Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Week three

Happy with yesterday evening's Wordsworth lecture for LTCM - I am getting a better handle on how to use the time (I only lecture once a week, for seventy-five minutes, and the other class meeting is in smaller-group seminars taught by advanced doctoral students). "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," a few pages of John Hollander's delightful discussion of accentual-syllabic verse in English from Rhyme's Reason, some thoughts on "The Idiot Boy" and a bit of Geoffrey Hartman at the end: it was fun.


Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads (1802): “Preface” (95-115), “The Thorn” (and Wordsworth’s note on 199-200), “We Are Seven,” “The Idiot Boy,” “Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey,” “Hart-Leap Well,” “‘Strange fits of passion,’” “‘She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways,’” “‘A slumber did my spirit seal,” “Lucy Gray,” “‘Three years she grew in sun and shower’”

Geoffrey H. Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787-1814 (1964; Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1987), 141-162
Paul De Man, “Time and History in Wordsworth,” Diacritics 17:4 (1987): 4-17

Here is the first assignment, due in seminar this week:

1. Choose a favorite stanza of “The Thorn” and type it up in your assignment. Then read it out loud and mark in boldface where you think the stresses fall in each line.

We will talk about this in lecture Tuesday, and I’ll give you a supplementary handout, but a good deal of English poetry doesn’t fall into clear and easy feet: you don’t need to identify a specific meter or mark iambs and trochees and spondees as per our Virgil/Milton discussion last week, just start to get the feel for the rhythm of the lines.

2. How many lines are in the stanza, and what is the pattern of the rhyme scheme?

Use letters A, B, etc.: a Shakespearean sonnet in this system would be ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, while a Petrarchan sonnet would be ABBA ABBA with the last six lines – the “sestet” following the “octave” – generally following the pattern either CDECDE or CDCCDC.

3. How would you describe the diction of the poem (vocabulary, turns of phrase, habits of speech and style)? How would you describe the voice of the poem’s speaker?

4. In Wordsworth’s own note to “The Thorn,” he gives a detailed description of the character who speaks the poem. How does this affect your reading of the poem? Would the poem stand more effectively on its own without it, or does the note augment and amplify aspects of the poem as we have it? What does Hartman say about this narrator, and do you agree with his assessment? If not, why not?

5. One stanza that provoked mirth in some readers is XVII (ll. 177-187). What is inappropriate or embarrassing about the language here? Why does Wordworth court the risk of becoming ludicrous here and elsewhere in the poem? How does this relate to the defense of repetition he offers in his note to the poem?

6. Why might Hartman call “The Thorn” “Wordsworth’s most experimental poem” (140) and “one of the strangest poems in Lyrical Ballads” (146)? You can give a few quotations from his discussion or offer your own thoughts and speculations; it will be valuable if you can step outside his terminology and argument and offer your own account of why this should be so.

7. Write three to five separate assertions about “The Thorn” that you are willing to stand by. They can range from description (the kind of thing you wrote in answer to the first question above) to argument (making a case about the effects or meaning of some choice Wordsworth has made, as Hartman and De Man often do). Mark each with an A or a D depending on where you see it falling – you can mark it D/A if you feel that it falls equally under the two headings.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Austenian aphorism

Up today in the graduate seminar is a favorite novel of mine, Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story. It is not really a legitimate mode of academic argument, but it's always interesting to see where Austen saw certain techniques in action - here's a passage that always catches my attention:
Not to admire Miss Fenton was impossible--to find a fault in her person or sentiments was equally impossible--and yet to love her, was very unlikely.

That serenity of mind which kept her features in a continual placid form, though enchanting at the first glance, upon a second, or third, fatigued the sight for a want of variety; and to have seen her distorted with rage, convulsed with mirth, or in deep dejection had been to her advantage.
Also up: Terry Castle's chapter “Masquerade and Utopia II: Inchbald’s ‘A Simple Story,’” from Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), 290-330; and Marcie Frank's essay “Melodrama and the Politics of Literary Form in Elizabeth Inchbald,” forthcoming in Eighteenth-Century Fiction.

Unintended consequences

Via GeekPress, an interesting and non-melodramatic account of how information from 23andMe genetic testing drove a rift through one family.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Cake fest

One of the toys I most coveted as a child, though I think in reality baking real cakes in a real oven is preferable!

