[Milton-L] Split readers and memorizing readers
rudrum at sfu.ca
Mon Feb 23 08:09:23 EST 2004
I assume that most of us experience "Satanic" emotions, revenge fantasies
and so on from time to time and that these enter into our responses to the
speeches of Satan and the rebel angels; the fact that these emotions and
fantasies are enunciated by the villains of the poem is what leads us to be
"surprised by sin," and thus to self-examination. In that sense we are
split readers. On the other hand, Brian Vickers was surely right when (in
one of the early negative responses to Fish's books, and in relation to
Fish's syntactical analyses) he suggested that Fish was assuming readers
with very short attention spans (this is from memory, so may not be totally
accurate, but I think that was the way Vickers's argument went).
James Fleming wrote "On dates: is it such a significant activity to pin
texts, like so many tails, on the historical donkey? On passages: is this
how far (or how near) we've come in the last 150 years of literary
professionalism -- are the natural scientists right, in other words, when
they suppose that English class is just locution and belles-lettres? "
I'm not sure how this discussion began and have deleted most of it by now;
but if literary professionalism is what JF wants, then dating texts is an
important part of it. For a recent demonstration, see the TLS review of
"Dead from the waist down" (January 16,2004, 4-5, last column of the review).
It is not just natural scientists who have little idea of what English
studies are (or might be )at university level - I wish I had a dollar for
every person who, on learning of my job, said "I never could spell" or "My
grammar is terrible." There is a difficulty in getting our work into the
public domain; as another reviewer in that same issue writes: "the older
organs of mediation between the academy and a larger intellectual public -
such as the quarterlies - are largely gone."
On learning "by heart" I agree that processes forced on us early in the
educational process can be counter-productive; and we all wait to see what
a new Hamlet will make of set pieces like "To be or not to be." But what
we read with our pupils ought surely to be beautiful in itself (James's
"belles-lettres") or enabling us toward a beautiful experience, that
expressed at the end of Herbert's "Prayer I": "something
understood." What happens in our classrooms can only be meaningful for
the rest of a lifetime, if it engages minds at some level deeper than the
most superficial. Rhythm is an important engaging quality. If we don't
listen to our pupils read or recite, we cannot know how they are hearing
the poem in their heads, just as if we don't ask them for syntactical
analysis we cannot know if they have grasped meaning accurately. Look at
the word July in the 12th stanza of Suckling's "A Ballad upon a wedding"
and see my note in the Broadview Anthology. This is true of prose as well
- try reciting an early modern passage containing the word "revenue" and
see how the rhythm is messed up if we use modern pronunciation.
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