[Milton-L] Help with a pedagogical question

Jason Kerr aelfric at gmail.com
Thu Oct 1 12:25:53 EDT 2009

In my admittedly limited experience, dealing with faith claims is one of the
particular challenges of teaching 17th century lit. As JD Fleming observes,
Herbert's poetry does involve the reader in a faith claim. Or at least, it
tries to--someone once remarked to me, rather charmingly, that she loves
Herbert's verse in spite of its Christianity. The problem is that the faith
claims in the poetry presume a very different audience than the one
assembled in an average undergraduate classroom. In a seminar I taught on
17th century poetry, I had one student out of ten with a decent knowledge of
the Bible, and one student who admitted (with refreshing candor) that he
knew nothing at all about Christianity. Both were assets in my classroom:
the former saved me from doing all the talking, and the latter kept us
honest when we incorrectly assumed that something had been adequately
defined. But then there was the matter of reaching the eight students in

At the same time, both students pose different challenges to the teacher,
whose duty in this regard, as I see it, is to help the students in general
understand how the faith claim works as part of the poem. Jameela Lares
points out the need for students of all persuasions to do analytic work, and
this can be just as difficult for "professing Christians" as for anyone
else. The major obstacle, it seems to me, is the deeply personal--and often
divisive--nature of faith, and its resultant status as one of the things
that shouldn't be brought up in polite conversation (though I wish polite
conversation came up more often in politics, that other anathema, but I
digress). Margaret Thickstun's initial post seems to have been made in the
commendable spirit of wanting to keep things civil. This is important, but
civility achieved by keeping faith claims off the table seems a pyrrhic
victory, given the relative importance of such claims in 17th century

Personally, I think that teaching Herbert offers a fantastic opportunity to
face these issues. Daniel Doerksen has a fine article in George Herbert
Journal 30 (2006) that tries to understand Herbert's broad appeal (one of
many articles that do this, I should add). Given that the 17th century
wasn't exactly a period of tepid religious consensus (contra certain
revisionists), it might be worth giving students some passages from people
like Prynne, Montagu, or (hello!) Milton, by way of starting a conversation
about just what it is about faith claims that makes them so divisive, and
then about what it means for Herbert to appeal so broadly. Ideally, a
conversation such as this would open up the kind of safe space in which
students can exercise their right (admirably defended by John Leonard) to
reveal their faith positions if they so choose. On the other hand, 17th
century history might also persuade one that such a conversation could go
horribly awry. In either case, the exercise would be instructive. (Perhaps
one should warn students to bring Kevlar vests the next time, just in case.)

Jason A. Kerr

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

          —Czeslaw Milosz, from "Ars Poetica?"
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