Category Archives: literature

“In the Aeneid the power of the Queen of Carthage is impressive…”

Yes, it is. The Carthage episode is the principal one in the Aeneid selections included in my World Lit I anthology, and since it brings together a lot of important aspects of the story as tale and as poem I like to take time on it. With Aeneas we gaze in amazement at the busy and sophisticated city of Carthage, still under construction; with him we look upon its Queen and marvel at her beauty, her wisdom, and her power. My student has clearly taken those aspects to heart.

The Queen’s name is Dido, and there is some debate about how to pronounce it—Latin (DEE-doh) or Britified (DIE-doh). In fact I comment on this and warn my students that I will try to consistently use the former but will probably slip into the latter, which was the pronunciation favored by the professor in whose class I first met The Aeneid.

I hope some students found this small digression interesting, especially in a class where we frequently comment on the losses consequent on reading material in translation rather than in its original language.

The student here, however, did not; or at least he did not absorb much from the actual pages of the epic, because he added not only a third pronunciation option but also quite a new spelling:

“In the Aeneid the power of the Queen of Carthage is impressive. She is described as a beautiful woman. Her name is Ditto.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I always looked forward to the Sunday “funny papers.” If Wikipedia is to be trusted, I was four years old when Mort Walker created the comic strip Beetle Bailey. I could read the newspaper by myself at that age (indeed, at three!), but I didn’t make a regular practice of it. I think I started reading the funny papers around age six. And there, along with Nancy and Our Boarding House and Dennis the Menace and Dondi (Korean War orphan) and Little Orphan Annie (not a Korean War orphan, but ward of Daddy Warbucks) and the gorgeous Prince Valiant and the exotic Buck Rogers and the great role model Brenda Starr and the angular Dick Tracy and, blessedly, Peanuts, was Camp Swampy, populated by the lazy eponymous Beetle, the irascible Sergeant Snorkel and his faithful dog Otto, the luscious Miss Buxley, and  many others, including Beetle’s brother-in-law and sister, Hi and Lois, and their kids—Chip, Trixie, and the twins, Dot and Ditto. In 1954 Hi and Lois got their own strip, where their kids had plenty of room to shine; but they still occasionally visited Beetle, and Beetle occasionally visited them. In my mind, if your name is “Ditto,” you’re a chubby blond eight-year-old boy with nice parents, a lazy lowly GI uncle,  and a big dog (“Dawg”), and you have something to do with lazy soldiers.

For Aeneas, the murals adorning the walls of the temple of Juno in Carthage evoke tears for the destruction of Troy. For me, the name Ditto evokes neither wonder nor admiration—a queen named Ditto can’t be powerful or beautiful. Someone named Ditto lies prone on the Sunday carpet, coloring book in hand, shaggy dog nearby, and is visited by an uncle in sloppy fatigues.

For someone who wasn’t a devotée of the funny papers, “ditto” is the double dot, or an uncurly quotation mark, meaning “same as above.” And that’s not a very good name for a queen, either.

Blame student laziness (à la Beetle Bailey!) or AutoCorrect if you will, but this howler made its way onto my desk in a paper the student hoped would impress me. Impress me it did. I’ll never be able to think of Queen Dido without seeing those dots, and that little blond kid—dots over her head maybe, kid in her arms next to Aeneas’ boy Iulus.

Farewell, O tragic queen.

Some good reading for a lovely Sunday

If you haven’t read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s piece in today’s New York Times, here’s a chance to read it now.

Called ‘The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” it considers the tangible and intangible benefits of reading good literature.

Klinkenborg is one of my favorite writers, and in this piece he seems to be speaking for me as well as for himself. Click the link above and enjoy.

“Every night she would tell the king a story and…”

My student was writing on the great Middle Eastern framed collection of tales One Thousand and One Nights (commonly in English “The Arabian Nights”). Drawn from many cultures over centuries, and still accruing additions (“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” probably authentic Middle Eastern tales, were added to the Nights by European translators in the 19th century), it is a wonderful work.

