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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why Can't My Students Understand EE Cummings' Position on Righteous Revenge v. Passionate Adultery?

Aphrodite and Ares, caught by Hephaestus' supersnare of resistless metal 
I love the incredibly stupid look on Aphrodite's face here.

I want to know why my students can't understand poet E.E. Cummings' position on righteous, if sadistic and jealous, revenge versus adulterous passion.

I've just finished lecturing about Ancient Greece. I compare it to Ancient Egypt. There's a blog post about the Greece lecture here, and a bit about Ancient Egypt lecture here.

I close out the lecture with modern-day poems inspired by Greek myths. My goal is to emphasize that the Ancient Greeks made a contribution to the world that lasts to this day; their myths still inspire our artists.

These are the poems we read:

We read William Butler Yeats' "Leda and the Swan," a graphic depiction of a beautiful girl being raped by a swan, and the unintended consequence – the catastrophic Trojan War – that Zeus' momentary lust engenders.

We read Edna St. Vincent Millay's heartbreakingly lovely poem, "Prayer to Persephone," in which Millay begs Persephone, who is herself trapped in Hell, to take good care of a dead girl Millay had a crush on.

We read one of the grimmest poems ever written, W.H. Auden's "The Shield of Achilles," whose main message is, "Life is a bitch and then you die." Only it's even worse than that.

It's E.E. Cummings' poem "In Heavenly Realms of Hellas" that confounds my students.

(By the way, I know I am supposed to type Cummings' name in lower case letters. I am dyslexic and selectively breaking orthographic rules like that is just too hard for me.)

The basic plot: Hephaestus, the blacksmith, the one ugly Olympian, is married to Aphrodite, supremely beautiful, the goddess of love. She cheats on Hephaestus with Ares, the handsome war god.

Hephaestus gets his revenge. At his forge, he fashions a very fine net that he throws over the pair while they are making love. He summons the other gods to come and watch the trapped pair, to laugh, and to ridicule.

Hephaestus' act is very cruel. But of course it was very cruel for Aphrodite to cheat on him.

In Cummings' poem, he superficially praises Hephaestus as virtuous, but it's obvious – to me – that he despises Hephaestus, and sides with the adulterous lovers.

My students don't get this at all. They don't get this after I explain it to them. They insist that Cummings is on Hephaestus' side.

This bothers me.

Why don't my students get this? What is it? Is it vocabulary? My students don't use dictionaries. They don't look up words they don't know. I tell them to. Doesn't work.

And … is their inability to read between the lines here symptomatic of some larger problem? I do not know.

Cummings' poem, below:

in heavenly realms of hellas dwelt
two very different sons of zeus:
one, handsome strong and born to dare
--a fighter to his eyelashes--
the other,cunning ugly lame;
but as you'll shortly comprehend
a marvellous artificer

now Ugly was the husband of
(as happens every now and then
upon a merely human plane)
someone completely beautiful;
and Beautiful,who(truth to sing)
could never quite tell right from wrong,
took brother Fearless by the eyes
and did the deed of joy with him

then Cunning forged a web so subtle
air is comparatively crude;
an indestructible occult
supersnare of resistless metal:
and(stealing toward the blissful pair)
skilfully wafted over them-
selves this implacable unthing

next,our illustrious scientist
petitions the celestial host
to scrutinize his handiwork:
they(summoned by that savage yell
from shining realms of regions dark)
laugh long at Beautiful and Brave
--wildly who rage,vainly who strive;
and being finally released
flee one another like the pest

thus did immortal jealousy
quell divine generosity,
thus reason vanquished instinct and
matter became the slave of mind;
thus virtue triumphed over vice
and beauty bowed to ugliness
and logic thwarted life:and thus--
but look around you,friends and foes

my tragic tale concludes herewith:
soldier,beware of mrs smith

Greek myths inspire artists today. Leda and the Swan. source
Leda and the Swan by James LeGros source


  1. It's obvious on whose side cummings is already in the first stanza. Interesting that this comes my way not long after I commented how the bottom third of class seemed incapable of understanding irony, no matter how many examples and explanations I provided, until I realized that irony was an IQ test. So the ability to grasp what is not entirely explicit (however explicit to you and me) may be deficient in some students. But even more important in this case may be the issue of conventional morality. This is a "naughty" poem, and students, being nowadays more conventional than the instructors, not only don't want to risk saying anything naughty -- they don't even dare to see the naughtiness. Poems are supposed to extoll the agreed-on virtues, so no, let's not even imagine that this one doesn't! A poet is supposed to be always right, so he must be on the side of the husband . . .

    And even the brighter students may not have the courage to say anything that's unconventional on the surface of it.

    You'd have better luck with "My father moved through dooms of love" and other "nice" poems. I know, I know . . .

    1. Oriana, I love the beautiful writing in your post Thank you. I refuse to believe that students aren't smart enough to understand when a surface meaning is differnt from the real meaning. I BLAME THEIR TEACHERS. As ever. Oriana ... I wonder if this has anything to do with my other gripe, ideological education. My students have been pounded over the head to accept their profs' (left wing) ideology. Maybe that has pounded the surface meaning / deeper meaning skills right out of them. Maybe, to use your word, "naughty,"' they've been made to understand that they are not allowed to conclude something different than the surface meaning.

    2. This may indeed be a reflection of the Newspeak world we are living in - and thanks again to George Orwell for giving us the vocabulary to describe it.

      If language is dumbed down then people are dumbed down... or could it just be that your students are very young, and don't see much outside themselves as yet?

    3. Sue, I honestly don't think that the problem is that my students are not smart enough or not experienced enough.

      If you remove them from the academic context, in whatever form that removal may take, they function beautifully.

      I really think that we have done something unfortunate to the academic environment that stifles intellectual functioning.

    4. I believe it's group-think in play. Don't dare come up with an original thought that doesn't match the majority of the group.

  2. Meaning is endlessly reinterpreted through the filters of time, culture, previous knowledge, belief. This is one of the glories of language once you get beyond the level of the No Smoking notice (and even those can turn out to be unexpectedly nuanced. It might be interesting to get them to think about the implications of 'immortal jealousy' and 'divine generosity' - and which quells the other in this poem (which I love). In my experience (and yours, I'm sure) they often need a bit of help to find that thread in the language to start pulling at to unravel the possible meanings.

  3. I thought about this last night instead of sleeping.

    I think one key may be that students have trouble with connotation v denotation.

    I can think of exercises to help them with that, but students are presumed to enter the class with those skills intact.

    English departments are notoriously leftwing these days and indoctrinated students trumps educating students in too many real life examples I've been exposed to.

  4. Diane Gage sent this in; I think it's excellent. Diane posts fabulous haiku on facebook:

    Have you tried making winners and losers columns and arranging the poem's collection of abstract nouns on either side? I don't think it's all that immediately obvious which side Cummings is on, because his groupings are somewhat unusual, a bit unexpected - virtue aligned with ugliness and cunning, vice with beauty and instinct. They may not have met that idea before. If this were my class, I'd introduce them to more of Cummings' poetry, especially his celebrations of life over logic, passionate expression over proper behavior. Once they're more familiar with him, it might be easier to see his perspective at work in this poem.

  5. Hey Sue, didn't Orwell have some great essays on politics and the english language?


  6. There is always this struggle between the Sons of Mary, and the Sons of Martha, perhaps the artists annoyed with scientists often employed?