Category Archives: English literature

Shakespeare and Masks

Yesterdays Shakespeare Uncovered on Richard the II gave me new insight into how to approach Shakespeare in the future. I’m a fan of Derek Jacobi and of the history plays, not so much of plays like MacBeth or Hamlet. What got me, however, was a video cut of Thatcher about to enter her car after the Heseltine issue and the look on her face, an image that follows a theme of Richard II. It’s not necessarily about the loss of power but the appearance of oneself into a new space minus it–when the self is stripped of its props or of what gave it shape and proportion. Looking forward to next week.

The Free Bible Plan

I like the idea of the free bible plan. Indeed, people’s lack of knowledge about religion is a real hindrance to my teaching in British Literature. Historical and cultural literacy is just as important as science and numerical knowing. Whether people “believe” is not an issue. That should be left to someone’s place of worship or la famalia.

The issue should be about free and open inquiry into all rationale ideas, not just those the school board thinks are salient.

On Enjambment and Other Horrors

My students are having horrible troubles with the notion of enjambment. Well, not really, but they think they are. It’s important for students of writing to understand the techniques of any given form not so much for the use of those techniques but to understand how meaning is made possible and how language can be shaped. Most technique is transparent. In film, editing techniques are often meant not to be noticed.

Here’s a section of Anna Barbauld’s The Epiphany

Deep in Sabea’s fragrant groves retired,
Long had the Eastern Sages studious dwelt,
By love sublime of sacred science fired:
Long had they trained the’ inquiring youth,
With liberal hand the bread of wisdom dealt,
And sung in solemn verse mysterious truth.

That first line is significant. It provides us language about place, which is a typical routine of the phrase. It provides context. But I doubt the poet is offering that first line as a complete unit of meaning, hence we can say the line is part of an enjambed unit. The punctuation doesn’t matter. The reader is meant to follow the next several lines to the noun and verb: sages and dwelt. Of course, it’s important that the sages have had a lot of time invested in Sabea’s groves. They’ve been in there a long time, which is suggested by the words “deep” and “retired” in line 1.

Enjambment as a poetic technique can be interpreted in many ways because of the way poetic lines can be conceived. If cummings could write “i thank You God for most this amazing / day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees” we have to be able to infer that he worried about the meaning of the line break and avoided placing the word “day” beside “amazing.” The metrical unit doesn’t need to matter, nor does the foot pattern, as in disyllabic (iamb) or trisyllabic (anapest). But it can matter, also, depending on the sense of lines, as in Barbauld’s poem above. In the cummings example, the speaker says “i thank you God . . . ” This, of course, is a clause, but it isn’t the unit of meaning of significance in the sense of a poetic line, though it might be fine as a church utterance. If the significant unit of meaning crosses lines, then we have enjambed examples.

In the history of poetry, the identification of the technique, calling it by name as a technique, might not really matter but then again it might, as techniques need abstraction. It depends on language, too. One of the things I don’t talk about in English Literature course are things like the greek ictus, which is the first beat or first syllable of a metrical foot. In the classic dactylic hexameter, which can be difficult to understand, because metrical types can be interchanged ( a spondee for a trochee–I think I’m recalling that right), the ictus is incredibly important. I would also suggest that the phenomenon is important to cummings and other poets who care about entering lines with something sharp and progressive (which I’m finding significant in music, but in the way of lines) but also as a means of distinguishing lines and making images with them.

When Frost writes in Mending Wall “The work of hunters is another thing:” he’s using critical method to control what the reader does with the lines that came before.

Did the Green Girdle Save Gawain’s Life?

Bill Benzon at The Valve sets up an interesting “quest” about Sir Gawain.

In this I don’t think we can forget the question of “youth.” Can it ascertain the “true” threat?

Part of the point or the answer has to do with what Gawain believes to be true at a given time. Gawain, good knight as that he is, doesn’t trust the girdle. What if he had?

Reading Milton

I get tough questions this semester, which is excellent and refreshing. I run off to find an answer or a solution, but when I figure it I can only give back a hint:

. . . if no better place,
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wrongd.

Here’s one of those areas where line breaks get in the way and where meter is beating sense, and also nonstandard orthography.

Thank, in other words, God for this, not me. Satan is beginning to rationalize.

Why? We can read “me not” as the end of the clause and put commas between “loath to this revenge” so the sentence would read “Thank Him who made me what I am for assailing you, who never did anything to me, sure, but it was Him who wronged.”

The Silva Rerum, the Weblog, and the Journal

In many of my courses, I have students keep journals where they log their reading and keep notes. Looking back at my description of the journal reminds me of the ancient practice of commonplacing. Weblogs, Tinderbox, and other tools are methods of commonplacing, which plays a role, I would have to say, in the history of hypertext, hypertextuality, and the concept of the memex, since readers, such as Locke or Milton would read, reread, and recall and collect ideas based the numerous works they might have been reading at any given time.

The “silva rerum” refers to a forest of things. The commonplace book has been referred to as a reflective journal, where, in practice, sections of work would be written down by the reader and commented on in a notebook, now, of course, in a weblog or a note tool.