You know the frame: the Persian king Shahryar, sickened by his wives’ infidelity, vows to marry a new wife every day, bed her, and kill her the next morning before she has the chance to cheat on him. Scheherazade, the daughter of his vizier, insists on becoming the next wife; the vizier reluctantly consents. (She hopes to teach the king the error of his ways and, incidentally, save all the other women in the kingdom.) She asks to bring her sister with her to the bridal chamber, and after the king has consummated his marriage the sister asks Scheherazade to tell a story. The rest is, as they say, history: dawn breaks before the story can be finished; and the king, like all of us needing to know how it comes out, lets her live. But the next night, the story’s ending slips into the beginning of another story…

My students love this work. But something besides the sister slipped into this one particular student’s summary:

“Every night she would tell the king a story and leave off on a cliff note.”

Those of us old enough, or addicted enough to “old movies,” to have seen The Perils of Pauline and its ilk know the expression is “cliff-hanger.” Even some children’s cartoons and Wild West tales and the occasional spy movie have benefited from the suspense of that lone figure hanging from his or her fingertips over some abyss or other, the potential rescuer galloping/driving/flying frantically, the audience wondering “will he be in time?”

The breaks in One Thousand and One Nights can’t really be called cliff-hangers. Yes, sometimes there’s peril. But peril isn’t the constant here: it’s fascination. The stories have many complications, and the reader can’t wait to see how those complications can possibly be resolved.

But my student didn’t say “cliff-hanger.” He said “cliff note.”

And most of us know what’s lodged in that mind, don’t we? Cliff’s Notes! I will offer a link to the Wikipedia page for Cliff’s Notes, conscious that this time Wikipedia IS an appropriate source.

The iconic cover. Perhaps the Catcher can rescue the story stuck on a cliff note?

The iconic cover. Perhaps the Catcher can rescue the story stuck on a cliff note?

Today’s student is more likely, I’m told, to turn to Spark Notes, the rival “study guides” initiated by four Harvard undergrads to tap the market created by that one Nebraska publisher’s employee. But Cliff’s is still around. What’s more, “Cliff’s Notes” has entered our lexicon as a way of saying “simplistic short form” of something more complicated and lengthy, or simply “cheat sheet.” Every teacher knows that these publications, whether or not serious about being “supplementary” to reading the original works, are for many students the substitute for being actually prepared, or actually familiar with the experience of a text.

My student should have written “and stop midway, leaving the king hanging” or “leaving the story hanging.” “Hanging” was evidently linked with “cliff” somewhere in the recesses of his mind, but once he came up with “cliff” the word that followed naturally was “notes.” That was the much more strongly imprinted phrase. Alas.

The great irony, the second level of delight in this error, is that if Scheherazade had actually used Cliff’s Notes her first story would have been done in a trice, and she would have been a goner at sunrise.

Verbum sap.

P.S. I’ll be away from the computer for a few days. Read something!


“Sunjata is a very interesting epic…”

This blog entry writes itself.

In World Lit I we read, among many other works, Sunjata (also spelled “Sundiata,” as in the translation I used the last time I taught this work). It’s an extended poem, originally from the oral tradition and still intended for oral performance, from and about Mali and the great hero Sunjata; it tells of that part of Africa during the time when Islam was becoming established.

My students like it very much. The episodes are amazing, the hero is delightful, and the presentation is spellbinding.

You can tell that, from this highly appreciative sentence by one of my students:

“Sunjata is a very interesting epic that has many interesting adventures that keep the reader interested.”

Please feel free to write your own tribute to the value of a good vocabulary.

“Rip Van Wrinkle woke up after sleeping for twenty years.”

