This Week In My Classes: Every Word Counts

We’re one week into the fall term and I’m starting to feel that I’ve got my sea legs back. Every new term seems a bit herky-jerky at first, but before long it smooths out, or at least becomes routine again.

In Close Reading, where my initial goal is to foster a habit of paying close attention (our mantra is “don’t take the words on the page for granted”), we have started working on scansion. It’s not an advanced poetry course so we don’t get too fancy about it: the point is just to learn how to pay attention to rhythm and versification. So in this class we are literally counting this week — not words, of course, but syllables, then feet, and then lines. I happen to think this kind of thing is both fun and interesting; I hope I conveyed some of that enthusiasm on Wednesday while I walked them through the basic elements, and that they show some of their own when we practice it together tomorrow. I always enjoy choosing examples to show the reason rhythm matters, the difference it makes. Consider these two excerpts, for instance:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the fields and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality

Both Tennyson, of course, but what a contrast, and so much of that has to do with how he has arranged the stressed and unstressed syllables.

Here and in all the topics we cover in Close Reading, what I’m trying to do is turn a habit (reading) into a methodology, with the short term payoff being more detailed analysis of specifics and the longer term payoff being (I hope) more confidence in the interpretations they generate of whatever they read. Part of my pitch for the course is that these skills are supremely portable as well as enormously important–aesthetically, but also ethically and politically. It’s true that in this context scanning lines of verse remains somewhat niche skill, but appreciating poetry is also virtuous in its own right!

In 19th-Century Fiction, we’re reading Persuasion. For a long time I have identified Persuasion as my favorite Austen novel, but this time through, my allegiance is wavering: more than usual when reading it I am frustrated by Anne Elliot’s not speaking, when all it would take to bring about the consummation so devoutly to be wished is a few clear words at the right moment. I know, I know: her reticence and self-control are admirable, and just going for what you want makes you Louisa Musgrove, a literally fallen woman who clearly signals the dangers of undisciplined desire. When Anne finally does say something (“she speaks!” say my marginal notes at one point) it is also always significant: a breakthrough of feeling, an assertion of principle, a lesson in values. Still, one key to the novel’s happy ending is that she finds her voice, or figures out how to use it to win for herself the kind of happiness someone of her high character can accept: not simple pleasure or self-gratification, but a marriage of true minds.

Image: The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)

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