Eliot asks in Middlemarch–and it is amazing, really, to reflect on the difference one poem made in my life.

“The Cool Web” was the poem I chose for today’s Close Reading tutorials, where we are preparing for an annotation assignment due next week. I still find it a wonderfully stimulating (and teachable) poem:  complex and artful enough to be interesting, direct enough to be accessible, and surprisingly moving.

The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky, and the drums,
We shall go mad, no doubt, and die that way.

This Week in My Classes: Poems and Prelates

And we’re underway! It’s still a bit chaotic (cue rant about Pet Peeve #47, the long class add-drop period, which sends students the message that they can join a 12-week course 2 weeks in and expect not to be behind) but most of the students seem to have made it back from the break (PP #53, why don’t they just come back for the first day of term?) and even if they haven’t, it seems reasonable to start acting as if they have, including holding them accountable for catching up to us. Though this makes me sound cranky, I’m actually feeling pretty perky today, mostly because I enjoy being back in the classroom and I’m pretty keen about the material we’re working on in both of my classes.

In Close Reading, we’re working through some basic elements of poetic analysis: last week, we talked about diction; today, I reviewed major types of figurative language; and Wednesday and Friday we’ll focus on scansion. In theory, this is review for most students, but in practice, especially since we have muddied diluted diversified our core curriculum and program requirements so much, there’s no guarantee they will have spent time on it. And if they have, there’s no guarantee, of course, that they will have retained, much less mastered, it. So I really do focus on the basics. The immediate goal is to grasp what the elements are–to be able to recognize and name them. But this in itself is not much of an objective, and especially because this is an upper-level course, I try hard to emphasize that the real goal is to be able to talk better about poetry, to be able to recognize what’s going on in a poem when we read it, to be as precise as we can about its effects. In the handout I prepared for them, I quoted this excerpt from a good book called Poetic Designs:

No one reads the rules for the game of … hockey for pleasure; yet no one can possibly understand the game without knowing the meaning of ‘icing the puck’ or ‘offside.’  Without this understanding, the game is a meaningless blur.  Only with it does the game begin to ‘make sense.’  But prosody, like the rules of hockey, is not simply a body of information that one learns and then ‘applies.’  The truly informed fan sees the offside happen before the whistle blows, experiences it in the stir of action.  In poetry as in sport, the observer’s eyes—and ears—must be educated to this same point of instinctive understanding.

Yes, I had some hope that the hockey analogy would appeal to a room full of Canadian 20-somethings! But the same principle applies to, say, quilting: if you know what the norms and standards and challenges are, you can appreciate “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” when you see it, not just at an analytic level, but “in the stir of action.” If you don’t know much about it, you might like it just fine, and you might have a strong personal response to it, but you couldn’t appreciate it in the same way you could if you had that “instinctive understanding” that combines knowledge and excitement, insight and affect. One of our first readings was Frost’s “Design,” for instance. It’s a deceptively simple poem; it adds to my appreciation of its deceptive simplicity that I see how regular the first line is–that sing-song rhythm leads us along as if into a harmless nursery rhyme–and then find my poetic innocence betrayed by the irregularities that follow. I’m not a hard-core poetry expert, and I sometimes think that helps in this particular class: we’re not going after the most obscure or complex levels of analysis, just practicing how to develop and support our reading. We’re trying to understand how we know what we think we know about our readings, as well as why they have the effects and meanings they do.

In 19th-Century Fiction, today was our first day on Barchester Towers. I took pretty much the whole time myself, with some introductory framing comments about Trollope and his aesthetic, and then an explanation of the basic hierarchy and social significance of the Church of England in the mid-Victorian period. About Trollope, I noted the ways his rather literal novels resist ideas about what is literary, being neither difficult nor particularly poetic. He was never really the go-to novelist for the fancier kinds of literary theory, not yielding as well to symbolic, psychoanalytic, or deconstructive approaches. But he has proved amenable particularly to ethical criticism (as with Ruth ap Roberts’s nicely titled The Moral Trollope). I talked about his interest in institutions, not just the church in the Barsetshire novels but the law and government in the Palliser series, and about his exploration of the interaction between institutions–which have their own abstract logic and their larger missions and priorities–and the individuals who actually constitute those institutions. That’s the point at which some explanation of the Church of England becomes essential, from the general, such as the extent to which it is always already a political institution (not to mention a social and educational one), to the particular–such as what it means for the position of Warden to be ‘in the Bishop’s gift’ or why the impending change of government matters so much to the novel’s very opening question, who will be the new Bishop of Barchester? I always feel a bit bad when I talk so much, but then, it’s pretty hard to navigate intelligently in Barchester Towers without knowing something about these matters. Once you get the idea, you can be “in the stir of action” as you read it. Next time we will get into the novel itself, and into class discussion, starting (as you always must and should, in Trollope) with people: we’ll talk about Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Slope, and Mr Harding to start with, I think, sorting out what they stand for and what the larger implications are of the antagonisms among them.