Most of my students bring to Washington Irving’s story an assumption that Rip Van Winkle slept for a hundred years. Irving was writing a folk tale (for The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.), but today’s students have been raised on cartoon versions of fairy tales, and most people who fall asleep in fairy tales sleep for a century, I believe. Furthermore, today’s students are more likely to have seen an animated version of this story than to have read it in a book. And images of the famous sleep-off-the-gin-binge gentleman depict him as very old indeed, from the earliest images we have. Take a look, for example, at John Quidor’s painting. John should have known: he himself was born in Tappan, New York, just across the Hudson River from Washington Irving’s Irvington farm, “Sunnyside,” and not far from the site of Rip’s al fresco nap in the Catskills. How close to the thing itself can you get?

Rip Van Winkle, by John Quidor. You can see the original in the National Gallery; you can see this image courtesy of wikicommons.

Rip Van Winkle, by John Quidor. You can see the original in the National Gallery; you can see this image courtesy of wikicommons.

Now, observe him. Look how ancient he seems.

And I imagine that’s what was operating in the delightful mind of this student writer.

I happen to love the name “Rip Van Winkle.” It really does strike the American ear as very Dutch, appropriately enough for a resident of the banks of the lower Hudson River. I also think of winkles—first of all, the oyster-killing marine snails, themselves edible; then the verb for getting the little buggers out of their shells for a human snack. The periwinkle is one kind of winkle. The periwinkle is also a ground-cover plant with blue flowers, and I must thank the Crayola company for introducing me to “Periwinkle Blue” before I ever saw the flower (or the snail). Can you imagine Rip Van Winkle perhaps gradually disappearing beneath a carpet of periwinkles? What of all this free-associating did Irving want me to indulge in when he named his protagonist? Who can say? But the sound of the word and the creatures who share it as a name are small, unimportant (except perhaps to an oyster). Irving says Rip was fun-loving but “hen-pecked” (his term, not mine!) and consequently meek. And of course there’s “wink” sitting right there in the name: the flirtatious eye-twitch and also a name associated with naps: forty winks. The -le suffix makes it diminutive. Rip from-the-little-nap. Only twenty winks.

But my student had seen some cartoon version. Or perhaps he had gone to the National Gallery. Or maybe he had read the Classic Comic. In these depictions, Rip looks like a very very old man when he wakes. This despite the story, wherein Rip is father to two children when he wanders off into the Catskills and hoists a few with Henrik Hudson’s ghostly bowlers, and discovers on his return that the children have become adults. So he’s far from a sexagenarian when he begins his adventure, and hence far from a snowy-bearded old fogey when he returns. Irving also says that during his absence his beard has grown “a foot long,” indicating that he started off clean-shaven, and describes that beard as gray. But Quidor (and the other depictors) gives him a lot more than twelve inches of Van Winkle whiskers, all Santa-white.

So: when he wakes up, he has become, or taken on the appearance of, an old, old man, according to the pictures.

The village, the society, the culture have all changed a great deal during his absence. But that’s because the American Revolution has happened, not because things have been slowly evolving.

Anyway, you KNOW what’s coming. If any auto-correct was going on when my student was writing his paper, it was in his mind’s eye, not in the word-processing program.

There in Rip’s name, as on his face, wrinkles. Rip Van Wrinkle.

Well, of course.

Now, I dare you: Say my student’s version of the name three times, and then try to remember what Irving wrote.

“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize…”

I love an image that depicts an image, especially an image that depicts a strong image. This poem, I am told, has many of those.

Most often when we use the term “image” we’re referring to something that is visual. Literature depends for much of its impact on the skillful deployment of images; the reader’s emotional and intellectual experience is created by the pictures evoked in the mind that create or give depth to the events and emotions presented by the writer. The image affects the “mind’s eye,” or sometimes the mind’s ear or nose or fingers. So it’s fortunate that the poem my student is describing has a lot of images—or, rather, that it has a lot of images that depict strong images—and that they’re easy to visualize: that is, they are clear and accessible to the reader.

(She does say the images are “strong and easy,” where she actually meant “strong images that are easy to visualize,” but we will assume her intentions rather than her sentence structure and say Yes, good, lots of strong images that are easy to visualize, glad you commented on that!)

