Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!


“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies.”

My department pays me fairly handsomely to teach a particularly futile course – one among no few others – that styles itself as “Writing about Literature.”  The course is futile at both ends: Public education produces nowadays only an uneducated public, many individuals of whom, including those who are invited to college or university to matriculate, write only at the level of functional illiteracy; and none of whom has ever read anything that might qualify as literature.  I approach the course as a fully remedial one because that, in effect, is what it must be.  Dedicating the first half of the semester to “writing about poetry,” I offer up as fare for mental nourishment short poems, mostly sonnets, by writers of the Romantic generations of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.  I run the class-sessions as workshops in careful reading, or close reading, for which a sonnet by William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats or Percy Bysshe Shelley is meet.  I ask the students to begin by noticing the periods or full stops that divide the poem into its sentences and to notice, for example, that, in verse, lines and sentences do not necessarily correspond, so that their interaction must be carefully worked out.  I ask them to notice the grammatical features of each poem.  In what person is the poem couched?  Whom does the speaker address?  What setting is implied? What argument does the speaker make in his sequence of figures and images?  I want students to see that language can function at a higher level than it does in a campus newspaper article or in the instructions for the latest cell phone.  Readers of poems must slow down their thought processes so as to notice everything and they must let the poem provoke them into thinking word by word and line by line.

Friday’s poem was the sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818) by Shelley.  Most Orthosphereans are familiar with Shelley’s lines, but I reproduce them so as to jog any recalcitrant memory. –

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The poem concerns the supremacy and the justice of Time, which sees kingdoms and empires consigned to the dust and whisks their self-aggrandizing kings and emperors, protesting no doubt, to their inevitable Mausolea.  Shelley’s deploys imagery stark and impressive, with body-less legs upthrust from the desert sands, and a frowning stone head, detached but nearby, as though decapitated by the scimitar of some giant executioner.  Shelley manages to suggest an ancient story in which the sculptor, commanded by the king to make a likeness that would defy the ages, knowingly shapes his portrait as accurately as he can – and by so doing immortalizes his own critique of his master and, as it were, cuts his majesty down to size.  Triumph there is in the sonnet aplenty but none of it belongs to Ozymandias – only to Time and the artist.  The mood is bleak, but the keynote is justice, manifesting itself as a greater force than any man.

In the previous two class meetings during the week we analyzed poems by Wordsworth and Keats together conversationally.  I set them “Ozymandias” on Friday with instructions to them to work it out on their own and then to report their findings in a written document, the outline of which, to help them towards coherency, I mandated.  The results show many young people trying honestly to carry out a task, the likes of which they had never before encountered in their twelve years of predictable social promotion – specifically to read, think, and write in respect of a precisely articulated item of masterful linguistic indirection.  For it is by indirection that figurative language works.  Now “Ozymandias,” while partaking in indirection, as all poems must, is not that indirect.  It is even a fairly translucent parable, so to speak, of a despot who thought himself a god and boasted thereof, and who is not only dead, but mocked beyond his life by his clever slave into indefinite futures.  What did the students make of it?

Although the instructions clearly gave the name of the poet – Percy Bysshe Shelley, Percy being a male cognomen – one student wrote throughout her little commentary of “she” and “her” in reference to the poet, seeing only the “Shelley,” and supposing it to be the name of a girl like her, while remaining oblivious to the “Percy” and the “Bysshe.”  The young woman writes of Shelley’s phrase, “nothing beside remains,” that it “really makes you wonder and feel a certain way.”  Yes, I want to say, but could you be more specific about feeling a certain way.  Which way – sad, happy, awed, or exalted, perhaps?  Choose one, please.  The young lady’s reliance on the conversational second person or you is typical of undergraduate writing.  Essentially, she is recording in script what she would say if she were talking with someone concerning Shelley’s poem.  The scholar of literacy Walter J. Ong explained convincingly in his Orality and Literacy (1981) that spoken language and written language are two quite different languages.  Spoken language always has an immediate social context.  What I cannot express in words, I express through supplements to my words, in gestures, facial expressions, and bodily stance.  If my interlocutor should fail to grasp my point, he can inquire of me, and I can explain myself in other terms.  Writing lacks such a context.  Writing must supply its own, independent, context, which Shelley can supply, but which the young woman, bereft of resource, cannot.  More than that, she cannot discern that the poem indeed supplies its own context.  The supposition that it might do so never occurs to her. The young woman has never really been taught how to read beyond the blandest of prose in the shortest of sentences.  It is all a mass of scattered details to her that refuses to organize itself.

