Category Archives: literature

“On the Greek island of Lesbos…”

My Early World Literature students generally love Sappho, at least what of hers we read in the course. And I think some of what they love is her unknowability, if I can call it that, and the fact that much of the work we have by her is fragmentary. Her works were collected into volumes by admiring Greek and then Roman poets and others, but only papyrus scraps have come down to us, through various unusual pathways. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family and lived for a time in a community of young women on the island of Lesbos who wrote and sang poetry, danced to their songs…. the word “Lesbian” was attached to the female-to-female sexual attractions described in some of her work. The site The Poetry Foundation sums up what is known or at least seriously believed about her today: “In antiquity Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as ‘the Poetess,’ just as Homer was called ‘the Poet.’ Plato hailed her as ‘the tenth Muse,’ and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary.” Beyond that, most of what we “know” is custom, legend, speculation…or downright fiction. Readers tend to believe her first-person poems are autobiographical because of that “I” and the frank, intense description of deep emotions and suggestions of intimate experience—but we don’t know.

Anyway, as I said, her poems—what we have of them—are compelling. Poets of many centuries and cultures have translated them into their own languages, often padding them out to fit ideas of structure and poetics quite alien to the originals. (If that intrigues you, you ought to visit the site Bureau of Public Secrets, where “some of the many” translations of her “Poem of Jealousy” are collected.)

In my classes, attraction to a piece of writing pretty much means you’ll have to write about it; hence today’s horror. Through the murky sentences I think you will still feel the affection:

“On the Greek island of Lesbos Sappho’s works were written and compiled, into the classic poems they are today. Despite knowing not much about her, her poems speak volumes.”

Oh, the use of the passive voice, which denies Sappho agency in her own work (the poems were written on an island; who wrote them remains unspoken)! Oh, the strange notion that some “compilers” made them into classic poems—again, she doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with it! Were they immediately classic because they were written in the sixth century B.C.E., or are they classic now because they’re still around or because we call them so, or are they classic because someone compiled them “into…classic poems,” or what? The writer leaves us to ponder those questions. Perhaps the writer himself is unsure what “classic” means. They can certainly be referred to as “classical,” because they are writings from the long period of Greek and Roman civilization we call the “classical age.” Well, be that as it may. They’re classics today.

“Despite knowing not much about her,” besides being a remarkably awkward phrase, is a dangling modifier. Of course I knew what he meant to say: Despite the fact that we don’t know much about her…or despite our not knowing much about her. But the sentence as my student wrote it has no such nouns or pronouns to be described (modified) by the prepositional phrase: the only noun offered is “poems,” but surely he doesn’t mean to say her poems don’t know much about her. He goes on to say that the poems “speak volumes.” This in spite of not knowing much about their author, I guess.

Now, generally when we use the verb phrase “speak volumes” we mean “say a great deal (books’ worth, in fact) even without words.” As in “she said not a word when he said he loved her, but her quiet smile spoke volumes,” perhaps. Is that what my student means to say about the poems of Sappho—that the fragments we have still suggest books’ worth of thoughts? I’m not sure. In view of the introductory phrase about not knowing much about her, I have to consider that he may mean the poems suggest a lot about their author. What’s truly odd here is a coincidence of terminology, the juxtaposition of fragments and “volumes,” and the association of poems with books as well.

Most readers of Sappho feel that the fragments suggest deep and complex emotions, or evoke them in readers, although for many of the poems what we have is so small a piece of the probable original that we can’t be positive where the poem as a whole might have taken us. In fact, what we respond to for so many of what we call her “poems” is a single breathtaking image. And the trouble with that is the nagging fact that almost all of us are reading Sappho in a translation. Only the knowledge that her words have struck readers this way regardless of the passage of time and the vagaries of literary “style” and translation gives us the confidence to attribute our response to her artistry.

This isn’t a very funny post! My intention was to have a good time with my hapless student’s staggering couple of sentences and their inadequacies as praise of The Poetess. But it’s impossible to point out where my student went wrong, or at least limped through, without talking about the power and beauty of the words he was trying to respond to. Perhaps there’s a point at which we all become inarticulate.

