Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mid-Term Topics

For the mid-term essay, select one of the following three topics (irrespective of any previous written work that you might have done on the material specified) and write a twenty-five hundred word essay, using the stipulations in the English Department's published Style Guide, to be handed in the lecture of March 4th. Make certain that your essay engages each criterion in your chosen topic.

1.] In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty has the following exchange with Alice:

  • "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."
  • "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."
  • "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master – that's all."

Using a word to mean whatever the speaker chooses it to mean is a definition of nonsense. Consider Tennyson's "The Higher Pantheism" and Swinburne's "Response" as a dialectical exchange, where the subject is nonsense. Continue that dialectic with your essay, using literary analysis to show which one of the two previous stages -- Tennyson's or Swinburne's--is Humpty Dumpty nonsense, and which one is sense.

2.] Robert Browing's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is arguably the most evocative poem of the Victorian Age. In lecture, for instance, we saw how it can work as a dolourous representation of the state of a Christian's faith after Darwin. Concentrating on the transformative effect that the final stanza has on the work as a whole, interpret the poem as an allegory of some specific dark state of mind or social condition. Keep in mind that as an allegory, each aspect of the work -- word, phrase, line, object, place -- must have some direct and precise analogue to that which is being allegorised.

3.] Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din" and "Without Benefit of Clergy" give literary representation of Indians during the British Raj. Concentrating on the texts themselves, explain what Kipling might intend by these representations in relation to the Empire. Use Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Burden of Ninevah" to inform your configuration of Victorian England's understanding of Empire.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Final Exam--Study Aid

As an aid to your on-going study for your Final Exam--good direction on how to effectively read over your lecture notes week by week--here is a type of question that will be on the Final, taken from this past Monday's lecture.
For 5 marks, explain how there might be a connection in Victorian literature between nonsense and the cult of the child.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Charles Darwin Bi-Centennary

As you know, today is the bi-centennial anniversary of that eminent Victorian Charles Darwin's birth. The lecture slides from Wednesday on our Anthology's extract from the Decent of Man, on its theory of sexual selection, are online here.

An idea of his current cultural footprint can be gotten from the usually-sensible (and always indispensable) Arts & Letters Daily, which, for the Darwin anniversary, has turned effectively hagiographical. Search for "Darwin" on their main page for a sense of this.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More, on the Close Reading Assignment

À Propos our Close Reading Assignment, read the following from a student frustrated after a lecture in first-year course of mine:

I absolutely despise poetry. In my humble opinion, the poetry we are doing is being over-analyzed. Im sure there are others who agree with me when I say that, maybe the poet did not have anything more to say. For example, in "Cement Worker....", yield", as you said is a yellow sign and emphasizes the almost synesthesia-like description of colour throughout this book. However, I think that you were possibly the only person in the entire lecture hall who thought of it that way. Of course, your thought is what counts being our professor, but I think that maybe, its just a simple poem, without five hundrer million deeper meanings. Or maybe its just my hate for poetry that is coming to the surface.
To the charge of over-analysis, I replied, à la one of Archie Bunker's malapropisms, "Now listen here, I resemble that remark." Heck, I get paid to over-analyse!

Seriously, though, the Close Reading assignment is designed to have you exercise and strengthen your interpretive abilities. One of William Blake's Proverbs of Hell is very pertinent here:
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
To rephrase that for us, you will never know what is a full interpretation until you know what is an over-interpretation. Here in English Literature courses, we learn how to push interpretations to their limits--learn to see how wide and deep a single word, or a phrase, can go--and then, once we see all the possibilities (of meaning, of reference, and of association), we can then learn how to winnow out the the likely from the unlikely; plausible from the implausible; the valid from the unvalid; the certain from the uncertain.

This post is credited to one of my seminar students who was concerned that her analysis of the word "brick" in a course reading was over-interpretation. Looking at her work, it was just the right amount of intrepretation: she would have had a long way to go still before it reached the line of over-interpretation.

So, for Wednesday lecture this week, consider all the possible meanings, references, and associations of the word "brick"....

Sunday, February 8, 2009

On the Close Reading Assignment

Words of wisdom, general and particular, from the sapient Garrett Peck, MA, re. the Close Reading assignment. Like all high wisdom, it uses a paradox to give an important practical truth.
"....most people doing interpretive work in literature proceed from precisely the wrong point of inception. It seems to me that when doing an analysis of a text...[many people] begin from a point of total clarity. This is not surprising, as it a position of security and cohesion, but it all to often means that....[many people do] a lot of work to offer an interpretation that is apparent to most other readers.... [Instead, they should rather be] approaching the point in the text....[found] most difficult, and...linger there until it a way that coheres with the other aspects they are already confident in their understanding of. In doing this....[they are] far more likely to produce a piece of analysis that is fresh, insightful and not readily apparent to the average reader. Of course, this is a far more difficult thing....but then that is really the point, isn't it?"

On Evolution

Usefully and amusingly, From classfellow Bryan MacM. (Certainly, in the spirit of Victorian preference for vigourous debate over orthodoxy)
I think that this movie might be of interest both to you and to students in the class (ENGL 206). Ben Stein, in his "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," critically examines the theory of evolution, its history, its basic tennets, and its role in our society. He also seeks to establish creationism as a legitimate science or route of discovery. I think everyone would find this movie engaging, whether their interest is in science, spirituality, society, or listening to Ben Stein's monotone

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Victorian Non-Sense

After today's lecture, reading the nonsense rhymes by Edward Lear & Hillaire Belloc has its explanatory context. Lear is pure nonsense: play, delight, glorious enjoyment, free of rigour, analytical significance, and rigid order. Lear, in other words, represents a dialectical counter for the Victorian reader to the growing social dominance of the secular Trinity of Scientism, Mechanism and Capitalism. Belloc shares this, of course, but retreats from pure nonsense to a subversive -- yet clearly playful -- alternative to the imposition of rigid behavior on children in Victorian (and much much later, as I can attest) Britain.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Lewis Carroll Lecture Slides

For your review, three of the slides from the Lewis Carroll lecture today are on-line at this link.