Here’s the whole sentence, though:

“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize, such as ‘you walk by faith in the darkness.'”

She is being conscientious here, following her general statement with a clarifying example.

Except that the example does not offer clarification, beyond the clarification that she’s really not sure what an image is, or what visualizing involves. “Faith” isn’t an image, although I guess if it had been capitalized the reader might imagine “you” walking alongside a friend named Faith… Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” comes to mind… but here the word “faith” is an abstract term for a whole range of ideas and absolutely no pictures.

And I guess I can visualize darkness—actually, visualizing darkness is a component of a get-to-sleep exercise I sometimes engage in—but most writers would try to present an actual image to help the reader imagine the quality or character of that darkness, not merely say “darkness,”: I don’t know, “black as the pit from pole to pole” springs to mind, thanks to William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” memorized back in the eighth grade. See, now, that’s an image, and largely for that reason the line lingers in the mind.

Student writers often try to pump up an idea or a reading beyond what it deserves or can bear. Such was the case here, where my student had chosen for her analysis essay a poem by a sincere beginner, a poem that was a poem by virtue of its short lines, not the experience offered to the reader, and the poet a beginner who had not yet learned that poetry is much more about showing than telling. This poem spoke throughout in terms like “generosity,” “courage,” “sacrifice,” “love”… the only actual image in the whole poem was “trembling hand,” and that was meant literally. But the assignment asked that the analysis include a discussion of the poem’s use of imagery, and so my student did her best to engage in such a discussion, rather than comment that this poem actually lacked imagery, instead leaving the reader to give substance to a list of abstractions through his or her own experience or insight.

So I, as the reader of her essay, am left with this image, a picture of someone walking by faith in the darkness:

Image of darkness

“The two are on their respected balconies at the same time.”

Who respects these balconies, one must ask, and what does a balcony do to gain such respect? Are there perhaps some disreputable balconies in the neighborhood, not respected by anyone? The judgmental qualities of architecture are well known, as James Joyce demonstrates in a respected short story, “Araby”: “The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.” The personification is appropriate and effective in the Joyce story, but I’m not sure my student is trying to achieve this in her own sentence—since, as I said, we don’t know who respects the balconies. It might be other balconies, or the buildings that face the balconies; or it might be passersby, or architects, or the residents of the flats so graced.

What would a respected balcony have to do to maintain its standing in the community? Always be tidy, perhaps sport well-watered plants, and certainly not host any loitering riff-raff of the human or pigeon species, I would imagine.

I know my student meant “respective” balconies. Students love that word, and they scrupulously use it to avoid any possible confusion, as in Adam and Eve wrote their respective names in the hotel register; Lois and Clark donned their respective swimsuits in their respective cabañas….  Okay, I made those two up. But not by much. The reader can’t be trusted, I guess, to understand that Adam didn’t sign the register “Eve,” and Clark didn’t don Lois’s swimsuit—in either cabaña. Nor can the reader be trusted to understand that the two girls in the story my student was summarizing, forbidden by their parents to play together, were standing each on her own balcony, not huddled on one or using each other’s as a joke on the folks.

What charms me is the things they feel they must be this scrupulous about, and the other things that they feel comfortable expressing any which way. What are the criteria for the choice?

“One must go through the Despond of Slough.”

My student is writing about John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the story that has provided me with a name for my domicile toward the end of any semester: the Slough of Despond. Bunyan places this swampy stretch just past Pilgrim’s house, and when he takes a notion to cast down his burden of sin and go to the Celestial City his first adventure is to fall into it.

The student’s error is mere word reversal, but oh how charming a reversal it is. Another student last semester wrote of a facility I want to recommend to some certain managing types I’ve known: the Center for Control Disease. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. The reason for such transposals is unclear, although I’d surmise that for someone who’s never heard of a Slough or of Despond, or someone who can’t quite picture “disease control,” the word order may not seem to make much difference.

