Tuesday theme – Sir Roger de Coverley

Today’s theme song in ENGL 203-04 is “Sir Roger de Coverley.” It’s really a dance rather than a song, as explained below.

Dickens refers to this traditional English country dance in his description of Fezziwig’s ball in “Stave Two” of A Christmas Carol:

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.” Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

In The Annotated Christmas Carol, Michael Patrick Hearn gives this explanation of “Sir Roger de Coverley”:

Also known “slip or Sir Roger,” [it is] a dance similar to the Virginia reel. Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) took the name for a member of the fictitious club of The Spectator (March 2, 1711); his great-grandfather supposedly invented the dance. It was first described in John Playford’s Dancing Master (1692): the first man goes below the second woman, then round her, and so below the second man into his own place; then the first woman goes below the second man, then round him. and so below the second woman into her own place; then the first couple cross over below the second couple, and take hands and turn round twice, then leap up through and cast off into the second couple’s place. Dickens describes a more complex pattern, with steps borrowed from other dances. Sir Roger de Coverley was the most raucous and best known of country dances in the nineteenth century and traditionally the last one performed on a night of merrymaking. It was a bit out of fashion at the time of the story, however. “Country dances being low, were utterly proscribed,” Dickens notes in Chapter 8 of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). The quadrille was considered far more chic at the time. A Christmas Carol and its dramatizations may well have done much to revive Sir Roger de Coverley in the cities. (W.W. Norton, 1976, pp. 70-71).

On their Library of Dance website at the University of Texas at Austin, Nick and Melissa Enge offer a detailed discussion of the dance that includes diagrams, historical and literary references, and a list of options for the music, typically in 9/8 or 6/8 time. “[F]or the early 19th century (i.e., a Regency Sir Roger), use a slip-jig (in 9/8),” write the Enges, linking to this sample from Spare Parts. The early nineteenth century is the appropriate time period for Scrooge’s youth.

As the Enges point out,

Many 19th century sources propose that Sir Roger De Coverley was (and should be) danced as the final dance of the evening. For example, in Thomas Wilson’s The Complete System of English Country Dancing (c. 1820) he proposes that: “At all Balls properly regulated, this Dance should be the finishing one, as it is calculated from the sociality of its construction, to promote the good humour of the company, and causing them to separate in evincing a pleasing satisfaction with each other.” Likewise, Routledge (1868) writes that “Sir Roger de Coverley is always introduced at the end of the evening; and no dance could be so well fitted to send the guests home in good humour with each other and with their hosts.”

This description illuminates the symbolic significance of the dance in the Carol. Its inherent sociality is a contrast to Scrooge’s present-day wish to be (as he tells the charitable gentlemen in Stave One) “left alone.” We might say the same, more broadly, of Fezziwig’s party, and we might think, in this connection, of the significance that Clarissa Dalloway’s parties hold for her in Woolf’s novel, as an opportunity to bring disparate and disconnected people together in one place in an act of creation that she imagines as an “offering” to life.

Finally, in thinking about parties as a meaningful human activity, we might remember what Alasdair MacIntyre says about those strains of thought in philosophy and the social sciences that attempt to take de-contextualized human “actions” as a fundamental unit; by contrast, he argues, “an intelligible action is a more fundamental concept than that of an action as such” — actions taking their intelligibility from the narratives to which they belong. To put this another way, the things humans do always have meaning built into them. Because we’re meaning-making animals, there’s no way to understand the things we do apart from the meanings those doings have for us.

If true, this fact about human beings has two consequences relevant to our studies in ENGL 203. To begin with, we can think of the arts in general, and literature in particular, as a realm in which creative individuals leverage socially meaning-laden stories and symbols to offer new ways of finding meaning in human experience. Partying is a socially meaning-laden activity that both Dickens and Woolf leverage, in a second-order act of meaning-making, to say something meaningful about the relationship between individuals and society.

It follows, then, that the study of the arts generally, and of literature in particular, represents a third-order act of meaning-making whose purpose is to say something meaningful about the ways in which individual artists, and the arts collectively, make meaning.

What form does this study take? To come satisfyingly full-circle, we’ve already seen that for Kenneth Burke, it basically takes the form of … a party. And it’s a party whose central activity, in Burke’s account, is more or less an elaborate social dance in words:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Mr. Fezziwig's Ball, John Leech
Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball, by John Leech

Thursday theme – Fear No More

Today’s theme song in ENGL 203-04 is “Fear No More,” from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline. You’ll find the words here.

