Consisting of Different Measures: the Content of The Virgin Muse

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

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.


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A Compleat Book for the Teaching to Read Poetry

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.

My interest in the poetics of emplacement—in the border(s) between language and place, the written and the lived, the created and the experienced—comes not with the process of composition but rather with the process of instruction, the moment when a poem enters the pedagogical space of the classroom and becomes a part of its unique and contested landscape. More particularly, I am interested in the border between what a teacher believes he or she is teaching and what a student believes he or she is learning.  This is the unruly and ineradicable complexity in any pedagogical situation and can quickly spiral out to encompass all moments of instruction whatever, so, to focus my analysis, I want to reflect specifically on why teachers ask students to read poetry.

Of course, as many beliefs about why students should read poetry exist as there are teachers in the world.  And, were I another kind of scholar, I would spend these next few pieces drawing out the various reasons I have heard discussed and argued.  However, my own bent is historical rather than ethnographic, and I want to turn from the answers we might give in our moment to the answers that another teacher gave in a quite different historical moment.

Teaching poetry is so familiar and widespread a practice to us that it is somewhat surprising that the oldest teaching anthology of poetry in English was published in London in 1717.  To give the educational milieu in brief: early eighteenth-century England had no public school system, no uniform legal mandate requiring formal education, few educational institutions that would educate women, two universities, and a uniform recognized language of scholarship and learning, Latin.  Thus, the publication of [The Virgin Muse] in August of that year was not business as usual.  Up to the publication of this textbook, the teaching of English in schools extended to teaching basic reading; once students could read their Bibles, they started learning Latin or stopped learning to read at school.

What I want to consider in this and the other pieces in this series is how an examination of this textbook can offer a productive perspective on why teachers believe students should read poetry.  I will use the work of James Greenwood, the compiler of The Virgin Muse, to consider in turn what was being taught by reading poetry, what poetry was to be taught, and what students were perceived as needing to use this textbook.  Through a nuanced examination of how one teacher answered these questions in the past, I hope to provoke us to think again about what benefits we see in the present and how those benefits relate to our actual classroom practices.

To return to The Virgin Muse again, I want to give some brief background on its compiler, James Greenwood;  Relatively little of his life has survived down to the present, most important in this context is that teaching was his lifelong vocation and that his career culminated with his appointment as Surmaster of St. Paul’s School in London in 1721, a post he held until his death in 1737.  Despite the lack of biographical details, Greenwood left us interesting evidence of his thinking in his preface to The Virgin Muse.  I have posted the entire preface elsewhere, but I want to focus here on Greenwood’s articulation of what his students would learn from reading poetry.  He writes,”I have endeavoured to make it [The Virgin Muse] a compleat [sic] book for the Teaching to Read Poetry: The Poems consisting of Verses of different Measures, you have all the chief sorts of English Versification”.

To Greenwood, then, to teach students to read poetry was to teach them prosody and poetic forms, to help them understand the structures of poetry rather than its meaning.  In short, students should be taught to understand and recognize the technical system of arrangement and organization from which, in Greenwood’s moment, all poetry was built.  A teacher could measure students’ success in learning to read poetry by asking them to scan a poem, give its meter, and identify its form.  Questions of interpretation, of affective response, of criticism generally were not the teacher’s responsibility or the student’s .

Of course, Greenwood does not disregard interpretation or criticism; he addresses those concerns quite clearly in his preface when he says, “I have therefore had great Regard to introduce nothing here, but what is strictly Modest, and truly Poetical; and as for the difficult Places, they are made very easie [sic] and intelligible, by the Help of Notes, and a Large Index, explaining every hard Word”.  Criticism, then, is removed to a pre-pedagogical moment, in which the teacher reads and selects only appropriate pieces based on moral criteria of Greenwood’s own devising, a process to which students are not made privy. The process of interpretation is also removed to a pre-pedagogical moment, with Greenwood giving glosses that interpret “difficult” passages for students an definitions of “hard” words for them to use, those passages and words that are left unexplained must, implicitly, be understandable to any student.

Greenwood’s understanding of what a teacher should teach his students is an early articulation of a position that argues that the teaching of poetry is concerned with the technical and empirical aspects of poetic form.  The implicit goal seems to be to teach students to focus on those aspects and to avoid questions of interpretation and criticism that have no immediately discernible answer.  Those questions are left outside the space of the classroom, questions for the teacher but not for the students.  Yet, and here we come again to the question of a poetics of emplacement, the landscape of the classroom relies on more than what the teacher states as his or her pedagogical objectives. My next piece will turn from Greenwood’s objectives in teaching to the poetry that he chose to include in his anthology, offering an examination of whether Greenwood, in fact, created a “compleat book for the teaching to read poetry” by his own criteria and also what other implicit pedagogical objectives he seems to be pursuing that might undermine his stated goals.

Rob Koehler

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.


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