Category Archives: literary understanding

“She became impregnated with the Trojan War.”

For sheer compression of information, this student ought to win some kind of prize.

He’s writing about Yeats’ great sonnet “Leda and the Swan.” And he’s got the gist, or at least the gist of the central action, the point of Yeats’ meditation.

The poem is such a wonderful thing, it deserves quoting here:

    A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
    Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
    By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
    He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

    How can those terrified vague fingers push
    The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
    And how can body, laid in that white rush,
    But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

    A shudder in the loins engenders there
    The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
    And Agamemnon dead.
                        Being so caught up,
    So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
    Did she put on his knowledge with his power
    Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

That broken eleventh line, in a poem about a rape, a poem about a fusion of consciousness and a rift or shift in history, is breathtaking. And it’s that line, really, that my student is trying to explain. Leda, herself a “broken wall” by the act of rape, is also the means of engendering the Trojan War.

You know the story. Zeus is cruising along, randy as usual, ogling the nymphs and ordinary maidens of the earth. The old shape-shifter spots Leda and considers what form to take this time. Eagle? White bull? Someone’s husband? (When he tried “mortal man” with Semele, he did beget Dionysus; but then she asked him to appear in his own form—a bolt of lightning, more or less—and as one of my students had it, “she made love with him and crisped away.”) Artemis? Shower of gold? Aha, got it! Swan! And down he goes. Myths conflict about the issue of this union: was it just a girl named Helen? Helen and the twins Castor and Pollux? Helen and Clytemnestra? Yeats is clearly referring to Helen, and probably also to Clytemnestra. (Most traditions have it that the child or children hatched from eggs; do with that what you will. Not important to Yeats.)

So my student is exactly right, and this is the “knowledge” Yeats wonders about: did Leda realize in the moment of rape that the child thereby conceived would grow up to be Helen of Troy (and probably Yeats also wants to include Clytemnestra as the second child, eventually wife and then, on his return from Troy, killer of Agamemnon)? Helen is the “broken wall, the burning roof and tower”; Clytemnestra, the “Agamemnon dead.” Zeus knows this; Yeats asks, Does Leda?

To my student: Good job!

But alas, also Hilarious job! What an uncomfortable pregnancy that must have been, with all those Greeks and Trojans battling away, a big wooden horse (a kind of womb-within-a-womb, then, come to think of it) poking at the uterine walls as well as the Trojan Wall, all those sharp objects, all that noise and blood. Can you imagine the surprise of all her gushy intrusive neighbors, asking if they can “feel the baby”? “Awww,” says the lady next door, caressing her belly. “Kapow!” goes the Trojan War.

Who says words don’t matter?


“Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites…”

I can’t seem to leave the Puritans. My students really enjoyed reading and discussing their narratives, poems, and sermons, for various reasons; but a lot of them had trouble actually writing about these things. Here’s the rest of the Edwards comment:

“Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites and he uses them as an example of what happened to the Israelites.”

Actually Edwards’ famous sermon to the slow-to-Awaken congregation at Enfield, Connecticut, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” warns Puritans of what will happen to them if they fail to give themselves wholly to God: if God would punish the Israelites, his chosen people, with devastation and eternal punishment when they strayed from his commandments, IMAGINE WHAT HE WILL DO TO YOU! Don’t get Him angry!

My student will be impervious to the warning, of course: for her, what happened to the Israelites is an example of what happened to the Israelites.

I imagine she began the sentence with a clear idea of what she wanted to say, but had forgotten it when she reached the end. Such a long sentence? Maybe her original intention was to write “Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites and he uses them as an example. What happened to them will also happen to Puritans who forget God.” That would work well enough. More simply, “Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites and he uses them as an example of what would happen to the Puritans.” This second alternative is probably exactly what she started out to say. Typing “what happened” instead of “what would happen,” though, made it impossible for her to reach her original destination: indeed, it forced her to stay historical, and back came the Israelites.

Taking another minute or two to decide what she actually meant might have provided her with a cleaner grammar and clearer statement: “For Edwards, God’s punishment of the Israelites who strayed from his commandments is a warning of what will happen to Puritans who stray.” She should have taken those minutes.

