Reading and Writing the Romantic Age:

English 330, Winter 2007

For: Romantic Conversations: Things the Romantics Loved to Talk About, click here


I. The Goals of English 330

II. Self-reflective Learning

III. Thumb-Plunging, or the Art of Literary Noticing

IV. Cultural Conversations

V. Criteria for Interpretive Essays in this Clas

VI. The Grid




The chief goal of this class is to make you a better and more active reader of literary texts. To accomplish that goal our work will center on learning the moves by which critical readers generate readings in the first place. I will offer you a method for active reading, and I will require you to use it. We will still talk about thematic issues, and I will still tell you at some point what my general conception of the work under discussion is. But I will expect you to think for yourself, even if that leads to some novel readings from time to time. You will need to be willing to take chances, even to be dead wrong. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and you are unlikely to become a proficient reader of literary texts without abusing them on occasion. It truly won’t bother me—it should similarly not bother you. By the end of the quarter you may not think yourself fully expert in navigating textual seas, but most of you truly will feel much more control over the enterprise.


If the primary goal of this class is to make you an active reader of literary texts, the generic name for the method we will use is “close reading.” In one form or another it underlies virtually all literary discourse; indeed, it is so common that we don’t always notice we’re doing it. The texts read in English classes nowadays vary immensely, from Shakespeare to Alice Walker, from plays and poems to advertisements and football games. Yet in every case the process of interpretation proceeds in much the same way: we first notice particular features of the language within which the text is written, we then explore each of those features to see what possibilities for interpretation they offer, and finally we go on to sift and evaluate those possibilities with respect to each other in order to provide a general interpretative explanation for why those features are as they are. To be sure, the things skilled readers notice about texts differ immensely, for different critics have very different interpretive frameworks. Some of us are Freudians, some feminists, some cultural materialists, some are other things altogether. But the process of noticing, exploring, and explaining nevertheless underlies what every one of us does.

That is a pretty simple description, but as many of you already know, learning to do it for yourself is difficult. It involves at least two major achievements, the first of which is to have developed the habit of reading texts figuratively. I call that the habit of “figurative attention,” and I mean by it a way of seeing a text both as a thing in itself (a story, a set of words, an expression, a description) and at the same time as a way of talking indirectly—”figuratively”—about something else. “Rose, thou art sick,” writes William Blake at the opening of the 19th century, and a figurative attention sees this not just as a description of a rose with a bad case of mildew but also as an indirect reference to significances beyond itself. People argue about exactly what that reference is—whether it is to the rose-like innocence of youth threatened by having to live within a dangerous world, or the moral and physical health of the English nation endangered by the sweat shops and child labor of the early industrial revolution, or even a healthy sexuality blasted by venereal disease. But what matters is that none of those are actually named by Blake’s poem. Instead, he leaves his meaning in an important way “open-ended” and not fully specified, and that open-endedness to interpretation is a big part of what makes his text “literary” in the first place.

So the ability to pay figurative attention—to see how the language writers use makes indirect reference to things beyond itself—is the first achievement required for sophisticated literary discourse. The second involves a knowledge of lines of cultural conversation, the normal critical topics to which a literary text makes its indirect reference. In the Blake example above, the cultural topics critics generally accept include both that of a kind of a general ethical view of the world (“the ... innocence of youth threatened by having to live within a dangerous world”), and that of social history (“the moral and physical health of the English nation endangered by the sweatshops and child labor of the early industrial revolution”).

Obviously, being able to negotiate these critical topics requires knowing a lot more than does merely paying figurative attention; it is in fact the greatest part of what many literature classes are given over to. When someone explains Freudian symbolism in a D.H. Lawrence short story, for example, in order to do so they must first supply enough information about Freud that readers who don’t know Freud’s work will be able to see how Lawrence’s writing can be thought of as making reference to it in the first place. Thus while you might already have learned to pay figurative attention well enough to see that Lawrence’s stories invite some sort of figurative reading, your sense of what those figures might refer to obviously cannot include Freud until you know something about—sometimes a great deal about—Freud’s theories of the mind.

So far, so good. Unhappily, one can become so involved in the obvious importance of such topics of critical conversations (like Freud, or the social history of early 19th century England) that one substitutes the study of these topics for the study of the texts that invoke them, paying more attention to the issues a text alludes to than to the even more essential task of learning to formulate readings in the first place. We will not do that here. In this class, although I will indeed be offering you descriptions of various critical conversations within which to view the works we read, our focus will remain rather single-mindedly on your becoming active readers of this material.

Success in this class will thus not simply be the ability to recapitulate what you have learned about critical contexts, nor will it even be the ability to recapitulate what we as a group have worked out about any one speech, poem or scene. Rather, success will depend on your ability to do for yourself what we will have modeled for you in various ways as a class. On all graded work, then, I will be asking you in a given text to show where and, by exploring that text’s semantic logic, exactly how you yourself see that text’s language alluding figuratively to various culturally valued topics, and exploring the ways in which it takes part, as it were, in a kind of implicit conversation about them.

We’ll be working with other reading concepts as well—like how the texts we read do things in and to the culture that produced them. But whether with these or other questions, again, the important thing is that in the end you learn to read these texts for yourselves.

This means that I won’t finally care a great deal whether you leave this class having learned what I think about the texts we read. I’m not opposed to your knowing that, but it is my sense that that sort of information is precisely what one most quickly forgets from one’s college education. As a matter of fact, what I think about a given text is so unimportant that I can’t myself remember what I thought about Hamlet in (say) 1990. Indeed, I’d be a little unhappy if I did. An experienced reader’s relation to complex literary texts finally isn’t the sort of thing one can write down once and for all—nor should it be. The open-ended interpretability of such texts is precisely what makes them “complex” and, in the end, so terribly interesting. The art of interpretation is less in the finding of a particular and unique solution to a puzzle than it is in exploring the ways of thinking any complex text makes available to its readers. Interpretation is thus a process that a skilled reader working with a complex text goes through over and over again, deepening, revising, reconceptualizing over time.

Now, that said, I don’t also mean to say (as the caterpillar in Through the Looking Glass says of words) that a literary work can mean anything you’d like it to mean. That’s not my point at all. Although there is no single “right” reading for any given text, and though any one reader’s interpretation may change over time, there nevertheless really are better and worse readings, and the way one tells them apart is by their adherence to a set of conventions governing the way we interpret things. Literary theorists argue about what these conventions are and how one can defend them as legitimate ways of judging the quality of differing readings, but in this class our criteria for good readings will include a) fidelity to the text, b) historical plausibility, and c) internal consistency, and we’ll spend a lot of time exemplifying as clearly as we can exactly what those phrases mean.


In closing I’ll re-stress what I’ve only just said: there are in this class no single “right” readings for any line or any stanza or any chapter. Rather, there are ways of reading figuratively with which skilled readers can produce better and worse understandings of literary texts--and learning to do that well is the primary purpose of this class.


In offering a course in active reading, my chief aim is obviously to supply you with ways to become better figurative readers. But in pursuing that goal I will also be asking you to think about what you are doing here as learners. For I am convinced that students learn more, and learn more deeply, as they develop self-awareness of the ways they learn. Though we don’t usually think about it in these terms, learning is in fact a highly complex and difficult matter, and involves much more than simply absorbing new material. Thus, for example, most of us find ourselves at times resisting learning at least as much as we embrace it. That may at first seem counter-intuitive, but it actually makes a lot of sense. As learners we are always making judgments about what we are asked to learn, weighing the new schemes to which we are being introduced against the schemes we already know. Sometimes those judgments are straightforward. Professor X tells you one thing, and Professor Y another—you choose to believe Professor X because (perhaps) she is expert in the field in a way that Professor Y is not.

At other times, however, the judgments learners make are far less obvious. Professor X suggests you write a paper in one way, but what happens if you feel you’ve tried that way of writing before and it didn’t work for you? Do you ignore the suggestion? Do you accept it? Or do you finesse the matter, seeming to embrace it for the moment (one needs to please one’s professors, after all), learning temporarily, as it were, but resisting any real change in your paper writing habits?

I don’t think decisions to resist learning are always wrong; indeed, they are often very much the right thing to do. At the same time, because I think that students and professors alike are not always very careful about making those decisions, I think it makes sense to be aware of what we are resisting, when we are resisting it, and why.

So resistance is one learning issue we’ll reflect on. Another issue is “difficulty.” As learners, we all have different responses to the difficulties we run into. Some of us look for it, seek it even; some of us hate it, can’t stand dealing with it.

Sometimes difficulty is best avoided, and we should look for a way around it, but that is probably not a very good solution for literary texts, even if the volumes of Cliff Notes that decorate the walls of college bookstores all across America may suggest that some choose it anyway. In literary matters, at least, I’d like to think that difficulty is best dealt with by breaking it into constituent pieces, and resolving it step by step. From the more general perspective of learning, however, my point is only that people tend to do better with difficulty when they recognize it, define it, and work to find a productive strategy for dealing with it.

Two other learning issues we’ll touch on are motivation and transfer. The first has to do with what makes you want to do a course in the first place. By definition, a college course is supposed to put in front of you a series of problems that will involve novelty, frustration, resistance (often enough)—difficulty, in short. But dealing with those matters asks significant mental exertion, and our biology tends for most of us to make that energy difficult to muster. Human beings are, in the end, organisms that thrive under most circumstances through seeking equilibrium. We develop set routines, ways of balancing risks and rewards, a sense of what we think “normal.” We have our “comfort zones,” and, as the term implies, we feel uncomfortable when we are out of them.