Quincunciall Lozenges

Oliver Sacks' personal history in libraries (courtesy of Dave Lull), with a call for keeping books on shelves. This piece should be read in its entirety by anyone who loves books - it is heavenly - but I was especially captivated by this bit, for obvious reasons:

But the library I most loved at Oxford was our own library at the Queen’s College. The magnificent library building itself had been designed by Christopher Wren, and beneath this, in an underground maze of heating pipes and shelves, were the vast subterranean holdings of the library. To hold ancient books, incunabula, in my own hands was a new experience for me—I particularly adored Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (1551), richly illustrated with Dürer’s drawing of a rhinoceros and Agassiz’s four-volume work on fossil fishes. It was there, too, that I saw all of Darwin’s works in their original editions, and it was in the stacks that I found and fell in love with all the works of Sir Thomas Browne—his Religio Medici, his Hydrotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus (The Quincunciall Lozenge). How absurd some of these were, but how magnificent the language! And if Browne’s classical magniloquence became too much at times, one could switch to the lapidary cut-and-thrust of Swift—all of whose works, of course, were there in their original editions. While I had grown up on the nineteenth-century works that my parents favored, it was the catacombs of the Queen’s library that introduced me to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature—Johnson, Hume, Pope, and Dryden. All of these books were freely available, not in some special, locked-away rare books enclave, but just sitting on the shelves, as they had done (I imagined) since their original publication. It was in the vaults of the Queen’s College that I really gained a sense of history, and of my own language.
(Note to my mother: make sure you read this one, you will like it in any case but the Willesden public library makes a star appearance!)

"Sleekit things"

Mixed feelings about this piece as a whole (the rhetoric at the end made me laugh!), but this bit of John Lloyd's essay for the FT about his childhood in East Fife strongly reminded me of my Scottish grandfather, an educator, a lover of language and literature and an ardent Scotophile (FT site registration required):
At school, English was taught by two Aberdonians, Alastair Leslie and Alastair Mackie, pouring their enthusiasm into those of us in the thin stream that didn’t leave at 15. Mackie was a poet who followed MacDiarmid’s path, wrote almost wholly in Scots and took us to the medieval Scots poets, especially Dunbar. At nights, after homework corrections, and at weekends, he would teach himself French, German, Italian and Russian so that he could translate Akhmatova, von Eichendorff, Quasimodo and Rimbaud into Scots: imagine what audience there was for that!

Like his master, he was Anglophobic: a poem on Princes Street describes Edinburgh’s central thoroughfare as “chained like a convict tae your English stores”. Another, “Wimbledon”, notes: “The guff o’ Eton in the commentator’s breath/‘Thet woz eh maavellous beck-hend by Bawg [Borg].’”

Mackie’s translation of Osip Mandelstam’s famous Stalin Epigram showed what we lost: the lines describing the dictator’s circle in English – “Around him a crowd of thin-necked henchmen/He plays with the services of these half-men” became – “A clamjanfrie o’ spurtle-neckit heid-bummers/sleekit things, playthings, kiss-my-doups, half men.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014


My dear friend Jane Yeh has been chosen for the Poetry Society's Next Generation list, issued once a decade. Not so well-known in the US as in the UK, but this is a BIG DEAL! These are poems that everyone who loves language and play should be reading.


It is hard to believe I've only been back in New York for two weeks. Once the semester starts it is a roller-coaster, all you can do is hang on and wait for it to stop! I guess it is about one-twelfth of the way done?!? Hmmmm, better pace myself for the remaining eleven-twelfths....

Did an amazing triathlon on Sunday (race report here). One more next weekend and then I just need to get on a regular exercise schedule. I've been resting all week due to tired legs, scraped-up elbow and knee and general insanity of school!

Some good light reading around the edges (weeks worth, really - I am annoyed with myself when I go so long without posting it as it becomes tedious to paste in a good many links at once!):

My friend Marco posted a picture drawn by his ten-year-old daughter that reminded me of my passion for Martin Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl. I checked Amazon and there was indeed a new installment of this utterly enthralling series: The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf! It is just as good as the previous two. Imagine Jilly Cooper (he has her rare gift for writing funny appealing characters you care about & being able to spool off stories about them at nearly infinite length) as rewritten with input from Stephen Elliott and Francesca Lia Block - these books are frankly just ridiculously appealing!

Then I read Millar's pseudonymously published Thraxas, but it is not as much to my taste (if you want to try Millar without werewolves, a good place to start is the hilarious Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me).

