Tuesday, September 19, 2006

John Donne Paper Topic

Last Thursday we spent all day in ENG 220 (Reading Poetry) on two holy sonnets by Donne: "Batter my heart, three-personed God" and "Thou has made me, and shall thy work decay?" I suspect the students were a little disappointed--they probably wanted to talk about "The Flea," which we only chatted about in passing--but I had a blast, not least because I haven't taught either of these at any length in many years. My favorite moment in the discussion came when we took up the final lines of "Batter my heart," which Paglia (our text, remember) reads rather simplistically. To her, "ravish" is a synonym for "rape"; as my students learned when we put the OED on screen (Lord, I love classrooms with live computer hook-ups!) and read through the various meanings that word had by Donne's time, all of which seemed active in, and relevant to, the poem.

After class, I went back to my office to check what Helen Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry does with that sonnet. In the Teacher's Guide, she suggests that you spell out to the class in advance that according to Christian theology--at least the theology Donne knew--God can't simply slap your soul upside the head and force it to accept redemption. That would have helped in class; I'll keep that in mind for next time. She also offers a wonderful paper topic, which I thought I'd pass along to you:
What are the two adjectives in the couplet that tell us what the speaker wants to be? How do these adjectives generate the two chief metaphors (town and bride) of the poem? Track the verbs used in the commands hurled at God by the speaker, and connect them to the two closing verbs ('enthrall', 'ravish') of the couplet: Are they similar or different? What is the playof language between the meanings of the commands and the meanings (look them up in the dictionary) of the two closing verbs?
One thing this assignment would do, I think, is tune the students in to how "wrong" or "off" the initial demands of God in the poem turn out to be. Not just wrong theologically, but wrong given what the speaker "really wants," by the close.

Today, Herbert and Marvell! Anyone out there have any good paper topics, study questions, or classroom approaches to "Love (III)"?

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