Given all this, what keeps us going? What motivates us to keep putting energy into a learning task? What motivates YOU? Sometimes it is habit, sometimes it is community, sometimes it is—well, what?

Finally, there is the issue of transfer, or of how we find ways to transfer the learning we do in one situation to other, similar situations. One classic example of a transfer problem comes from mathematics, where studies have shown that students who have learned how to find the area of a rectangle are often—in spite of the obvious connection—unable to find the area of a football field. That may seem a little shocking, but very similar things happen in literary study. The most obvious case has to do with an ability to transfer reading skills from class to class, but even more important is the case of not seeing how to transfer the textual reading skills one develops through literary study into ordinary life.

For the world of “figurative reading” is by no means limited to the pages of books or even the flickering frames of moving pictures. We live amidst figuration, as almost every dimension of our lives is narrativized—which is a way of saying, much of what we know, and much of how we attribute significance to our lives and to the actions of those around us, is through stories. Learning to read literature well is thus also a way of learning to read our lives well. But do the sophistications and pleasures and challenges we encounter in reading literary texts actually carry over to the lives we lead? Do the conceptual skills of reading through and reading into narrative and figurative surfaces actually transfer to the rest of our lives?

This class will foreground these and other learning issues with the goal of making your learning more effective than it might otherwise be, and I’ll be asking you at different points in the quarter to reflect on how the class is or isn’t working for you.



Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner,
Eating his Christmas pie.

He stuck in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”

Reading and writing about complex texts can make you feel a lot like Jack Horner. You’ve got this big textual pie, and you know there’s much in it worth talking about, and in the past you may even have stuck in your thumb and come out with an idea, but you still don’t know how to locate such idea-plums with more precision than Jack’s random thumb-plunging method. These pages offer ways to make you better at finding things worth talking and writing about in the texts you read. Not all will be new to you, not all will be helpful to everyone. But taken together, and combined with practice, they will make you a much better and more active reader of literary texts than you now are.


Critical reading and writing about literature is all about finding figurative modes of reading ostensibly literal texts. To manage this we look for what are in effect interpretive “triggers,” ways of kicking our attention out of the literal and into a figurative frame. One key sort of trigger is the problematic moment, a place in or about a work (or in a pair or set of works) that is odd enough, or unclear enough, or unstated enough, to require explanation. Such things we (unsurprisingly) call “problems,” and the process of locating them (even less surprisingly) we call “problematizing.” But how does one find a problem, formulate a explanation, and then develop support for it? To help you get started I offer my “Three Rules for Reading.” Each comes in the form of a question; I accompany each question with a description of what it means and how it can be used:

1. What? The longer version of this question is “What choices can you notice that your author has made in constructing the text in front of you?” The point of this question depends on two observations, the first of which has to do with what is implied by the very idea of “choice.” For a choice is necessarily the result of picking between various alternatives (without an alternative, we have no “choice” in the first place), and thus whatever our choice turns out to be, we nevertheless might have chosen to do something else. And that creates conceptual space for a question: why, if we might have acted differently, did we make the choice we actually made? Sometimes the problem raised in this way is trivial (you chose to go for coffee an hour ago—why?), but it is nonetheless a problem, and as such offers a chance to weigh the alternatives we might have chosen instead, and to suggest an explanation as to why we made the choice we did. And what is true for personal choices is also true for literary choices. If a detective writer chooses to call his character “Mike Hammer,” (as did Mickey Spillane in I, the Jury), then because he could have chosen a million other names we can ask: why THIS choice and not another? Given the same choice, Agatha Christie (in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) called her detective “Hercules Poirot.” How are the two choices different? Spillane’s seems simpler, more common; “Hammer” even suggests hard, unfeeling, physical, powerful. Christie’s choice by contrast is uncommon—indeed, it’s a French name, and as such (some would say) suggests foreignness, eccentricity, even (because you have to know some French even to pronounce his name) intellectuality. We needn’t worry here about how the choices each of these authors made fits the kind of book they each wished to write (each in fact fits its book quite well). I’m only illustrating the general point that wherever we can identify a choice like this, we have also identified a problem which takes the form: why THIS choice and not another?

That’s the first observation about why it is helpful to notice the choices authors make. The second has to do with the nature of language generally, and artistic language in particular. For it turns out that any piece of language is the result of choices—sometimes conscious, sometimes not. When we see someone we know in the street, we choose our greeting. We say “Hello,” or “Hi,” or “Hey man,” or whatever phrase seems best to us at the time. True, our choice isn’t usually a conscious one, but it IS a choice, and (this is the truly amazing part), even though we don’t consciously think it through, nevertheless it is a choice for which we can actually give reasons, should we ever stop to think about it. For we don’t say just any old thing. Rather, our greeting depends on how well we know the person we greet, their age, their gender, how much we like them—a whole range of factors.

But if just saying hello requires choices, imagine how much more complicated a series of choices is involved in the writing of a carefully constructed text! And every one of those choices—just like the choice we make in saying hello—sets up a problem, that of why this choice rather than another. To be sure, not every choice turns out to have an interesting explanation, but many in fact do, and as readers we can put ourselves in the position of having something to say by learning first to isolate the choices an author has made, and then (in step 2, described below) by going on to explain and evaluate their significances.

Noticing Whats, then, helps one get started with interpretation by imagining any text as the result of a series of choices, each one of which raises a problem for which its readers need to supply solutions. That’s the good news. The bad news is that once we’ve begun noticing in this way we may find that we have as many problems as we have words. So the real trick in this lies in separating the truly interesting choices—the “notice-worthy” ones—from all the rest, and a good place to begin that task is to look for those choices which represent any kind of departure from the ordinary or the expectable. After all, we don’t usually need to explain the expected. Rather, it’s the unexpected, the strange, the departure from the ordinary that creates a need for explanation. That departure can take a number of forms. It can be an action that we wouldn’t have predicted; it can be a surprising turn in a conversation, perhaps a topic raised for reasons that aren’t fully clear. Or it can be a stylistically noticeable use of language: a sound effect, a metaphor, a particular rhythm.

As an example of how one might use the notion of the unusual to isolate a notice-worthy choice, consider in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear the way Gloucester responds to Kent when Kent inquires about Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, who is even then standing right next to them:

Kent: Is this not your son, my lord?

Gloucester: His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to’t.

Kent: I cannot conceive you.

Gloucester: Sir, this young fellow’s mother could; whereupon she grew round-wombed, and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?

Kent: I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper.

Gloucester: But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account: though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.

At one level this is just ordinary background conversation—Shakespeare is only setting the scene before Lear’s grand entrance and the great family fight that is to follow. But there is also a very marked strangeness about the interchange. For Gloucester here describes Edmund as a kind of inconvenience, a mistake, the result of a “fault” which (against his better judgment, he seems to say) he has grown to like.

Now, as a subject for interpretation this is noticeable because it is an unusual way to talk about one’s son, even if his mother wasn’t legally your wife when he was born. Indeed, because the tone is so insulting (he even goes on to call him his “whoreson”!), it would be an unusual way to talk about anyone at all—let alone your own son—who was standing right next to you. Because that way of talking is strange, it’s also something that invites explanation. It creates a little problem of motive: why does Gloucester talk this way? As a departure from what we might have expected someone to say, then, these lines offer an excellent What—something well worth notice.

Or, to take a different example, you might notice in Measure for Measure that in the play’s first speeches Shakespeare chooses to have the Duke and others (including Angelo himself) characterize Angelo, whom the Duke is appointing interim duke while he himself must leave his dukedom, as humble, self-doubting, even unwilling to take on the power which the Duke gives him. That’s something worth noticing, since humility isn’t his strong suit later on. So is Angelo just posing? Are others merely deceived by his apparent modesty? Or is his subsequent arrogance a genuine change, a completely new twist to his character? Much later in the play we learn that the Duke had long suspected Angelo wasn’t as humble as his outward show had suggested—so the Duke’s talk at the play’s beginning turns out to be ironic at the very least. But in any case, Angelo’s humility is so stressed at the play’s outset (the idea is repeated several times) that it is well worth notice. Why (the next question will be) does Shakespeare make such a big deal of Angelo’s modesty here?

These examples of “What’s”—choices we can see Shakespeare making to set his plays up in one way rather than another—may not surprise you. If not, then good. But do keep in mind that while we ourselves make language choices every time we say a word, and while we are also highly skilled at a kind of unconscious analysis of choices that others make when they speak or write to us, nevertheless the ability to notice in this conscious, analytic way is not God-given. Though we all have the capacity for it, actually doing it takes a lot of practice. Indeed, so unnatural is such conscious attention to what we read that new readers of imaginative literature usually look right past the language without ever noticing how writers have chosen to use one word instead of another, one idea here, but a different one there. Even though as readers each of us will (and must) be responding to the choices these writers have made (unless we simply aren’t understanding them at all!), most of us as new readers nevertheless will not know how to pay conscious attention to these choices. That is a reading skill to be learned.

