On 14th March, I attended an unusual and beautiful family event. My brother, Greg Dart, was made Professor of Romantic Period Literature at University College London last year. The 14th was the occasion of his inaugural lecture to mark this great achievement and his position of influence at the college and the wider field of academia. World-wide, it turns out.

The lecture, entitled Charles Lamb’s Lost Loves, provoked depth in thought, with a remarkable lightness and seeming simplicity in its narrative thread. On the surface, we took a biographical journey through the romantic and familial loves of Lamb’s life: stories of tragedy, of playful posturing and the poignancy of love that is unrequited. Through this journey, Greg made the brave and personally authentic decision to place his craft as an editor at the core of the lecture. Greg is editing Oxford University Press’s complete edition of the works of Charles Lamb. There was a moment where he stepped outside his narrative frame and reflected on the job of the editor: a moment that has stayed with me. It was a window in to the depth of scholarship necessary to even begin to type a footnote coupled with a respect for the reader.

He reflected that it is the job of the editor to support the reader’s own interpretation, but not to form it. An effective footnote supports the making of an allusion, the making of connections to other texts, the setting of a work in its context, whilst not restricting or denying the reader’s own frames of reference. The artistry of the editor rushed in to focus and yet sounded an oddly familiar note.

 

We read together Lamb’s sonnet, ‘We were two pretty babes’:

We were two pretty babes, the youngest she,

The youngest, and the loveliest far, I ween,

And innocence her name. The time has been,

We two did love each other’s company;

Time was, we two had wept to have been apart.

But when by show of seeming good beguil’d,

I left the garb and manners of a child,

And my first love for man’s society,

Defiling with the world my virgin heart—

My loved companion dropped a tear, and fled,

And hid in deepest shades her awful* head.

Beloved, who shall tell me where thou art—

In what delicious Eden to be found—

That I may seek thee the wide world around?

 

A knowledge of Lamb’s life in the years leading up to 1796 opens up doors of possibility for the interpretation of the youthful ‘innocence.’ Lamb and his sister Mary had suffered periods of mental illness, from which Lamb felt he was just emerging. His long infatuation with Anne Simmons, a younger woman, had been interrupted by her marriage to another man.

Bringing these biographical details to a reader’s attention too quickly can have the effect of shutting down – or oversimplifying – their thinking. ‘Oh, so this is about how he has suffered and lost. I get it. Poor guy.’

In this instance, I would be tempted to tease out their reasoning in relation to this voice and the characters within the tale:

  • Who are the two pretty babes?
  • Are there different possible interpretations?
  • Why does his companion flee and hide?
  • Why, if she becomes ‘awful,’ does the voice still seek her out in the final couplet?

I might then, thanks to Greg, invite a young reader to consider and evaluate Coleridge’s foot note:

Innocence, which while we possess it, is playful, as a babe, becomes awful when it has departed from us. – This is the sentiment of the line, a fine sentiment, and nobly expressed.’

Is this a ‘fine sentiment’? Can we ever live life without ‘defiling with the world [our] virgin heart’? The note clarifies the personification of innocence as an abstract state and the transformation from ‘loveliest’ to ‘awful.’ But this is where reflections begin, not where they end. The note enables reflections on the poet’s vision, the Romantic vision at once lost in its own internal reverie and yet restless and ubiquitous – ‘seeking the wide world round’. The note would bring a critical, contextual depth to that question of the final couplet – if innocence becomes awful – why continue to seek it?

The choices of the teacher of literature are not the same as that of the editor, yet their goals, I think, are aligned. As a teacher, I will sometimes make the choice to place a text in its historical context and entice readers in with biographical details to enhance their own interpretations. I would argue, in an introduction to Macbeth, for example, that students are introduced to the depth of fear that the King James (and the nation?) felt towards witches: the embodiment of the devil. A witch had never before been represented in body on the stage and yet the play was performed at court, its opening scene depicting the witches on the blasted heath. This shock of the new is unlikely to be reached or felt by a young person who has grown up with Harry Potter or indeed, Game of Thrones. This knowledge also provides a platform to search Shakespeare’s technique more deeply. What is it about the content, style and structure of the witches’ language that embodies that devilishness? What choices has Shakespeare made to distil evil in verse? Can they perhaps be awful and fascinating? Students, in my experience, reach a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s presentation of the witches when they hear and speak the more heroic pentameter verse that carries the voice of the reasoning, god-fearing mortals beyond this scene. ‘Understanding’ emerges through comparative experience and reflection.