Here’s someone else’s tribute to her. It’s described as “red-figure vase (hydria, or kalpis) by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BC. Seated, Sappho is reading one of her poems to a group of three student-friends. National Archaeological Museum in Athens….” This photographic image of the hydria is “by Μαρσύας (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons.” She’s writing so intently, and the other women form a group around and above her that seems simultaneously loving and blessing. Beautiful, isn’t it?

You'll notice that, like Sappho's poems, this jar was once broken in pieces. How fortunate we are that unlike so many of her poems, all the pieces were found and carefully reassembled. We respond to its original beauty.

You’ll notice that, like Sappho’s poems, this jar seems to have once been broken. How fortunate we are that all the pieces are here, carefully reassembled, so we can be sure we’re responding to its original beauty.

“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685…”

Well, right off the bat we have two problems.

My student was introducing her Early American Literature “confluences” paper, for which students were to choose from the syllabus five works written within a span of 50 years and then use them to develop a sense of the intellectual, cultural, or philosophical life of that time. Since my syllabus was organized by theme rather than chronology, the paper was my effort to encourage students to weave the themes together into a larger picture (or tapestry)—or, to use the metaphor of the assignment, to show how these separate ideas flowed together into the collective experience of the culture.

She thinks of each piece as having its own “period,” though, rather than thinking of a period that comprises those works. Off to a bad beginning!

The phrasing has no logic, either, but my student is merely repeating an increasingly common bit of thoughtlessness, not inventing her own: “between” asks for two limits, joined by “and.” “Between the morning and the evening,” for example; “between north and south”; “between the cradle and the grave”; “between January and December.” So she should say “between 1630 and 1685.” Instead, she uses a hyphen (should be an en dash, of course), which in expressions such as this is pronounced “to,” as thus: “1630 to 1685.” Now, the last time I checked, it is not idiomatic to say “between [something] to [something else]: “between morning to evening”; between north to south”; “between the cradle to the grave”…. Sorry, but these phrases refuse to mean anything to me! Of course I knew what she meant; that isn’t how to say it, though, at least not yet.

But the imprecision that inhabits this part of the sentence is mere precursor to the huge vague wave of the hand that follows:

“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685, which was when religion, illness, death, tragedy etc. happened.”

I don’t let my writing students use “etc.” In the margin I write “avoid this catch-all!” The Latin phrase that means “and others,” or “and other things of this nature,” or “and similar things” (or as the King of Siam so charmingly sings in The King and I, “et cetera, et cetera, and so forth”) should be used only when other elements in the series can with accuracy be predicted; it should not indicate writer’s fatigue, lack of interest, or “whatev”—which is exactly how most student writers use it.

Here my student seems to have a relatively coherent series, if “religion” can be considered dire and fatal like illness, death, and tragedy. But if she does intend a coherent series, I can’t imagine any more elements that would be needed to complete it: illness, death, and tragedy seem to cover most of the territory. And if she does not consider religion dire, fatal, and tragic, then what’s it doing in this series? (Her discussion of religion in her paper seemed to present it as dour but not dire.)

I also am relieved to know that religion, illness, death, and tragedy seem to have been confined to a mere 55-year period several centuries ago. I can breathe a sigh of relief that these things no longer occur, since she assures me with a simple past-tense verb that they are over and done with. I do wonder how Shakespeare and Sophocles got so sad, and evidently so prophetic, living before death and tragedy happened. Somehow death must have happened before 1630—and after 1685, for that matter—because a lot of gravestones carry very different dates. But my student’s sentence would deny such evidence.

What really fascinates me about the sentence is that it is at the same time so hazy and so confident. In that way it truly was predictive of the entire paper, so I suppose I should acknowledge its value as a first sentence. Yes, the paper really did go on as it had begun.

For nine pages.


“Phillis reverences Cain in line 7.”

