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.