Talk:BM1 - Introduction to Literature - Assignment 1

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Question One

The speaker (male) addresses an unspecified audience. The last line offers a change with his report of the words the Muse finally offered him as advice. The problem and the interaction with the Muse lie in the past (the problem is – obviously – overcome).

Commentary: the question was rather simple, we gave ten points for the speaker/audience part and five each for the muse and the past.
Several people gave us more complex (and as it turned out: misleading) answers. The speaker is not identified as Sir Philip Sidney (we do not read “I, Sir P.S. had a bad time…”), nor is the speaker identified as “Astrophel”. Several participants saw the title of the whole collection (Astrophel and Stella) as the full clue and concluded that the poem addresses a “she”, Stella, or, in “reality”, Penelope Rich. The Wikipedia article offered this information [1]. The attributions were in any case problematic. We did not ask “who is behind Stella”. The problematic aspect was the risk to continue with the “truth”. Penelope Rich was another man’s wife, so the poem is about unfulfilled love. Those who went that way were likely to give a number of wrong answers on question 2.
Why should one ask for the communicative situation? Most of all: to get a notion of the problems presented in the poem, a notion of the tensions and the suspense it offers. The question was designed to lead you into the content.
Another marginal problem might be mentioned: Some began to muse about the Muse. Do Muses exist? Several people were sure that they are completely fictional – and concluded that in reality Sidney must have been talking to himself. Others noted that many poets speak of their beloved ones as Muses – in which case they were ready to see Penelope Rich suddenly answering (or Stella) (or the “dear she”). You can just as well conclude that Robinson Crusoe was fictional and that the whole novel Defoe wrote was hence invention, and that we rather had to consider why Defoe wrote such a novel than read it.

Question Two

First: a note on the content – later some words about the word "theme":

The sonnet has different sections. In the first (roughly the first quatrain) the speaker considers that writing a poem might help to win the feelings of the lady he has fallen in love with. He develops a plan – namely to arouse her interest with the poem (not writing this poem!) and through that her pity – he wants to give a bleak picture of his situation – with the result that she might finally answer his feelings.

To make his poem interesting he decides to adorn it with inventions suiting the lady’s wit – a decision which leads him into a desperate situation: the harder he tries to contrive inventions the clearer he fails. He takes resort to the pages of others, i.e. he reads collections of poems to get inspiration. The result is a complete loss of ideas he could use.

The problem’s solution is stated with the last line: He has to look into his heart (rather than the poems of others). We can conclude that the solution was successful; the use of the past tense gives that clue: the problem is overcome. The ensuing collection of poems can count as further prove.

Commentary – content and theme: The poem is the first of the entire collection and perhaps a good start. The author does not promise a load of conventional sonnets. He offers a collection of unconventional poems – he could not write after the fashion of others, so he claims. He was in love when he wrote the collection and he wrote as his feeling dictated – an apology (in case he violated some of the rules), a promise (to offer real feelings, not just texts after the fashion of others) and a good start as we get a reason why we actually receive a complete collection of poems.
Several people did not get the content. They remained fixed on their initial notion that this was a sonnet written by a sad lover to a lady who does not answer his feelings. We did not offer more than 10-12 points if the topics – “this is a poem about writing poems” or “this is a poem about what happens if you try to get your inspiration from the works of other poets” or “this is a poem on the question of originality in poetry”… – was not noted.
Answers that remained on the level of content recapitulation could also not get the full number of points. The question was to identify the themes – the theme is the general topic of the text, what is it about? If you gave the correct plotline of the poem – as given above – and stated: So the general theme is unfulfilled love and unhappiness of a lover, this resulted in a loss of points. If you read a poem in which 90% of the lines deal with the problems of writing a poem, we feel that writing a poem is at least to some extend a theme in this poem.
Why do we differentiate between content and theme? Well basically as understanding and interpretation afford such a differentiation. Jesus' simile of the prodigal son[2] is not understood if you come to the conclusion that Jesus wanted to advertise the eating of lamb with his words. It is part of our culture that content and theme can differ. The study of texts affords a readiness to speak about such differences as lie between "literal meaning", "plot", "content", "theme", "intention" etc.