After all, eternal damnation is no laughing matter.


“These two novels express love and relationships and were written long after one another.”

Neither piece was actually a novel, but then, many students lately seem to have a remarkably hard time differentiating among poetry, prose, and plays, let alone fiction and nonfiction. Why? Oh, sure, heady discussions of the finer points of genre go on in graduate schools. But an undergraduate should be able to tell prose from poetry at twenty paces!

I know literature can express love; but how can it “express” relationships?

But both of these considerations are breathtakingly swept aside by the final observation that the two pieces were “written long after one another.” The statement reminds me of a horror I’ve already written about, “People blame one thing after the next.” Are we living at such a speed now that time has become circular?

At least I’m getting dizzy here! Rather than try to talk about this any further, I will leave you to ponder the relativity, circularity, malleability, ineffability, of time.

Three deep questions. Enjoy!


“Yellowstone’s great beauty has led itself to become…”

This is the greatest explanation I have ever seen for the concept of the call of the wild:

“Yellowstone’s great beauty has led itself to become the subject of various literary sources such as poems, short stories, plays, essays, and novels.”

The sentence is by a student who really does love Yellowstone National Park and chose to write about it. Why, then, the awkward sentence full of tepid language and absolutely devoid of energy?

“Beauty…has led itself to become” is grammatical enough but puts me in mind of Noam Chomsky’s exemplary sentence that is grammatically correct but conceptually impossible (the famous “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” so famous indeed that it has its own Wikipedia entry—and if you go to the Wikipedia page be sure to look at the “related and similar examples” too, if you want some fun). Up until encountering the Yellowstone sentence, I thought only dogs carrying their own leashes in their mouths on walks could lead themselves anywhere. And leading oneself into becoming the subject of a source of something is very hard to get the mind around—a young woman talking herself into having unprotected sex might fit the sentence, but only by a willing suspension of disbelief well honed by immersion in Theatre of the Absurd.

That’s the most fascinating, or bizarre, aspect of my student’s sentence, but not the only stumbling block on the Yellowstone hiking trail. The beauty has led itself to become the subject of various literary sources. A little grammar punning is tempting here: If it’s leading itself, then itself is an object, not a subject—the object of the verb “to lead.”

But puns aside, the beauty has led itself to become a subject. My student shows that repetition does eventually communicate in his choice of “various”: he and many another student can be relied on generally to write “different” when they mean “various,” and I suggest this word change again and again in their academic essays. (They’re free to write “I like different kinds of candy” as often as they wish on Facebook, but saying that Dylan Thomas wrote “different kinds of literature” is misleading in most senses no matter how experimental some of his forms were, especially since students who write that will follow with a clarifying list: “poems, essays, stories, and plays.”)

Please notice that nowhere in this process does authorial choice intrude. Evidently various literary sources find their own subjects, or the subjects lead themselves into these sources. Perhaps the author just holds a notebook up to trap them when they arrive? Or do the subjects intrude on literary sources already written, shouldering aside the original subjects to make room for themselves once they have led themselves there, overpowering any feeble attempts on the author’s part to repel the invasion?

And then, to drain the sentence of any vestiges of interest, he feels compelled to give some examples of those “literary sources”—”poems, short stories, plays, essays, and novels.” Perhaps if he had begun his list with “in other words” he could have gotten away with this; but he begins with “such as,” implying that he could name several others if he wanted to tell all. He has, however, really hit pretty much every literary genre, unless we want to get obscure. So why “such as”? I’m afraid he probably was hedging his bets in case he had left any out, not telling me “there are more literary sources in heaven and earth, Prof. Horatio, than are dreamed of in your English 12 class.”

Finally, when I hear the phrase “literary source” I usually assume it refers to a source of literature, not a source that is literature—or if the latter, a source of literature that is itself literature, as Beowulf is the literary source of John Gardner’s novel Grendel. But in my student’s sentence the literature is a source that has a subject, and that subject is, by dint of its own sheer determination, the beauty of Yellowstone. The Wild calls unto itself and heeds the Call.