I really hope that the students are finding Barchester Towers amusing. How could they not? There’s the brilliant comedy of Mrs Proudie’s reception, for instance, at which Signora Neroni’s sofa strips the Bishop’s haughtily arrogant wife of her finery, and there’s the constant entertainment of Trollope’s narrator, who really comes into his own here, after warming up so charmingly with The Warden: “And now, had I the pen of a mighty poet, would I sing in epic verse the noble wrath of the archdeacon.” Good heavens!

This Week in My Classes (January 6, 2009)

That’s right, another term has begun. Blogging about teaching has become yet another reminder for me of how cyclical academic work is: to everything there is, indeed, a season. As my years in this job add up, I am increasingly self-conscious about the potential the work has for becoming repetitive (if it’s the second week of January, it must be The Moonstone…). At the same time, I am also increasingly appreciative of the on-again, off-again rhythm, the three-month bursts of intense concentration, barely-controlled chaos, and incessant demands and deadlines, followed by an interval of relative calm–still full of work, but without the same feeling that you are just grasping at the next thing in a never-ending chain. Sometimes, in between terms, you don’t even do much real work on evenings and weekends!

Here’s what’s up this term. Once again, by popular demand (and to help meet my ‘quota’ for what our higher-ups tactlessly call “bums-in-seats”), I’m teaching Mystery and Detective Fiction. Some of you will remember the convolutions I went through trying to revamp the reading list for this course. I undertook that re-thinking process a bit belatedly, as I had already ordered most of my books for this term; I am using a new anthology, the Longman Anthology of Mystery and Detective Fiction instead of the Oxford Book of Detective Stories, which means a different selection of short texts, and I have added Auster’s City of Glass. But otherwise the major landmarks of the course are the same as last winter’s version. Next year, however…. One text I’m sure I won’t change is, actually, The Moonstone. It’s just so much fun; I’m not sure I’ll ever be sorry to wake up on a Monday morning in January and realize it’s Gabriel Betteredge Day. We haven’t done much yet this term. Tomorrow’s “Big Intro Lecture” day. I just hope more of the students have actually bothered to get back in town.

My other class is a new one for me, an upper-level seminar on “Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt.” Back when we still offered a lot of full-year courses, I sometimes taught a Victorian literature survey, and it included a “crisis of faith” unit (along with the “Woman Question” unit that became the basis of another special topics seminar I have now offered several times). I thought I’d like to get back to some of the prose and poetry I don’t otherwise get to teach much, and religion is not only the quintessential 19th-century topic but also a topic of some personal interest to me; this new seminar is the result. I would not feel competent to offer a graduate level course on this material, but I’ve been brushing up on key texts and contexts and I think (I hope!) I’m going to be OK for my purposes this term. I’ve got my intro lecture on “varieties of 19th-century faith and doubt” ready to go. We haven’t done much but organizing so far, but one comment in yesterday’s class meeting did take me by surprise–maybe unreasonably, I don’t know. The students were signing up for seminar presentations and I remarked that they seemed to be avoiding Hopkins. “It’s because we’ve never heard of him,” one of them said. Never heard of Hopkins? Am I crazy to find this startling in a room full of 4th-year English Honours and Majors students? I’ve been trying to remember when I first came across Hopkins and what my first reading would have been. I’m thinking it was “God’s Grandeur” in my second-year Chaucer-t0-Yeats survey class, or maybe (since I was the kind of person who read around) I just encountered him while reading on my own. I always teach something by Hopkins when I’m doing a poetry class or a class with a poetry unit; I’m pretty sure that when I taught Close Reading (still my most challenging and rewarding pedagogical assignment) we did at least “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover” every year. It’s hard to think of poetry that better illustrates both the rewards and the limits of close reading! Dear readers, do you read–have you read–any Hopkins? How obscure is he these days?

To close, then, because I’m in a poetry frame of mind, here’s a study in contrasts from my ‘faith and doubt’ syllabus: my favourite section of In Memoriam (Tennyson, often belittled for his “pretty” language, shows he can be stark and restrained with the best of them) and a dose of Hopkins (ah! the ecstasy of that last moment). Go ahead: scan them both. You know you want to.

from In Memoriam A.H.H.

VII.

Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more —
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge & shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.