Reading extensively in an author’s works, or even with deep involvement reading a single work by an author, can lead us to feel an intimacy with the writer that is almost like a personal relationship, albeit one-sided in that only the reader is aware of the relationship. It’s also possible to fall in love with, or develop protective feelings for, a character in a literary work (again, one-sided—alas, if that character is Lord Peter Wimsey and the reader falls so deeply in love with him that no flesh-and-blood man can compete…). But even then, the reader does not begin referring to the writer, or the character, by nickname, in the case of the character, or first name, in the case of the author. In an earlier time, not even the characters called each other by first name: how late in Pride and Prejudice before Elizabeth Bennet permits herself to call the man she comes to love anything but “Mr. Darcy,” for instance?

Students, on the other hand, seem to get chummy very quickly with the characters and authors they read, blithely throwing protocols to the wind.  At its most extreme, this practice can blow a student to some pretty strange places. I once had a student who wrote that her favorite composer was a German gentleman called Bay Toven. (Evidently she knew of him only by way of her ear…) After the first sentence, she referred to him for the rest of the paper simply as “Bay”: “Bay could not hear his own music, being unfortunately deaf.” This was, remember, her favorite composer.

On a side note, I have to mention that some students don’t use any kind of name for their professors. In the last few years I have received many emails that begin simply “Hey.” I might not mind so much if they went on, “I just had to say THANX for that great class!” But they rarely do; usually it’s “I lost the syllabus, so could you send me another one?” or “I worked hard on that paper and think a C is too low of a grade.” Yeah, Hey.

But let’s get back to Phillis.

“Phillis” is Phillis Wheatley, a serious and delightful poet of the eighteenth century, the second published African American and first published African-American woman. Named Phillis after the ship that brought her from Africa as a slave, and Wheatley for the family who bought her in Boston, she showed aptitude for classical languages and literature at an early age, talents the Wheatleys supported and helped to develop. She was freed at their death, but had never truly been treated as a slave while with their family; they had even traveled to England for her sake because they thought she had a better chance there of being recognized as a writer. My students expect protest poetry from her, but what they read instead is elegant verse in the forms and styles popular at the time, and expressions of gratitude for the life she lived.

The poem my student is referring to is one of the latter: “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” She praises the good fortune that brought her to a land where she could become a Christian. The poem is lovely, if somewhat disturbing to a modern reader whose “racial” ideas are less accepting of 18th-century definitions than hers. Here it is, although you can follow the link above and read it at The Poetry Foundation with links to more information:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Would you refer to her as “Phillis”?

Now, let’s get to my other problem with this sentence: the word “reverences.” Of course my student didn’t mean “reverences”—that is, “regard[s] or treat[s] with reverence,” “reverence” here meaning “honor or respect felt or shown” or “a gesture of respect, such as a bow.” He wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I asked him why he thought Phillis was bowing to Cain in line 7. But he had heard, on many an educated lip, “reverences” used in the way he uses it, meaning “refers to,” and he wanted to use it too. He hasn’t read many educated papers, though, or he would know that the mot du jour he heard is not “reverence,” but “reference.”

He’s chosen a word that’s doubly wrong: the one he’s written doesn’t mean what he thinks it does (and is completely bizarre when used with Cain!), and the word he thinks it is shouldn’t be used that way either. But I may be the last living objector to the use of “reference” as a verb, and especially as the kind of verb he’s trying to use.

What ever happened to words and phrases such as “alludes to,” “refers to,” “makes reference to,” “mentions,” “points to,” “compares…with”? I know English is a living language, but “references” as a verb seems to have swept all these other, more traditionally correct, terms suddenly away. I hear it from the mouths of scholars as well as the mouths of babes; it peppers academic papers so thickly as to cause sneezing. Why it caught on I cannot say, unless it just sounds so intellectual? or is so lazy? or maybe both?

Here’s friend Webster’s New Collegiate as of 1973, which to me isn’t so long ago:

“Reference (n): 1. the act of referring or consulting; 2: a bearing on the matter; 3: something that refers, as allusion or mention, something that refers a reader to another source of information, consultation of sources of information; 4: one referred to or consulted as a person to whom inquiries as to character or ability can be made, a statement of the qualifications of a person seeking employment, a source of information to which a reader is referred, or a book such as a dictionary or encyclopedia concerning useful facts or information.”

Webster does acknowledge a verb form: “Reference (vt): 1: to supply with references, to cite in or as a reference; 2: to put in a form, as a table, adapted to easy reference.”