2. Why? That is my second question, and its full form is something like: “Why might a writer have made the particular choice you have noticed? What does that choice indicate about how he or she is thinking?” With respect to the examples above, the effect of the “Why?” question is to ask you to think about possible explanations for the “whats” you have noticed in step one.

Why, for example, does Shakespeare have Gloucester talk the way he does of Edmund? Is it to give us an initial sense that Gloucester is not very respectful of his son as a human being? to show us that for him Edmund, as an illegitimate, bastard son, will always be a little less than human? Or is it to be taken more generally to suggest that everyone in this play will have trouble understanding the feelings and emotions of others, Gloucester here being as insensitive about his son as Lear will soon show himself to be about his daughters? Or does Shakespeare have Gloucester speak this way in order to suggest ahead of time something about why Edmund will soon show himself to be a brutal, cunning, and manipulative man? Edmund is, this opening interchange suggests, only living up to his own father’s dehumanizing description of him.

In pursuing “Whys” you need to be imaginative and playful, casting your net wide in order to come up with claim-worthy hypotheses. But you must also keep in mind that these “whys” are, indeed, only hypotheses. We don’t know for sure what Shakespeare really meant to do in the examples I’ve given you—and what Shakespeare intended (and how much any author fully understands of his or her intentions is yet another question we could ask) isn’t always the best measure of a reading anyway. In explaining the problems we locate in a text all we have to work from are probabilities and inferences made from our past experiences with the ways people have used the language code with us.

Still, the fact is that we do make inferences of this sort quite regularly in our ordinary lives, and we do so fairly reliably. So (I’ll stress this one more time) though you are working with a literary text, you are really only using in a self-conscious and reflective way skills and knowledge which you already possess and which you often use in other dimensions of your life.

3. So What? My third rule-question turns to the most challenging part of interpretive reading: the process of locating and then developing arguments about a work’s meaning or significance. For after you’ve done all this noticing and exploring, what do all those words and lines of text end up meaning? So What?!

In my experience the best way to answer the So What question is to frame it in terms of the work’s over-all function, or of what we think it sets out to accomplish. “What is this poem (novel, story, drama) for?” we need to ask, “what cultural work does it do?” This is what could be called a functional, or action-based, theory of interpretation. From its point of view, art works are actions, the results of human will, and as such can be analyzed like other actions we human beings take. As a “thing done,” we can ask about a given work of art—what was it done for? What was its inventor’s projected goal in making it?

One advantage of this approach is that we’re actually already pretty skilled at this sort of analysis. Indeed, for most of the actions we observe in ourselves and in other people, we do such analysis more or less automatically. I go to the refrigerator, get out a beer, pop the top and take it back to the ballgame, and nobody needs to think hard to analyze my action. At a very basic level it’s obvious to anyone watching what my goal is, and both why and how I’m doing it. I have a very specific project, and a pretty clear motive for having launched it.

To be sure, there may be more to my motives than just my being thirsty, so there may be more to say about the significance of my action than that I went to the refrigerator in order to satisfy my thirst. I will, for example, very likely have had unconscious motives for getting a beer in the first place (I may even be responding to an ad I’ve just seen!). And maybe there are other special circumstances as well. Maybe my elder brother is visiting, and maybe my getting a beer is a passive-aggressive way of getting back at how domineering he’s always been, for although he loves beer, he is also on a diet and can’t drink. All he can do is sit there and salivate as I luxuriate in the taste of a fine IPA. In life as in art, the more you know about the circumstances that surround actions, the more you can say as an active reader about the work those actions do in a given situation.

So, to restate in slightly different terms: if we want to make a “so what” claim about the significance a given work of art has, it helps to think of that work as something that does something else, something that sets up for itself, as it were, a project. What, for example, is the project of Wordsworth’s poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud?” or of Shakespeare’s King Lear? What is each of these pieces of literature working to do? We know that Wordsworth often expressed a wish that his poems represent to us his theory of poetic making. With this in mind as at least one of the things Wordsworth might well want his poem to do, we can then go to the poem itself to see if it actually seems to be doing it. If our hypothesis that Wordsworth is trying to explain his theory of poetry makes sense of the noticings (the ‘whats’ and the ‘whys’) we’ve already done, then we can go on to put together our understanding of how the choices we have noticed Wordsworth making serve to accomplish that project.

You may notice that I make a distinction here between Wordsworth’s project in writing his poem and the poem’s project as we determine it from our readings of it. That’s a distinction I want to make. As I suggested earlier, not all of an author’s motives are conscious. Art often does what an author wants it to do, but it also often does other things as well. Sometimes it fulfills unconscious intentions; at other times it may do things that the author didn’t even dream of. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, now do things in the 21st century that Shakespeare himself could never have imagined. He might well in King Lear have wanted to give his audience a way to think about the limits of human power or what it is that makes us fully human, for example; but he certainly didn’t intend to create a piece of cultural capital that has for the past two hundred years been one of the primary means by which England and the English define themselves. Yet it’s true that that is something Shakespeare’s plays unquestionably have done—and it would be an interesting critical task to ask how the choices Shakespeare made in writing his plays have so reverberated with subsequent generations of readers that they have had that unplanned, unimagined, effect.

Similarly it’s quite possible that in creating Goneril and Regan, Lear’s two thankless daughters, Shakespeare never intended to create a misogynistic argument against conferring power upon women. Yet that, too, is one thing that the play very arguably functions to do, and without necessarily any conscious intention on Shakespeare’s part at all.

All those complications granted, how does a reader come up with a sense of a work’s possible function(s)? Much of your success in function-finding will come from accumulating a stock of likely suspects. Some of these are general to literature—literature at any time and in any culture will engage its readers/hearers in what are in effect tacit conversations about issues they are likely to care about. Many of those conversations recur—some like love, sex, and power are so common that many have even thought them “universal.” That’s not really true—even concepts without which much human life couldn’t even be imagined, like “love” or “childhood,” have varied a great deal over time. But even with that conceded, the topics that underlie literary conversation are still remarkably long-lived. (There is at the end of this essay a list of common poetic-cultural themes; at some point you might read through them and think about which of them arise in the works we read in this course.)

Then in addition to those general topics, different historical periods and movements also offer their own themes and emphases—which is just a way of saying that Renaissance writers or Romantic Age writers had their own particular sorts of projects to accomplish, many of which surface in the works they produce, and most of which differ in important ways from those of their poetic predecessors or followers. Many Romantic-age poets, for example, engage issues like that of a need for profound social change, or of the privileged nature of the poetic imagination, or of the restorative power of nature. We will outline many of these historically sited themes and emphases in class.

Finally I will close this section by noting that in addition to providing a kind of intellectual space for these theme-based conversations, most works will have also have a more general sort of work to do as well—a function to perform—like one or more of the following:

The Personal Function. One thing literature can do is enact a range of psychological functions, creating effects that people locate with words like beauty, amusement, “entertainment,” or escape. We take a certain sort of pleasure from each of these effects, or fulfill some kind of very deep need. Sometimes it’s simply a need to feel a sense of completeness in the world, sometimes it is to intuit powerful patterns that are in some sense bigger and deeper than anything we ourselves can create. Or maybe it feels like a need to divert ourselves from the reality we struggle with each day and to spend time in a parallel universe that can with its successes re-inspire us when we return to the real world we left as we first opened the book or entered the theatre. Each of these effects seem to be in some sense quite simple, though each can also be further investigated. Why, for example, does the display of order so please us? What is it about the way we navigate our existence that makes moments of beauty so pleasurable? Not every literary work asks us to think about these issues; indeed many (like the musical Mamma Mia, for example) seem to urge us not to think much at all. But whatever we are thinking consciously, our minds are busy nevertheless, even if at a level well below (or beyond) our conscious thought.

The Teaching Function. This function accounts for the way literature can attempt to inform us about life’s various experiences or issues. A novel or a play may offer insight into a particular sort of character, for example, suggesting what a person of such and such a type would do under this or that set of circumstances. Or it may attempt to unveil what it takes to be truths about the way we live, or the way the world is structured, that we may or may not already understand. Maybe it will make an argument about social or political power and how it is distributed.

Or maybe it wants to teach us about how the world might be, or how it should be. In The Apology for Poetry Sir Philip Sidney talks about the “Golden World” that art creates—that which has never before been seen or thought of, something to aim for, to model ourselves upon and work towards. Other writers, by contrast, may give you an anti-world, a kind of model of what we fear or shun, or seek blindly to our own detriment. In any of these cases, the function of such art is to inform us, warn us, move us, always to be teaching us something, and it is our job in such circumstances to evaluate the work literature does—to ask into its motives. Do we really learn something of value here? What? or are this work’s “truths” mere sentimentality or (worse) propaganda?

The Forum Function. This is the mode we discussed briefly above, the mode in which literature creates space for conversation and argument about issues that writers or their audiences feel to matter. The Forum Function is related to the Teaching function, but with an important difference. For here the job is not so much to make an argument about the world as to raise a question in a provocative way, to invite or tease or incite in us a will to engage. David Mamet’s play Oleanna, of a few years back, was such a work. It represented a teacher-student relationship that veered suddenly before our very eyes into a charge of sexual harassment. Who was right? Did the teacher really do what the student said he did? Did the student really do what the teacher said she did?! In a big way, Oleanna’s success depended precisely upon its ability to engage its audience in reflection and conversation about the ethical issues of the problematic situation it staged. If people didn’t leave the theatre talking and arguing, the performance had failed.