In the first dialogue exchange between Satan and Beelzebub in Paradise Lost, we have Milton employing dramatic language, either self-directed or to his comrade. It goes like this:

If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light
Cloth’d with transcendent brightnes didst outshine
Myriads though bright: If he whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope,
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fal’n, so much the stronger provd
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? (84-94)

The first words uttered are significant because they expose the magnitude of change that has occurred after the war in heaven. Just those few lines, spoken slowly, and in amazement (to suggest the kind of utterance it actually is) are key to the relationship the reader may have with Paradise Lost. “If thou beest he; But O how fall’n” can be read in all kinds of interesting ways, numerous affects, speeds, and expressivity, given the readers take on the situation.

This would be a commonplace entry, involving reflections on the theme of reading, drama, and performance. Typically of the commonplace is its organization. It’s not just meant to collect thoughts, but those thoughts are meant to be found, revised, and rethought. Why collect otherwise; why should we write notes at all unless those notes serve some larger purpose?

Oppositions are important to Milton, to religion, and to polemic. Hell, for example, as place, state, and staging ground will rear back at the end of the text after Adam and Eve are removed from the place, state, and staging ground of Paradise. For Satan, hell is both a place to fall into, physically, sensually, and a state of mind or frame of reference. Satan will not repent. He says:

. . . Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. (249-254)

Satan possess hell and refers to the mind as a “place,” habitable, motile: the state argument.

On his decent to Paradise, Satan observes the beauty he will never have back, this in Book 3. The idea of hell as mind follows the action. Thought follows Satan and all the torture that can bring with it:

Satan from hence now on the lower stair
That scal’d by steps of Gold to Heav’n Gate
Looks down with wonder at the sudden view
Of all this World at once. As when a Scout
Through dark and desart wayes with peril gone
All night; at last by break of chearful dawne
Obtains the brow of some high-climbing Hill,
Which to his eye discovers unaware
The goodly prospect of some forein land
First-seen, or some renownd Metropolis
With glistering Spires and Pinnacles adornd,
Which now the Rising Sun guilds with his beams. (3.540-51)

Satan’s wonder is like a scouts, who, tapping a hill sees a new landscape. This passage, much like the expression to Beelzebub, recalls that sense of observed change and surprise.
In Book 4 we read doubt in Satan and identify the surfacing of regret:

Yet not rejoycing in his speed, though bold,
Far off and fearless, nor with cause to boast,
Begins his dire attempt, which nigh the birth
Now rowling, boiles in his tumultuous brest,
And like a devillish Engine back recoiles
Upon himself; horror and doubt distract
His troubl’d thoughts, and from the bottom stirr
The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more then from himself can fly
By change of place: Now conscience wakes despair
That slumberd, wakes the bitter memorie
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue. (4.13-26)

The commonplace observation should reveal the structures of the work. This last passage closes the state argument, at least for now and in this section. “The Hell within him” is an echo of “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Satan carries “himself” with him no matter the place.

On Deity and Tradition

From JJ Cohen:

The giants are an ancient, vanished race whose fossilized remains are not mysterious bones or odd topography, but the lingering worship of their iniquity. The references to constructing idols and deifying the sun and moon which follow make it clear that Ælfric has both biblical and classical deities in mind. By describing the genesis of the false, mortal divinities of the Greeks and Romans (along with those of the Babylonians, Canaanites and wayward Israelites), Ælfric is repeating a connection frequently made in Old English literature between the opprobrious giants of Christian tradition and the gods of classical mythology.

On Time

In a comment thread, JJ Cohen of In the Middle writes:

Massive projects require the leap beyond the horizon of your own death. They have to be a message to someone who comes after, and very often to someone who comes LONG after. That person isn’t “us” — as you say, how could the builders have wanted that? But if we can at least grant that the architects of old possessed a decent set of wits, they knew from experience that the present isn’t eternal, that the horizon of the future is uncertain … and can’t we imagine, without too much of a leap of faith, that a project like Stonehenge is sent into that future in part to stabilize it, but in part also to keep an ever-receding present alive, even beyond the demise of those who inhabited it?

I’d also want to emphasize what is truly remarkable about a building project that takes several human life spans to complete: it cannot be an ad hoc, day by day labor, but takes planning that exceeds human time and mortal duration. That fact has vast significance when thinking about these architectures, especially in their design for long endurance. It tells us nothing about specific intent, I suppose — i.e., it won’t let us know whether Stonehenge was a fertility shrine or a ceremonial ground or whatever — but it will remind us that such architectures that from their start have inhabited a future more than a present reveal an ancient and enduring human desire.

This comes as a response to this question:

. . . Sylvia Huot asked a question that goes to the heart of the kind of thinking we attempt here at ITM: how to intertwine meditation upon past and future while retaining some confidence that we are doing justice to history?

I would ask this question because it goes directly to Professor Cohen’s mention of building projects in the context of mortality: do we know enough about the Stonehenge builders’ notion of time as both concrete duration and abstract companion. How did they, for example, express “immediacy” or “now” and “later”?

In our own world, time is a thing to watch closely, classify, and beat. Time is a ubiquity as a technological construct: it’s staring at me from the computer now as a personified bot of the interior mechanism. The processor is clocked and so is the heart and DVD drive. Time and death are related: we do call them “deadlines” after all.

The notion of mortality in the west is heavily shaped by conceptualizations of technological futures, generational landscapes and forecasts, and by religion. How heavily do these influence our inferences about the Stonehenge builders?