In Shakespeare’s Songbook (W. W. Norton, 2004), Ross W. Duffin explains how the song fits into the play:

This song survives without any indication of its original music. In the action of the play, the singers preface the song with comments on their breaking adolescent voices and talk about speaking rather than singing it, so it may not have been sung at all. It occurs as a kind of dirge shortly after the apparent death of Imogen (as Fidele) is discovered, and it is thus intriguing to find that the lyrics fit best to When Griping Grief (q.v.). The latter occurs in Romeo and Juliet at almost exactly the same point after the discovery of the feigned death of Juliet. The music, perhaps by Richard Edwards, survives as an arrangement for keyboard in the Mulliner book (1558-64) and as an accompaniment to the singing part in the Brogyntyn Lute Book (ca. 1600). (p. 142)

Clarissa Dalloway first encounters the opening lines of this song on her mission to buy flowers for her party:

But what was she dreaming as she looked into Hatchards’ shop window? What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn in the country, as she read in the book spread open:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
    Nor the furious winter’s rages.

This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. (Modern Library, 1922, pp. 12-13)

Clarissa thinks of the song again at the party itself, during her brief withdrawal from her invited company, prompted by what she has learned of the “young man” whom we know to be Septimus Smith:

Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! (p. 283)

The words come to her several times between these two points. More generally, the experience of fear itself serves as an important point of connection between Clarissa and Septimus.

It’s worth thinking about just how this experience connects them. What do they fear? Why? How are their respective fears related to the song from Cymbeline?

Tuesday theme – Blewu

Today’s theme song in ENGL 203-04 is “Blewu,” performed here by Beninese singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo during this past Sunday’s events in Paris marking the centenary of the armistice ending World War I.

On her Facebook page, Kidjo wrote

Today Nov 11th 2018, I sung Bella Bellow’s beautiful song “Blewu” to celebrate Peace and the memory of the fallen African soldiers of World War One in front of the leaders of this World under the Arc De Triomphe.

Continue reading “Tuesday theme – Blewu”

Tuesday theme – Autumn Leaves

Today’s theme song for ENGL 203-04 is “Autumn Leaves,” composed by Joseph Kosma, with French lyrics by Jacques Prévert and English lyrics by Johnny Mercer. It’s performed here on the theremin by Pamela Kurstin.

As the autumn leaves begin to turn here in western New York, our thoughts in “Fluid Readers, Fluid Texts” turn to leaves of a different kind: the leaves of manuscripts.

Why are they called “leaves,” anyway? What’s the connection between foliage and a folio? Continue reading “Tuesday theme – Autumn Leaves”

Tuesday theme – My Country Used To Be

Today’s theme song for ENGL 203-04 is “My Country Used to Be,” written and performed here by jazz singer-songwriter Dave Frishberg. Frishberg composed the song in the aftermath of the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The mood of Frishberg’s song is quite different from that of Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” written in protest of both slavery and the U.S. war with Mexico. Thoreau’s essay expresses outrage; this feels more like a lament. Despite the difference in mood, both express dissatisfaction with things as they are. Frishberg’s point of comparison is America as (he believes) it once was, while Thoreau’s is a “higher law” that America has failed to meet since its birth as a state whose founding legal document countenanced slavery.

Both represent contributions to the “unending conversation” among citizens of the United States as to what their country is, has been, and should be.

Thoreau makes his contribution through argument, using his night in jail (for refusing to pay the poll tax) as a springboard to explore the circumstances under which we do or don’t owe the law, or the state, our allegiance. Frishberg makes his contribution by re-purposing a patriotic melody — “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” — to convey his vision of an America that has lost its way.

Interestingly, we might understand Frishberg’s contribution to the conversation as itself an act of “resistance” or “civil disobedience.” In effect, he occupies “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (as well as “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) in much the way street protesters occupy public spaces for a march or demonstration.

By occupying patriotic music with subversive intent, Frishberg participates in a venerable tradition. Even “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” belongs to this tradition, consisting as it does of lyrics praising America put to the tune of “God Save The Queen,” a patriotic song of America’s former colonial ruler, Great Britain.

