Thursday, March 05, 2009

`The Words and the Assonances'

The 16-year-old and I sat in the far corner of the classroom, awkwardly sharing a computer. His assignment was to write a brief profile and analysis of John Proctor, one of the more cartoonishly drawn characters in Arthur Miller’s cartoon of a drama, The Crucible. I played it straight, kept my opinions of Miller’s dramaturgy to myself and acted strictly as a gatekeeper of clean, logical prose.

Writing was agony for this kid, as was typing. He seemed unaware of the space bar and relied rather touchingly on spell-check software. He wasn’t stupid or defiant, and clearly he had read the play but he found the translation of ideas into words almost viscerally painful, like cramps. To make the process even more difficult he was obligated to craft a “topic sentence” and follow a curriculum-prescribed method of composition called “chunk writing.” In short, I was helping a kid who can’t write complete an essay about a lousy play by a writer of simple-minded agitprop, all the while conforming to a crackpot theory of expository writing. Futility hovered around us like flatulence in a locked room.

Fortunately, I had revised my rule that morning and brought a book for those moments when I wasn’t “chunk writing” -- The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald’s account of her father (Edmund Knox, editor of Punch) and his three brothers (Ronald, theologian and crime writer; Dillwyn, cryptographer; Wilfred, Bible scholar). Early on, we learn the teenage Ronald, who later translated the New Testament and whose biography was written by Evelyn Waugh, memorized Henry Vaughan’s “Peace.” One-hundred twenty pages later, the poem returns:

“Ronnie’s shy courtesy made it difficult for him to attract attention from the waitresses, and his insistence of `doing the most difficult thing’ led him to tackle his meringue with a fork only. While doing this he began to talk enthusiastically to Eddie about Henry Vaughan’s `Peace’:

“`My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged sentry
All skilful in the wars…’

“Ronnie, chasing the crumbs, objected to the half-rhyme, country and sentry, and to the unlikeliness of one sentry guarding a whole boundary. The text must be wrong. Mightn’t Vaughan have written

“`My soul, there is a fortress
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged porteress…’

“Eddie immediately rejected the fortress; it was too menacing; why not a tea shop?

“`My soul, there is a caterer’s
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a Gunter’s waitress…’

“At the false rhyme, Ronnie half-rose from his chair in agony. The tea was brought, the band played on unnoticed. Other customers stared in amazement. So much did the words and the assonances of the English language mean to the Knox brothers.”

How good it was to be in the company of language-loving people.

5 comments:

R. T. Davis said...

Thank you for sharing your classroom experience. Your comments about Arthur Miller and The Crucible are, in my humble opinion, particularly perceptive. I continue to wonder that the play is so frequently revived, particularly in academic (university) theaters. Perhaps the revivals speak to a community's collective paranoia which manifests itself in something that can only be described as political correctness in theatrical revivals.
Well, perhaps that is all a bit too vague.
In any event, I hope all went well for the student.
Now, as for me, I need to seek out Fitzgerald's THE KNOX BROTHERS. You have me intrigued.

The Welsh Jacobite said...

Knox translated the Old as well as the New Testament. His version is interesting as a translation specifically of the Vulgate, that being the official R.C. version of the Bible (tho' he took some account of variant readings in the Hebrew and Greek).

Fitzgerald has a wonderful reference to delinquency among the precocious Knox children, left largely to their own devices by their widowed father: "The boys were beginning to resemble savages, speaking Latin and Greek."

Levi Stahl said...

I absolutely loveThe Knox Brothers. It's full of interesting, complicated characters and memorable anecdotes, all depicted with a love that is no less powerful for being clear-eyed.

Deborah Cook said...

For that last sentence I would follow you anywhere!

Vicki said...

They were indeed a remarkable family and Fitgerald's book does them justice. I'm glad to hear that it has charmed others as well as myself. And I second your final comment!
Best wishes,
Vicki McCaffrey
Pres., Ronald Knox Society
www.ronaldknoxsociety.com