Because the components of this sentence aren’t identical, I can’t reasonably compare the experience of reading it to Matryoshka dolls, or Quaker’s Oats boxes; but it does give the sense of tumbling through oddly nested concepts into some black (but boring) hole.

Not a hole into Wonderland, alas, but definitely not a hole that can be found in Yellowstone National Park, either.


“Making fun of the Baroness’s weight is a bit dark…”

This student is referring to the Baroness in Voltaire’s grotesque satiric novel Candide. Here’s pretty much all Voltaire does to “make fun of the Baroness’s weight”: “My Lady Baroness, who weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, consequently was a person of no small consideration.” (When the Bulgarian army comes to the castle they split Cunégonde, Candide’s lady love, and then repeatedly ravish her; her mother, the Baroness, they “cut…in pieces.” When Cunégonde reappears in the story—not all accidents, she assures Candide, prove fatal—she confirms her mother’s death. Although many presumed-dead characters continue to reappear, the Baroness is gone from the story. Cunégonde later refers to herself as “born a Baroness,” but her weight is not in question.)

So my student is wrong: Voltaire is not really “making fun of the Baroness’s weight”: he is making fun of the weightiness of the nobility, and probably also of the general avoirdupois of German burghers, in that the “most noble Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh” lives in Westphalia. The fatter they were, the more important they were, generally speaking, and Voltaire mocks the automatic respect consequently afforded the hefty.

But my student explains away her implied criticism of Voltaire:

“Making fun of the Baroness’s weight is a bit dark, but because it was written in humor it is funny.”

I believe (but do not know) that my student meant that in the context of Voltaire’s satiric purpose and tone, a remark that would otherwise be far from comical, or even tasteful, elicits laughter. I probably talked a bit about the black comedy, or “dark humor,” of the twentieth century when introducing this eighteenth-century work—I usually do. If that is what she was trying to say, she was right to try to say it.

But of course she didn’t say it. Instead, she gave us a comment not far from Nixon’s explanation that if the President of the U.S. does a thing it is by definition legal. My student is saying that if  Voltaire writes something dark “in humor,” it “is funny,” as a matter of course.

I once had a colleague who made remarks that were startlingly rude—”God, you’re a slob, aren’t you?” she said to a friend who, pausing with his spoon halfway to his mouth in order to finish a comment about department politics, had just dripped some soup onto his tie at lunch—and then evidently believed she made it all all right by following up with “Only kidding.” She, too, must have thought that anything said or “written in humor” was funny, regardless of what it was. Yes, she was a barrel of laughs.

And speaking of department politics: I’m going to be tied up for the next several days getting ready for and then participating in the American Association of University Professors’ Annual Meeting in D.C. I own neither a laptop nor an iPhone, so unless someone wants to lend me a computer for an hour or two I will probably not be able to maintain my blog until maybe Sunday. Please go back and read some of the posts from August and September of 2011 in the interim—I led with some of my most hilarious horrors, all of which, I hasten to say, were not “written in humor” but are very funny just the same.


“In ‘Beowulf’ I do not believe I heard anything about him being committed…”

While we’re on the subject of Beowulf.

Here’s a student who is up-front about having only a vague recollection of the text. “I do not believe” is, this time, not a denial of a thesis but an expression that means “hmmm, seems to me….” She treats the text as a story-telling or gossip session, too (“heard anything about”)—which is nice in a way, since we do believe the poem Beowulf was meant to be recited rather than read, and since the various legends on which it is based definitely were orally transmitted. Had my student been around in England or Denmark between, say, 500 and 1000 C.E., she certainly could have remarked that she didn’t believe she’d heard something about Beowulf. For the teacher who assigned the poem to be read, though, the phrase does not suggest conscientious behavior on the part of a student.

And what’s this about “him being committed”? Would rumors that he had been confined in a facility for the insane not have surprised her? Here we go:

“In ‘Beowulf’ I do not believe I heard anything about him being committed, but some may consider that Alison was somehow committed, but she really did not wed for love, only what was in it for her.”

As George Takei, my latest secret crush, would say, “Oh, my.”