Neither of these definitions describes the usage employed by my student (and so many, many others).

“Phillis” doesn’t reference Cain; she makes reference to, or refers to, or alludes to Cain. She’s not interested in his opinion, his authority, or his recommendation; she isn’t suggesting that he is a source of information or turning him into a table. Actually she’s using a then-popular figure of speech in an interesting way: the conflation of “black” of skin and “black” of sin implied in the simile becomes one single attribute, and since Christians pray that God refine their own sin-blackened hearts they should also recognize that people who are black can be “refined,” or purified, to fit their souls equally well for heaven. She is urging Christians to view people of the “sable race” as their potential fellow angels. Her mention of Cain is, then, a learned allusion, full of conceptual substance, not a “referencing.”

But I’m afraid that this is yet another battle I am doomed to lose. Once an error or grotesquery becomes widespread among multiple classes of users, one aging prof, armed with no matter how mighty a sword, can’t withstand it. I fear it is too late for the blithe users of “reference” as a verb to have their sin refined away, because far from recognizing it as a sin, they hold it in an unbreakable embrace—yea, reverence it.

I’ll just have to try to become deaf to it. Like Bay.

“Gilgamesh is a king…”

This weekend my students will be reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, if they’re conscientious. The most ancient epic poem of which we have record, Gilgamesh tells of the great king of Uruk (a city in what is now the large nation of Iraq), his education into wisdom, and his quest for immortality. A wonderful surprise for first-time readers is the nested story of Utanapishtim, a narrative that shares numerous features with the story of Noah and the ark in the book of Genesis (in the Hebrew Bible, called by Christians the Old Testament).

Anyway. When we first meet Gilgamesh (2/3 god, 1/3 human), he has the power and pride of a king but not the wisdom or self-control. A formidable fighter, he challenges all likely comers to brawl with him (and always wins); a ruler with a strong notion of droit du seigneur, he ruined the wedding night of every couple in town. The gods decided he needed to be taught a few things and brought into being a wild man named Enkidu who would, after the inevitable titanic combat, become his best friend.

I’ve included, above, a link to the epic in case you haven’t read it before and would like to…. You don’t need to read the whole thing, though, to appreciate my student’s vivid description of Our Hero:

“Gilgamesh is a king, but not as good as he could be. He is young and is just a ball of testosterone.”

What could I possibly say that would add to the glory of this image? No, it’s not mature phrasing; yes, it’s a mixed metaphor; no, it’s not specific. But, by Ea, Shamash, and Ishtar, it is unforgettable! Quite appropriate for an epic, no?

Cylinder seal impression of Enkidu (l) and Gilgamesh (r) battling the Bull of Heaven. You can find this beautiful artifact on many Internet sites, but I will give you this one because of the fine discussion that accompanies it.

Cylinder seal impression of Enkidu (l) and Gilgamesh (r) battling the Bull of Heaven. You can find this beautiful artifact on many Internet sites, but I will give you this one because of the fine discussion that accompanies it. By this point in the story Gilgamesh has become more than a ball of testosterone.

“Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia to like him…”

You may think at first that my student was writing about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but the character-name “Orinso” suggests something more in the soap-opera line…

All right, yes: she was writing about Twelfth Night.  And I’m willing to assume, because the other names are correct, that “Orinso” is merely an o’typo—although that play has been through a number of strange variations at the hands of students, including one who seems to have thought it was an episode from The Morte d’Arthur.

The student error this sentence really reminds me of is a lovely misuse of the word “gander” as a transitive verb—I invite you to read my discussion of it, which may persuade you, as it has persuaded me, to adopt the error as part of your own colorful verbal armory.

I think I would have liked the sentence here better if it had ended after the ninth word: “Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia.” “Swoon” can be a noun (“a partial or total loss of consciousness…a state of bewilderment or ecstasy…a state of suspended animation,” says Webster) or a verb (“to faint…to become enraptured…to float or fade”). But, as Webster assures us, “swoon” is an INtransitive verb; that is, it takes no object. I suppose a writer could get away with writing “She swooned a swoon of joy,” but I can’t think of anything else one could swoon. Still, picturing Cesario/Viola trying to swoon Olivia is rather charming; perhaps it would involve putting a swooning spell on her? In my student’s mind, perhaps there could have been a vision of the comely Viola-in-Cesario-disguise standing before an Olivia fainting with rapture. I’d be willing to buy that as an explanation for the first nine words.

