Monday, December 20, 2010

The familiar, the unfamiliar, and the not-unfamiliar-enough

This past semester was the fourth time I've taught all of Dunne's Songs and Sonnets, so it's no longer a fluke: my students don't love Dunne's love poetry. They find him, it seems, cheesy and sexist, like some overeducated fast-talking dude in a bar who's charming in small doses but who grows increasingly wearisome as the drinks peter out.

Now, Dunne is those things. But so convinced have I been that my students would be dazzled by his poetry and seduced by his personae, that I keep thinking it's a bold move to assign an article about his misogyny, to point out some of the really disturbing undercurrents in his verse.

Dude, my students don't need that. They're not sold on that dashing-rake stuff to begin with.

By contrast, and rather to my surprise, my grad students this past semester loved Dunne's religious works--and not just the poems, but the Devotions, the sermons, and some excerpts from his controversial prose. They found his depictions of God, and the afterlife, and the relationship between the soul and the body endlessly complicated and fascinating.

The explanation, I think, is that Early Modern religiosity is strange and unfamiliar to my students, but love lyrics and gambits to get women into bed aren't. The idea of a Christianity that's rich and intellectual, challenging and playful, is either totally unlike the Christianity they've encountered before (in the case of the irreligious and the atheists) or a fuller and more beautiful expression of ideas they share or would like to share (in the case of the students of faith).

And as someone who works on religion and literature, I'm delighted by this second response. But I'm bothered by the first one, in part because it seems predicated on a disinterest in or inability to historicize, or to make fine distinctions between then and now. No one is saying that Dunne's misogyny doesn't exist, or that it's model for how to pick up chicks today. But can we talk about it in its actual context? Or as a particular response to the Petrarchan tradition? Or, hell: just in formal terms?

Or maybe I'm just surprised, or have taken it too much as an article of faith that everyone finds Dunne irresistible. For most of the twentieth century, Dunne was central to how we understood and how we taught poetry--the perfect New Critical example of everything that poetry was and should be. Maybe that wheel has turned.


LenapeGirl said...

Donne yet?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the explanation for your student's disinterest is due not to the inability to historicize, but to the recognition that, whatever the values of a poet in a historical sense, at the end of the day the cannon of literature which we teach and value reflects the values we share as a culture...values many of your students might be trying hard to change, or wish were different.

Renaissance Girl said...

No one is saying that Dunne's misogyny doesn't exist...

Except maybe I. Bell.

I'm really surprised to hear this news: All my students have fallen for the rakish Dunne AND the pious Dunne. (Like there's much of a difference.) But I suspect my students (and possibly their teacher as well) are still happily stuck on that New Critical wheel.

scr said...

This doesn't strike me as surprising. Political correctness tells us there are countless sacred cows we can't even discuss without being cast aside as some deviant. Your students probably think you're trying to trap them :)

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Assign _Busman's Honeymoon_, and see if they get it after that.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Except maybe I.

You and me both, RG. (Of course, I'm the sort of person who once wrote -- on a final exam in grad school -- that Thomas Carew could come over to my house any time he wanted to. I have often wondered what the professor, who was of the "Look! Look! Misogyny! persuasion, made of it.)

Flavia said...

RG: heh. I just read an article by I.B. earlier this week. And I thought...well, I'll let you guess what I thought.

It may just be my student pool. But I do wish they had more negative capability on this issue (which gets to Fretful's point): he can be both sexy and fun and poetically pleasurable and at times disturbingly misogynist. That's okay! You can still like his works!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Heh, actually you are being quite generous by assuming that I have such a sophisticated point, especially since I have clearly mis-parsed RG's post and am currently smacking myself in the forehead. Smack.