Teaching a Sheep to Talk

Teaching a Sheep to Talk: The Spiritual Education of Romanticism, by Walter Reed

  1. I offer this essay sheepishly, as a somewhat bleating departure from the categories of the political and the aesthetic currently guiding our discipline. Romanticists may be still smarting from the snide remark of T. E. Hulme that Romanticism is so much "spilt religion." But voices in the wilderness have been mildly reminding us all along that the education of Romanticism, its fundamental paedeia, is as much spiritual as it is political or aesthetic. The day and the hour are perhaps appropriate for me to add my voice to this still small chorus. Spirituality has always overflowed the institutional vessels of religion that purport to contain it. Romanticism, I would submit, is as much a mopping-up of this perennial spillage, as much a collecting of old wine in new wineskins, as it is a new curriculum for citizenship or art appreciation.

  2. But in this talk I will be less concerned with how Romantic writers instructed their first readers than with how academic professors of Romantic writing today, especially in North America, reach their semi-captive audiences with the good news of this movement. An education in Romanticism, it has begun to seem to me, ought as well to be an education by Romanticism. We should be true to our subject, in other words, not simply subject it to our will to pedagogical power and scholarly mastery. We should be answerable—we are answerable, I will argue, whether we like it or not—to the educational vision of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers whose works we try to make meaningful to students some two centuries later. I recognize that such an attitude, such wise passivity vis-à-vis the figures of the past, is unfashionable in our interventionist era. But it is surely not unRomantic.

  3. I begin with a scene of instruction from Blake, with the visual image and verbal text of "The Lamb." We are invited to witness here a pastoral version of the late eighteenth-century institution of the Sunday school, in which the illiterate children of the new urban poor were being taught their letters and scriptures. As E. P. Thompson has pointed out, the newly literate working-class-in-the-making often used this literacy to read Jacobin pamphlets rather than the Bible. But Blake's speaker, figured as a child preaching to some sheep in the familiar illumination of Songs of Innocence, takes a Methodist approach, carrying the Christian doctrine he has acquired into the countryside. His young flock is ironically literal.

  4. Now one could argue that, in the pastoral imaginary of the state of innocence, every creature is presumed to have a voice and a language to express its understanding. But the nature of the instruction in this particular song seems peculiarly one-sided. The rhetorical questions in the first stanza (lacking any question marks in Blake's illuminated printing) are immediately succeeded by the didactic answers of the second stanza. A teacher half-heartedly committed to the Socratic method is apt to wince at the pseudo-interrogative character of the conversation.

  5. "Little Lamb I'll tell thee,/Little Lamb I'll tell thee!" the teacher triumphantly volunteers, hard on the heels of his elaborate question. If we consult Blake's design for signs of dialogic interactivity, we are disappointed. As in some classes I have known, the attention of most of the flock is elsewhere, either on the ground (several sheep seem to be grazing) or off in the middle distance. Only one young lamb is making eye-contact with the instructor, muzzle raised along the same diagonal line on which the child's hands are extended downward. Even here, the animal seems to be searching for something to eat from the child's right hand rather than attending to the luminous, airy text of the lesson caught in the vine-like branches above his head. The literal lamb seems to be paying no more attention to the doctrinal content of the boy's catechism than the figurative Christian flock of Blake's time seemed to him to be paying to the teaching of the one who "calls himself a lamb."

  6. The apparent failure or inability of the student to respond in a meaningful way to the lesson of the teacher seems to me an emblem of an important insight from the spiritual education modeled by Romanticism. It is not just an ironic exposure of our professional solipsism; rather it suggests that a deeper transaction takes place in our rhetorical frustration than in our rhetorical success. Gerald Graff has advised us to "teach the conflicts." The Romantic poets seem to be advising us to teach the failures.

  7. Lest this seem a premature and perverse conclusion, I hastily summon another witness. Worthsworth's lyrical ballad "There was a boy," eventually included in Book V of The Prelude, the book most concerned with education per se, presents a variation on the theme of deepest insight proceeding from failed communication. Originally cast in the first person but projected onto an exemplary third person in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, the blank verse fragment presents another youthful instructor who seems to be talking to himself.

