The Danger of Thoroughness
Bread Loaf School of English, 28 June 1951
Typed transcript, 10 p. RBMS / C-4 / Cook, Reginald Lansing, 1903- / Verbatim, vol. 2. Transcribed by Juanita Cook.

And as I listen to Doc I don't know [in] what capacity I'm here, whether I'm here to talk about teaching to teachers or to entertain you with poems or just what it's all about. I'd never thought about that before. I guess I usually treat myself as here to entertain you with poems. But I've been threatening the last few days, at table, with visiting friends, to talk about pedagogy and to tell you my connection with it. I was in on the ground floor with pedagogy. I remember when I was in England in 1911 or '12, '12 I guess it was, some young man from Oxford—young philosopher—said to me what is this pedagogy they make so much of in America. And I said pedagogy, cause that's the way to pronounce it, you know. (They know how to pronounce it though they didn't know what it was. They're proud enough.) But since then they sent us the greatest pedagogy man—I. A. Richards—to transform Harvard. He represents the refluent wave; the way it went from—began in middle West to West or mid-West—I think the middle West to East—the way things don't usually go. They usually go westward.

But this wave came over to us and went on to England. The refluent wave is I. A. Richards. And (he has) gone back to England, I hope. (Loud laughter) I speak as if I had some prejudice; not terrible lot; some perhaps against the whole pedagogy machine.

But I would be the last one to say that there was no such thing as a science of teaching. I'd rather it weren't called a science. I'd rather it were called an art of teaching. That is to say there are things you can say about your teaching and there are things people of greater experience can say to you about your teaching. There are generalizations that you can make.

I for instance—one of them is, I came into it all about 1907. I met the big brass in pedagogy in New Hampshire at that time. Henry Morrison and one or two of his friends. And I went around with them. They made of me; made friends with me. Treated me very, very well. I owe them a lot. And their great interest was in saying at you can teach a subject all the better for not knowing it. They liked to say that. That was their defiance to the old crowd. I was led by them to stay one year teaching the (subject of) called History of Education, with a great big fat book by a man named Monroe of Columbia—Teachers' College. And the first lesson in it I gave was with the books—the great big fat books—they were all in a pile and I had them all carried into the cellar. All girls (girls could) work. They were conscientious girls too so that lesson must have gone deep.

I went to work then. I dipped in as I do. Thoroughness doesn't belong to me. I read the Education of Cyrus by Xenophon. And I read the Republic of Plato with education in mind. And I read Pestalozzi. Dipped into some of him. And Froebel. And, of course, Amiel [transcriber's error: R.F. meant Jean Jacques Rousseau's Emile: or, on Education] —the great book. But I never read the history of education—put it altogether. I took dips into it here and there.

And I've often talked education about—found myself talking—talking theories of education when I wasn't aware of it…. For instance, I'd say, what do you go to school for? For one thing, a certain kind of discipline. There are two or three things you can say about that certain kind of discipline.

(1) The long years in school you learn to look twice at everything, to see if you got it right the first time; to see if you can catch yourself having missed. it. The teachers do that to you; they make you look twice. They catch you the next day. That's what they're for—to police you into looking twice.

(2) Another thing you learn in the course of all that—and this is talking pedagogy, isn't it?—another thing you learn is when anything is supposed to impress you—see—anything, a poem or anything—to get on top of it and press it, add your weight to it, to press it harder into yourself, put your two hands on it or something.

I always feel someone tells me—I don't know when it is—the—I don't know where it is—I will remember—and I learn to do that at midnight.

And then another one—and this is more—no, I don't think—not to be confused when being examined in a law court—see—you get ready for that. Teachers try to confuse you. Good teachers do—if they're any good. They get you ready to be cross-examined in the American courts of law—before Congress. You know you've got to do that. It's fun to be acquired—and it's an acquired thing, a readiness to answer. Like Mr. Acheson. Well-trained. Beautifully trained. And that' s the third thing.

Now, I wouldn't stop there. I could go on—a whole book about it—I could write a book about it. And this is a confession nobody knows. But I bought a farm once in Concord, Vermont, with the idea, with a certain idea in mind. At Concord Corners. Right by my farm—and I think on part of my farm—was written the first book in pedagogy in America in 1923. And I went up there. I bought that with the idea of settling in for a year and writing the last book on pedagogy. (Loud laughter) As usual I intend a lot of things I don't do. But I may write that. I lost the farm. I sold the farm. So I believe I have reserved a little piece of land there that this little book was written on. There was the first School of Education there. The little farm nearby was called Hall's farm—after the man who wrote the first book of education in America and founded the first school of education. So I have a kind of sentimental interest in the whole thing.