Another writer, this one male (one of two male students in the enrollment), writes how: “Time forgets those who do not reserve their place in history.”  This student has intuited that time has something to do with Shelley’s meaning, but he fails to integrate his insight with the fact that Ozymandias has indeed been remembered by posterity, just not as he would have wished or commanded.  This writer has difficulty following Shelley’s rhyme-scheme beyond the ABABA of the first five lines, from which he infers that “this inconsistency of rhyme does not give the poem any rhythm or cadence.”  Now cadence is fairly sophisticated vocabulary.  I suppose that, like my son a few years ago, this student played in his high school’s marching band, in the execution of whose routines cadence is important.  On the other hand, he fuses rhyme and rhythm, which ought to be distinct, but then he does grasp that Ozymandias was an ancient, boastful king who apparently got his comeuppance.  This student is somewhat more capable of coming to terms with challenging verbal structures than his female counterpart of the previous paragraph.

Another young woman confuses what the instructions ask her to write with what Shelley has written.  “In the close reading ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley the meaning is that standing alone can lead to a downfall.”  Shelley wrote a poem, specifically a sonnet; the instructions all during the week and again on the day of the in-class writing assignment have been, to conduct and then to write up close readings of poems.  The coed’s is the close reading and Shelley’s is the poem.  Nevertheless, this writer, like the previous (male) writer sees, vaguely and from a distance, some small part of Shelley’s meaning: “Ozymandias is the king of kings and he thinks he has the most of the power in the island.  But he is wrong, standing alone can lead to what is said in the poem a ‘broken statue,’ and working together with others is much easier and you may succeed better.”  I cannot explain the young woman’s perception that the poem has something to do with an “island,” whose archipelagic relevance she invokes several times.  The orally rooted second-person pronoun, you, pops up once again suggesting that the writer, having begun her sequence of sentences in a literate frame of mind nevertheless has slipped back into an oral frame of mind.  That would explain the clichés of working together and success and the ubiquitous oral error of using the modal verb of permission for the modal verb of possibility.

In the next sample, the student begins, as instructed, with an attempt at a one-sentence thesis concerning Shelley’s lines: “The poem’s main point is to describe how a sculpture was built and how it disappeared.” The image of Ozymandias has, of course, not disappeared; had it vanished, there could be no report of it. This writer has difficulty keeping the personae of the poem distinct from one another. She is convinced that, at Shelley’s Tenth Line, “we finally learn who this sculptor is, he is Ozymandias king of kings.” (We remark the writers iffy comma-splice. Grammatically, the sentence’s error of identification aside, it should read: We finally learn that the sculptor is Ozymandias, King of Kings.) The writer continues: “We know that this guy is considered to be high class. He then goes on saying how proud he is of his work and how he wants everyone to notice it.” The locution “this guy” belongs to the spoken vernacular, as does “high class.” The writer of another sample asserts the meaning of the poem to be: “Allow your work to have a truthful impact.” That sounds to me like pedagogical jargon spoken as constructive criticism by a high-school teacher to a student – perhaps in an art class. It might also come from a teacher-education course, where similar cheer-leading palaver dominates. According to the writer, “the sculptor’s passion has been acknowledged.” This writer, too, appears to have conflated Ozymandias with his sculptor. That the fragments of the stone image survive unto the present signifies to this writer “that the sculptor put his heart into something that remained lifeless.” A third writer adheres to the same basic misinterpretation: “You should always put passion into what you are doing, no matter how big or small.”  This too sounds like high-school gung-ho or the message on the inside of a Hallmark card in celebration of earning one’s high-school diploma and being accepted to college.