    [. . .] with fingers interwoven, both hands
    Pressed closely, palm to palm, and to his mouth
    Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
    Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
    That they might answer him.
    ("There was a boy" 7-11)

    In this case the human speaks the language of the animals, and he does succeed in generating response. But the sense of the message is lost in the literal mimesis—the medium is the message—and the very plenitude of the response the boy evokes seems to overwhelm communication. The owlish respondents "shout [. . .] and shout again [. . .] with quivering peals/And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud/Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild/Of mirth and jocund din!" This class is responsive to a fault, but one is permitted to doubt that they have learned much from their teacher. Wordsworth goes on to turn the tables, however; in the "pauses of deep silence" that occasionally follow his efforts, presumably heightened as such by the contrast with his more customary success, the human speaker receives a more profound answer, no less sublinguistic but filled with more portent:

    Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
    Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
    Has carried far into his heart the voice
    Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene
    Would enter unawares into his mind
    With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
    Its woods, and that uncertain Heaven, received
    Into the bosom of the steady lake.
    ("There was a boy" 18-25)

    In the 1805 Prelude the death of the boy "ere he was full ten years old" is an ominous extension of this complex interpenetration and exchange between the natural world and the human mind. Yet the pattern of failure followed by deeper insight continues in the Prelude poet's account of his own meditations, extended and mute, "looking at the Grave in which he lies." Indeed, the pattern of cognitive collapse and intuitional regeneration keeps on expanding throughout this whole poem on "the growth of a poet's mind."

  8. A third variation on the lesson plan of Romanticism: this one from the belated Romantic Robert Frost, whose instruction in the school of Wordsworth is nowhere more evident than in his sequel to "There was a boy," a poem entitled "The Most of It." "He thought he kept the universe alone," Frost's more didactic speaker begins,

    For all the voice in answer he could wake
    Was but the mocking echo of his own
    From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.

    Rather than the "mimic hootings" of Wordsworth's young boy, Frost's adolescent persona pronounces deeply meaningful truths that are clearly beyond the responsive capacities of the landscape:

    He would cry out on life that what it wants
    Is not its own love back in copy speech,
    But counter-love, original response.

    Like Blake's boy preacher and Wordsworth's bird provocateur, Frost's backwoods philosopher encounters frustration in his teaching. "Nothing ever came of what he cried," the speaker tells us—nothing, that is, unless the inarticulate energy he goes on to report might be taken as an answer that "life" gives back to the lonely philosopher. The "embodiment" that crashes in the distance and then appears "as a great buck" is apparently dismissed by the instructor of record as an irrelevant distraction from his demand for "counter-love." This manifestation or sign proves not to be human; it is not "someone else additional to him." In Frost's more pointed irony, the potential sign passes beyond the range of the teacher's comprehension. "And that was all," the poem reports as it lingers on the threshold of the protagonist's anthropocentric (or perhaps merely self-centered) vision. But the title urges the reader to profit from the philosopher's defeat, to make "the most of it" and take the metaphorical force of descriptive phrases like "crumpled water," "pouring like a waterfall" and "forced the underbrush" as a concrete, particular revelation of some sort. In the protagonist's disillusionment lies our hope for discovery.

  9. These texts, if not my particular readings, are familiar to Romanticists. I confess that their relevance to the teaching of Romanticism in our colleges and universities today has only become clear to me recently, through the writing of Parker Palmer, a writer on education whom I included, on a whim, in a graduate course I gave last year entitled "Teaching Romanticism in the '90s." This was a seminar aimed not only at exposing soon-to-be teachers of Romanticism to new developments in the field, but also at getting them to reflect on how these new approaches (and older ones) could be made to work in the undergraduate classroom. Palmer's book To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (published in 1983) turned out to be an important resource for our practical pedagogical reflections. Although Palmer makes little or no reference to Romantic tradition, his critique of objectivist epistemology as embedded in the practices of the modern classroom is surprisingly consonant with ideas of education and scenes of instruction in the writings of many of the Romantics. Education must move beyond the gathering of information and the transfer of knowledge about an objectified world, Palmer argues, without falling into merely subjective or inertly pluralistic relativism. Rather education must instill a sense of personal responsibility to truth. Drawing on the spiritual tradition of the early Christian Desert Fathers, Palmer argues that "to teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced."

