January 30, 2007

Literary Critics Read Poetry, Discuss Work

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Yesterday afternoon, students and other members of the Cornell community packed into Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium to hear lectures from two distinguished Cornell scholars: Sandra M. Gilbert, the first ever M.H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professor, as well as M.H. Abrams, the Class of 1916 Professor of English, Emeritus.

Gilbert, a pioneer in the field of feminist criticism, is famous for her work, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1976), which she co-authored with Susan Gubar. She and Gubar also created The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women and co-edited the new anthology, The Norton Reader in Feminist Criticism and Theory.

In her lecture, “Finding Atlantis: Thirty Years of Exploring Women’s Literary Traditions,” Gilbert described her experience compiling a canon of literature by female authors for the Norton Anthology. By strictly focusing on female works, Gilbert saw trends and relationships that only appeared in literature by women.

“We saw flames of light along with faint lines connecting them,” Gilbert said. Unlike male authors, female authors were “struggling to find identity as women writers” and often experienced “authoritative anxieties.”

Such anxieties meant that these pioneering women often viewed themselves as subordinate to their male counterparts. Gilbert claimed how such perspectives led women writers to “define themselves as secretly male.” In some of these cases, female authors, such as George Eliot, created male pseudonyms.

After Gilbert’s lecture, Prof. Jonathan Culler, English, introduced M.H. Abrams. Now retired, Abrams came to Cornell in 1945, and is known for his work, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical and Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971). He is also the creator of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, now ubiquitous at colleges and universities.

Abrams began his lecture, “On Reading Poetry Aloud,” by asking, “What is the poem itself?” He continued to say that like many forms of art, poetry has a physical body — “the act of utterance by the human voice.” Readers of poetry, however, often take for granted the importance of reciting poetry aloud and do not permit the sounds of words “to interact with meanings of the words that they convey.”

Each member of the audience was given a sheet of paper containing poems by John Keats, William Wordsworth, Ernest Dowson and A.R. Ammons. Abrams read each poem aloud and discussed how the sounds of the words, the rhythm and meter of the verses contribute to the interpretation of each poem.

The subjects of the poems varied from “Surprised by Joy,” which Wordsworth wrote about the loss his young daughter, to Dowson’s “Cynara,” a poem which describes the speaker’s feelings of desire for a past love after spending a night with a prostitute. Abrams’ dramatic reading of the famous line, “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion,” drew an audible response from the audience.

Afterwards, audience members expressed their pleasure at the opportunity of seeing two renowned scholars.

K.E Bättig, professor of romance studies, was impressed by Abrams’ generosity and willingness to share his knowledge and give lectures long after his retirement.

“The first thing that comes to mind with M.H. Abrams is his incredible generosity, both to students and scholars alike,” Bättig said.

Joshua Corey grad, was happy to hear these distinguished professors share their contributions to English literature.“It’s very moving to see two generations of Cornell English professors who have both left tremendous legacies,” he said.