Some observations – none of them extending much beyond the obvious – are in order.  Grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, all of which modern education theory despises, are the essential tools of thinking.  People who lack them entirely or who possess them only in deformed and paltry ways are doomed either never to think or to think only in deformed and paltry ways.  In the system of alphabetic literacy, which has prevailed since the Greeks gave us the one-and-only alphabet around three thousand years ago, the sciences of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary are easy to acquire.  Children of seven can have acquired them.  That our public education in effect withholds from students grammar, syntax, and vocabulary is an evil that should arouse acute people to bloody anger.  Propositional language — in the form of mere prose — is a limited form of language.  It is good for describing the contents of a cereal box or explaining, in a dull way, aspects of the physical world.  In the development of the Self, however, propositional language is not provocative; and the Self only grows through provocation.  That is why all art – including that of poetry – exists.  There are things that people must know, if they are to fit themselves to the dignity of the cosmos, which propositions cannot tell them, but that only figure and indirection can suggest to them.  Sometimes, in fact, people wish not to know the things that they must know.  That makes the provocation and the indirection all the more necessary.  Propositional language concerns the visible, external world; figure and indirection, the great wealth of words rich with historical sediment, speak of the interior life, of intellectual activity, and of communion with invisible orders that are simultaneously internal and external.

Literature – about which my students are supposed to write – is initiatic.  Confronting a poem, in however minor a way, is an ordeal, a rite de passage.  That my students have never previously undergone such rites de passage means that they probably never will feel the effect of them at so late a stage.  They will remain shallow and infantile, addicted to their cell phones and in perpetual anxiety about what to do.  If they could think, they might figure out what to do on their own but largely they lack the ability.  It has been withheld from them. Had they each a self, again they could find a calling, responding to signs and portents in the world, but the perpetual lesson of selflessness (immerse yourself in the corporate body) has left them with little capacity for self-reflection and little sensibility concerning the signs and portents that might otherwise conjure them forth from themselves, as they walk the path of life.  It is the case moreover that a good many of the students in my course are education majors who propose to have a career as teachers.  The problem has been self-compounding since the 1960s.  The loss, to one who witnesses it, and grasps it, is an agonizing pageant of despair.

20 thoughts on “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

  1. Pingback: Look on my works, ye might, and despair! | @the_arv

  2. which has prevailed since the Greeks gave us the one-and-only alphabet around three thousand years ago

    Good Professor, what idea do you mean to suggest to the reader by this ‘one-and-only’? As a simple taxonomic matter it is false, as you certainly know, which leaves me confused as to your intent.

    Do you perhaps mean to emphasize the Greek-cum-Latin alphabet’s importance to the Western world? This system of writing is certainly more influential in Western philosophy than any other, including the Hebrew, and for good reason.

    On to the point, at this juncture I think the only solution is to raze the entire educational edifice to the ground. It is the primary propaganda arm of the Enemy, and serves no other useful purpose, despite the good work of men like yourself. It is true we would descend into rank barbarism and ignorance, since the connection of our folk to the history of Christendom has been cut, but rank barbarism and ignorance are better than acute engineered enmity. A field of rubble is ripe for building, but a sabotaged foundation will hold no structure.

    • I can’t say confidently that I make out your meaning, Rhetocrates, at least in your first two paragraphs. I apologize for my obtuseness. If my prose were unclear, then I strongly recommend Ong’s Orality and Literacy, which inspires it.

  3. Pingback: Look on my works, ye might, and despair! | Reaction Times

  4. Tom, in reading over the essay samples you provide, my first impression was of young minds responding to your instructions first with confusion and incredulity – “What the Hell is this, and how can I respond to it rightly?” – and second with a laudable determination to come up with *something or other* that might credibly meet the criteria of your assignment, despite the fact that *they really had nothing to say on the topic.* Ozymandias left them unmoved. Yet were they forced by the exigent circumstances to say something worthwhile. They were groping along in the darkness, and my heart went out to them.

    I can remember well submitting essays as an undergraduate philosophy student that I was really rather proud to have stumbled upon, and cobbled together in what seemed to me a credible way, or at least a serious way. I got so many of them back from the TA marked, in one way or another, “Er, no, not quite; you’ve got this or that badly wrong.” A humbling experience.

    And I was far, far better prepared for college than your students seem to have been. No credit to me. Thanks, and all thanks, to my great teachers in High School, who thrashed my mind to a fare thee well. Long live Shortridge High School, Indianapolis, Indiana! In heaven, anyway, may she long live, and in the gratitude of her alumni, and of the Most High.