“The Star Spangled Banner” has been occupied many times. In 1844, two years before Thoreau’s arrest in Concord, the abolitionist newspaper Song of Liberty published E.A. Atlee’s powerful four-verse “Oh Say, Do You Hear?” Here’s just the first verse:

Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light,
The shrieks of those bondmen, whose blood is now streaming
From the merciless lash, while our banner in sight
With its stars, mocking freedom, is fitfully gleaming?
Do you see the backs bare? Do you mark every score
Of the whip of the driver trace channels of gore?
And say, doth our star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

You can read the other three verses (and hear “Oh Say, Do You Hear?” performed) on the website Star Spangled Music, which provides an extensive guide to the history and cultural significance of the national anthem.

One of the boldest and most remarkable recent occupations of the anthem was executed in 2008 by jazz singer René Marie, invited to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” before Denver mayor John Hickenlooper’s State of the City address. She plugged in the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Black National Anthem.” The mayor was not amused, and the governor, Bill Ritter, labeled the performance “disrespectful.”

Felix Contreras discusses Marie’s and four other memorable performances of the national anthem in his 2009 report for National Public Radio, “The Many Sides Of ‘The Star Spangled Banner.'” At least three of these performances (by José Feliciano, Jimi Hendrix, and Marvin Gaye) might also be seen as occupations of a kind — not through the substitution of new words for the traditional ones, but simply through their re-interpretations of the melody. Listening to Feliciano’s quiet and soulful version, performed before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, it’s hard to believe that he, too, was accused of disrespect. Was it really his version of the music people objected to? Or was it the fact of his laying claim simultaneously to his Puerto Rican and American identities through the re-mixing of musical traditions?

One may also wonder how much any of those who found Feliciano’s rendition disrespectful actually knew of the anthem’s history, and whether any of them realized how distant their idea of a “normal” rendition was from the way it would have been performed in Francis Scott Key’s time.

Thursday theme – Different Drum

Today’s theme song in ENGL 203-04 is “Different Drum,” written in 1965 by Michael Nesmith and performed most famously by Linda Ronstadt as lead singer of the Stone Poneys.

One of the most famous and most-often quoted passages in Walden, of course, is this one from paragraph 10 of “Conclusion”:

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Walden made the two-word phrase “different drummer” a common expression in English. But not right away. We can trace the rise of this word-pair (a “two-gram,” in data-speak) using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which shows us that in books written in English, the phrase begins to take off in the 1940’s and rises steeply in frequency between 1960 and 1980.

It was in the early 1940’s that interest in Thoreau really began to grow, an interest both reflected in and fueled by the scholars and enthusiasts who founded The Thoreau Society in 1941, led by Walter Harding, who in 1956 joined the English department at SUNY Geneseo. (An earlier, smaller uptick in the appearance of “different drummer” may have had something to do with the fact that, as Harding himself has written, Thoreau’s message of simplicity resonated with life during the Great Depression. See “Thoreau’s Reputation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, ed. Joel Myerson, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.8.) The big spike that starts in the early 60’s correlates with the rise of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement as well as a youth culture that prized self-discovery, self-actualization, and a broad rejection of commercial values.

In 1962, the bicentennial year of Thoreau’s death, 24 year-old William Melvin Kelley published his first novel, A Different Drummer. As Kathryn Schulz has written in a recent profile of Kelley for The New Yorker magazine, the novel

promptly earned him comparisons to an impressive range of literary greats, from William Faulkner to Isaac Bashevis Singer to James Baldwin. It also got him talked about, together with the likes of Alvin Ailey and James Earl Jones, as among the most talented African-American artists of his generation.

Kelley’s novel opens “in a mythical state bounded by Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico,” according to a review published in the Chicago Tribune on June 10, 1962. One of the state’s inhabitants, Tucker Caliban, “decides to listen to what Thoreau, in his ‘Walden,’ called a ‘different drummer,’ to heed the voice of his conscience and refuse to participate in a society based upon inequality.”

The review, written by SUNY Geneseo professor of English Walter Harding and published under the headline “A Rare First Novel: Dynamic, Imaginative, and Accomplished,” continues:

[Caliban] destroys his farm land with salt, burns his home, shoots his animals, and departs for a new life in the north. His action sparks a mass reaction by all the other Negroes in the state, who overnight abandontheir homes and join him on the trek northward.

As his epigraph, Kelley used two quotations from Thoreau’s Walden.