In cases like this the fact that art works by indirection (we are given a story about a pair of people who don’t actually exist, and not a story about our very own lives) offers a great advantage over more direct modes of argument. For there are many things—and gender issues are among them—many of us are not comfortable talking about publicly. We have taboos, restrictions, fears about offending others when we mention matters related to such topics as sex, class, gender, race, politics, or religion. When we try to talk about these things directly we may too quickly lose our tempers—so we often avoid discussing them at all. But when we put the same issue into story we can talk about it in a more distanced and careful way. By discussing Hamlet’s abusive rejection of Ophelia, or how he seems sexually attracted to his mother, we can approach these subjects much more easily than if we were to talk about our own gender or our own mothers. Similarly, we can often discuss issues of race much more easily when they are represented in a novel like Ellison’s Invisible Man than many of us can when discussing our own thoughts and actions.

Of course, there is also a price to be paid for the conversational liberty literary discourse gives us: because it is only indirectly related to real life, literary conversation is a relatively weak form of action. We who can agree that Lear treats his children badly may not see how that applies to the ways that we treat our children. This weak linkage doesn’t make literary conversation useless, since it may very often be the ONLY form of action available to us. But it does significantly reduce its capacity to bring change to the ways we actually go about living our lives.

The Community Function. Here the role of literature is to define, invoke, celebrate, rehearse the common wisdom or vision or history of a culture. When doing this kind of work a literary text may not say anything either new or different, but instead works to affirm or celebrate what already is. In this mode literature helps to build or shape a culture, to produce coherence, even solidarity. Its capacity for this is not always positive—one reason art can be used as propaganda is precisely its capacity to bring minds together in a particularly powerful way. But rightly used it can contribute to the sense of well being any community needs if it is to grow and prosper. (See “Cultural Conversations” below for a more complete description of literature’s Forum and Community Functions.)

Obviously, these four general functions are not mutually exclusive. Literature can very easily please us as it teaches (probably better had, in fact!), or establish community as it preaches, or offer escape in such a way as to lead us to think new thoughts about how things might or should be. But you can rest assured that any literary work must be doing SOMETHING if it’s going to be even trivially successful, and as a sophisticated reader it’s your task to sort that “something” out.

There are other things I could add to all of this, but enough for the time being may be enough. So I’ll simply leave you with the observation that the same questions we ask about the work a whole poem or novel or play does can also be asked of any texts smaller parts. For as soon as you’ve seen how a whole poem can have a particular project in view, you can next ask, “within the project (or projects) of the larger poem, what does this single stanza (or line, or word) do? What role in the overall project does it play?”

Noticing by Negation

The What/Why/So What drill works pretty well all by itself, but you can make it work even better if you add to it the habit of thinking contrastively as well. Thus in addition to asking “What?” you would do well to learn also to ask “What Not?” This move helps by enabling you to see better the other ways a writer might have written, other choices she or he might have made, but in fact (for whatever reasons she or he had) did not. Thus you might have noticed (as we did above) Shakespeare’s choice to open King Lear with a conversation between Kent and Gloucester, and having noticed that, you could go right on to Why. But you might also pause to fill out your sense of what that choice means by thinking some about the choices Shakespeare did NOT make—the What Nots.

Thus Shakespeare did not begin the play with Edmund standing alone, complaining about the way people have never respected him (though that is in fact how Shakespeare starts Act 1 scene 2). Why not? How is the play different for having Edmund introduced not through his own words but rather through the words of his father?

Similarly, Shakespeare could have skipped that opening dialogue altogether and begun scene 1 with Lear’s entrance. Imagine: instead of the banter between Kent and Gloucester, we could simply have started with Lear’s first line: “Attend the Lords of France and Burgundy.” Why does Shakespeare NOT do so? (One good reason is exposition—the opening scene fills us in on some of the plot background before Lear actually enters, so the second part of the scene is easier to understand.)

So these What Nots are ways the play could well have begun, and the point about asking the What Not question is that in thinking about why Shakespeare chose neither of those alternatives you may get a better sense of the advantages he saw in choosing as he in fact did to begin with the comparatively indirect approach of Kent and Gloucester’s brief conversation.

Finally, you might find it helpful to remember that while So What? may be the last thing you consider when working out a reading of something, it is very often the first consideration when writing. For it is the So What? question that will help you formulate a central claim to make about your reading. Its force is to direct you towards making a judgment about the interpretive work you have done, and thereby towards an argument (or “claim,” or “point”) to make in any paper you write.

Life versus Literature

As I describe the problem-recognition-and-solution process, it all may seem rather strange and artificial. But as I’ve already suggested, it’s not entirely different from processes we undertake in more or less unconscious ways all the time. For the lives we lead and the cultural situations we inhabit are full of narratives and metaphors—just as literature is—and we are constantly involved in a kind of quasi-literary problem solving simply in order to understand the people we deal with and to decide what we will do about them.

Yes, there are differences. Literature usually foregrounds its problems more clearly than do our day to day lives, often intensifying them as well. And it offers them to us in a format (a story, a play) that, because it is about what are only imaginary people in imaginary situations, also introduces an element of distance between what’s going on in the work, and what’s going on in our own lives. That can be good—we are likely to find it easier to talk rationally about Hamlet’s problem, or Dorothea Brooke’s (in George Eliot’s Middlemarch), than about our own. But it can be bad, too, since that very distance may also make the kind of thinking you do for a good paper seem just an abstract or even pointless task. Nobody really cares about the Prince of Denmark, after all. This one never really existed, and nowadays there isn’t one anyway. Obviously, your claim about him will finally only be interesting if at some level and in some way that claim is like claims you might make about people you know in real life.

So good literary analysis shouldn’t seem pointless, or completely divorced from reality. At the same time, to say that reading interpretively is in some way like defining and solving problems in your own life doesn’t mean that questions about Hamlet are really only questions about you. Rather, it’s to say that the kind of recognition and analysis you do when thinking about Hamlet is very much like the kinds of recognition and analysis you are likely to find possible in other dimensions of your existence. It is the claim of literary study only that the two are similar, and that the more clearly you can think about literature, the better chance you will have of thinking consciously and carefully about life.

Beyond Problematizing

What, Why and So What can be helpful, then, but since noticing also depends both on knowing what is expected to begin with (so you can notice if a writer does the un-expected) and on knowing what sorts of things writers conventionally make choices about, you also need to know something about literary conventions if you are to be able to notice what is unusual, or significant. Here are a few reading basics to supply a foundation from which to work:

1. Thematic structure. Most narratives share an underlying three-part abstract structure which moves from Order, to Disorder, to Reorder. They thus begin by representing a scene of relatively coherent (though also very unstable) social Order, they then stage a series of crises that threatens to reduce their whole world to a state of complete Disorder, and they finally enact some sort of experience which either establishes or at least predicts some new social structure: Re-Order. The initial Order is always somehow false or misleading (that’s why it is unstable), though the particular nature of what’s wrong will be different in different plays. The Disorder that follows will always be a confusion caused by the disintegration of the false order; generally a problem will have arisen that puts pressure on the opening order in such a way as to reveal its inherent inadequacy. Then, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Re-Order which concludes the story will respond to the confusion by creating a new ordering principle. In doing so, it will also restructure (somehow) the society’s values so as to leave us at the narrative’s end with a social order ostensibly stronger, somehow better (if not perfect) than that with which we began.

Given this basic thematic structure, you as a reader looking for Whats can notice either departures from or adaptations of these basic steps, or (especially): a) how, exactly, an author chooses to characterize his or her opening order and its shortcomings; b) what exactly will put pressure upon that opening instability and force the narrative’s world into chaos; and finally, c) just exactly how the story proposes that the chaos at its center be tamed and restructured. Then, once you have worked out answers to these questions, you can finally evaluate the work’s thematics. Do the work’s claims about what creates or resolves trouble in the world hold up under your scrutiny? How do they give us ways of understanding something, or experiencing something, which we otherwise might not have had?

2. Dramatic structure. This notion parallels thematic structure, but focuses attention on dramatic function instead of thematic meaning. (Obviously “dramatic” structure has direct bearing only on plays, but in fact narratives generally follow the same pattern.) Thus plays generally must accomplish certain dramatic tasks if they are to be successful, and traditionally those things have been described as a five-part sequence: Exposition, Complication, Climax, Denouement, Conclusion. In the Exposition a play establishes its main characters, its setting, its opening premises. In its Complication it introduces pressures which force conflict. The Climax sees the logical/narrative outcome of that complication as things reach a kind of breaking point, generally a point of actual or symbolic chaos or confusion (the Dis-order stage described in paragraph 1 above). The Denouement represents a response to the confusion, as characters or events work somehow to restructure themselves or society in order to re-establish social coherence. And the Conclusion offers some sort of final turn to indicate that some kind of new order has successfully been established. Thus we are likely to get at the end of plays either a symbolic celebration of coherence (a comedy which ends with a marriage or a dance), or, in tragedies, at the least a promise of a better understood, less ambitious, more careful governance (as in King Lear). As with thematic structure, this structural scheme allows you to see through the apparent narrative structure of a play, where characters act for whatever reasons the narrative offers, and to supply instead a different and hidden, even if conventional, set of reasons for what happens on stage.

