Impressed

I just had the first substantive discussions with the first-year students in my Clarkson Seminar class. (This is what we call "Freshman English" at Clarkson, though it is taught by people from across the Humanities & Social Sciences.) I am happy & impressed. The theme of this course, as I noted in a previous post, is: childhood, adulthood, innocence, experience, alienation, order & chaos. And probably six or seven things beside. But we began with Blake's Songs of Innocence & Experience, which may appear simple on first acquaintance, but turn out of course to be subtle & sophisticated lyrics that require a good deal of the reader. And, as readers, my Engineering & Business & Psych majors did themselves proud. I'd say more than half the students in each section spoke, several more than once; but it was what they said that was most impressive. They were asking things like, "Why does Blake use this off rhyme here?" "What sort of religion did Blake have?" And they were picking up on the cyclic imagery of "The Echoing Green" & the bitterness of the two "Chimney Sweeper" poems. It is easy to read the Songs of Innocence, especially, as fantasies of an ideal childhood, but several students noticed that there is darkness & sleep at the end of even such a celebratory poem as "The Echoing Green" with its seasonal & diurnal cycles of life & death. It was great, by the way, to be able to pull up images of Blake's hand-printed pages from the Blake Archive. We could actually look at the chimney sweeps being released from their coffin & see how Blake created a composition entirely of circles to illustrate "The Echoing Green." I'm looking forward to the semester.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.