Question Three

Our sonnet was an English sonnet (there is also the Petrachan, Italian tradition), it had three quatrains and a couplet. The rhyme scheme was abab/abab/cdcd/ee. The metre iambic hexameter – i.e. unstressed stressed with six stresses on twelve syllables per verse).

Comment: You got 15 points for these identifications and extra points as soon as you were able to add that there are also irregularities to be noted. You lost points if you stated that there were no irregularities since wrong answers do always lead to a reduction of points. Those who said that every line has 12 syllables simply failed to notice that some had 13. Those who stated that the thyme scheme was abab/cdcd/efef/gg were blinded by general information they had take from the web – our poem has abab/abab/cdcd/ee.
Those who connected the freedom with which Sidney handled his metric scheme with the content – the poem is a plea for a certain freedom to be taken from one’s heart – got the extra point to get from 19 to 20.
Several people did not see any metric cohesion and offered us a jungle of trochees, dactyls, iambs etc. stepping from word to word, failed to make the full number of points since this again is the aim: We want you to identify patterns and to remain sensitive for the individual thing before your eyes. You will otherwise not be able to tell what a certain text does in a tradition of other texts.

Question Four

You had to explain one metaphor and two more stylistic devices.

Comment: To get the points it was not enough to simply say “Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain” is a metaphor. It is a metaphor because it is indirect speech. There is a literal (and in this case absurd) meaning – in this case: that the poet had exposed his brain to sun rays and needed a shower to cool off; and there is a meaning to be unfolded by interpreting the line – the poet was exhausted and needed inspiration just as his skin or the dried soil would have needed a shower had they been exposed to the sun for too long.
Most people concentrated on this metaphor – realising that there were other parts in the poem they understood even less: What was this line with “turning leaves” about? Is this spring and the man turns leaves, or rather autumn and the leaves have already fallen to the ground??? Leaves is a synecdoche: the part of a book, the individual page or “leaf” stands for the whole. Our man is leafing through a book – reading the verses of others so the metaphorical (transferred) meaning.
Some other figures? There were personifications of Invention and Study (“stepdame”), an allegory (the Muse) and much more to be detected. You were free to state what you detected.
The whole question was designed to help you in case you had gone wrong in question two. Those who wondered what the “leaves” were all about – here you got a chance to understand the line, it is metaphorical. Some people had problems to make sense of “great with child” – so somehow the author talks to a child – and decided to ignore this line as just another dark one. Rather look into the OED [3], we have that online, our man says he was pregnant, big with child, referring to his prodigious womb. Can a man get pregnant? No of course not, its metaphorical and humorous: our poet was pregnant with his poem and ready to give birth; he laboured in pain – yet nothing would come out... Here a fundamental advice: if you discover things that do not make sense, do see these things as a problem you rather solve, especially if it is more than a half sentence in a 700 page novel. If there are several lines in a poem that seem dark, you might consider to produce a translation before you judge what it is all about. You might otherwise miss content and information on themes.

Question Five

…was the difficult question. Several people compared the poem to other sonnets. The genre attracted the decision. You were likely to make no points at all if you stated that one could now detect that all these sonnets have 14 lines and three quatrains and a couplet… if you decide to compare poems of 14 lines this is just the logical outcome: your poems will suddenly all have these 14 lines.

Some realised that there were sonnets with a different rhyme scheme – well, yes we said this: Italian and English sonnets. Again one did not make points if one decided to compare sonnets only to find out that they actually were sonnets.

Some people went into details and spoke about different things: This sonnet is about a man who is desperately in love and she does not respond (it was not), the others were about men who did not want to fall in love, one sonnet was rather written by a woman, this was hexameter others pentameter, here cupid appeared, there the mood was rather gloomy and so on.