3. Character. Lots could be said about character, but here I offer simply three ways of classifying them: Flat or Full (or Round); Dynamic or Static; Type or Unique. Flat characters are usually minimally characterized; their function is to enable the action, not to complicate it. Full, or Round, characters have at least something of that complexity about them which we recognize as life-like. Dynamic characters are those which change; ordinarily at least one character in a Shakespearian play will change (or at least seem to change), and the critical question will concern first what change occurred, and then how and why. (Not every Full character is also Dynamic, but no Flat character ever is.) Type characters are conventional: standard character types that tend to show up in similar forms in many different plays. They include the parasite (Lucio, in Measure for Measure), the braggart soldier (Falstaff [Henry IV]), the fool, the faithful servant (Escalus [M for M], Kent [King Lear]), and the young lovers (Hermia and Lysander [Midsummer Night’s Dream], Claudio and Juliet [M for M]). Type characters may be flat or full. Certainly Falstaff, though a version of the braggart soldier, is also one of the most interesting and complex figures in all of Shakespeare. Unique characters are (obviously) those which are in some or all ways unlike any other character you’ll run across. (Of course, any character is bound to be like other characters in certain respects, just as any type character is bound to be “unique” in certain ways. What counts is the dominant impression.)

4. Language. This is where your noticing will be most active. What to look for? Among the many things we could talk about we can focus on three major categories: images, metaphors, and formal patterns.

a. Images. An image is the use of a word or phrase to conjure up for us some appeal to one of our senses: hearing, touch, taste, smell, motion, and (very much more often than anything else) sight. Images are especially notable for two kinds of effect. First, they tend to function like “speaking pictures,” as it were, of ideas or states of mind, using suggestion and connotation to modify or extend what a character is saying. When Lear, for example, responds to Goneril’s refusal to allow him his full 100 knights, rather than saying simply “How awful it is to have an ungrateful child,” he expresses that thought with the image of a serpent’s tooth: “How sharper than the serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child” (1.4.279-80). By doing so Lear’s language indirectly implies much more than it otherwise might: he doesn’t actually call Goneril a serpent (that is the advantage of imagery’s indirection), but his image focuses his sense of her through the image of a serpent, thereby associating with her all the evil connotations of snakes: danger, venom, slyness, devil-linked (Satan having become a serpent in order to tempt Eve).

Second, images often make connections between different speakers or parts of the play simply by recurring. Thus Edmund conjures up the image of Nature as a goddess to pray to in Act 1, scene 2, and Lear does pretty much the same thing in Act 1, scene 4. Obviously, Lear and Edmund are very different characters, but once you notice that Shakespeare chooses to have them both use the same terms, they are connected for a moment, and you are in effect asked to reflect on whether or not there is any significance to their both using the same image. Similarly, images of sight and seeing are frequent in the play, and they create a kind of indirect set of echoes reminding us each time of one of the play’s central ironic commonplaces, that we are very often “blind” when we think we can “see” (Lear cannot “see” Cordelia’s or Kent’s loyalty), and vice-versa.

b. Metaphors. A metaphor is a special kind of image, one which asserts a comparison between two things. Sometimes these comparisons are explicit (“my love is like a rose”), sometimes they are implicit (“the heirs were wolves”), sometimes they are submerged (half hidden, as when Lear says of Tom of Bedlam: “Nothing could have subdued nature to such a lowness but his unkind daughters,” where, almost invisibly, nature is being compared to an unnamed something whose power can be tamed and subdued).

Whatever their form, however, the crucial feature of all metaphors is that they are always condensed, and in that lies their aesthetic and semantic power. When Gloucester in King Lear, for example, remarks at 4.1.33 that before he fell off the cliff he had been made to “think a man a worm,” he makes a comparison between human beings and worms, but his expression is condensed because he doesn’t explain anything about the ways in which he thinks these two entities are alike. He assumes his listeners will fill in that missing part, expanding the metaphor to include the ways in which the likeness makes sense.

But what is powerful in this condensation is that the expanding that we must do if the metaphor is to be understood is left to our imaginations, and often, by using our imaginations, we can expand the expression in very provocative ways. Here Gloucester says only that he used to think man was worm-like, but what does that mean? How exactly could man be worm-like? Gloucester doesn’t say, so we reader/hearers are left to unpack the expression, leaving ourselves with a whole range of possible meanings, any one of which, or even all of which, might be ways to understand what Gloucester has in mind. Thus humanity might be worm-like in being low, mindless or crawling. Or maybe it’s in being slimy, a thing no one would want to touch, and thus no one could possible love. Each of these would fit, even explain, Gloucester’s state of despair—why would any human being want to go on living if they really thought themselves to be as low or mindless as a worm?

The point here though isn’t simply that every metaphor has a multiplicity of meanings, but rather that every metaphor has a very wide range of potential implication, all of it unspoken and functioning only by indirection. As a result, once we’ve noticed a metaphor, we need to explore its semantic logic to ask how its incompleteness offers indirect perspectives of one kind or another. Sometimes those meanings seem actually intended by the character (as Gloucester certainly does mean to suggest that he had earlier been thinking that man is as lowly and unlovable as a worm). But at other times such meanings are only ironically present. Thus we may think—in ways Gloucester himself was obviously not thinking—that while man may indeed be worm-like, many of this play’s characters are far more worm-like than others. Indeed, although Gloucester has done some pretty stupid and harmful things, and had decided to kill himself in despair, ironically he is by no means the wormiest of this lot. Edmund, Goneril, Reagan, Cornwall—even Lear himself—all seem a whole lot more worm-like than Gloucester.)

c. Formal Patterns. These, again, are many, but you’ll see the most important if you look (and listen) for recurring sounds or for rhythms. Good examples of thematic uses of such patterns occur in King Lear’s first scene as each daughter gives her answer to Lear’s request that they express their loves. Goneril begins, and her speech is full of grammatical repetitions:

I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor.

She’s using sound repetitions (“word … wield”; “rich or rare”; “less … life”), parallel constructions (each line repeats—is in parallel with—the opening comparison of love with something wonderful, and by repeating, the lines create the sense Goneril wants to convey of copiousness and excess: I love you Lots and Lots!), and then she follows with that quick, short list of positive sounding ideas (“grace, health, beauty, honor”), where the listing (because it both piles up these ideas, and because it implies she could go on and on) is again a formal element that adds to the sense of boundlessness. One might also hear in these lines—precisely because there is so much formal manipulation—a note of artificiality, too.

Contrast to this rich, flowing set of parallels and graceful repetitions Cordelia’s plain and undecorated response to her father’s question. First, of course, her response is the bare word “Nothing.” That’s already in stark formal contrast to her sisters’ talk. But even when she then gets three lines together, they are in no way the sort of fancy talk her sisters come up with:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.

Except for the repeated “h” of “heave” and “heart” and the minor parallelism in “no more nor less,” this is pretty plain stuff. Of course, that’s just what Cordelia means to say—she wants to be plain, ordinary, and not at all like her high-sounding artificial sisters. She will go on to contrast herself to her sisters explicitly, but even in the formal patterns of the two speeches we’ve looked at here we can already see an indirect kind of assertion: Goneril’s words are formal, arrayed, artificial, and thus, it is implied, false; Cordelia’s words are plain, direct, unarranged, and therefore (her words indirectly claim) honest.

5. Recurrent Themes. People argue a great deal about the sort of meaning literary texts have, or whether they have meanings at all. Some readers feel that great literature is great precisely because it offers timeless truths without which we are the poorer as human beings. Others feel that truths are never “timeless,” and that whatever Shakespeare (or anyone else) meant in 1596 is impossible to recover anyway. For my part, I think the question of whether one can know what any writer meant, or of whether or not anything a character in a Renaissance play claims is “true,” is largely beside the point. I don’t think the function of a literary work is to tell us anything at all—truth included. Rather in my view it is to create an experience through which an audience can address questions in ways its viewers/ readers will find intellectually and emotionally compelling. Thus whether King Lear’s hypothesis about how human beings differ from animals is actually true doesn’t really matter; Shakespeare doesn’t have to tell us “the truth.” What does matter is that the way in which Shakespeare raises the question, and the terms he offers for its exploration, continue to offer audiences ways to think about a problem—what it means to be human, and how that is different from being some other part of creation—that they find personally and socially useful.

Whether or not you will accept that premise, literary works that have been valued over time tend to meditate (or work variations on) a relatively limited set of themes. In “Cultural Conversations” I offer my own explanation of why these themes recur; many of you will have explanations of your own. For whatever reasons, however, the topics below have become something like literary commonplaces—ideas to which readers and viewers keep returning.

Common Literary Topics

Art in Life; Art versus Life: Does art act upon our lives, and if so, how? or is Art an alternative to life, a place of escape and entertainment? What is the function of art? What cultural work does art—or this very text—do?

Civility: What makes society possible? how does civility decay? what can one do when civility fails?

Desire: What creates love, affection, lust, obsession? What deforms desire? How can it be constructive (is that what “love” is?)? Why is it so often destructive?

Education: What is education? Is it different from indoctrination? What is its relation to power, social position, civility, religion?

Gender: Do men and women differ? How do they differ? Is there anything essentially masculine or feminine about any of us? Can women be masculine? Can men be feminine? Would any of them ever want to be? Why? Why not?

