Since roughly the Romantic Period (1798-1837), literature has been seen as a separate discipline from philosophy and science. Many of the greatest manifestos on the value of poetry were written during the Romantic Period: Joanna Baillie's "Introductory Discourse" to Plays on the Passions, William Wordsworth's 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" (1821). And yet poetry in particular and literature in general have been devalued as forms of knowledge because of the hegemony of science and technology. Recently, the value of literature has come into question even within the discipline of English itself as an offshoot of debates on the canon. In this class, we will read Romantic poetry, along with some prose, in order to ask ourselves, what is literature? One provisional definition of what constitutes a literary work is that it is any text we read closely. Reading literature requires paying attention to why exactly each word is used as opposed to any other and to what the literary form of the text tells us, how it works to augment or qualify the text's explicit themes.
Discussing literature should be pleasurable, but not a free-for-all. If I say, "I went to the store to get lemons," the sentence can be interpreted in many ways: maybe I'm angry at you for not going to the store, so that I'm really saying, "I had to go to the store because you didn't." Or maybe we have been debating over whether to have a lemonade party, so that it means, "We're having the party." But while open to interpretation, the sentence cannot mean anything: it doesn't mean, "Green grass grows on the moon," for instance.
So often when we interpret works of literature, or even what another person says to us, we do it too quickly. Instead of grasping what they say, we hear what we expect them to say. I know you have had the experience of thinking that someone agreed with you completely on a certain issue, and then discovering that this person has a radically different point of view; you are surprised that you hadn't noticed until now how much you really disagree. This kind of thing doesn't happen necessarily because "they changed" or you were "blind" to who the person really was. Rather, it happens because knowing another person is actually very difficult; it takes a lot of work. Most of that work consists in overcoming your own preconceptions and prejudices so that you can really "hear" what another person is trying to say.
The same is true of reading texts: reading well is much more difficult than running your eyes over the page. It takes a great deal of work to determine whether you are really understanding another person's different perspective, or instead just imagining that the text reaffirms your own conceptions. The only way to determine what another person or text is really about is to have recourse to "the facts": in the case of knowing others, "the facts" are words. Words are really elusive facts, difficult to pin down--their meanings change over time. For instance, the word "literature" to Anna Barbauld means book-learning of any kind, including science and philosophy; "science" to Barbauld means "knowledge of universal truths," while she calls what we mean by science, "experimental [or natural] philosophy." You can use the on line O.E.D. to find out what a writer means by a particular word, and you can rely on me as a resource.
What does all of this have to do with our class? In discussions of whatever kind written or oralyou will be held responsible for what you say; you will have to back up what you say with "facts," that is, with the words on the page. The class constitutes a collective effort to determine what the facts mean. That is, when I suggest a possible interpretation (or "reading") of a text, you will want to know precisely which words and forms I have used to formulate my interpretation. Then we will discuss what other possible interpretation might arise from that passage. All interpretations offered in class, whether by you or me, will be open to discussion. It is only in that way that we can each individually overcome our own preconceptions and prejudices. The first goal of this class is to acquire a skill for better understanding texts (and people).
Prejudices run wild when we presume to know how someone feels. We have no evidence of what Wordsworth felt. Instead, we have his poetry which may or may not express his feelings accurately, may rework them, may be the place where he allows himself to imagine having other feelings than he has. Wordsworth says that poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," but he also says that these are feelings "recollected in tranquility." To be a poet is to work hard to achieve an effect with language. Such work cannot be done while sobbing or raging, and so the fact of the work itself means that the poet has had time to reflect on her feelings, rework them, purify them, understand them, and above all to say something about them to us.
A word about class discussion: sometimes the process of contesting another's interpretation can be animated, aggressive, dynamic--it can be wonderful, and it can be stressful. I believe that there are several keys to success as a thinker. One is being able to relinquish your own point of view, remembering that what you think is not an essential part of you but something that you can choose to adopt or not. Another is being able to tolerate ambiguity, to realize that from one perspective, interpretation A makes the most sense, while from another, interpretation B is better. The second goal of the class is not agreement about the meaning of any text. The second goal is rather precision in reading and interpreting texts: the more precise and detailed your analysis of the "facts," the words on the page, the better you will be able to persuade your classmates of your interpretation. In fact, one can say that the most "correct" interpretation of any text--insofar as there is one--is that interpretation which takes into account the most elements in the text (words, diction, details, images, figures, etc.).
This class has another goal, however, in addition to meeting other minds (both in the classroom and in the works we read) and reading with precision. Our third goal is much more practical: to get you involved with and relaxed about using the Internet. There are two parts of the Internet that we will use in this class: an email list and the World Wide Web. I believe that, no matter what future you choose, you will be using the Internet on the job. It is crucial for you to learn to create, send, and retrieve email messages. It will probably help you to get a job if you can create web pages as well. A great deal of scholarship is occurring on the World Wide Web as well, so even if your future plans include study, learning to navigate the Web will help you tremendously.
I will just say a final word about my preferences, about what counts for me in grading. What counts for me is careful attention to words, ideas, forms. If you find yourself absolutely bored beyond belief in trying to pay attention to minute details, let's analyze that boredom as a response to a particular text, either in class discussion or in my office.
Go back to the course home page.Laura Mandell, Dept. of English, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056