    OK, another topic. I was struck by the contrast you notice, between propositional speech and indirection. As philosophically inclined, I am naturally more adept at the former. Yet has it always seemed to me, a soul not quite dead to poesy – I am a musician and a liturgist, after all – that the indirect speech of poetry and high literature achieves its looming power and significance by means of an indication of propositions yet unplumbed, by any human mind – propositions that, while not yet quite understood by any man, nevertheless are felt by every man, inmostly, as all pressing in upon him with inexorable significance.

    Blake noticed that everything is implicit in a grain of sand, or a flower. No less is everything – every proposition that an infinitely sapient mind might understand – therein represented, and indeed shadowed forth.

    So it is that when Oedipus suffers, all who hear of his suffering suffer it with him, and for him. In the indirection of poetry are all formal propositional specifications of all formal systems implicit.

    No one of any intelligence, I dare say, can go through life utterly untouched by a pre-conceptual apprehension of the intimate togetherness and mutual signification and indeed mutual affection of all things, at all levels up and down the Great Chain of Being. For, what is causal effect but an outworking of a basic ontological affection of each thing for all others, and a will toward their common good? Things love what they would; so what they would generally comes to pass, despite our not noticing, despite our noticing mostly those relatively few things of what we would that do not come to pass. We notice what we don’t get; we never much notice what we do get.

    Almost all of what we would like to have happen, happens. E.g., we keep existing, the sun keeps rising, the mayonnaise is still in the fridge, and so forth.

    But we don’t notice that.

    Reading poetry, or watching sublime theater, or hearing sublime music, or opening our hearts to a transhuman landscape – or, indeed, laughing with friends over a few beers, or playing with little children – we remember well, we are surprised to remember, that all things do indeed hold together for good. In such moments, the beauty of that integrity can be particularly heart rending, and bring us to tears of happy, dreadful sweetness. This, no matter how tragic or painful the occasion of our recollection.

    So are all such activities portals to sanctity. Catharsis of any sort, in which we are either reduced or enlarged to the notice of what is First and Most Basic to all things, is ipso facto holy.

    A post scriptum: “Catharsis” reminds me of the catharsis of those who scape the goat. It is I suddenly think akin to the holy catharsis of any tragedy, in which the audience project themselves into the predicaments of the protagonist, and suffer with him. Is there after all some tincture of the holy in the sacrifice of the scapegoat?

    Something to consider.

    • Your passing reference to Oedipus put me to thinking that this over-emphasis on propositional thinking, to the neglect of the indirect, may be a longer-lasting and deeper affliction for mankind than we might have heretofore realised. Could it be said, for example, that Freud took a propositional, all too literate, interpretation of the tale of Oedipus, leading him far astray from its meaning and, not inconceivably, even providing succour to paedophiles, the perhaps most wicked consequence of a radically misconceived theory of consciousness? Could this propositionalism be a contribution to the centuries-old tendency to reductionism among so many in the intellectual class who, in their prosaic world-view, have lost the ability to even consider the reality of Mystery, a quality which can best be approached indirectly?

      • Mickvet: I, too, regard Freud as a literalist. He turned the mystery of consciousness into a variant of hydrodynamics. Someone in earshot of me recently said words to the effect that Freud had “rediscovered consciousness.” Not so. He is simply a late phase in the gradual forgetting of consciousness.

    • Dear Kristor: Thank you for responding so richly. Your references to tragedy appeal to me greatly because what I witness in the steady parade of freshmen is indeed a tragedy. In its resentment against high culture and against achievement, the prevailing order has for decades purged these things from its curriculum and from its pedagogy. Anti-cultural (anti-Christian and anti-Western) resentment has two closely related but differentiable sources. The first is the resentment of the man who sees himself as ordinary only, who feels that he therefore lacks being, and who finds that being outside himself in the benchmarks of the tradition and in the creators thereof. This man wants, therefore, to conceal or destroy those benchmarks so as to rid the world of any sign of his own inability to achieve at the highest level. The second is the resentment of the same man against him who, quite as ordinary as he, finds in the benchmarks, not any reminder of inferiority, but a lodestar by straining for which he elevates and inspires himself. The first man experiences ire in respect of the second man precisely because the second man refuses to share the first man’s initial resentment.

      We live under the first man’s regime. He has, as I say, concealed the benchmarks and banished the lodestars, but that means that he has, at the behest of his own paltriness, made unavailable for himself and for everyone else the opportunities and experiences that enrich people, especially young people, and move them to deepen their humanity and transcend their egos.