I felt a similar tug back to the classroom as Greg explored Lamb’s own editing of his poem ‘The Old Familiar Faces.’

 

‘The Old Familiar Faces’ (Jan 1798, 1818)

 

I HAVE had playmates, I have had companions,

In my days of childhood, in my joyful school-days.

All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

 

I have been laughing, I have been carousing,

Drinking late, sitting late, with my bosom cronies,

All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

 

I loved a love once, fairest among women;

Closed are her doors on me, I must not see her—

All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

 

I have a friend, a kinder friend has no man;

Like an ingrate, I left my friend abruptly;

Left him, to muse on the old familiar faces.

 

Ghost-like I paced round the haunts of my childhood.

Earth seemed a desart I was bound to traverse ,

Seeking to find the old familiar faces.

 

Friend of my bosom, thou more than a brother,

Why wert not thou born in my father’s dwelling?

So might we talk of the old familiar faces—

 

How some they have died, and some they have left me,

And some are taken from me; all are departed;

All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

 

The editor chooses to respect and to publish the later, 1818 version, edited by the poet himself, enabling the reader to make their own connections of loss in its mournful rhythms and haunting repetitions.

Greg drew our attention to the unusual use of the cesura – the mid-line hiatus in lines of six beats (think dramatic pause). This was far more common in other poetic traditions, but not in the English, where a five beat line (iambic pentameter) is more usual. Similarly, our attention was drawn to the fact that the iamb itself is subverted – the sixth heavy stress falling on the penultimate syllable in each line (dum – dee), not the final one (dee-dum). There was no pinning down of interpretation, but an invitation to reason around these unusual choices and their possible effect.

Above is the published version that appeared in 1818, but the poem was first penned in 1798, in the wake of the greatest tragedy in Lamb’s life: the killing of his mother by his sister who suffered from bipolar disorder, coupled with the marriage of his first love to another man.

His initial first stanza was as follows:

 

[Where are they gone, the old familiar faces?

I had a mother, but she died, and left me,

Died prematurely in a day of horrors—

All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.]

 

Again – we were invited to reason why and indeed how Lamb reached the position beyond his grief to remove the very particular reference to a mother dying prematurely in ‘a day of horrors.’

What is lost, and what gained?

What might we learn about Lamb himself from this, about the process of writing poetry and about the life of the poem that lives and has meaning beyond its writer?

There is a strong movement in English education – and in other subjects it seems – that students need knowledge and understanding before they should be put in a position to analyse, interpret, evaluate.  What I have strived for all my professional life and deeply believe is that a good teacher develops these strands in tandem. Like strands of DNA, they support and give life to each other.

It is why I found a professional home in the Let’s Think in English programme and construct. There is no absence of knowledge – contextual, biographical, intertextual – in the lessons, but its inclusion is carefully placed and deftly woven in to the process of reasoning that develops and deepens interpretations. The goal is to support interpretations that are personal and deeply felt as well as critically informed and reasoned.

Is this some utopian dream?

Let’s take a side glance at the Assessment Objectives for GCSE Literature, common to all examination boards in England:

AO1

Read, understand and respond to texts. Students should be able to:

  • maintain a critical style and develop an informed personal response
  • use textual references, including quotations, to support and illustrate interpretations.

AO2

Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate.

AO3

Show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written.

 

Could it be that there is a commonality in the role of the editor and the teacher of literature: to support, to enable, to make possible deeper personal and critically informed responses?  The deft balance to be struck is to be a wise guardian of the reading process, not a directive leader of it.

 

 

 

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