You got points if your comparison made something visible. Maybe you compare sonnets and find out that they share topics, the use of metaphors, a concentration on a speaker etc. – all which can give us an idea of the sonnet as a genre used to create discourses and to actually invite comparisons.

Several people said we only read love poems – those who did harvested marginal question marks. Blake’s Jerusalem was rather a political poem. George Herbert’s Denial was rather a religious poem.

Some people harvested 20 points in two or three sentences in which they realised that our poem and George Herbert’s Denial shared the theme: They both were poems about a writer not finding the words he was looking for. This is where the comparison begins: Where are the differences – our poem was a love poem, a sonnet, it dealt with a poet who tried to get inspiration from works of others. George Herbert rather used his problem to “mend” his verse as a metaphor. At a time in which he felt he did not get any response to his prayers he felt unable to reach perfection and harmony in his work/life/poetry. We did not expect any answers just a readiness to reach a fruitful comparison. Some people lost points if they stated that both poems shared the theme only to then state that Sidney needed 14 lines to deal with that theme and Herbert 31.

A comparison must elucidate something, it is a didactic device to tell you more about something you are looking at. If you compare two things do not just state differences or a common ground but think of what the comparison can tell you – about the genre or the special work in question. All our work is about getting a more complex notion of things – a good aim to be kept in mind.

Some General Remarks

Use the personal pronoun “I” sparsely. It is useful if you want to state something against other opinions or if you want to manoeuvre the reader through a complex argumentation. It is otherwise a misleading protagonist. “I feel the sonnet has 14 lines”, “in my opinion it is about a man called Astrophel” – many things can be stated as they are. It is a sonnet of 14 lines, not because you feel it is.

Do not use words like “naturally”, “of course” etc. – they always implicitly state that you do not actually want to give a proof for what you are about to say (or they are simply useless stresses of what you do).

Do not refer to “our seminar”, “the poems we read” (even if we asked you to take a look at poems “you read”). You are supposed to address an audience of specialists out there – a reader who has definitely not attended “our seminar”, an audience who does not know you, and who does not even want to know you or us. The topic has to be dealt with on the ground of a general interest in the texts in question.

Seminar work you write should aim at a kind of inner independence – imagine you wrote your lines with the expectation that someone else was to read them out in a discussion. The person who will read them out must not blush when doing so. Avoid passages he can hardly read out without the additional statement that you probably wrote them without the design of seeing them read out in the public. Words in which you speak about what “all humans experience” – will make him stumble and add that this is now your voice not his.


Und sollen wir das jetzt mit allen Gedichten so machen? Zuerst nach der Kommunikationssituation fragen, dann nach den Themen, dann nach dem Versmaß, dann nach den Metaphern und dann nach dem Vergleich?

We hope not to have offered you any scheme of standard analysis. The whole course is designed to help you deal with problems once they occur. The problems will vary. Sometimes it might help to take a look at the communication, sometime it will help to realise that speech you come across is rather figurative than literal. Sometimes you might get a clearer view, if you compare your text with others. In any case you should think of a specific solution.

If you realise something odd - then think of there being a science of literary criticism out there developed to address such problems. We have words to speak about that first person in a poem: it is the "speaker" not a "lyrical I" nor the "first person narrator" (the latter is the persona you find in a narrative, a novel). We have dozens of words to speak of "figurative" rather than literal meanings (such as metaphor, metonymy etc.), we can analyse a speech with its effects.

Our course is not supposed to offer a standard procedure - some kind of "if you come across a piece of literature, first do that, then that, then that - to understand it and interpret it correctly". We do not assume that literature is a kind of riddle to be solved by literary critics.

We assume, however, that there is a discussion of literature out there. We try to prepare you, so that you can understand that discussion, take part in it (for instance as a school teacher), and so that you can judge on participation you encounter. You should be able to understand why they discuss literature, and you must become able to recapitulate that discussion properly wherever you come across it. To ensure that we offer you a kind of first understanding of this discussion - especially of sensititivities we have within this discussion.