Helping students see what’s at stake in language

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

To help her students dive into the study of 18th- and 19th-century poetry, English professor Susan Wolfson often has them scrutinize contemporary language that is not part of any poem. This semester, for example, her students discussed the difference between calling an economic program “a stimulus package” or “a bailout.”

Susan Wolfson, a professor of English who specializes in Romantic-era writers
Susan Wolfson, a professor of English who specializes in Romantic-era writers, uses poetry as a way to teach students how to analyze language in any setting. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

“These are not random, off-the-cuff pieces of language,” said Wolfson. “They’re carefully crafted metaphors being used to create a narrative.”

By drilling down to the agenda behind political language, Wolfson hopes to foster the skills for close reading of great works of poetry, she said.

This technique “gets students excited and empowers them as readers,” said Wolfson, who specializes in teaching Romantic-era writers such as William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mary Wollstonecraft. “I want them to pay attention to what’s at stake in words.”

Poring over John Keats’ odes and William Shakespeare’s sonnets during her freshman year at Brown University inspired Wolfson to switch her major to English. Up until then she had planned to be a physics major. She made close reading the basis of her 30 years of scholarship in British literature, during which she has published edited editions of works by Keats, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as written books about gender and the shaping of poetry in British Romanticism. After earning her Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley, Wolfson taught at Rutgers University for 13 years before coming to Princeton in 1991.

Wolfson mainly teaches courses on the Romantics and their contemporaries, British authors writing between 1780 and 1850. She finds that students sometimes approach poetry, especially poetry of another century, as if it’s a foreign language. But to read the poetry of Lord Byron or Keats, as the students in her course this semester on “The Later Romantics” are doing, Wolfson maintains that “all you really need is time and a dictionary.”

Honing in on a single word can demonstrate to students the payoff of reading closely. When guiding her students through a study of William Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,” for example, Wolfson has drawn their attention to the poet’s use of the word “smokeless” to describe the air in London at dawn.

Susan Wolfson in class
students in course “The Later Romantics”
In her course this spring on “The Later Romantics,” Wolfson impresses upon students the value of close reading of classic works of poetry. “I want them to pay attention to what’s at stake in words,” said Wolfson, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1991. She has made close reading the basis of her 30 years of scholarship in British literature. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

What does Wordsworth’s choice of “smokeless” tell the reader? It reveals that the poet had seen the air when it was full of smoke, which occurred when people woke up and lit their fires. The choice of “smokeless” indicates the fleeting nature of that moment and its preciousness for Wordsworth, said Wolfson.

Looking at that juncture in the poem demonstrates the way in which “poetry is a kind of a concentration of language that rewards the reader’s careful attention,” Wolfson said. “It’s packed with information that is often subtle or disguised, and it comes alive under this kind of attention.”

Eric Paulson, a junior who is taking her course on “The Later Romantics” this semester, said Wolfson brings great dynamism to the poetry being studied. “She has a real talent for enlivening the texts she presents,” he said. “She has taught me that the Romantics were a rowdy bunch.”

The close readings students undertake in her classes sometimes have given Wolfson new insights into poems she has studied for years. When she taught a course on John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” a few years ago, Wolfson asked students to select a word that appears in the poem and trace its use throughout the work. One student analyzed the word “undelighted,” which is used by Milton to describe Satan’s reaction when he finally gets a look at the Garden of Eden. The student discovered that Milton invented the word “undelighted” for that moment in the poem, something Wolfson had not known. “A lot happens in a room full of sharp readers,” she said. “I learn things from my students.”

And students learn reading skills that they put to use in other disciplines, they tell Wolfson.

“What they learn from a close reading of poetry they take with them to political science classes and history classes,” she said. “It makes them a more careful reader of documents they had assumed were just providing information. They’ve become analysts of how language is organized, and how it can organize your thinking.”

See the related article in this issue of the PWB.