The “Alison” in question is the winsome and lissome young wife in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale.” Yes, she’s married, but to an older and jealous husband (two out-of-proportion and therefore medievally negative traits)—who can blame her for flirting with a susceptible cleric and dallying with John’s lodger, “hende” Nicholas?

I can’t remember why my student felt that Beowulf and Alison should be discussed together. Maybe she was writing a paper about marriage in the literature of the Middle Ages…which would still raise the question of how Beowulf got in there, especially since Arthur and Guinevere were just waiting to be talked about and would, with Lancelot, have made an interesting combination with Alison, her elderly cuckoldy carpenter John, Absolon the squeamish cleric, and that irresistible hende Nicholas. But speculations are beside the point here: we have Beowulf, who doesn’t seem to have been committed, and Alison, who was “somehow committed.”

Well, the mention that Alison did not “wed for love” is the giveaway: “committed” is obviously short for “in a committed relationship.” Alison’s marriage was “somewhat committed,” but obviously not committed enough: she was only interested in “what was in it for her,” that gold-digger, and had not given John her heart along with her hand. The rest of her body was therefore up for, dare I say it, grabs. Enter hende Nicholas.

So when my student says she didn’t hear anything about Beowulf “being committed,” she means she didn’t hear any rumors that he was married, or in a committed relationship (can’t you just see theBeowulf poet trying to get that into a four-stress alliterative line with caesura? Try it!).

In a poem that celebrates the diplomacy-driven but clearly happy marriage of King Hrothgar and presents a number of other songs and back-stories involving good and bad marriages, Beowulf’s life is curiously private. All we know for sure is that when he died after his battle with the dragon he left no heirs of the body. Young Wiglaf, who in coming to Beowulf’s aid defies Beowulf’s announced determination to fight the dragon alone, is presented as the only young man in the rising generation with courage and principles of fealty like Beowulf’s; Beowulf says he has no sons to leave his armor to, and Wiglaf is the one who sits with him as he dies. Whether he had daughters, whether he had lovers, whether he had a wife, we do not know; my student is right, we don’t “hear anything” about those possibilities.

If we’re using “committed” to mean “promised, dedicated, pledged,” then certainly Beowulf was committed. Commitment was practically his middle name. He committed himself to repay his father’s debt of honor to Hrothgar by destroying Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, the monsters who had been besieging the Danes. He gave his loyalty to his own king and to the king’s heir, and then by popular demand succeeded him, to become a committed king for fifty years. He committed himself to protect his people by destroying the hoard-dragon some local drunk had awakened. In each of his battles he insisted on fighting alone, in view of the great risk (and also in view of his own reputation, at that time considered one’s earthly immortality).

But the way my student has phrased it, “committed” reeks of the loony bin. And maybe for Alison staying faithful to old John would have driven her nuts.

Does the rising generation of today use “committed” to mean “in a committed relationship”? If I hear someone say “I heard he was committed,” should I not think of mental or emotional problems but instead imagine him happy and fulfilled? If I see a smooching couple, should I walk up to them and say “You two should be committed!“? And what would my student think if she read that for a time King George III’s family had him committed?


“‘Bob and wheel’ is used in ‘The Miller’s Tale.’ It is almost like a small boat.”

When I lament that students don’t see language as pictures in their mind’s eye, I am forgetting this lovely gem. This student went astray by a combination of sloppy exam preparation, inattentive reading, and a chain of associations that started with a little mental picture.

For those of you who haven’t studied Gawain and the Green Knight lately, I will note that “bob and wheel” refers to a rhyme-and-rhythm pattern distinct to that poem: a stanza of unrhymed 4-stress lines concluding with a 1-stress line followed by four 3-stress lines (more or less iambic) that rhyme  b a b a, if you count the short line as an “a.”

For example, here’s part of one stanza, including the bob and wheel:

Then the first course came with a clamor of trumpets
whose banners billowed bright to the eye,
while kettledrums rolled and the cry of the pipes
wakened a wild, warbling music
whose touch made the heart tremble and skip.
Delicious dishes were rushed in, fine delicacies
fresh and plentiful, piled so high on so many platters
they had problems finding places to set down
their silver bowls of steaming soup: no spot
was clear.
Each lord dug in with pleasure,
and grabbed at what lay near:
twelve platters piled past measure,
bright wine, and foaming beer.

