It is sweet and fitting

“There’s no right and wrong in English” I often hear people say. Well, right. And wrong.

Certainly, with regard to analysing literature, I think you can be wrong, while at the same time doing things that are in one sense right, and certainly would be likely to gain marks in an exam. What I mean should become clear by following this exchange I recently became involved in on an English language teachers’ email list that I’m a member of.

The first message was this:

A pupil of mine suggested that the regular rhyme scheme in Dulce et Decorum est made the poem sound more upbeat and that this contrasted with the actual content of the poem. Another student developed this, suggesting that in the same way the truth of war had been sugar-coated or disguised by the government or leaders of war, the horrors detailed in the poem were similarly sugar-coated by rhyme. I thought this was a highly interpretative and valid response. A colleague of mine disagrees.

What do others think?

To which someone responded:

Well justified and original. Far better than parroting what is in revision guides. Why doesn’t your colleague agree? I wish some of my students could come up this level of response.

Which was then countered by:

Not sure how the rhyming makes it feel ‘upbeat’?

At which point I weighed in with my first response:

Maybe you should ask 10,000 Maniacs about that:

10000 Maniacs (Natalie Merchant) singing The Latin One on The Word

(For the record, I love most of the work of 10,000 Maniacs and Natalie Merchant but think this was NOT their finest hour).

I think this is one of those tricky ones to deal with in the classroom context. On the one hand you’re wanting to encourage creativity and exploration in response; on the other hand some responses are more valid than others, and you have to look at the wider context of the poem, and indeed of poetry in general.

Does it really look as though Owen is trying to ‘sugar coat’ the horrors of war? Plainly not, surely? Yes, the rhyme scheme is regular, but does a regular rhyme scheme automatically suggest ‘upbeat’? Well, Gray’s Elegy doesn’t exactly get me dancing a jig, for example, and in Dulce, the positioning of the rhymes relative to the metre and syntactical structures resists a neat ‘sing-songy’ rendering (as Natalie’s reggae style mangling of the poem seems to attest!).

So I’d be saying something along the lines of “Fantastic kids, well done! Brilliant thinking – exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for. Now, let’s see if you can work out why that brilliant thinking has led you up a blind alley, and you need to turn back and retrace your steps.

Another colleague reinforced that view by adding:

The problem here is that our students, by and large, hear with 21st-century ears accustomed (apart from song lyrics) to rhyme only in light verse, often comic (think Spike Milligan, Roald Dahl or Pam Ayres); most of the ‘serious’ poetry they’ve had to study will have been free verse or (with Shakespeare) blank verse.

I remember having to teach Byron’s When we two parted from the old Edexcel GCSE anthology, and finding it impossible to take seriously: for us, that tripping dactylic metre is always light-hearted. But I doubt very much that Byron and his original readers felt that, or he couldn’t have written a poem which one assumes is meant to be deeply moving.

So your pupils are to be commended for actually thinking about the poem – but I don’t believe that Owen would have agreed with their interpretation, given those famous words of his: “My subject is war and the pity of war” – the horrors are indeed horrors. Students need to train their responses by reading much more poetry from past centuries.

Getting back to the poem, and the original students’ idea, George contributed:

I often teach that the perfect rhyme in Dulce (unlike many of Owen’s half rhymes in other poems) has this effect. His form shows what he’s mocking – the outer appearance of things being ‘dulce et decorum’ when actually they’re not. So – yes – I think that’s valid

Which was further supported by this contribution:

Surely though it’s an interpretation and they’d get marks at least for coming up with something original? I remember sitting at a poetry live event and a student giving their interpretation of one of Gillian Clarke’s poems – she turned around and said she’d never thought of her poetry in that way but what an excellent analysis of it.

Does it necessarily matter if the poet didn’t intend to use it in this way as long as the student is justifying their response which is what we ask them to do all of the time? Otherwise do we not just end up with the same repetitive comments being made?

The chorus of approval was joined by this:

The students’ interpretation was valid in my view, which is beginning to make me question my ability as a teacher! His tone, after all, is ironic, when he begins “my friend” and it is irony that the young students had been discussing prior to talking about rhyme. Furthermore, it was the notion that rhyme was being used in an ironic way, that was their suggestion.