      P.S. About discovering propositions as yet unknown: I would put it slightly differently. Art and the rites de passage provoke us to the discovery of axioms as yet unknown, on the basis of which we can formulate new, meaningful propositions. The path to such discovery is not, itself, propositional; it is closer to being ecstatic, apocalyptic, and ego-dissolving. The structure of propositions is ever direct, but the structure of discovery is indirect. Discovery cannot be planned in advance, but it requires the cooperation of grace.

      • The steady parade of freshmen may indeed represent a tragedy, but part of this tragedy is their innocence of a tragic sense of life. This may account for their imperviousness to the meaning of Ozymandias. I know Shelly gives us reason to think that old Ozy was a bit stern and haughty, but growing up in the royal household of a Levantine empire affects a guy, and his rule may well have been the best one could hope for under the circumstances. And what does it come to? A busted statue and a poem that has left a million teenagers with the impression that you were kind of a prick.

        Lacking a tragic sense of life, I’d imagine your students think their fate will be different. They think that they will be liked and fondly remembered if only they smile weakly and avoid that “wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.”

        (BTW, I figured out how to single-space lines of poetry in WordPress. Select the text of the poem. Open the drop-down box labeled “paragraph” on the toolbar and click “preformatted.” Delete all the original returns and then enter new returns while the text is in “preformatted” mode. Return text to “paragraph” mode. Click the imbedded quotation command.)

      • My impression was like JMSmith’s, that students are evading the more disturbing message by reading the poem as just a critique of Ozymandias, as if his fame and his works might indeed have lasted until the end of time if only he had been nicer.

        Here’s an anecdote suggesting that students are able to be disturbed by time’s great eraser. A couple of years ago I was visiting the Rochester Institute of Technology and went out to lunch with some of the physics graduate students. They were quite amused by the goings on in the introductory astronomy class. Apparently, the instructor had decided to give a lecture on the long-term future of the Earth and solar system, and a number of students were upset and actually angry. It all seemed so silly to us at the table. What did these kids expect? That the Earth would be around and habitable forever? Perhaps, though, it was our detachment that was unnatural.

        Then I learned that a scientist had written a book on a fun thought experiment: suppose tomorrow humans vanished from the Earth. How long would it take for the traces of our existence to disappear? As I said, an amusing matter for speculation, but there was something disturbing about the way people were responding to the book. They seemed to find it comforting, perhaps even inspiring. There’s a real species death wish out there. At least those RIT students were bothered by humanity’s extinction.

        At last, I myself have felt this species death wish. Watching the way the media can control the beliefs of my fellow men, it almost seems as if they have the godlike power to dictate reality itself. We are social creatures, and whatever we say, social consensus feels to us like reality itself. But I take comfort in contemplating the extinction of life in the universe. Even if the enemy could convince everyone, even if it held power over every soul for a billion years, reality will ultimately bury and erase it.

  5. Just after graduating from college, I was employed by a sporting goods store and tasked with keeping the boxes of athletic shoes ordered by size. This left a portion of my mind at loose ends, so I set myself the supplemental task of committing Ozymandias to memory. I copied the poem out on a slip of paper that I carried in my pocket and would surreptitiously consult when I fluffed a line. I had come to realize that life was going to be very dull if I didn’t stock my brain with something on which to ruminate (other than sex and resentment, that is).

    I was not all that different than your students, some of whom may very shortly find themselves sorting boxes of basketball shoes and suspecting that they have been had. For my part, I decided that sorting basketball shoes left me somehow unfulfilled, and this set me to thinking about how I had been brought to this pass by my own sloth and frivolity. With the limited resources I had at my disposal, I came to the conclusion that I was sorting basketball shoes because my head was full of trash.

    Memorizing Ozymandias was, by a curious coincidence, one of the first things I did to rectify that lamentable state of affairs.

    • I have inadvertently memorized Shelley’s fourteen lines merely by repeated reference over the decades, but it is the singular poem that awakened my interest in poetry lo! — those many years past. I think it was the raw power of that magical name, Ozymandias, that attracted me. What in God’s name is that, I would have said to myself. The fact that, on a first reading, Shelley’s lines seemed to pose more questions than they answered actually impelled me to re-read repeatedly until I could make the misty vision cohere — or begin to cohere. My admonition to students, which of course leaves them baffled, is that as students of poetry they should never attempt to read a poem, but they should endeavor that the poems read them.