Besides the fun of the “wild, warbling music,” “delicious dishes,” and “bright wine and foaming beer,” the poet offers us the jaunty charm of that stanza closer. And that closer is called the “bob and wheel”—the one-stress line is the bob and the quatrain the wheel. It hangs there at the end of the stanza—the layout in our textbook makes it even more obvious—and an attentive (or even semi-attentive) reader can’t help but notice it. The textbook’s introductory material explains “bob and wheel,” and so do I.

So I thought it would be a nice little objective question: “What is a bob and wheel, and in what work read this semester is it used?”

Many students left the question entirely blank, so I have to give this student a tip of the hat (but no credit) for his effort.

Now, where did his notion come from? The reference to “The Miller’s Tale” suggests another source of confusion for many of my students, who take Chaucer’s clear image of three tubs suspended from the rafters of the carpenter’s house (the carpenter thinks that when Noah’s flood comes again he and his wife and his lodger can creep into the tubs and, when the waters rise to the level of the tubs, cut the ropes suspending them and float free) and for some reason or other think that the carpenter has put three little boats (always so handy in the medieval household) on top of the roof.  Thus the three flood refugees would have to clamber outside and onto the roof in order to get into the boats, instead of using the little ladders the carpenter has provided in the tubs. Students forget the ropes entirely, which must give them some pause when the carpenter mistakenly cuts the ropes on his tub and falls straight down to the ground, breaking his arm—but they never ask for clarification. I know this “boats” theory from several papers courageously written despite confusion.

How would little boats in “The Miller’s Tale” infect the phrase “bob and wheel”? Well, I don’t know about you, but I certainly have associated wheels with ships ever since I saw Peter Pan. How does one steer a ship? With a WHEEL, so large, so ornamental, so omnipresent in nautical decor and seafaring movies. (The “bob” goes, as they say asea, by the board.)

Bob and WHEEL.

Ship’s WHEEL.

The BOAT in “The Miller’s Tale.”

And there you have it.

Luckily no automobiles appear in British Literature Before 1660, or we might have had little cars in Gawain.


“Elizabeth I gave up her entire life for her people…”

…and for this student, who has a genuinely deep appreciation for and pretty good knowledge of this great queen.

But appreciation and admiration can lead a sentence into deep waters. The portion above is already somewhat hyperbolic; here comes the rest:

“Elizabeth I gave up her entire life for her people but instead of as a mortar, she took it like a man and suffered every day.”

If he were not a student at a Catholic university I might be more tolerant of “mortar”; but I thought the martyrs were pretty much the lifeblood of the Church, literally and metaphorically. I could give him a huge benefit of the doubt and speculate that he knows “martyr” but thinks that applies only to someone who dies for religion, and since that isn’t what he’s saying about Elizabeth he chooses a different word. But I can’t hold onto that speculation for more than an instant before it crumbles into dust.

I do hope he wasn’t getting all Freudian and viewing a “mortar” in contrast to taking “it” “like a man.” He doesn’t seem to be that kind of student. He is hoping, though, to be an English major, in which case he’s going to have to learn to recognize those iconic shapes. Of course if she “suffered every day,” perhaps she felt she was being pounded (oh, dear, by a pestle, naturally, and back comes Freud!) by life, or by the men around her, or by destiny, or by events, or by whatever. Nevertheless, she did NOT give up her life as a mortar.

What she “took” is left unclear; I suppose the “it” is life, or the men around her, or destiny, or…. Whatever it is, she took it “like a man.”

What does that mean? This sentence appeared in an essay wherein my student said again and again that Queen Elizabeth did not want to be viewed as a woman, but as a ruler; she used the term “prince” to refer to herself at least as often as she used “queen.” Well, then, taking “it” like a man would be part of that. But is “suffer[ing] every day” part of being a man, or is it the consequence of taking it?