Guilt Concealed, Guilt Revealed. What is guilt, anyway? Why do we sin? How can we deal with the guilt we feel? Why does the punishment we undergo so often seem so much more terrible than the sin which invokes it? (Guilt Revealed can be thought of as The great Tragic theme.)

Humanness: What is Human? What is Not? Can we lose our humanity? How? If we can lose it, how can it be restored?

Heroism: Are there really heroes? What makes a hero? What is Heroism’s link to Ero-tic-ism? Is sacrifice part of heroism? Can one be a passive hero?

Identity: Who are we, and how do we come (if we ever come) truly to know ourselves? What is identity’s relation to what we do? To our cultural genesis? To gender? Can we change identity? Is it constructed or innate? Made or discovered? (Identity is the great Comic theme.)

Initiations: Passages from (relative) innocence to experience. How do they happen? Can one control them? What does one get from the experience? Is innocence or experience the higher state? Why?

Knowing: Why is there such an arrogance to knowing? Can one ever know enough? Is too much knowledge dangerous? What is knowledge? The paradox of knowing: we must know to survive, but knowing is also intoxicating, dangerous, even deadly.

Language: What is language? How is it related to truth? to power? to art? Does language conscribe or enable us? How are we constructed by language, live within it?

Love: What are the powers of love, the confusions of love, the benefits, the costs? Must love be sexual? Is it higher or more real if it is not? Are there different loves? Does one choose among them?

Order: By what principles should/must a society order itself? Knowledge and order.

Other: Who and what is defined by various dimensions of our culture as “other”—excluded or privileged, and by what criteria? Because race, gender, sexual orientation and class are often criteria by which societies create classes of “other-ness,” each of these can be thematized under this rubric.

Pastoral/Escape. Reflection on our need/urge to flee from the world, especially as a way to gain time and space within which (paradoxically) to think about how best to live in the world. Content and discontent.

Power: What is power’s rightful and its wrongful use? What creates power? What is power’s relation to desire, to ambition, to social structures? Does power always corrupt? Why?

Pride: How is pride a sin? How is it a virtue? Can one live without it? Why is it said that “pride cometh before a fall”? What is the relation between pride and action? Pride and control?

Truth: What is truth? How do we find it or know it? What is its relation to language? to power?

Values: What do we value? Are social values different from individual values? How? Why? With what consequences?

IV. Cultural Conversations

Cultural Conversations: On Reading Older Literature

To its new readers, older literature often feels very distant. The language can be strange: many of the words are different, and even those that look the same turn out to mean something else. And the people are a little different, too. One is a “joiner,” another is a “reeve.” Come again? Yes, we often have modern equivalents: “Cabinet maker” for “joiner,” or “city manager” for “reeve” would be easier to recognize. But the words are still unfamiliar, and all these many little differences can make readers wonder whether it’s worth the effort it takes to bring these “classics” into clear focus in the first place. Why do it?

Other readers have other reasons for reading, but I’ll give you two that work for me. First, though much has changed since Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare wrote, a lot also hasn’t, or at least, hasn’t changed much, and generations of readers have found that the ways these stories are told continue to offer ways to think about love, sex, work, death, power, pride, joy—a range of human concerns so extensive and so seemingly constant that many have called them “universal.” More recent thinkers have questioned whether any human thought could ever really be “universal”; we know now enough about cultural and historical relativity to know that even what seems so basic a concept as “love” has been thought of in very different ways by different times and cultures.

But even after we allow for these differences, it turns out that most readers still find in these stories an enormous sense of relevance to matters with which we continue to be very deeply concerned. Whether Shakespeare thought exactly as we do when he thought of “love-gone-wrong” doesn’t finally seem to matter much to people watching the romantic perils of Twelfth Night. In fact, because these works are in other ways so different, they sometimes end up making us think better about these issues than do more recent works. Sometimes it is easier to think about “power” when we’re reading about a miscellaneous Duke in some country we have never heard of, and in a land and time very far away.

My second reason for reading begins with the question: what, in fact, did the literature of the Medieval and Renaissance periods actually do for the people it was written for? Or (in a fancier phrase) what was that literature’s “cultural function”? That is a hugely important question, and not just for the past. For here we are in a college literature class spending your valuable time reading and writing about literature—but why do we do it? Why does our culture so value the reading of imaginative literature that it not only has created whole university departments where people read and write and teach about it, but has also decided to require students to patronize those departments?!

It’s easy to see why the culture might make you take math or science. We know that math and science offer key skills and concepts with which to understand today’s world. Whether it’s a hole in the ozone layer, or the implications of the Internet for future business leaders, we all know that those of us who understand scientific thinking will also more fully understand both the technical and the political implications of the developments we see all around us. The cultural function of science classes seems very clear indeed.

But what about literature? What is its cultural function? Again, there isn’t just one answer to this, but among the functions of literature that I value most is the Forum Function: that of providing a place where members of a culture can think about the issues that matter to them, and—because literary discourse is always in some degree a fiction—to do that thinking with much less risk (since many of the thoughts which cultures must have are potentially dangerous, even revolutionary) than threatens real conversations. Literature in this way can create a kind of virtual space within which issues that matter greatly can be raised, challenged, changed, transformed—be talked about, in short, in what we can call a “cultural conversation.”

Think about it: as a culture we have dozens of issues that matter immensely to us. Indeed, so much do they matter that we have trouble even talking about them without anger and hurt. Much is now made of “political correctness”—all the things you have to be careful to say or not to say in order to make sure you don’t offend someone’s sensibility. Some have taken that pretty far, but I’m in fact not one who thinks being “pc” is silly. Talk truly can offend people, can indeed make them uncomfortable or worse, and we do need to be careful about what we say and how we say it.

Yet paradoxically the issues we as a culture need most to discuss are very often just those issues we have so much trouble talking about—the ones that make people so uncomfortable. But if talking directly about these issues is hard, what, then, are we to do?

One answer human beings invented very long ago is art, and particularly literary art. Because poems, plays and stories are always fictional, always about not “us” exactly, but only about people “like” us, they are also much less threatening than are real world conversations. Instead of reflecting the world directly, literary fictions work indirectly, and thus readers can use a work of literature as a public forum within which to hold conversations about these dangerous subjects sometimes years, sometimes decades, sometimes even centuries before their culture feels unthreatened enough to have that same conversation openly and directly.

What I will call the "Forum Function,” then, is literature’s way of providing a forum within which its members can hold cultural conversations, virtual discussions between a text and its readers about the issues that matter to them, that have been put in question, that are in dispute.

Beyond the Forum Function, literature has what may be an even more common role to play. This second we can call literature’s “Community Function,” a process whereby art offers to a culture a way of pulling itself together in the face of the threat of fragmentation by the new and different. For cultures have always been (now more than ever) diverse and diversifying. As a population we have great differences between us, whether because we come from different social backgrounds or geographical areas, or have different skin colors or genders, or arise from different economic circumstances. And those basic differences are for most of us made even more diverse by daily experience. Every day, each one of us has a thousand experiences which in one sense enrich each of our lives, but which also tend to differentiate us one from another.

From that perspective, the pressures upon us to diversify our sense of the world are constant and immense. Physicists recognize the principle of “entropy”—a tendency in systems to undergo spontaneous change, to lose identity and move towards less ordered, or other-ordered, structures. Cultures are also systems, and they undergo similar pressures towards change. And though that is not necessarily a bad thing, it will often look from many places in the culture as if it is. What is productive “change” for me, after all, may be “decay” for someone else, as the things they have come to rely upon no longer seem to work. Indeed, if you listen to today’s political rhetoric, you will hear two themes again and again: one is that we must change our culture, that the world of the future cannot be lived with the tools of the past. But the other is something like that first theme’s opposite: we are changing too fast, we are losing our sense of values, we must turn ourselves back to the values which made America what it is today, values of the family, of hard work, and so on.

So from one point of view we are spinning off into diversity—slipping via a sort of cultural entropy towards chaos. But there are also counter-pressures to this diversifying, ways we have to resist that sense of flying apart. These are our community-making enterprises, the things we participate in every day that draw us away from our diversified little worlds of ego and self and into a greater sense of community. Lots of things do that: TV, movies, newspapers, chats with our neighbors or clerks at the local supermarket.

To the extent we participate in these community-making enterprises we enter into relationships with various virtual communities, each with its own language complete with special terms and referents. Those who enter these virtual communities become familiar to each other and learn to talk that community’s talk. Although we may not think of it this way, one of the things common to every one of the communities we enter, and from which we get much of our sense of community and coherence, is that community’s “language.” Such languages exist literally: we actually learn words and phrases when, for example, we enter the community of basketball fans. In order to speak “basketball,” we learn what a “point-guard” does, or what it means “to bring it”—both phrases we wouldn’t know without listening to or reading the expressions of more experienced members of the community. But these languages also exist in a more extended sense in which the “grammar” we learn is one of gesture, or dress, or walk—all just as systematic as language, all loaded with meaning, all (and this is what matters for the Community Function) working to identify you (once you’ve learned them) as a member of a particular cultural group.

