Can grammar help us enjoy poetry?
The relation between teaching grammar and literature, especially poetry, has aroused heated debate for more than a century. Sir Henry Newbolt, author of the first government report into the teaching of English in England, wrote that “formal grammar and philology should be … kept apart … from the lessons in which English is treated as an art, a means of creative expression”. The Newbolt Committee were “strongly of the opinion that in dealing with literature the voyage of the mind should be broken as little as possible by examination of obstacles and the analysis of the element on which the explorer is floating”. Newbolt was thinking of the teaching of classics in grammar schools, where attention was paid to grammar rather than to literature, and the contemporary dry analysis of dead languages. The Newbolt Report recommended that the study of English literature should not meet such a fate, and since 1921 the teaching of grammar and literature – especially poetry – have been uneasy companions in classrooms across the English-speaking world.
The uses of grammar
Grammar means nothing more nor less than the rules or laws of language: the ways in which words work together to create meaning. As Peter Trudgill and others pointed out decades ago, we learn these implicitly: without such knowledge, communication would not be possible. Nevertheless, is implicit knowledge enough? Living in a world where words are used to confuse and deceive as well as enlighten, we need to get a handle on the way language works. Since the pioneering work of Michael Halliday in sociolinguistics, much work has been done in the last 50 years to develop such grammatical knowledge. Most recently, Debra Myhill and her team at Exeter University have shown that some kinds of explicit knowledge can assist students in their own writing. It can also help us enjoy reading, including reading poetry.
What kind of grammar?
Let’s look at the first lines of Edward Thomas’ poem The Brook.
Seated once by a brook, watching a child
Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled.
Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush
Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,
Unseen. There was a scent like honeycomb
From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome
Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft
A butterfly alighted.
A traditional grammatical analysis would say that the first phrase is participial, ‘seated’ being an adjectival participle. More recently, people will call it an adverbial phrase – indeed a fronted adverbial, a term made notorious by the primary school grammar tests. Both views are plausible, but neither can be proved by external reference, and the choice of name doesn’t help us understand the way the words work. What does it matter? As Halliday pointed out, when grammar doesn’t connect with anything outside itself, it appears not only difficult but useless.
Once more with feeling
But if we read the poem with feeling, we notice that Thomas creates an atmosphere of reverie and enchantment from the first lines. How does he use language – grammar – to do this? A good exercise with students might be to get them to write the lines prosaically. Here is an example:
I was sat by a brook once, watching a child paddling. It enchanted me. The blackbird sang mellow and the thrush sang sharp in the oak tree and the hazel undergrowth. I couldn’t see them. The mugwort had a scent like honeycomb. And a butterfly alighted on top of the stone the cart-horse often kicks against.
The words in the prose account are in the usual order, the subject preceding the verb: “I was …”; “it enchanted … “; “the blackbird sang”. This subject-verb relation is so common that students will easily be able to relate it to their existing linguistic knowledge. It then becomes easy to see that Thomas changes the usual word order, often putting the verb much later than would be expected. This is especially clear in the first two lines, where the verb is entirely delayed – nowhere near the beginning of the sentence, but right at the end. This enacts the beguilement: the reader is taken into the experience of watching, the sense impressions of the brook and the child paddling preceding the onset of enchantment. A similar effect is created in the lines ending “a butterfly alighted”.
To analyse the poem in this way, to understand the way Thomas disrupts usual word-order to create the poem’s particular pleasure, is a helpful use of grammar. It is a grammatical analysis that most people will readily understand, because of their lifetime experience of the usual order of prose. A helpful grammatical analysis of word-order and verb placement makes more sense than the near-theological discrimination of phrase types, because the reader can draw on their wider reading and experience when thinking about the language and what is described.