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Poetry/Etymology and Historical Context


I am studying American literature in college and I am deeply troubled by my professor's teaching methods. He imposes a sexual connotation on everything. The most egregious example I can provide is his interpretation of Emily Dickinson's poem 656 (i.e. "I started early). He see's the entire poem as relating a sexual experience, though I and most of my classmates see it describing a walk on a beach. He interpreted the word "pearl" in the fifth stanza ("Would overflow with Pearl"), as semen yes, semen! Knowing this to be a 20th century innuendo, I respectfully challenged him and asked him for evidence. He began quoting evidences in unrelated literature. I asked him for the etymology of the word "pearl" and what it meant to people in 1863. He suggested that perhaps Dickinson was the first to suggest this meaning within the word, which I felt was a stretch.

I've conducted my own research on the etymology of "pearl" using the online Oxford dictionary and have drawn the conclusion that the word did not carry that connotation in the 19th century.

So in the last class period, he went over different methods for analyzing poetry and specifically stated, while addressing me in particular, that he does NOT want cultural, sociopolitical, or historical context in our analyses, nor does he want etymological analyses in our essays. He specifically said he wants our interpretation in light of today's culture and meaning. After doing some research online, I could not find any information confirming this as a common teaching method. It seems to me that absent historical context and meaning, poetry (and practically all literature) becomes so subjective that it could mean anything to anyone ad infinitum. So basically, in my view, the poetry just becomes a cluster of words with little real meaning or value. Without having a real method for discovering what was in the mind of the author, what is the point? It just seems to lack logic.

Is this normal or common? What really is the purpose of interpreting poetry however it fancies oneself?

Dear Matty,

You are correct about poetry interpretation; your professor is incompetent and should not be in a classroom.  

I would advise you to drop that course and find a course with a professor who believes poetry has real meaning and is not just a clay-like glob of words.  If you decide to continue with this class, you should keep a log of his claims and write a detailed report to hand to his department head.  Such incompetence should not go unreported.  If you and other students in the class can join together on this effort, that would strengthen your position.

I wish you well and hope you can find a competent professor.  And I also hope you can get this professor out of the classroom; his views are so ludicrous that they trivialize the profession of teaching.

Hope this helps.


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