Yet if we get a sense of community from belonging to various language-defined groups, it is obvious that the literature we read offers much the same opportunity for community-making. When we’ve read the same books, we will also have established a dimension of commonality between us, created a community where there was none before. But this effect works in a more abstract sense as well. For books don’t just create their own communities out of thin air. Rather, because they borrow their words, issues, and conflicts from the culture within which they are written, they also function as a means of locating their cultures’ central themes, and when we read the books of our culture we either learn or are reminded of those themes that are often centralizing motifs to our culture’s very sense of itself.

Whether for good or ill, cultures have often looked to their writers to see their otherwise multiple and confused experiences organized into a coherent cultural snapshot. Even by Plato’s time Homer had become in just this sense the essence of what Greeks thought Greece was, just as 2000 years later Shakespeare became (and for some still is) the essence of what most of the English speaking world thought England was.

Cultural conversations are taking place all the time, then, on TV, in the papers, in magazines, on radio talk shows, and those conversations have at least two important functions: The Forum Function, whereby they enable us to reflect on taboo or semi-taboo issues, and the Community Function whereby they supply the members of a culture ways to build a common identity. Moreover, literary conversations also offer two rather special advantages over other forms of discourse:

1. The Indirection Dimension. This one I’ve alluded to already when defining the Forum Function. Because the “reality” of fiction doesn’t really exist, but instead is made up as a kind of alternative world, nothing it says is literally, or directly, true about anything. Literature thus refers to the world only indirectly—by analogy or likeness. As a result, literature (or any kind of story telling, for that matter) can function in what amounts to an intellectual free zone. Although it is fictional, the way it is like, or runs parallel to, its reader’s world nevertheless makes it able to comment on that real world anyway. “It is not YOUR political, social or sexual taboo I address,” the literary work seems to say, “it’s only something inside this little world I’ve just made up.”

2. The Artful Dimension. Literary language is a compressed form of speech. Composed over time, written and re-written, literary language can be more intense, more focused, more (in short) “significant” than many of our other discourses. It tends to do more with less, and it is therefore very important that we learn to listen to literary conversation very carefully. The books a culture continues to read for centuries after their creation are neither just pronouncements about something, or invitations to unstructured chat. Rather, they are carefully structured and compressed modes of discourse that, could they speak, might say: “I’ve given this matter a lot of thought, and so before you say a word, I need you to listen very carefully.” By no means does every book deserve that much careful attention, but the ones that do repay it richly.

That said, in this class we’ll be looking at some of the texts that have helped carry the conversation of western culture in the past, and because literature is indirect and artful, we’ll be doing this by locating its indirections and listening carefully.

Moreover, we’ll be looking at these texts from the point of view offered by each of the cultural functions I’ve defined above. With the Community Function in mind we will read as ourselves participants along with those texts in a cultural conversation into which many of us here have been thrust by the accident of birth. Most of us are members of a particular branch of western Euro-American culture (though all of us are also members and speakers of OTHER cultures and sub-cultures). As such, many of our values, our ways of thinking, our senses of what is right and wrong about the world, and even what is possible within it, are encoded within these texts—not exactly as we know them, for time has passed and the conversation has in some ways moved on. But if those values are not exactly represented in what we read, they are still recognizable, and it is helpful to be able to use these texts both to articulate those shared values, and to reflect on whether and how we should continue to preserve them.

And with the Forum Function in mind, and precisely because the conversations of current American culture have in fact changed from those of past times, we will also look at these texts from the culturally critical position that time and the many diversities of our current culture enable for us. From that viewpoint these texts offer an opportunity for a kind of cultural archaeology, a digging down to find earlier stages of our cultural values. Even though the culture itself may have shifted, by getting a bead on its earlier stages we can nevertheless become more critically aware of those elements of our current culture which have changed (and for which we are heartily glad), or which we have pretty much remained the same (a result we may have mixed feelings about).

V. Wordsworth on Poetry

Wordsworth on Poetry: A Revolution in Subject, Purpose and Language

Before the romantic era, the dominant definition of poetry suggested that it was a imitation of human actions with the purpose of teaching and/or delighting. Wordsworth (in the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads) defines poetry quite differently. For he does NOT say a poet must imitate natural objects. Though his poems certainly do talk about various objects, they are included in his poems only as ways to get to his real subject, what he calls “the mind of man.” So the features of nature, its “rocks and stones and trees,” are not themselves the point of Wordsworth’s poetry—they are only there to make you think of something else more abstract.

In another passage describing the poet’s subject, Wordsworth mixes nature, feelings, and mental landscapes:

“What then does the poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and reacting upon each other, so as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure; he considers man in his own nature and in his ordinary life as contemplating this with a certain quantity of immediate knowledge, with certain convictions, intuitions, and deductions, which from habit acquire the quality of intuitions; he considers him as looking upon this complex scene of ideas and sensations, and finding everywhere objects that immediately excite in him sympathies which, from the necessities of his nature, are accompanied by an overbalance of enjoyment.”

So what does that all mean? The thing Wordsworth really wants to represent is “this complex scene of ideas and sensations,” but because “ideas and sensations” are not visible items, the poet couldn’t “imitate” them directly even if she or he wanted to. What poets can do, though, is find “objects” in the world which intimate (not “imitate”!) these ideas—sort of suggest or elicit them, not picture them. So that’s one thing he wants to do.

Beyond that he also wants to focus on “ordinary life,” so the poet is to study men who live simply, and without any of the advantages of education that Enlightenment authors like Pope, Hume, and Burke had promoted. Indeed, for Wordsworth the supposed advantages of a good classical education only lead to “poets, who think that they are conferring honor upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.” Traditional poets, Wordsworth tells us, write poems that are artificial and far removed from the lives real people lead. Traditional poets are for him elitist and self-absorbed.

So, Wordsworth in effect says, down with expensive educations, and up with the lives and experiences of common, ordinary human beings. In a word, Wordsworth reverses the value of traditional classics-based education to make learning of that sort a burden, and to idealize instead the least educated (in a traditional sense) lives he can find. It may be a little difficult to see, but this is in fact a highly revolutionary aesthetic, promoting values very different from those of the preceding century.

But if that is how Wordsworth revised traditional notions of poetry as “an imitation of life,” what did he do to the theory that poetry’s proper effect was to please and to instruct? This too he revised, but the changes he makes are not as obvious as in some of his other emphases. Poetry for Wordsworth should still produce pleasure, and as in traditional theories of poetry pleasure is not only a virtue in itself, but also an instrument to cognition and learning. Pleasure leads to knowing and to truth. But the sorts of truths one learns are now different. Wordsworth compares the poet to the scientist: both are driven by pleasure, both seek to locate truth. But as important as the learning of science is, the poet’s quest comes off as the higher (in your face, Science!) both because transcendent and because it is something he communicates to the whole of mankind: “The man of science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science.”

Wordsworth then goes on to talk of the final effect of poetry as not just the joy of truth, but a sense of the wholeness of creation, a sense of what we are and where we fit in the universe that gives meaning and purpose to our lives: “[The poet] is the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time... . Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man.”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty bold claim for poetry—especially with the echo in Wordsworth's phrase “first and last of all knowledge” of the Biblical “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.” Those are Christ's words, of course, and it is no small thing that Wordsworth sees his poet in very similar terms.

So Wordsworth’s theories transcend two of the culture’s very oldest ideas of poetry—as an imitation of nature, and as a way to teach and to instruct. But there is more. Another traditional way to think about poetry had been by defining the role of the poet. Much traditional theory argued that poets were either “inspired” in some way, lifted up by the muses beyond ordinary human ability, or that they were highly skilled “makers”—expert verbal craftsmen. Wordsworth doesn't talk about muses, but he does see poets as different from the rest of us. Poets for him have a higher sensibility than other people, they can read the transcendent in the ordinary. Thus while all of us can see daffodils, poets can both read the daffodils as signs of cosmic significance, and they can also recreate in words for the rest of us the experience of feeling that relation. This is what he’s talking about when he defines poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” “recollected in tranquility.” For Wordsworth, the poet is a kind of sensory and sensibility superman.

Even more important, Wordsworth’s poet must also be something of a cultural anthropologist. His poet, like his readers, is essentially an urban figure, and Wordsworth feels this as a burden which must be eased by the poet’s searching out the more authentic and unspoiled natures of rustic men and women. He does this most obviously, perhaps, in terms of language; in looking for what he calls “the language of real men”--the language of farmers and peasants, of leech-gatherers and children--he is looking for an authentic poetic medium which can be used in place of the corrupted language found in traditional poems.

This new poetic language he takes to be very important. It’s almost as if rustic language provides for Wordsworth a kind of check, a guarantee of authenticity. Having wandered around England's rural lake district studying the flora, fauna, and humana he finds there, he wants the results of his studies, those perceptions which later become a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, to be true to what he saw. Language seems in a way to be the thing that might guarantee that. To use “the language of real men” prevents him from wandering off into artificial mis-readings of his subjects—which, because a poet is a product (and victim!) of his urban upbringing, he very well might do. Indeed, in Wordsworth’s view many other poets have done exactly this. Wordsworth is well aware of himself as a city-bred man, culturally fallen, as it were, and he sees his task as a poet to be that of using his gift of sensibility to fight back against the corruptions culture has inflicted upon him. In this way his role as poet provides a vision for what he sees as a way back to wholeness for himself, and, through him and his work, for others as well.