I liked Declare so much that I downloaded a few more books by Tim Powers; The Drawing of the Dark and Three Days to Never are bot good reads but neither is as much to my taste as Declare.

A cycling-related recommendation from my friend Troy: Richard Moore, Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault and the Greatest Tour de France.

I got Gwenda Bond's Girl on a Wire as an electronic advance reading copy via Amazon Prime. It is delightful! Gave me happy memories of reading again and again from the school library a Noel Streatfeild book that was not one of my absolute favorites (theaters being more exciting places to me than circuses!) but that still captivated me like all her others, Circus Shoes. (It was clear even to optimistic childhood self that I could not have a career as an acrobat or a trick horse rider if I had to run away and join the circus, but I thought there was a good chance that I could play in the band!)

Amazing two-fer that got me blissfully through the knackered evenings of the first week of classes: Lee Child, Personal and Tana French, The Secret Place. These two books are perfect of their respective kinds, and they are appealing kinds at that. I would teach these on a syllabus to show the equal importance of voice, character and plotting to perfect popular fiction! The Tana French in particular is just remarkably good, I am sure I will read it again very soon - shades of Miss Pym Disposes! Especially impressive is the way the whole thing really depends on the creation of a grimly intense mood - it is really like a much more effective and amazing version of what I was trying to do in The Magic Circle.

A very appealing SF novel by Daryl Gregory called The Devil's Alphabet (reminded me of another underrated old favorite of mine, Peter Dickinson's The Green Gene).

Finally, devastatingly (I finished it an hour ago and can't quite imagine what novel I could read immediately following it - might have to turn to some nonfiction instead?): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun.

One more tenure letter to write this weekend, and a letter of recommendation I should have done already (many others hard on its heels!); meetings tomorrow morning, but after that mostly just plans to do a lot of work and some exercise. Had to get this post written this evening because light reading catch-up is one of the throat-clearing procrastinatory things I do when I have to write something that takes attention but that I don't really feel like doing, and it will be better to have gotten it out of the way this evening!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Up today

in LTCM: Milton!

Milton, books 1-4 of Paradise Lost

Critical readings:

#Stanley Fish, from Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 2nd ed. (1967; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 22-37
#Christopher Ricks, from Milton’s Grand Style (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 118-138
#Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, from “Milton’s Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers,” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), 187-207

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Weekend chaos!

In minor chaos and disarray at this end! I am having a very good month: my only complaint about it is that all the good things are happening in a very compressed time period, whereas I know there will be long dull stretches at other points that would have benefited from this kind of stimulus!

(New Tana French was so good that I just wanted to read it all over again when I finished. Also enjoying Vikram Chandra's new book - excerpt here - but fuller light reading log will have to await some more leisurely moment. Had a great meeting Thursday with an editor I'm keen to write for, found a very good dress yesterday to wear for my one annual professional black-tie event, new semester still has the glow on it, etc. etc.)

Heading off in a couple hours to New Paltz for the SOS Triathlon. My brother and his family are crewing for me - niece GG just had her first day of kindergarten on Thursday, as well as her fifth birthday on Tuesday, so I am excited to hear all about it on the car on the way there! I'm taking NJ Transit out to where they are - they have just moved into a new house in Rutherford, this will be my first visit (of many I hope!).

Haven't finished everything for Monday's initial seminar meeting, but the syllabus is finalized and I don't teach till late afternoon, so that should be OK - ditto Tuesday's class on Milton. One letter of recommendation that I will try and squeeze out this morning if I can get tidied up and packed in sufficiently good time. One more tenure letter due the 15th, but it was slightly amazing that I got two of the other ones done over the holiday weekend.

Triathlon: sport of stuff!

Syllabus design also breeds an accumulation of things:

And then there's the OTHER syllabus!

Friday, September 05, 2014

Red pants

At the NYRB blog, Adam Hochschild on a new book of color photographs of WWI.

Dipterocarp forest

Armand Marie Leroi has a good diary piece at the FT (I am excited to read his new book) - here's a nice bit about visiting Borneo, FT site registration required:
There was a canopy walk, a series of metal towers that led to the arboreal world where most of the forest lives. We set out in the dark, climbed at first light, and watched morning mist dissolve to reveal a sea of green. You could also pick up a mobile signal there. As we got to the top, the chimes of iPhones springing to life competed with the bird song and the distant whoops of macaques.

Unparalleled serpents

At the FT, Madeleine Albright's symbolic brooches (site registration required). (Courtesy of I.H.D.)