  6. JM, you wrote: “Lacking a tragic sense of life, I’d imagine your students think their fate will be different. They think that they will be liked and fondly remembered if only they smile weakly and avoid that ‘wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.'”

    Freshmen are quite good at lip-wrinkling and sneering, I attest. Those activities are, in fact, the very activities in which they excel. You are right, of course, in pointing out that they lack any tragic sensibility. They are Polly Anna knock-offs, including the men, but without Polly Anna’s Victorian confidence. It comes back to me, however, that Polly Anna had a bout of pneumonia that almost killed her and that she emerged from her ordeal slightly less childish than when she entered it. Not that I wish bouts of life-threatening feverishness on my spiritually impoverished, sub-Polly-Annaesque students, but I do wish on them some vaccinating version, at least, of the Dark Night of the Soul. They would be better people for having passed through it.

    There is a way of tasting the Dark Night of the Soul vicariously. It is called reading — whether of poems, plays, novels, or philosophical dialogues — but for reading one must come equipped. And here we revert to that other yawning lack that afflicts the freshman cohort, its lack of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.

    • Fortunately, I don’t have to teach, but I do have the distant memory of being taught. In my memory, my colleagues and I were not so inclined to sneer. On the contrary, we were probably ‘suffering’ from what would now be diagnosed as low self-esteem. It we got ideas above our station, we were soon brought down to size, if necessary with a leather strap, the (excellent) Christian Brothers equivalent, in Ireland anyway, of the proverbial hickory stick. Low self-esteem is very helpful. With it, one assumes inadequacy and consequently tries harder at whatever job is at hand. One expects to have made a bags of the job and therefore is less likely to over-charge the client. One continually seeks to improve one’s knowledge and skills. As one expects to fail, one is less likely to fall into excessive debt or make overly ambitious plans. One may find oneself pleasantly surprised, eventually building up a confidence and self-respect that is earned, genuine and grounded in reality. For someone setting out in life, high self-esteem doesn’t seem a good idea, at all. What is a sneerer, only someone who knows he knows it all already, with nothing to learn?

      • Failure is a great teacher, maybe the greatest. It comes complete with its own hickory stick. Our age knows all about self-esteem, but nothing about Eros, the real driving force behind that yoking-oneself-to-discipline that opens the way to intellectual and spiritual growth. Our age knows not how failure stokes the fever of Eros. It sees in failure only embarrassment and paralysis and so seeks, quite successfully, the elimination of failure. Of course, it is impossible to eliminate failure. The most that those who would do so might achieve is to cajole everyone to call failure by some other euphemistic name.

  7. BONALD: You have hit on something, slightly oblique to your main point, that is important. I refer to your invocation of niceness. My students have been raised in an environment of niceness, probably on the theory that niceness is… well… nice. In fact, niceness is an insipid phenomenon; it is a kind of coddling puritanism that purges the pedagogical scene of anything that might seem the least bit disturbing or threatening. Niceness discourages thinking, which might lead to disagreement after all — and that would not be nice. Niceness should not be confused with friendliness, courtesy, magnanimity, or decorum. Creation is right and it is good, but it is not nice. Better to raise children with a tragic sense than to raise them solely to be nice. The tragic sense, precisely, is conducive to friendliness, courtesy, magnanimity, and decorum.

  8. My personal favorite poem is In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. It represents the end of the old era before power and the telephone and the beginning of the modern era. It’s also the end of the agrarian past through a brutal war that destroyed old Europe. Paying attention to grammar and cadence in poetry is a great way of really understanding English as a language.

  9. Could the student with the archipelagic misconception have misread “land” in the first line as “island?” (“I met a traveller from an antique island”) “Ozymandius” is one of three memorized poems I recite to myself in order to fall asleep at night (the other two are “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and Burns’s “To a Mouse”). Thanks to Kristor for the beautiful reflection on the mutual affection of all things. That’s going into my commonplace book.

    • Yes, it’s possible. Judging by the halting way in which the students read aloud when I ask them to do so, it wouldn’t, in fact, surprise me. This is what comes from dropping phonics from literacy instruction and substituting “see-say” and “whole language.”


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