But she goes on. “To swoon Olivia to like him”? What is in her mind? Does she mean Cesario is to try to put a spell on Olivia to like Orinso? (Really, I have to apologize. I should be calling him “Orsino,” since I have confessed that I believe “Orinso” was bad typing rather than bad thinking—but I’m really, really getting a kick out of pretending Shakespeare named a character “Orinso.”) Anyway, Cesario trying to put a spell on Olivia to like him: could that be the intention?

No way of knowing. And of course there’s a little more. Here’s the whole sentence:

“Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia to like him and that’s when it really starts.”

Is this statement a companion piece to another, long-ago, student’s comment that “In Adam and Eve this is the first time man and woman have been together and right away there is trouble”? So young they are, and so jaded.

Does she mean that the play really starts when Orinso makes this difficult request of Viola? Or does she mean the attraction of Olivia to Viola? or the fun starts? or the trouble? Well, something really starts, anyway.

Let it be a lesson to us all. When we try to swoon people into doing things, we start something. And there’s no predicting how it will all turn out.

Happy New Year!

“The old, boring, and complex novels caused writing the essay to be more miserable.”

As night closes down on the next-to-last day of what has been a difficult year, this statement by one of my students seems peculiarly apt.

I use “peculiarly” here in its lovely sense of “distinctively, particularly, uniquely,” not in its (now) more common sense of “oddly” or “weirdly.” But maybe that sense is just as good.

I knew what my student meant, of course: writing the essay was hard because the books it was about were hard (old, boring, and complex). But perhaps because I keep assuring my students that everything is interesting to the person willing to be interested, he is reluctant to take responsibility for either the boredom or the misery. Instead, he blames the novels.

There they come, those old things, waddling into his room to cause his writing to be miserable. They settle themselves in his chair and on the edge of his desk and proceed to bore him. They may have complicated personalities, but the complications are not interesting either; they are merely complicated.  And oh MY! but they are old.

Now, he’s not laying the blame for writing’s misery exclusively on them; evidently the writing was already miserable before they arrived to make it worse. We can’t be sure that the essay itself was miserable, but we do know the writing was. And we can be sure that once those old, boring, and complex novels showed up the writing was even more miserable.

Did he have anything to do with any of this? Evidently not. The sentence doesn’t even make clear that he was doing the writing—it seems simply to exist, independent of any agent. And the miserable-ness was visited upon the writing by those books. Perhaps my student was merely an observer, sympathetic or, more likely, bored himself.

I can offer a reason for the writing’s misery: my tired, bored, and lazy-minded student. He characterizes the readings in a way that has, alas, become familiar to me. I have been told, repeatedly, in essays that “Shakespeare is boring.” I have also been told that “Shakespeare is stupid.” The person, mind you, not necessarily the plays or poems. Readers all over the world during the course of some four centuries have been interested enough to keep the stuff in print, and even to support repeated productions of those boring and complex plays; but some of my students have not been deceived: BORING. STUPID. It is a way to avoid blaming oneself for failure to understand the material or care about the characters and their dilemmas: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in myself, but in the texts, that I am failing the course. After reading Angela Carter’s wonderful short story “Erl King,” which is not only a compelling coming-of-age story that uses the erl-king archetype brilliantly but also a gorgeous demonstration of the flexibility and joyfulness of the English vocabulary, several of my students complained that “She had no right to use all those hard words.” No right. That story certainly would qualify as “complex” and therefore “boring.”

The biggest reason why writing the essay was miserable, though, was that the student did not enter the sentences, or the thoughts, or the spirit at all. The source of the misery was impersonal toil at a meaningless chore. Even a young, lively, simple short story would cause misery for such writing.

When I’m working on a piece of writing and it begins to go well, I can feel that pleasure as a physical experience as well as an intellectual one. My hands reach eagerly for the keys, my fingers begin to fly, there is actually a thrill in my forearms. My mind leaps forward; I lean in. I forget time.

