Wednesday, March 17th, 2004
The recent Brit Lit exams are evaluated. One of the issues that makes reading exams interesting is to note how students answer questions and what those answers tell me about study habits, note-taking skills, what gets heard, and what needs emphasis in discussion.
As a lit teacher I don’t think that reading poetry for its own sake, unless one likes to read poetry, which I do, benefits “students.” If one one wants to reader Blake by the swimming pool then there’s no need to read Blake for the same reason at school. If a person wants to write poetry, then work in Creative Writing might benefit. For me studying literature serves a purpose: to practice a kind of reasoning and analysis that leads to questions and providing a mean of seeing culture and life in other ways and drawing conclusions about it that may lead to more questions and arguments.
Culture to culture, time to time, people have defined virtuous behavior in various ways. These days we frown on plagiarism, which is a kind of stealing. When plagiarism is caught, we seek a just remedy or punishment. The question is why do we frown on plagiarism, and what makes it what it is? Is student plagiarism different than college president plagiarism?
Here’s one of the short answer questions from the exam going to Barbauld’s “Meditation.”
Contemplation comes from what source in Anna Letitia Barbauld? This source is a potential metaphor for what?”
Contemplation is personified in the poem and thus its position is pretty objective:
‘Tis now the hour
When Contemplation, from her sunless haunts,
The cool damp grotto, or the lonely depth
Of unpierc’d woods, where wrapt in solid shade
She mused away the gaudy hours of noon,
And fed on thoughts unripen’d by the sun,
Moves forward; and with radiant finger points
To yon blue concave swell’d by breath divine,
Where, one by one, the living eyes of heaven
Awake. . .
Contemplation “moves forward” from “haunts,” “the grotto,” the “woods.” These places are given qualities, such as “sunless,” “cool” and “damp,” “unpierc’d.” What was Contemplation doing? Musing, of course. I suppose that’s what Contemplation does if shaped into fleshed concept. I doubt Contemplation would be found playing pool or craps during the day.
To say that Contemplation comes from nature is a vague response since nature has no quality or image value, no specific “place” to define origin. Barbauld, it would seem, really wants the reader to follow the movement, to experience the idea of Contemplation moving once the sun goes down. She wants us to read with precision.
But that’s not even the fun part. In the poem the world and mind is spaced into day and night, light (logic/reason) and lightlessness (musing and wandering thought, thought “unripen’d” by reason or hard logic, deep in the nocturnal mind where things like intuition, creativity, and inspiration may hang around playing unrestrained by the touch of light or restraining influences). Contemplation comes from the “unpierc’d woods,” places untouched by the light, and goes on in the poem to soar just as you’d think it would, as far as it wants until it hits the edge of known space, and can go no further. There are limits even to Contemplation, it would seem.
Barbauld’s a great lead into Blake, Wordsworth, and Wollstonecraft and her play with poetic space is intersting. Moreover, she hints at an internal mental process, not relying on an “external muse” or “cause” as the source for Contemplation, creative expression, inspiration, and musing.
Neuroscience is wrestling with this question, too. What is the physical source of the creative impulse in terms of brain activity.