He is leading up to presenting “On Monsieur’s Departure,” a sonnet of paradoxes written by the queen. He is going to interpret her reference to “my other self,” clearly meaning Monsieur, as a comment on her double life, the inner life of a woman and the political life of a man, her renunciation of marriage for the sake of her duties to England. It’s an interesting reading, but poetic convention and the context of the phrase really work against his idea here.

Enthusiasm. Interpretive efforts. Ambition. I applaud him for all of this, and I wish more students shared these willingnesses. I hope he will soon develop the interpretive and expressive tools necessary to support them.

Meanwhile, beware mortardom!

Elizabeth after the defeat of the Armada. Powerful, solemn. Secretly suffering?  (Wikipedia carries this image of the famous portrait)


“The final part of the plot is the falling action and the denouncement.”

I’ve been saving this student’s Horror for exactly this moment—the end of the academic year. Major papers have been read, appreciated or lamented as the case may be, and graded; final exams ditto. Grades have been posted. And of course the students have had their fling at the anonymous Teacher Evaluation, the results of which I have not yet seen…but I’m sure there will be some denouncement!

I knew what she meant, having conscientiously and painstakingly written “dénouement” on the board as part of the mapping of a “traditional plot line” when we first discussed short stories. I’m sure that if she read the assigned introductory material in the textbook she would have encountered the exact same word. And I’m sure she copied it down to the best of her ability. Therein lies the problem.

This example comes from 2003. Did word-processing programs auto-correct in those days? I suspect not, although a spellcheck feature might have challenged such an exotic word as “dénouement,” with or without the accent.

As an aside, I must mention that many years ago, back in the 1980s, the computer lab available to our writing classes had a program that could assess the “writing level” of a text, primarily on the basis of the vocabulary. I ran a sample of my writing (one of my assignment sheets) and got “college level,” which I expected. I ran a sample from a student paper and got, if I recall correctly, “junior high school.” This was not much of a surprise, since the course was part of an alternative-admissions program; but in fact the student was a fairly savvy writer in terms of ideas, reasoning, and sentence structure, so I felt the computer wasn’t that good a judge of “writing.” And then, just out of curiosity, I ran a sample from a rough draft written by a student of mine who struggled with dyslexia. And the computer rated his writing “doctorate level,” or “genius,” or some other descriptor that suggested Off The Charts! Indeed, he was off the charts: he was using words not in the computer’s memory bank, and the computer assumed that meant he had a vocabulary so sophisticated and specialized as to be beyond its ken—ergo, smarter than a computer, and ergo, genius. (There was much to love and respect about this student, including his intelligence; but he was neither a genius nor a PhD, and the words he had intended to write would have kept him at or below grade level on the computer’s scale.) So much for the know-it-all attitude of Autocorrect and its minions!

Nowadays I would have to be impressed with a student who managed to get as close as “denouncement” to “dénouement” written on the board. I am now dealing with the first of I fear many generations unable to read cursive writing. This isn’t my assessment: it’s my students’ assessment, or rather their boast and their excuse—and their agony. Here’s the history of my discovery:

  • Many years ago, before the atrophy of my fine motor control over my finger muscles (consequent on the tyranny or luxury of writing on the computer), students used to marvel at the beauty and clarity of my handwriting. I prided myself on it, too, and occasionally supplemented my income with calligraphy gigs, including names on diplomas.
  • Then, as my Mac wrapped me more and more completely in its convenient and charming clutches, students began to say my handwriting was hard to read. I felt bad about that until I asked them to show me what they couldn’t read, and got this: “Oh. That says ‘ambiguous.’ “Yeah? That’s what it looked like to me. Is ‘ambiguous’ a word?”)
  • And this year, making the same enquiries in response to the same comments (“I can’t read your writing”), this is what I’ve been getting: “Oh! ‘Paragraph!’ I didn’t know what that middle letter was.” And, writing on the board, “What is that letter???” “It’s an ‘f.'” “What kind of ‘f’ is that?!?!” This makes sense of the comment I got one day from the World’s Most Gorgeous Cashier, at my local Trader Joe’s, when I handed him my check: “You have a nice signature. I’m damned if I’m going to let my kids not use cursive writing, no matter what the school says!”