And after a couple of further objections to the original idea of the rhyme scheme of he poem making it ‘upbeat’, George acknowledged:

Yes – ‘upbeat’ maybe isn’t quite the right word – cynical or satirical rather

A this point I felt an urge to counter the ‘anything goes’ idea that so long as students are engaging with the poem all is well, so I pitched in with quite a lengthy contribution (I was procrastinating; there was coursework marking to be done):

I think you’re right that students would get marks for such an interpretation.

However if I felt that all I was doing in teaching poetry was teaching students to get marks I would have to pack it in.

I also think that the thinking behind the interpretation that started this discussion is the sort of the thing that should be encouraged, and that while it can be said to be ‘valid’ it is also ‘wrong’. Valid, because it draws a logical conclusion from the evidence available, and the premise from which the students started (that rhyming poetry is more ‘upbeat’ than non-rhyming). It’s just that the premise, as I suggested, and Sue rightly developed, is wrong (or at best, only sometimes right).

I also agree (and teach very strongly) that the meaning of poetry is in the reader’s encounter with it, not purely in the poet’s intention. Of course, once a poem leaves a poet’s hand it is open to interpretations that the poet may not have intended (and even that the poet may have fiercely resisted as feminist, Marxist and psychoanalytic readings often show). However I still firmly believe that a reading should fit the whole evidence of the poem, not just the bit you happen to have noticed, and that it must at least take into account any obvious intentions of the plain meaning of the poem. Gillian Clarke is right that an excellent analysis of her poetry may be one she’s never thought of, but she’s also very instructive on the issue of paying most attention to the plain sense of a poem. See here:

George’s interpretation goes further than the original students did in ascribing a satirical purpose to what was being read as a ‘sweet and fitting’ effect of the rhyme scheme, and though it has made me think about it harder (and a little differently) than I ever have before, I think it needs qualifying. The ‘decorum’ bit, I can run with: there is a sort of decorum in the regular rhyme scheme and underlying metre, but the natural stress patterns of English are frequently straining against the iambic pentameter. Try reading ”Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,” with a neat iambic rhythm, for instance. And if the rhymes (several of them feminine rhymes, further breaking any sense of ‘neatness’) are all full-rhymes rather than the half-rhyme frequently used elsewhere, then perhaps that serves only to heighten the horror or misery of so many of the words that are thus rhymed: sludge/trudge, blind/behind, blood/cud, and – formally unfitting, but tonally and semantically apt – ‘drowning’ rhymed with itself, as if the poem is indeed beginning to drown in its own form that cannot be fully sustained against the bitterness from which it rises. Thus, as we draw towards the end of the poem, we reach a stage where perhaps it can be said that the metre and rhyme does satirically echo a more ‘upbeat’ song-like tone with ‘zest’ paired with the ‘Dulce et decorum est’ in the mouths of ‘innocent tongues’: that zealous sound driven by air from ‘lungs’ that we know later in time (because of what we have just read in the poem) will be ‘froth corrupted’ by the ‘Gas’ of a new and horrifying form of mass warfare. Finally the ‘fittingness’ of the metre breaks down completely in the bathos of ‘glory’ being rhymed with ‘mori’ (‘to die’) in the only metrically incomplete line in the poem: the poem literally cut short (like the lives of the soldiers themselves) by death, after the bitter sputtering plosives of ‘pro patria’, severed by the line break from the ‘dulce et decorum est’ sweetness that Owen recognises -and insists we now recognise – as a lie.

A few people made some quite encouraging comments about what I’d written, and then this:

An excellent analysis of a vexed area Ant. I agree so much with your second paragraph!

I am continually at the moment so often being horrified by the attitude that students must accept the ‘right’ interpretation, that a discussion like this restores my faith in English teachers.

So many of our local schools came down last summer in their English results yet to my shock so few of them appear to have modified their approach to encourage independent thought in their students. Although I do not totally concur with the students’ views, they are so firmly rooted in the text that they deserve the credit for independent thought they are giving and not, as I saw last week, the comment of ‘This is NOT what I taught you’ when a student dared to offer a view which varied from the rigid formula being taught. A view which, incidentally, I had not taught but which I too found interesting and which led to an interesting and rewarding debate with the student.

So there you have it. Don’t just follow some party line from teachers or revision guides, but nor should you think you can just say what you like. (An interpretation properly informed by wide reading, attention to the whole text, and influenced by more experienced readers will certainly be better than one you just concoct off the top of your head.

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