“Slough” is a fascinating word. Prepping for my PhD orals I thought to look up its pronunciation just so that, if asked to comment on Bunyan, I wouldn’t make any truly basic errors. I learned from the venerable Webster that the word has three different pronunciations, and each is attached to a separate meaning. The “despond” one rhymes with “cow.”

That discovery drove me to drop everything (this has always been how I deal with important approaching deadlines) and write a poem about spelling, which you may read here if you’re curious.

Desperately proud of myself, I showed the ditty to the then department chair, Prof. George H. Ford. He chuckled, and then commented that it made him think of “that poem, ‘fall friendly bomb….'”

For the complete text of THAT poem, and a description of the British city bombed (like other British cities) during World War II and immortalized in Sir John Betjeman’s perky verses, click over to the inevitable Wikipedia. It begins

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

I guess I’m not the only person who deals with impending disaster by writing about Sloughs.  Betjeman’s description of the place actually makes me think there might be a spot there that the locals call the Despond of Slough. Big tourist attraction? And evidently the poem threw said locals into despond, for which he later expressed regret.

Well, go forth, pilgrim. Do not fall into the Slough of Despond, or enter the Despond of Slough either.

“It took 1 year for Gawain to live before he had to die.”

This is our dear Sir Gawain again. His story isn’t all that complicated, but students get into all sorts of contorted sentence postures trying to summarize it.

Not hard. At the Yule feast, King Arthur wishes for a game or diverting story. In rides a knight and horse, both entirely green, to challenge Arthur to a beheading game: Arthur may strike off the knight’s head, but in a year must seek him out and submit to a similar stroke. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, seeks to spare his king the hazard and at the same time earn some fame for himself; he beheads the green knight and so is committed to the exchange. A year passes, and he sets out to find the Green Chapel; he chances on a castle where he may hear Christmas mass and gather his strength for the coming ordeal. The lord of the castle is going hunting and offers to exchange prizes each day: he, a bit of the animal killed; Gawain, whatever benefit he has found in the castle. But the lady of the castle is up to her own game, and tries each day to seduce Gawain. Day One: a deer steak, a kiss; Day Two: a boar steak, a kiss; Day Three: the fox tail, a kiss. But Gawain has held back the green sash the lady has given him to protect him from harm. Then he sets out to find the Green Knight on the appointed day. The Green Knight needs three attempts at Gawain’s head: on the first try Gawain flinches; on the second, the knight feints; on the third, the knight nicks Gawain, and the game is revealed—Morgan le Fay, attempting to discredit the Round Table, has created Knight, Castle, lady, sash, and all. The Knight therefore knows of Gawain’s dishonesty with the sash. But he acknowledges Gawain’s essential purity, which means Morgan le Fay has failed. Gawain swears to wear the sash forevermore, as an admission of his shame; but when he returns to Camelot everyone else dons a green sash too, in honor of Gawain. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

More or less.

In today’s Horror, my student has essayed to summarize the story. This sentence bridges the space between the beheading of the Green Knight and the due date for Gawain’s pledge.

WHAT “took one year”? “It,” of course–the same “it” that comes in so handy to tell us “it’s hard to leave you,” “it’s a sin to tell a lie,” and “it takes a village to raise a child.” In this way, it took a year–sorry, 1 year. Now generally in this structure we understand the “it” by moving deeper into the sentence, to an infinitive. To leave you is hard. To tell a lie is a sin. To raise a child takes a village. Thus, to live took 1 year. You see the problem.

It took him a year to live before he had to die. It takes most people seventy or more years before they have to do this, but Gawain is in a magic story and perhaps we have to try to look past the idea of a one-year-old Knight of the Round Table. We will allow my student to be claiming that it took him one MORE year to live.

We can also allow “he had to die” to mean “he was appointed to meet death,” rather than the more generalized fact of mortality—because, like it or not, we all have to die, and that becomes true at birth, not at some later date.

