Prospective English Concentrators

I was speaking to a Professor of English at Harvard last week about literary studies. He talked about how the humanities teach us self-knowledge, as opposed to science studying the objective world. He spoke about the place of literary studies in a general education, and the value of learning to appreciate great works.

This discussion set me wondering about English at Harvard, so I went over to the department’s website and found a page intended for ‘Prospective English Concentrators’. My sketchy idea of Harvard’s intellectual principles is that it is influenced by pragmatism, which stresses knowledge gained through action in the everyday world rather than unworldly, abstract ideas. You would expect the Harvard department to emphasize method and practice of literary interpretation, and sure enough, the department chair talks about gaining skills to discover how we communicate and generate meaning in language:

‘We read literary texts because literature is where the meanings are. So how do we get at those meanings? We teach students what imaginative works mean, by teaching how they mean, by teaching how meaning is embedded in form. Accordingly, we transmit the skills of interpretation.’

What about other departments? Well, the page directed at potential undergraduates at the Oxford English Faculty talks more about ‘getting to know’ our cultural heritage:

‘You will get to know the writings of particular authors, movements, and periods in great detail and develop your own interests in English literature and language – interests that we hope will remain with you for the rest of your life. This kind of study affords a unique way of appreciating the cultural history of England and other countries in which English has been a major literary medium.
An English degree will equip you with analytical and writing skills that are readily transferable into many other situations and many professions.’

Finally, I jumped across to the Cambridge English Faculty:

‘The Cambridge English Tripos [i.e. degree] has the following aims, among others: to stimulate in its students original thinking and critical habits of mind; to develop the ability to construct an argument, both oral and written; to foster an unusual sensitivity to language; to provide a broad knowledge of the development of English literature which will enable students to understand how writers work within and against literary traditions; to create awareness of the historical dimension of literary works; and to provide a comparative dimension for the study of literature in English, by study of literature in other languages, or of philosophical works which handle ideas in a non-literary mode.
All students of English acquire knowledge that enriches their lives forever.’

You could find equally fine descriptions of studying English at other British universities like York, Manchester, Queen Mary or Glasgow. The reason I pick on Oxbridge here is partly because that’s where my experience is, and partly because they have large departments that are generally thought to have distinctive principles of studying literature (not that other departments don’t): Cambridge is traditionally associated with close reading and ‘practical criticism’, while Oxford concentrates on historical fact and what literature teaches us about the world (i.e., is more scientific). This contrast is useful when thinking about the research output of different universities. But in these descriptions there is more agreement than disagreement about literary studies: reading and arguing closely, gaining a life-enhancing skill using in the working world and learning about English-language culture are common to each. This makes for a challenging undergraduate course, but it is what is going in school English lessons too. Academic research helps support these activities.

One lesson from all this is not to exaggerate differences between institutions. Although one department may specialize in a particular approach, the subject remains basically the same. Debates within the subject don’t mean that the discipline itself is on uncertain ground: studying English at school or university makes you better equipped to assess and appreciate language and culture.


The –––– Teller

Had but the Tale a –––– Teller –
All the Boys would come –

What’s the missing word? The couplet is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem (‘The Bible is an antique Volume’, Johnson 1545; Franklin 1577] that Helen Vendler discusses in her 2010 book Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries(pp. 491-95).

Vendler has seen a draft of the poem, and writes that Dickinson was dissatisfied with her first choice, ‘thrilling’. So the poet launched ‘into a verbal extravaganza of thirteen different alternative adjectives, each a possible characterization of the Teller’: ‘typic’, ‘hearty’, ‘bonnie’, ‘breathless’, ‘spacious’, ‘tropic’, ‘warbling’, ‘ardent’, ‘friendly’, ‘magic’, ‘pungent’, ‘winning’ and ‘mellow’.

According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge ‘prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order.’ For Coleridge a poem was a composition in which changing even a single word would alter its meaning. Reading closely requires an inner ear fine-tuned to hear quiet sounds and whispers, subtle distinctions and emphases. And this example from Dickinson’s poetry shows someone who is able to suspend judgement, and wait patiently until exactly the right word comes to mind. The process reveals an acutely sensitive, fertile mind.

One reason to study literature is to train the mind to read and listen in newly attentive ways. Poetry demands concentration. Equally, poetry is not just something to prod at and dissect dispassionately. Here’s Philip Larkin from a Paris Review interview:

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.’


(Dickinson selected the word ‘warbling’: ‘Had but the Tale a warbling Teller – | All the Boys would come -‘)

Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage is where William Wordsworth lived for eight years and wrote some of his most celebrated poetry. I went on a guided tour there during a trip to the Lake District last week, and was shown where William, Mary (his wife) and Dorothy (his journal-writing sister) lived, ate, slept and brought up children; in Wordsworth’s garden I sat and enjoyed the same views over Grasmere that he did (with an additional set of grey houses and some diggers); in the adjoining Wordsworth Museum I viewed manuscripts of The Prelude through glass (see the Digital Wordsworth resource for some examples); in the Gift Shop I could choose from a library of Wordsworth editions to take home.

I told a computerized visitor survey that my visit was ‘for leisure’. Nonetheless, the day-trip will inevitably affect how I read Wordsworth’s verse in future—to a point. I know more about the conditions in which Wordsworth wrote, but this understanding doesn’t make me any more sensitive to the thematic resonances of his poetry. His work is, among other things, about landscape, nature and the imagination: Wordsworth wasn’t completing a commission for the Lake District tourist board (though he did also write a guide to the Lakes). The knowledge I gained about Wordsworth’s poetry was valuable, but inessential.

You might reasonably ask, though, whether reading Wordsworth’s poetry is primarily a leisure activity, and therefore not something that needs to be studied in school. In other words: read Wordsworth if that’s your idea of fun, but don’t confuse it with proper work or study. Dove Cottage does indeed perform a variety of educational and cultural duties: in addition to preserving a Grade I listed building and promoting Wordsworth’s works, it is a centre for contemporary poetry and does lots of outreach work. Most visitors to Dove Cottage travel there, as I did, for a stimulating leisure activity. You might also wonder why we need professional scholars to devote their energies to Wordsworth’s poetry, when the Cottage and Museum’s curators are well-placed to protect Wordsworth’s legacy.

The soft answer to these questions (and a common one) is that Wordsworth forms part of the British cultural consciousness, and so wouldn’t it be a terrible thing if the next generation didn’t know ‘Daffodils‘? An alternative, stronger answer is that studying Wordsworth’s works, rather than just reading them, does not just transmit a time-worn appreciation of his poetry and its literary historical importance, but challenges us to respond anew to the poet, and push ourselves to read more closely and intently. Scholars are at the vanguard of this effort, since they expose blind-spots in previous interpretations, explore new connections and contextual information, and bring Wordsworth studies into line with the latest methodological developments.

The difference between studying and reading can be measured in the time and attention given to the activity. The additional concentration required when studying a poet (whether a researcher or GCSE student) is qualitatively different from having an amateur interest, and this is why it’s important to support this additional expenditure of energy in classrooms and research libraries.

I’d recommend a visit to Dove Cottage without hesitation. Beyond being tourist attraction, the Cottage has links with schools and professional scholars that are important to fulfilling its mission. The Cottage is a precious supplement to full-time education, but it is a different type of institution. Recreational activities—visiting a museum, watching a documentary or reading poetry before going to bed—are nourishing and important. But these pastimes have less intensity and mind-strengthening capacity than being made to pore over literature. Dove Cottage sparks enthusiasm to immerse yourself in the Wordsworths’ poetry and journals, but you don’t need to visit in order to appreciate or engage deeply with them.