So I’ve been talking to my students this year about “writing cursive.” Evidently, at least for most of them, they’re taught cursive writing in the third grade and then never asked to use it again—in some schools, told not to use it again. No wonder they all print on their exams and in-class essays, and no wonder they moan and groan about “hand torture” in the process. (Yes, I too used to moan and groan about hand torture, after writing non-stop for an hour or two. They start to m & g after about 15 minutes.) They claim that their teachers didn’t make them (or want them to) use cursive because “all the reading and writing we’ll be doing will be in print, on the computer, so who needs it?” I suspect that somewhere in the mix were a few ever-hopefuls who thought their papers would be more legible in what we used to call “printing” than in what we used to call “writing,” or “handwriting”; but if that’s the case, I’m here to tell them they’re dead wrong. Student scrawl is student scrawl, and it afflicts printing no less than it used to afflict writing.

Evidently I’ve gone somewhat astray on this post, which began with “denouncement.” What was responsible for the student’s error—inattention, some precocious computer speller, limited vocabulary, or inability to read? Whatever, I wrote down her sentence because, wrong though it was, it did seem to speak a deeper truth. Alas.

Writing according to the Palmer method. We all learned this in the third grade—and KEPT using it!—and the individual handwriting of most American adults has developed (or devolved) from this model. My students say they cannot read it. (From http://palmermethod.com/)


“The two re-spark their passion for each other and…”

I surface from the Slough of Despond, also known as “finals and grading,” to share a Horror from the moment.

A student is writing about Kate Chopin’s “The Storm,” a wonderful short story wherein a contentedly married but somewhat placid woman is visited, as a thunderstorm hangs ready to let loose, by an old flame seeking shelter. (Her husband and son are in town, at a store, where they decide to wait out the weather.) When the storm does break, so does the couple’s restraint; their lovemaking ends as the storm passes on, and he departs. When her husband and son return home, she welcomes them with a refreshed affection.

Okay, so I gave it away. Still, you should follow the link above and read it for yourself. As I said, it’s wonderful.

Anyway, my student was writing about that story. And I know you’re waiting to see how his sentence ended:

“The two re-spark their passion for each other and preform adultery.”

First of all, Chopin doesn’t seem to be saying that the passion was actively “re-spark”ed by “the two.” In usual usage, “spark” can certainly take an object but its subject is usually not a human agent. A song can spark a memory; a difference of opinion can spark a heated argument; a pair of bedroom eyes can spark an amorous flame. But it’s a rare couple, I think, who can be said to “spark their passion for each other.” At least the usage seems bizarre to me.

Anyway, passion suitably re-sparked by some means, they evidently sit down and do some planning. “Now, my dear” [heavy breathing, heavy breathing] “let’s see how to form our adultery before we actually commit it.” (“Yes yes yes yes yes” she replies, but she’s only agreeing to the shape of things to come, if I may so speak.)

Do they actually go ahead and commit adultery, or do they only pre-form it? My student doesn’t say. The readiness is all, I guess.

I’d say that “preform” is a typo, but I have seen it from too many students, and actually heard it from a few too, and I believe that’s what my student intended to type. But he didn’t intend it to mean “form ahead of time”; he meant it to mean “perform.” So is it a typographical error, or an informational error?

Let’s take him at his intended meaning rather than his intended spelling. He meant to say that they “perform adultery.”

Really? Is that a phrase that works? Does one perform adultery as one would perform a magic trick, a lobotomy, a snazzy dance step, or the Heimlich maneuver? I will admit that in my reading I have seen reference to “performing” specific sex acts (I’m an English major; we see everything). But isn’t “adultery” a concept rather than an act? Generally we use the verb “commit,” perhaps to suggest that adultery is a crime (and oh, my children, it surely is, at least in the Good Book). I don’t know what verb can be substituted satisfactorily, probably because “adultery” carries a negative judgment anyway and thus earns the “commit.”

The biggest irony, though, is that word “adultery.” If you haven’t taken the few moments to read “The Storm” yet, go and do it now. I think you will agree that the last thing Chopin intends here is a negative judgment. The storm is a force of nature that clears the air and refreshes the earth, and Chopin presents the amorous meeting in exactly that context, and with the same effect.