I grieve that this will never happen for my student. Writing the essay will always be miserable, because he doesn’t want to get involved. Blame it on those old, boring, and complex novels.

Ah well. We can always hope the New Year will bring something we’ve never seen before, something wonderful. That’s my wish…

Oh my. Old and complex. Bound to be boring. He LOOKS boring, doesn't he? (Only to the superficial glance…)

Oh my. Old and complex. Bound to be boring. He LOOKS boring, doesn’t he? (Only to the superficial glance…)

“Mental illness affects the mind.”

I will embark for the next few posts on the sentences that never had to be written.

There is something to be said for establishing common ground in an argument: beginning the process of presenting evidence and interpreting it as supportive of an opinion by first making a statement the reader can readily agree with. But this student’s statement takes that idea down to ground zero.

Mental illness affects the mind.

The funny thing about sentences like that is that they somehow feel important, resonant. But then the reader pauses, sensing something disconcerting. Did the writer mean to be that simplistic, or am I missing something?

Has the teacher unwittingly set a false example? Certainly many of us try to open discussions by asking questions with fairly obvious answers, planning to go from those easy responses to more sophisticated points. For example: What did Melville call his great whaling novel (that you, dear students, have been assigned to begin reading for today)? [How long will I have to wait for the answer? How many students will think to themselves, “Well, I know it’s Moby-Dick, but the answer can’t be that simple…”? Will I have to smile benevolently and encourage them: “Not a trick question, class”?] But of course this answer isn’t the point: the next question, assuming the first eventually gets answered, will lead off from it: for example, “How much of the book do we have to read before we find out who or what Moby-Dick is?” And then, “Why might Melville have wanted to keep the reader guessing?” Or “Did you have any ideas about who Moby-Dick might be?” Or “Did your prior knowledge about the book make this a non-question for you?” Or “If you had been living when Melville’s novel came out, you would already have heard of the real albino whale Mocha Dick, who had sunk a number of ships, most recently the Essex out of Nantucket; would you have associated that whale with this book because of its title, and would that have made you want to read this book perhaps?” If the class had gotten farther into the novel, the second question might instead have been “Could you suggest another title?” or  “Why not title the book ‘Ahab,’ since the reader’s (and narrator’s) attention is on the obsession, the psychology, of the captain?” Or “Do you think the white whale is the most interesting aspect of the book?” Etc. We all do this: lead the student from the obvious, to the intriguing, to the interesting hypothetical, to perhaps an insight or two or a productive association of multiple pieces of information. But the seemingly obvious and certainly basic first question in a class discussion is not meant to encourage students to commit obvious statements to paper in a written analysis.

Still, students do imitate and emulate; that’s one way of learning. Alas for us, we never know WHAT the students will choose to imitate, and whether they’ll understand what they’re doing.

Now, if the student had begun with “Although the manifestations of mental illness may be physical, behavioral, or verbal, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is an illness of the mind,” I would have happily expected an essay that prioritized types of studies of mental illness, or made recommendations concerning services for the mentally ill, or looked at various treatments of mental illnesses that targeted either symptoms or sources. Or “mental illness affects the mind, but earlier cultures assumed it was a matter of demons, not disease.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, but usually it affects many more aspects of the individual as well.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why we fear it so deeply.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, the very seat of identity.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why the madman in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ thinks he is not mad.”

My student did none of the above, although he was writing about Poe’s story. After the bald beginning, he continued to enlighten along the lines of that’s-why-the-madman’s-thinking-is-so-twisted and we-can-see-from-what-he-says-that-his-mind-is-affected. In other words, yes, the simple statement could have been a door into an interesting and perhaps complex line of discussion.

Or not.

Be that as it may, he has given us a fact. Shouldn’t that be enough?

“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ …

My student was writing about a poem by Catullus, and he’s right: that’s how it started out. It’s quite similar to a poignant poem fragment by Sappho. Both poets are writing about being of two minds, being torn by two contrary emotions. No matter how familiar that situation, it never ceases to produce agony, at least in the world I inhabit (the same one Sappho and Catullus used to inhabit, I believe).