And I don't, I don't know now quite what my objection to the system is. I'm always at variance with the people who pile twenty hours of pedagogy onto you in the course of a college education. Lot of you suffered it. I never had any—twenty hours in some states. And I was told the other day the pressure was coming on even the private, the preparatory schools to employ teachers there who've had a certain, a proper amount of pedagogy. I quarrel with—I don't know what it is. I don't like that.

In my time I was prepared for talk of form without content. I was prepared for that talk in the arts by these friends of mine in pedagogy in New Hampshire—Henry Morrison, great friends of mine. He believed in form without content. Of course that's what we've had in art since then. We're prepared for that. I know all about it.

Well, now that brings me to something I've been writing a little about or letting myself in for—the subject of pedagogy, we'll say, in poetry; what it is; the things we can say about teaching poetry; chuck the word pedagogy. I'm sick of it. But teaching poetry. And the first thing I'd say, see, I've forty-eleven things I could say about that. I could arrange them in order if I wanted to talk them. But one of the first prejudices I have is against thoroughness with poetry. And yet I mean thoroughness in the long run but the immediate thoroughness with any particular poem is an offense to me—is an outrage to the poem, an outrage to the Muse, an outrage to me.

I heard an old teacher, friend of mine—an old—timer, one of the old guard, who said he would have it out with the boys on one poem if it took all winter. I asked him what kind of poem he meant. At present, he said, I'm having it out with them on Damon and his Garden. He couldn't miss the chance. He couldn't miss that chance. I said: It must be a well-trampled garden. (Laughter) He said he wanted that. And then he said: "I see what you mean. And I've thought about that. I don't see now you're going to teach people to appreciate poems without spoiling some to do it." Just the same, I said, just as old Oliver W. Holmes, the old poem tells about a noted operator who destroyed a hat full of eyes in learning how to operate for cataracts. A hat full of eyes: Somewhere in Holmes! And that's what he said. Yah!

He raises the question in pedagogical education. You can't help wondering if spoiling some poems leads to pleasure with others. Maybe you ought to use second-best poems to spoil some. would that lead to appreciation of poems? He got in too deep for himself. And the easy way is too simple you moved out of that. It's just as with your own child at home. You don't say. You don't say. You don't chew a poem—macerate a poem—for an evening's pleasure, for a Roman holiday, for evening's pleasure. You touch it. You are aware that a good deal of it is missed. Some of it is missed. You don't try to go into that. (You don't say what is missing.) You don't talk about that. You might touch one word in it. It might bear one word's touch. You might say you probably don't get that word. But you're a little sorry that they haven't got the nicety of it. Take the word nicety. I'm anxious about that now. Why isn't it a two-syllable word instead of three? Seems to be spelled as if it could be a two syllable—nice-ty—from nice. I'm not going to tell.

Do you have that kind of anxiety in teaching, in lecturing anywhere, in reading somewhere? You're always wondering if you should leave them (the words) untreated, undealt with. Take a poem of my own that I may recite to you. I come to a place in it where I say; 'He might have fooled them in Madrid'—'He might have fooled them in Madrid'—Columbus might have—by telling them he'd found more than da Gamma had. 'He might have fooled them in Madrid.' An historian, a noted historian, a great elderly man, said to me—'About Madrid!' 'I know what you want to say; they weren't in Madrid then.' He went to the Encyclopedia. And we stood and looked into the Encyclopedia. And there I was. I wanted that Madrid very much. Because the next line said: 'I was deceived by what he did.' (Laughter) And I found out. I got ready for him the next morning. And I said: 'He might have fooled Valladolid/ I was deceived by what he did.' They were in Valladolid. Valladolid was what Ferdinand was king of—wasn't he—at that date? So I was out. I could do this very well. I wanted to say Spain some way. But Valladolid is a little dubious. Sounds a little like high-hatting 'em.

Now take that one thing. I won't say any more about it. We're more in danger of spoiling poems by thoroughness with them than any other way. I'm going to say this too. I'm not going to linger too long about that. There is just one thing: the danger of thoroughness with a lovely poem. it's as dangerous as handling a butterfly, grasping a butterfly—you know—something you brush off it, break off it. And what will the approach be? That's another story, maybe. I've just been writing about that. (Just one thing more.)

Take the danger of too much enthusiasm about anything. The danger of too much. I suffer from the too-muchness that I get from teachers sometimes—clear all the way up.

I know somebody who likes the classics the same way I do. No! He likes them forty—he likes them a million times more than I do. He has to stamp and walk up and down to like them. I don't like anything that way. And I don't believe he does. He's selling—selling a bill of goods.

Very interesting footnote to Felix Frankfurter's opinion handed down on the eleven who've just been convicted. He talks about somebody—strangely enough—Mr. Meiklejohn, old friend of mine, old friend of his, is a great believer in the Bill-of-Rights, a great advocate of freedom of speech. You know what Mr. Meiklejohn thinks? He thinks that anybody who's selling anything out to be put in jail—if he lies. Nobody should have freedom of speech if there's any money in it. Mr. Chaffee of the Law School at Harvard handles Mr. Meiklejohn rather roughly about that in the Law Review. How're you going to draw the line where money comes in and where money doesn't come in? Propaganda. Advocacy. Teaching. Will you exaggerate? Have you a right to be perfectly free in praising Plato? Not if you're earning ten thousand a year.