Epigraph to A Different Drummer
Page from an uncorrected galley of A Different Drummer in the Walter Harding Collection of The Thoreau Society, housed at the Thoreau Institute of the Walden Woods Project Library in Lincoln, MA.

Kelley appreciated Harding’s enthusiastic review of his novel (Harding called it “gripping from the first page to the last”), and the two began a correspondence that eventually led to Kelley’s spending a semester — spring 1965 — as a visiting professor of English at Geneseo.

We might consider one final connection between Kelley and Thoreau. Schulz claims that Kelley is credited with the first printed use of the colloquialism woke as a synonym for a certain kind of self- and social awareness. The word appears in the title of Kelley’s May 20, 1962 op-ed in the New York Times on “Negro idiom” (linguists today call it “African American Vernacular English”): “If You’re Woke You Dig It.”

One can’t help but be reminded of how pervasively Thoreau himself uses the contrast between sleep and waking as a metaphor for awareness in Walden. The kind of awareness he has in mind varies depending on the context. Several different (if related) types of awareness are offered in rapid succession in paragraph 14 of “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”: “intellectual exertion,” a “poetic or divine life,” attentiveness to Nature. But in the context of the meaning that woke has assumed in our present moment, one kind stands out. “Moral reform,” Thoreau writes in this paragraph, “is the effort to throw off sleep.”

It’s not hard to see why, for the epigraph to his own book, Thoreau plucked a sentence from paragraph 7 of “Where I Lived”: I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.

Thursday theme – Waters of March

As we turn to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, our theme song for today is “Águas de Março” (“Waters of March”) written by Antonio Carlos Jobim (aka Tom Jobim) and performed here by Jobim and Elis Regina.

For Graff and Birkenstein, academic writing, at its heart, is a conversation, and, more generally, “writing well means entering into conversation with others” (4th ed., xiv). In their introduction, they quote the philosopher Kenneth Burke’s famous description of “the world of intellectual exchange” as a kind of un-ending conversation at an interminable party.

Here’s the full passage from Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form:

Where does the drama get its materials? From the “unending conversation” that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
(1941; 2d ed., Louisiana State University Press, 1967, 110-11.)

It’s interesting to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s use of Burke alongside Alasdair Macintyre’s claim, which we discussed in class, that “conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general” (Michael Sandel, ed., Liberalism and Its Critics, New York University Press, 1984, 133).

By putting the activity of conversation at the heart of what makes humans human, Burke and Macintyre are pursuing a line of thought that grew out of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe (especially in the writings of J.G. von Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt). Interest in the origins of human language and in the relationship between language and culture led for some during this period to a re-definition of human identity in general: it wasn’t the capacity for reason (as Aristotle, for example, had supposed) so much as the capacity for language that separated human beings from other animals.

(It’s interesting to consider the fluidity of human identity at this scale. Not only does each of us, arguably, possess an identity that changes over time, but the various attempts to identify a defining characteristic of humanity as a whole means that it may be useful to think of humanity as existing in a variety of “versions.” Wikipedia’s list of names for the human species is instructive here.)

Macintyre describes conversations as “enacted narratives” (133), highlighting the way our conversational engagements often represent the unfolding of some kind of story. This way of thinking about conversation fits his definition of human beings as “story-telling animal[s]” (138). Graff and Birkenstein treat the subcategory of academic conversation as a kind of game characterized by a fairly circumscribed set of “moves,” but there are clearly narrative elements in their conception as well, as evidenced by their quotation from Burke and their advice about “putting in your oar.”

But the Regina-Jobim performance perhaps suggests something even more fundamental about conversation than its narrative element, something about the sheer pleasure to be found in conversation’s back-and-forth dynamic, even when it doesn’t involve an exchange of ideas with what Macintyre calls a telos – that is, a projected goal. If you look at the song lyrics (in either English or Portuguese), you see that Regina and Jobim are simply taking turns running down the items in a list; they’re not conducting the kind of conversation Graff and Birkenstein have in mind at all. There’s no advocacy here, just the pleasure of moving the song forward by taking turns. At the same time, they’re clearly singing to each other, not just trading off. You can see it in their gestures as much as you can hear it in their voices.

I get the same sense of the pleasure inherent in the interactivity of conversation – prior to and apart from its intellectual content – watching this video of a nonsense conversation between twin babies that went viral in 2011. As a basic human activity, conversation doesn’t seem to be entirely about the content of the words.