I first encountered a Norton Anthology in first year University. It was the poetry edition, rather than the English Literature version but I think both were edited by M.H. Abrams. Mr. Abrams died this week at the ripe old age of 102. This makes him a shining example of ‘that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’, as anyone who tangled with the Norton Anthology in any literary incarnation will attest. Or actually that is only true in retrospect: we did think it would kill us at the time but we certainly did not think a lack of morbidity would make us stronger – it would only mean we would have no excuse not to write the final exam. Mr. Abrams, I belatedly apologize profusely for my lack of faith in your life’s work.
The survey course is a mainstay of first year university English studies. My course was called Poem, Play and Story, and Norton was the representative of the first instance. It was taught by Professor Blake, a card carrying scion of England himself and therefore (in his own opinion) extremely well suited to help us dive into the sacred waters of true ‘literature’. Little did we know they were shark infested, with the tweedy Professor Blake gleefully strewing bloody chum into the abyss in front of us.
As you probably know, females are rather over represented in the average post-secondary English class. But this was especially true at the University of Waterloo where the male to female ratio was 13 to 1 and no self-preserving engineering student was going to risk their first year GPA by selecting English as his bird course. So there we were – a class full of fresh faced coeds at the mercy of the Norton Anthology and Professor Blake, with a particular predilection for works that involved the phrases ‘globed fruit’, ‘sultry glances’ and ‘walking in beauty’.
But that was not the problem. The problem is that English teachers everywhere want you to figure out what a poem really means. And of course if you want to get the mark you think you deserve, it has to mean the exact same thing that has already been decided by the academics that have studied it as their life’s work but didn’t actually write the poem or even ever meet the person who did. Entering Professor Blake’s classroom during the poetry phase was like competing in the Hunger Games: ultimately no one was going to dodge the random deadly barbs of his distain at our lack of congruence with his poetic interpretation. Our biggest mistake, though, was thinking running the poetry gauntlet was the worst of it, while in reality Dickens and Daniel Defoe still loomed in our future.
I still own my frayed 40 year-old copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, but not only for the same reason I still have my copy of Bleak House. And I can still recite My Mistress’ Eyes and My Last Duchess to anyone who is too polite to find the nearest exit. But now indeed my heart is ‘too soon made glad’ by reading anything that would have met Mr. Abrams’ high standards of exemplary prose.
A poem should not mean, but be. (Archibald McLeish)