My student didn’t quite get that, though. Here’s what he had to say:

“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ This can be interpreted as the speaker is indifferent about his feelings.”

Usually I can agree with students when they protest a correction or query with an insistent “But you knew what I meant.” But here, do I? For that matter, does he?

Every once in a while a student offers a flat-out piece of self-contradiction that I know can’t be intentional. But the ensuing paragraph rarely resolves the problem; more often, the writer seems to assume that truth has been uttered, insight offered, and it’s time to move on. The reader has to ask, though, how the writer could simply move on—indeed, whether the writer has actually read the sentence at all.

Is it possible that this student doesn’t actually know the meaning of “indifferent”? Might he think it means “confused” or “puzzled by the difference in” or even “different”?

It’s hard to imagine a college student unfamiliar with “indifferent.” (I never thought anyone would have trouble understanding the word “disinterested,” either—would think it meant the same thing as “uninterested”—but evidently a lot of people are in that particular boat, and if English continues to bend to accommodate usage pretty soon I may be the one who’s confused.) The more I think about a possible confusion between “indifferent” and “different,” the more attractive it becomes as an explanation, because I do have students who seem to disregard prefixes such as “in-,” which are unstressed and sort of sound as if they might just be little gulps preceding the actual word.

Probably I shouldn’t puzzle over this too much. After all, he did say that the line could be interpreted as, not that it actually meant that. He isn’t actually “owning” the idea; he’s just throwing it out there. I wrote “No, it couldn’t” in the margin; he may have read my comment and simply said to himself “Oh, huh. Whatever.”

Still, because I cling to the idea that my students really do try, I would welcome any other explanations for his bizarre assertion. Was he confused about the meaning of “indifferent”? Did he fall asleep at the end of the first sentence or in some other way completely forget it as he plunged into the second? Or is something else entirely going on?

There’s always the possibility, albeit remote, that he’s right. Perhaps those of us who think we are wrestling with fiercely contrary feelings are actually completely indifferent, and just don’t know it. Perhaps we should just get over our silly romantic stance, put our feet up, and change the channel.

“Beowulf, like Everyman, accepted death towards the end of his life.”

That’s a pretty good time to accept it.

Actually, both of them fully accept death AT life’s end, not TOWARDS it. Furthermore, Beowulf makes a beginning at acceptance quite early in life, whereas Everyman waits until the last minute.

We see Beowulf as heroic partly because he accepts even in youth the very real possibility that he will die in one of his exploits. Wrestling with the ferocious and powerful Grendel in the Danes’ mead hall is fraught with danger; but even though Beowulf acknowledges this, he insists on meeting Grendel in barehanded single combat; although a dozen hand-picked Geats stand ready to assist him, he sees the battle as HIS fight. Either he will prevail, thus saving the lives of countless Danes and relieving King Hrothgar of the burden of guilt AND at the same time enhancing his own reputation for strength and courage; or he will fail, and failure means death of a particularly gruesome kind. Similarly, when he takes a sword and pursues Grendel’s mother into her underwater cave to avenge her (revenge-) killing of Hrothgar’s best friend, he tells his Geats and the Dane warriors assembled at the brink of the mere that he goes into this alone, and their only task is to watch and, if necessary, report his death. Fifty years later, when he goes to fight the dragon who has been despoiling his kingdom after a drunken lout disturbed the treasure-hoard the dragon existed to guard, he acknowledges that he will probably die in the attempt but insists that he must fight alone. Young Wiglaf enters the fight after the dragon has wounded Beowulf, but although he manages to wound the dragon he leaves the last knife-thrust for Beowulf. Both hero and dragon die as a result of this battle; but before Beowulf dies he distributes some of the treasure from the hoard among his people and gives them some good advice (through Wiglaf)—in effect, he makes his will. His people mourn him greatly, a “good king” who has ruled wisely and fairly. Beowulf, though, accepts death with the same grace with which he has accepted success before: it is in his nature to accept death.