But again, too much. The lightness of touch in it. And that doesn't mean, you know, it may go ever so deep. I'm not saying about that. And thoroughness in the long run, you know—who's thorough? Am I thorough? Are you thorough? I'd like to think I'd gone quite a way with it. But I didn't ever go it over one poem. I've said somewhere before that the only way to appreciate any poem is in the light of all the other poems that were ever written and you'd better get about reading them. I'll leave it there. I could go on that way. There are a lot of things I care about in it.

I'm naturally a teacher. One of the earliest things that I admired in Plato was a discussion of whether anything can be taught. I've sat around here, at Harvard and various places and heard people say, you know, wiseacres, you can't teach anybody to write. And I say: Can you teach anybody to do anything? And Socrates discusses that. Can you? I'm inclined to think you can or I wouldn't be around. (1) Read "And All We Call America."
(2) Read "The Flood."
(3) Read "Acquainted With the Night."
(4) Read "The Soldier."

Preliminary footnote on this ("The Bearer of Evil Tidings") if there is such a thing, would be, I made it out of a picture postcard I thought I would have made as a picture postcard copied from a painting, I think of Tadema's. I'm not sure. It's called The Bearer of Evil Tidings. And I thought I'd send it as a postcard to certain friends of mine who were always telling me something said against me so they would tell me what they said in my defense. (Laughter) This is what this grew out of it. As usual I don't get around to do what I intend to do. I write a poem and let it go at that.

That picture I ought to describe it to you. A splendiferous, old-fashioned picture. A great throng on a great staircase and the bearer of evil tidings is just coming running up the steps to tell the King that all is lost, his sons have been killed and his armies destroyed, and everything and them just cutting his head off as a matter of form. So this is what I made out of it. It's got to do with the region we're talking about—the Asiatic state—the Himalayas and all that sort of thing… Ormuz, Yid, Yemen, Omar, and the Land of Punt. Amid all those places. And the Land of Punt is something I've always wanted to write about, think about. Nobody knows just where it was. Probably somewhere in Arabia.(5) Read "The Bearer of Evil Tidings."

You might want to know where I got all that. I got it out of Sven Hedin. I got it out of Marco Polo, and I got it out of my own head. Speaking of these decisions handed down, I read them all. Very interesting. And the interesting difference between Felix Frankfurter and the other writers—Felix Frankfurter…. Sometimes I don't do justice to him—Felix Frankfurter was the only one whose reference was to anything outside of books. See. It's the difference between the literary man and the scholar. See. The teachers and the scholars. Of course, it's fair to say this: you can get a scholar who's a teacher and a teacher of scholars and he also may be a teacher of others too. But a scholar's a person who connects what he's reading with other readings—other readings; pages and pages of that. And a natural, off-hand teacher is a person who connects what you're reading with life, with you and me, and everything around, you know, a little to the books, something to the books, it's so exemplified in those opinions. Felix Frankfurter is talking about Alexander Meiklejohn and talking about Chaffee and things like that you wouldn't think anyone would mention.

Then you read the others and they're all just book stuff—references to page this, page that. That poem of mine belongs—it's a scholar's poem. (Laughter) (6) Read "A Drumlin Woodchuck. This is about security; the woodchuck is speaking.
(7) Read "Come in." There's a whole long story I could take from that—from things in it—a pedagogical story—what writing is—what I try to do—what my writing is— I won't go into that.
(8) Read "The Road Not Taken."
(9) Read "It's Almost the Year Two Thousand."

This is one of the sarcastic ones. A good many of you will see the year 2000. I'm not expecting to. Still I may. Something ought to come of that year 2000. Should be. They expected something of the millennium. This ought to mean twice as much. Someone almost put this in a collection of humor. Decided it wasn't quite humorous enough.

(10) Read "Choose Something Like a Star."

As I go through that I can't help thinking of (the) sources of it. I've read. And the last part is almost the same as though it were out of Horace—certain lines of Horace I think of. And there's Keats in there and his Eremite, and what little I know about Fahrenheit and Centigrade, and all that sort of thing. And there's all I've suffered in modern poetry going on around me. I say that when I can't understand them at all—when they don't want me to understand them, I say: "Some mystery becomes the proud." (Laughter)

(11) Read "The Witch of Coös."

"There's no written dialect in it. The nearest I come to it is on one bit of French that I noticed on the store right near here—this same play on a French word (cf. Lajway from the great second base baseball player, Napoleon Lajoie).

(12) Read "Spring Pools."