By the time we’ve allowed all this, we’ve run out of sentence. The only solution for the hapless grader is to note “awkward” or “unidiomatic” in the margin, take a deep breath, and plunge into the next narrative thicket, just as Gawain made his way through the wintry landscape in quest of the Green Chapel.

Gawain wasn’t laughing, though, and I have to confess that I was.

“Medea is exiled from not only the land but from her motherhood and spousal hood.”

I used to really have a fit if I saw “not only” but didn’t see “but also” in the same sentence. I don’t think I’ve mellowed over the years; I think I’ve just decided to fight fewer battles.

And since I’m not going to fight that one here, I have to confess I have a certain delighted admiration for this writer.

She’s right that Medea is utterly alone (except of course for that grandfather who shows up in the Chariot of the Sun in the nick of time). To win Jason she stole from the gods and from her country (enabling him by her magic and foresight to win the Golden Fleece), outraged and humiliated her father (King of Colchis), slew and dismembered her brother, and tricked the daughters of Pelias into killing their father (they thought they were making him young again). So she really couldn’t “go home again” after settling down in Corinth with Jason and bearing two children. As Euripedes shows, she’s a misfit in Corinth: wrong religion, wrong language, wrong relatives, and alas, not nearly as pretty or useful to the ambitious Jason as Glauce, daughter of King Creon of Corinth. Eager to be rid of the encumbrance Medea represented, Jason went ahead and married Glauce and had Medea exiled (planning to keep the children, though). She had twenty-four hours to leave town, more or less.

Exiled, you see, from the land, from her motherhood, and from her…what is the word? I’m so proud that my student sought a noun for the sake of the series of things Medea was exiled from. And I don’t blame her (the writer) for being at a loss for the right noun, either. After all, Medea wasn’t quite exiled from her husband, since he had moved on and also since he hadn’t been very attentive even before he decided to change wives (except, I guess, for making the two kids). In the same way she wasn’t exiled from her spouse, or even from her marriage. But she was exiled from the state of being somebody’s wife. “Spousal hood” is pretty resourceful. “Spousehood” is listed as a word in several online dictionaries, but not in my print Webster’s; and it probably wasn’t in my student’s lexicon. She just did her best. I like “spousalhood” partly because it has the same dactyllic rhythm of “motherhood” and a fluidity of sound much more pleasant than the spondee-with-a-huh-in-the-middle of “spousehood.” I’m not sure why she let “hood” break off on its own, since it was perfectly well attached in “motherhood.” It does emphasize the coinage. I’m sure my student didn’t have headwear in mind.

I kind of wish that instead of “the land” she had written “her neighborhood.” Not only from the neighborhood but from her motherhood and spousalhood. Has a je ne sais quoi about it, no?

For those who don’t have time to reread Euripedes or the other variants on this story: Medea sent the two kids to Glauce to present her with gifts: a gown and a crown. Glauce couldn’t wait to put them on, and when she did, the poison smeared inside them burned her alive, as it did Creon, who had rushed to her side and got some poison on him. Meanwhile, the boys had returned home to Mater, who killed them like little sacrifices rather than have them endure the shame of complicity in Glauce’s death. And then, with the soldiers of Corinth approaching, Medea hopped into the flying chariot of Helios, her grandfather, and flew the Corinthian coop.

As for Jason, that rotter, when he wandered melancholy and alone down to the harbor to look upon his good ship Argos and reminisce about past happiness, a piece of the Argos broke off (the figurehead, maybe) and hit him on the head—an inglorious ending for a fickle user and would-be hero.

I’ve gone into this story because I have another amazing sentence about it, and I’ll be presenting that shortly.

Meanwhile, please do enjoy the invention of “spousal hood,” child of necessity.

Medea sends the children with gifts for Glauce. Glauce will not live to enjoy spousal hood!Source:

Medea sends the children with gifts for Glauce. Glauce will not live to enjoy spousal hood!