Indeed, like a true man of science, Wordsworth’s poet must at points submerge his own ego (as he submerges his own language), to “identify his own feelings” (i.e., "connect" them) with those of his subjects. He’s sort of a scientist of the understanding and the affections, a scientist of the metaphysical, who reports his findings, along with the joy that finding them brings, to us via his poetry.

The result of this is that Wordsworth’s poet becomes a culturally central figure—indeed, a culturally necessary feature, if we are ever to reverse the corruption that society and urban life have inflected upon us. Without the poet's sensibilities we would never comprehend the ineffable metaphysical world of truth, and without that truth we would also be without the joy and wholeness and meaning that it produces. The poet is in this mode a savior for us all . Without the poet’s sensibility, Wordsworth effectively argues, we’d all live lives of self-deceived insularity, alienation and desolation.

Think again about the passage I quoted above, but now with this new emphasis on the poet as social savior: “[The poet] is the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time…. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man.” That’s a claim that poetry transcends ordinary reality to produce a kind of noetic (“knowledge-based”) sublime.

But the most famous of all the things Wordsworth says in his Preface concerns how poetry happens. He imagines as something that sort of comes upon you, a mood that over takes you when sitting or resting or reading or--whatever--and you are suddenly overcome by emotion. Here is his description:

"[P]oetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment."

For Wordsworth, there is always a kind of subconscious cooking of experience, then, a processing that goes on somewhere in the mind that suddenly, spontaneously, and powerfully wells up and urges poets into composition. This of course means that it is not something you plan, something you sit down expressly to do. You wait for inspiration--not so much from a muse as from memory and sensibility.

Finally, traditional poetic theory often thinks of poems from the point of view of what formal features make a poem a poem. It asks the question: How is poetry as a textual object different from any other sort of textual object? Wordsworth’s answer focuses (very traditionally) on rhyme and meter. For him, poetry is a kind of metrical prose, and the enjoyment we take from rhyme and meter are for him are a big part of what creates the “overbalance of pleasure” necessary to successful poetry. Meter keeps emotion under control, too: meter “cannot but have great efficacy in tempering and restraining the passion by an intertexture of ordinary feeling, and of feeling not strictly and necessarily connected with the passion.” He seems very aware of the risk of losing control in the sorts of thoughts a poet should have.

But then Wordsworth goes on a little later to focus on rhyme and meter as what tempers the painful as well. Indeed, formal elements combine with the effect of ordinary language and with “the sense of difficulty overcome” to “imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight, which is of the most important use in tempering the painful feeling always found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions.”


Many of these theoretical issues inform Wordsworth’s project in “Nutting.” One sees here the Wordsworthian adult alienation myth—the child eagerly pursuing the disguises of adulthood, becoming more and more “artificial” and removed from his “natural” state, substituting adult function and purpose for the child’s delight and joy in things. So he trudges off on his adventure, itself a kind of mini-pilgrimage to adulthood, and to an initiation experience wherein he both loses his innocence and yet still discovers that there is a spirit in the woods which by poem’s end he can both know exists, and know he has offended, when he feels the pain from seeing what he has wrought.

But before the pain and the fall, first there is an Edenic moment of Beauty, a pure enjoyment and even identification with the hidden “dear nook.” Imagery is sexual in a kind of male and female way, and suffused with peace, such that even the moss-covered rocks seem soft as pillows. And the nook resounds with murmurs and so on—which, when he remembers his (adult-like) purpose in coming here at all, he then rises up and destroys. It is “merciless ravage”—a brutal rape of nature which betrays his failure to understand the very experience he was only just having—and therefore reveals his fallen nature, which only poetic sensibility can restore. He breaks the unity, the primal sympathy he has felt, and he replaces it with pain, and with the terrible urban sense of values which would call the hazel nuts one so robs from the world “the wealth of kings.” “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:26)

Wordsworth’s child is here both innocent and fallen, sentient and blind—and Wordsworth’s older poetic voice, narrating the story of the boy’s fall, is both nostalgic and sorrowful, confessionally honest yet also capable of seeing beyond the fall to the wider meaningfulness of the whole episode. As such he narrates a fall, but enacts restoration and, implicitly, salvation as well. He is both boy and poet, transgressor and savior, Adam and Christ.

It is hard to miss, by the way, especially in the light of my second paragraph there, the parallel of what the boy does in “Nutting” to the Ancient Mariner’s crime in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. For there the shooting of the Albatross—like the boy’s destruction of the grove—is also an act of merciless (and unthinking) ravage. And there, too, the act reveals a fallen nature. The difference between the two poems is in part the mode of the discourse (“Nutting” is clearly NOT supernatural, even with its mention of “the spirit of the woods”) and part in the attention Coleridge gives to the reintegration of Mariner and nature later in the poem. That reintegration is for Wordsworth a product of the poetic mind looking back, and revaluing from the point of view of adult experience the innocent sin (as it were!) of the child. Reintegration is nothing the child by himself would ever have been able to accomplish.


V. English 330: Criteria for Interpretive Essays in this Class

Because different classes will set different assignments, it would be hard to give a fixed list of criteria for a good English paper. But I can be specific about mid-terms and papers for this particular class. First, I have three baseline expectations of good writing in general; taken together they constitute the criterion Effective Writing:

Responsive: A responsive essay does what is asked, and doesn’t do what isn’t asked. I usually write out assignments quite fully, and the object of doing so is to make sure you know what you are to be doing. But I’m not always successful. If for any reason you don’t understand what you should be writing about, PLEASE RAISE THE QUESTION IN CLASS! If you don’t know what you are supposed to do, then I haven’t been clear, and others probably won’t understand either!

Well-structured: A well-structured essay or paper will have a clear conceptual center, or thesis—a claim which explains why you are writing and why your reader should be reading. It will keep its attention focused clearly on that center’s logic, excluding what is irrelevant. It will provide enough road signs—transitions, connections—that your reader will know where you’re going and why. A paper with a strong center will follow clearly, avoid unclear digressions, and its different parts will all be relevant to the claim you’re making.

Presentable: A good paper will be grammatically and stylistically clear and well edited. You will have proofread carefully, run your spellchecker, looked for punctuation difficulties. And you will have followed the presentation guidelines given in the next three pages of this packet. Though I do not set the same high presentation standards for in-class work, I DO expect that in-class writing be literate and physically readable.

Beyond the three-pronged general criterion of Effective Writing, papers for this class will also be graded according to the following interpretation-analysis criteria:

CONCEPTUAL POWER/INTEGRATION: This criterion has to do with the imagination, scope, and interest of the interpretive argument your paper makes. Does your paper make a strong argument about what you think the work you are dealing with does? Does it represent a successful integration of all the analytic noticing and exploring you’ve been able to do in your thinking about the poem or play or novel you are reading? Do you take your argument to its limit, see its complications? Or does the paper just “get it over with”? Does it settle for a small point, or does it reach to explore something more interpretively powerful?

SPECIFICS: This criterion has to do with how well you’ve noticed the salient choices that have been made in your text. Texts worth writing about will reveal any number of such choices to pay attention to. Have you located as many as you can comfortably and fully explore in the time or space you’ve been allotted? Have you sorted through your observations in order to focus clearly on those which do most to show the consistency and coherence of your overall argument?

EXPLORATION/FULLNESS: This criterion has to do with how fully, and how convincingly, you explore the logic of your text’s language. Do you explore fully enough the specific effects of your text that you convince me you have thought about all of its lines in terms of your paper’s central claim? And do you explore your points thoroughly? explaining not just what you see, but also your points’ relevance to the paper’s governing center? Will I have a sense that this paper has dealt fully with its proposed subject? Is there anything you might have considered that you haven’t? Would including more add to your paper’s authority? Would it make your case stronger? More clear?



On writing you do for this class you’ll find in addition to comments a set of four (or sometimes three) numbers, like:

3 1 2 3

These numbers correspond to each of the criteria described above in “Criteria for Interpretive Essays in This Class.” The first three are for Conceptual Power; Specifics; Exploration/Fullness. The fourth is for Effective Writing, a rating on how well you have written your paper in terms of the baseline criteria listed above: Responsiveness, Well-structured-ness, and Presentability. The four categories carry equal weight towards your paper’s total score.

The point of these numbers is to give you a quick mini-grade on each of the criteria I use to score papers. You can get from 1 (not very good at all) to 5 (as good as it gets) in each category. The number represents my judgment about how well your paper has done on that one category, as measured against both my general sense of how well 300-level students ought to perform, and the performances of other students in the class. As I assign these scores, I have in mind the following general sense of what they mean:

1 Not enough sense of this category to be functional in college level work. (e.g., a paper without any noticing of language choice, or without any exploration of the semantic logic any such choice entails.)

2 Some sense of what this category is, but not much more. (e.g., a paper that notices words, but only points to them without showing how the work is affected by those words.)

3 Functional success with this category, but not yet showing full control. (Some exploration of a few word choices, for example, but not with much fullness, or without consistency.)

4 Functional success with this category, with only minor problems. (e.g., a paper with a good sense of what noticing or exploring are, and a good deal of doing so.)

5 Full success with this category. (e.g., a paper with truly insightful, careful and extensive work with the semantic logic of a series of word choices.)

I make no exact relationship between these numbers and the score you get on the paper as a whole, but there is (as there should be!) a very strong correlation. Four 5’s, for example, would undoubtedly full credit.


For: Romantic Conversations: Things the Romantics Loved to Talk About, click here