This is nothing like the way Everyman “accepts” death, especially towards (as distinct from at) the end of his life. When God sends Death to Everyman to set him on the road to his final accounting at the grave, Everyman tries to talk Death out of it, asking him to come back later, give him just a little more time…. Death being adamant, Everyman then bemoans the terrible state of his accounting book and tries to persuade a series of friends and relatives to go with him to buck him up on the journey. They all refuse (one pleads a sore toe!); he sets out, but continues to ask such friends as Beauty and Strength to come along. He manages to restore Good Deeds to health after much too much neglect, and he embraces the promise of salvation and confesses his sins; he can’t actually be accurately said to “accept” death until the very end, though—his attitude is closer to resignation than acceptance.

So my student is wrong two ways: both on the timing of the acceptance of death, and on the similarity of this acceptance. She should have known better than to try to equate a HERO with an EVERYMAN, or “typical person.”

What an interesting discussion could have developed from a comparison between the two characters. She might have speculated on the relative philosophical stances of a hero and an everyday kind of guy, or on the role of an afterlife on the way a Christian should live life as handled by a (probably) Christian monk writing about a pre-Christian hero, and another (probably) monk several centuries later writing about a not-very-diligent Christian. She could have discussed the value of remembering the inevitability of death (memento mori) even when life is at its richest, comparing Beowulf’s integrity even in his youthful adventures to Everyman’s moral and religious laxity until the last minute (“O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind”). What conclusions she might have reached I don’t know, since I admit I’ve only begun to think of these possibilities as a result of writing today’s post on today’s horror. But they seem to be worth exploring nevertheless.

Making a hasty generalization about a vaguely defined moment is not the way to find the road to revelation: I do know that.

Sometimes I look back on my college career and lament the opportunities I missed: courses I might have taken, papers I might have given more thought to, heights I might have reached…. I know we all have such regrets. It breaks my heart that my students seem to amass regrettable moments so quickly, and at such a trivial level, where they could instead have let themselves be tempted into taking more glorious risks.

Well, anyway, she sighed.

Let us accept the inevitable things while we can still throw joy at them.

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was…”

I think this is going to be another one of those sentences that begin all right, go on all right, and then go on a little too far and become ridiculous. And I know it’s coming because although it does begin all right, it doesn’t begin with much elegance or focus. “Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass'” is a fairly flat beginning. “Yeah, so?” asks the reader. The opening has no promise: my student was merely pushing a pawn, so to speak, as a rather unimaginative rhetorical gambit. Statement of fact.

And the adjective clause that follows offers merely to define the noun just introduced. So, fact followed by definition. (Oh, I know you’re thinking that “which was” could launch an observation rather than a definition: “which was revolutionary in form as well as content”; “which was the first truly American poem”; “which was arguably the most influential poetic work of the American nineteenth century”; and so on. But that’s not what my student had in mind; she wanted a definition, and definition she gave.)

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that…” she goes on. The “that” may be launching a definition of the collection or the poems—in other words, a definition of something in the current definition. Or of course she may NOW be about to make an observation or judgment (“that shook the literary establishment,” “that together defined Whitman and his world,” “that he sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson in response to Emerson’s call for a truly American voice”…).

But, at least up to the “that,” she is on solid ground, if not very interesting ground. Put a period in there, my dear, and move quickly to engage your reader with the next sentence!

Here’s what she did:

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that he wrote in his lifetime.”

You see? She really didn’t have anything in mind when she began the sentence, but she kept going in hopes that light would dawn. For that, I guess she didn’t go on long enough. But evidently to her the sentence had acquired some necessary gravitas, or sonority, or importance, and was enough. Where the essay went from there I do not recall. Where could it go from there?

This student is not the only one fascinated by the fact that poets tend to write while they are alive. Or perhaps I should say Whitman was not the only poet who wrote while alive: Dante did too, for example.

I honestly don’t know of any poet who wrote before birth, or after death. I once wrote something I had dreamed (Ah, Coleridge, you too?), but I don’t think any dead poets were dictating.

But certainly there are many poets whose work lives on.

Mourning the loss today of Seamus Heaney, whose lyric poems are breathtaking, alive, moving—and whose translation of Beowulf reveals all the vigor of its Old English original as well as the story and its characters. Most distinct in his work is its life. You can’t achieve that if you’re not alive yourself.