Rob Koehler, Series Contributor
This series examines the first teaching anthology of poetry in English to reflect on teachers’ reasons for directing students to read poetry.
In my last post, I considered the pedagogical thinking that underlay the first teaching anthology of English poetry, The Virgin Muse. In the book’s preface, the compiler, James Greenwood, argued that his textbook was designed to teach students to understand the technical and formal aspects of poetry as opposed to critical or analytical reading. This post will take Greenwood at his word and examine the poetry included in his anthology and the two appendices he included for reference purposes in order to discover what we can learn about Greenwood’s methods of compilation and annotation and whether they matched his prefatory remarks.
The Virgin Muse is made up of 126 selections from 32 different authors; the collection contains two predominant forms of versification, heroic couplets and blank verse. Greenwood includes examples of poems using other forms of versification, particularly irregular odes and common meter, but the book is not organized to make these distinctions clear. Instead, poems seem to follow one another indiscriminately or, at least, without a particularly prominent interest in their versification.
The book, in fact, seems to have no single overall organizational system; poems neither ordered by title or author nor by theme, topic, or year of composition or publication. What seems clear is that Greenwood had no overall scheme to which he was adhering in the ordering of the poetry. His two appendices, one for explanatory end notes for difficult passages and the other a glossary of hard words, shows a similar lack of organization and preparation. Although the first is supposed to annotate difficult “places”, assumedly difficult lines or passages, it instead serves as a series of notes giving explanations of classical names and locations that are referenced in poems throughout the collection. In several places, it duplicates the work done by the glossary because both offer similar glosses of the same word. At no point do the end notes explain a series of lines, offer assistance in understanding figurative language, or otherwise give an explanation of a particularly difficult section in a text. All of this suggests that Greenwood likely had no overall system for organizing and annotating his collection.
However, if the entire collection does not manifest a strong unifying system that clarifies Greenwood’s priorities, glimpses of a systematic purpose—beyond that claimed by Greenwood in his preface—appear when examining individual poems in the collection. For example, Greenwood shows a clear interest in poetic imitation and parody, including two passages from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and their equivalents in imitations written by John Dryden. He also includes two accounts of the tale of Baucis and Philemon, one translated from Ovid by John Dryden and the other a parody of the tale by Jonathan Swift. Although a teacher might use these varying examples to discuss versification, it seems more likely that questions about poetic adaptation and imitation would also be of interest to both teachers and students. Similar questions might arise based on Greenwood’s choice to place excerpts discussing the same event or describing the same human attribute. For example, he places two descriptions of the descent into hell next to one another, one by John Dryden and the other by Edmund Spenser; he also places two descriptions of fame next to one another, one by John Sheffield and the other by Dryden. These again would seem to implicitly suggest the possibility of comparison on a level beyond the technical, especially since several of these pairs were written using the same form of versification.
Thus, though no overall scheme of organization—whether based on versification or some other system—is apparent in the collection, it seems that Greenwood did have some sense of pedagogical possibility beyond merely teaching students the technical and formal aspects of poetry. Why these possibilities were not more explicitly expressed draws back again to the question of how this book might have been used in the classroom. Perhaps the basic cause of the lack of structure is that Greenwood expected the book to be read topically, with teachers selecting passages for reading and students following along, rather than read through from beginning to end as a whole. If this were the case, Greenwood’s lack of overall organization would make sense because that imposed structure would not necessarily reflect the realities of classroom use.
My observation brings us again to the contested terrain of the classroom and the moment at which the plans of this textbook’s compiler and his vision of possible pedagogical purposes met the lived realities of pedagogical practice. These two posts have considered these questions from the perspective of the compiler and teacher; in my final piece, I want to turn to the students that were considered the audience for The Virgin Muse, examining how we might understand the purpose and structure of this book for those who would have learned from it.
Rob Koehler is a second year doctoral student in English at New York University and has an abiding interest in the processes and peculiarities of teaching reading, especially reading literature of all sorts, in the classroom. He blogs at Reading.Text.Book.History. on all things related to education, textbooks, and reading.