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It's a strange fenomén ("phenomena") that I've encountered three times now &mdash Czechs like to use "The Raven" as an English-learning tool. I think it might be in one of the learning English series offered by Oxford. One the one hand, I can understand this: it can be exciting, engaging, fun, and it has lots of rhymes. Yet I still can't help but wanting to tell my friends that 1) this may not be the greatest of any poem in the English language (presumably they don't all think this, but I don't think it's presented with much explanation) and 2) that people don't really talk this way "nowadays," and probably they didn't when Poe wrote the poem in 1844 either. Yes, well, it's poetry.

A recent example. English learner: "Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I don't quite understand. Lore? Are they very strange or are there many volumes?"

Me: "Well, lore are like old tales and stories or myths, and there are many volumes of them."

EL: "OK. So people might say 'many a volume' in everyday speech?"

Me: "Not really. It's kind of an archaic structure. They might understand, though.

"How would you translate 'Nevermore'?"

EL: "Hmm. I guess it could be nikdyvíc."

Me: "That seems like a good translation. It certainly covers the literal meaning, so if it exists in Czech that's probably correct."

EL: "But people don't really say that."

Me: "Well, we don't much in English either. Except for this poem. "

My friends tell me that poetry can be a good way to learn new words in context. It also makes them easier to remember. That's probably true. I can't help but wonder, however, when they are going to use some of these words. For example, at the butcher's upon seeing a mystery sausage, head cheese, or strange aspic, while it could happen, it's not my first response to inquire: "Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore." I can almost imagine the person behind the counter's expression. (Joe asks, "You want 'japeena' what?!?") Certainly a lot of useful words here:

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee — by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite — respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!''
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
Excuse me doctor, would you perchance have a chalice of nepenthe that I might quaff to gain a respite from those nasty seraphim foot-falls? They're close to driving me out of Aidenn. The pharmacist hath quoth a price, and it shall evermore be quelled, methinks.

Or the following strange description when the raven enters:

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning — little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door —
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."
There's not a simple explanation of why the raven's answer has no relevance—presumably it was chosen to rhyme with Lenore. What else would, after all? Or that it is just slightly ridiculous to imagine that anyone would have imagined that no one had ever seen a bird indoors?

Maybe I would do well to heed the answer of the stones of the Coliseum in another one of Poe's poems, The Coliseum:

"We are not impotent — we pallid stones.
"Not all our power is gone — not all our fame —
"Not all the magic of our high renown —
"Not all the wonder that encircles us —
"Not all the mysteries that in us lie —
"Not all the memories that hang upon
"And cling around about us as a garment,
"Clothing us in a robe of more than glory."

Read the poem at Michigan's American Verse Project.

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Blogger Karla said . . .

There is a reason why I have not yet found a bilingual edition of any English-language work that would be suitable to give to any of my Czech friends, and this is exactly it. None of them are literature specialists and none of them would benefit from learning a lot of archaic words, uncommon sentence structures, and slang that died 150 years ago.

Why can't these publishers pick something that will not only be interesting but will use up-to-date language that can be used in ordinary conversation?    

10:50 PM, June 19, 2006

Blogger morskyjezek said . . .

Exactly. And it is a situation that I have encountered in reverse, too. My Czech studies in the US were based on translating (primarily poems since that was my teacher's specialty), and actual usage was never a goal. We translated most of Erben's Kytice, which was a somewhat entertaining read sort of along the lines of Poe (bloody, gory, scary, supernaturalistic) but about as useful for usage as The Raven. The idea that I actually wanted--yes, really wanted--to speak the language so that I could use it in everyday situations, never got across. I think that perhaps there is a difference of value in education: if it's more archaic, complex, or linked to high culture, then it is more valuable to Czech students. (At least this is a possible hypothesis.) To me, as an American student, the value of learning Czech was in usage, practical knowledge that I could use outside my academic life. But that was just not something my teacher valued.

Another thing I didn't mention is the emphasis on memorization. Two of the Czech people I've talked with about this poem with have memorized significant chunks of it (half or more) and say they plan to memorize the whole thing. When I respond that I have memorized a total of two or three poems in my entire life (and already forgotten them), they seem surprised. But to me, memorization usually equals lost time that could be used productively for something else. And if they are putting in so much time, why not pick something a little more substantive like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner? If I ever wanted to recite a poem, I could always find it in a book (or online, as was the case here). Memorization is old school (and, in most cases, of dubious educational value).

Of course, studying The Raven could be really important or beneficial to someone studying literature, linguistics, nineteenth century America, or Romantic poetry. But I only know one Czech studying literature, and she wasn't quoting "nevermore."    

1:51 PM, June 20, 2006

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