  10. To suggest that there is "truth" in Romanticism may cause NASSR members to reach for their favorite hermeneutic of suspicion: Marxian, Nietzschean, Freudian, Saussurian or what have you. But these same hermeneutics, even as they are retailed by more recent French revisionists such as Althusser, Foucault, Lacan or Derrida, I would argue, derive from the Romantic quest for absolute knowledge through the medium of art that was so revolutionary in its time. A hermeneutic of suspicion is a stage in this quest, but not its end. A pedagogical praxis that would be obedient to the truth of Romanticism would honor the experience of impasse that all such inordinate imaginings inevitably lead one into, those "obstinate questionings" and "blank misgivings," as Wordsworth calls them in "The Immortality Ode." Such a teaching would thus be wary of theoretical programs that reduce the heterogeneity of the persons, historical and imagined, who constitute the movement. It would be sceptical of anthologies or syllabi that elevate the work of a few "essential" writers (or artists in other media) and ignore the work of the "accidental" many. But it would not flinch from the "mental fight"—as Blake paraphrases St. Paul's description of spiritual warfare—necessary to discover unifying principles of commonality in the texts and lives of Romanticism, even if these unifying principles turn out to divide the larger membership of the visionary company into opposing camps.

  11. Romanticism, I am fond of telling my students, is the artistic exploration of otherness discerned in different places: otherness discerned in a natural world beyond human civilization, in a supernatural that lurks in and around nature, in a folkish historical past, in a revolutionary future of the working classes, in the alienated unconscious of the self, or in the unalienated power of the imagination. But if the "created space" of my own classroom (to return to Palmer's formulation) does not allow the otherness of the Romantic writers to loom as an obstacle to our understanding, we will not have submitted ourselves to the spiritual truth of our subject. Similarly, if my students and I do not acknowledge the strangeness of each other's thinking and feeling and believing, along with the strangeness of the texts we are trying to read together, we will have lost in the transaction a great deal of what is truly, though elusively, Romantic.

  12. This is a lesson that preaches well, but I readily admit that is unsettling, even threatening, in practice. It requires a humility on my part as a teacher which I have not found in large supply when I get in the presence of such familiar texts, about which I have so many intelligent things to point out, and such unimpressible students as those who seem to turn up in my classes. Like the boy teacher in Blake's poem "The Lamb," I can hardly ignore the fact that I am a higher order of animal than my students, standing upright instead of parallel to the ground. Why shouldn't I cast my hermeneutic jewels, my treasured interpretations, before the flock, trusting that some will recognize their value? If I am clever enough, I can ask questions which will lead them to the same deeper understandings I have already reached myself.

  13. And yet, if I attend to Blake's words and design in "The Lamb," I may notice other things, signs of another kind of instruction. The boy is naked, covered only by a head of curly hair that makes him look like an upright sheep freshly shorn. The human figure is dwarfed by the cottage behind him, which has a similar golden top and pale base. And the whole scene of instruction itself is dwarfed by the larger design; it fills only the lower quarter of the plate. This leveling effect is then noticeable in the words of the second stanza, where the unnamed "he" who is said to have "made" the lamb takes on the name, even partakes of the identity, of his lesser creatures. The creator becomes creature, becomes two creatures—or is it the other way around? The chain of being is suddenly confused. In the redoubled blessing of the last two lines, a "Little Lamb God" briefly appears, before being sacrificed to the syntax of what must be an apostrophe: "Little Lamb [. . .] God bless thee." Unless, that is, the reader feels the blessing suddenly reaching out to touch his or her own second-personhood: "Little Lamb God [. . .] bless thee."

  14. But this is too strange. Or is it? Is it too outlandish, too out-of-bounds, to hear somewhere in the background another story of role reversal and species confusion, from another poem or song commandeered for purposes of religious instruction?

    Who, being in the form of God
    Thought it not robbery to be equal with God,
    But made himself of no reputation
    And took upon him the form of a servant
    And was made in the likeness of men;
    And being found in fashion as a man,
    He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death,
    Even death on a cross.
    Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him,
    And given him a name which is above every name. (Phil.2:6-9)

    But perhaps in my eagerness for obedience I have misunderstood the lesson. As I said, I offer this talk sheepishly.

Works Cited

Frost, Robert. "The Most of It." Collected Poems. New York: Holt, 1930.

The Holy Bible. King James Version. Philadelphia: National Bible P, 1958.

Palmer, Parker. To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

Wordsworth, William. "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Early Childhood." Wordsworth: Poetical Works. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt, Thomas Hutchison. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969. 460-462.

---. "There was a boy . . ." Lyrical Ballads (1805). Rpt. in Lyrical Ballads. Ed. Michael Mason. New York: Longman, 1992. 222-224.