“As we get older, and stop making sense…”

English teachers make great idols. Rich kids who can’t pursue their dreams should kill themselves. Such are the awful lessons of Dead Poets Society, a movie I love to hate—not only because real-life English teachers are dubious exemplars, but also because the movie takes too much glee in damning “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D,” the textbook author who supposedly reduces the evaluation of poems to a simple trick of geometry. Not even my worst English teachers would have endorsed the idea, so I assumed such a book didn’t and couldn’t exist—until I discovered the real Dr. Pritchard, but found that he’s hardly as bad as he seems.

When the Dead Poets Society teacher, played by Robin Williams, asks a student to read aloud from a textbook by “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D,” this is what we hear:

 To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech, then ask two questions: (1) How artfully have the objectives of the poem been rendered; and (2) how important is that objective? Question one rates the poem’s perfection; question two rates its importance; and once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter. If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of the graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness. A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great.

As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this manner grows, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

In 1956, Southern Methodist University lit professor Laurence Perrine published the first edition of Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, which he apparently developed for use in his own classroom. Flip through the book, and there it is, in similar wording, the notion that anthropomorphized a thousand bales of straw:

In judging a poem, as in judging any work of art, we need to ask three basic questions: (1) What is its central purpose? (2) How fully has this purpose been accomplished? (3) How important is this purpose? The first question we need to answer in order to understanding the poem. The last two questions are those by which we evaluate it. The first of these measures the poem on a scale of perfection. The second measures it on a scale of significance. And, just as the area of a rectangle is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales, breadth and height, so the greatness of a poem is determined by multiplying its measurements on two scales, perfection and significance. If the poem measures well on the first of these scales, we call it a good poem, at least of its kind. If it measures well on both scales, we call it a great poem.

Boo! Hiss! Down twinkles! Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind!

Dead Poets Society imagines this infamous passage occurring on “page 21 of the introduction,” but you won’t find it in Perrine’s introduction. Sound and Sense doesn’t have an introduction; Perrine’s shaky effort to quantify taste occurs way in the back of the book—on page 198, in the penultimate chapter, which focuses on learning to spot obviously bad poetry. In real life, Perrine chases this passage with a near-retraction:

The measurement of a poem is a much more complex process, of course, than is the measurement of a rectangle. It cannot be done as exactly. Agreement on the measurements will never be complete. Yet over a period of time, the judgments of qualified readers tend to coalesce: there comes to be more agreement than disagreement . . .


For answering the first of our evaluative questions, How fully has the poem’s purpose been accomplished? there are no easy yardsticks we can apply. We cannot ask, Is the poem melodious? Does it have smooth meter? Does it use good grammar? Does it contain figures of speech? Are the rimes perfect? Excellent poems exist without any of these attributes. We can judge any element in a poem only as it contributes or fails to contribute to the achievement of the central purpose; and we can judge the total poem only as these elements work together to form an integrated whole. But we can at least attempt a few generalizations.

Of course, all this comes not on the first day of school, but near the end of the course, after an absolute beginner has learned about figurative language, imagery, allusion, tone, rhythm, meter, sound, and pattern—subjects I daresay many English majors can’t discuss competently now.

Still, Perrine/Pritchard is a bit dry, isn’t he? Hasn’t his soul been smothered by tweed? Aren’t his whimsies constrained by the iron cage of reason?

Here’s what “Pritchard,” in his real first chapter, actually says.

Poetry is spiritually vital:

Poetry in all ages has been regarded as important, not simply as one of several alternate forms of amusement, as one man might choose bowling, another chess, and another poetry. Rather, it has been regarded as something central to each man’s existence, something having unique value to the fully realized life, something which he is better off having and which he is spiritually impoverished without.

Poetry lets us live deeply:

Indeed, the two approaches to experience—the scientific and the literary—may be said to complement each other. And it may be contended that the kind of understanding one gets from the second is at least as valuable as the kind he gets from the first.

Literature, then, exists to communicate significant experience—significant because concentrated and organized. Its function is not to tell us about experience, but to allow us imaginatively to participate in it. It is a means of allowing us, through the imagination, to live more fully, more deeply, more richly, and with greater awareness.

Poetry helps us live triumphantly:

We find some value in all intense living. To be intensely alive is the opposite of being dead. To be dull, to be bored, to be imperceptive is in one sense to be dead. Poetry comes to us bringing life, and therefore pleasure. Moreover, art focuses and so organizes experience as to give us a better understanding of it. And to understand life is partly to be master of it.

Poetry is rich:

If it is to communicate experience, it must be directed at the whole man, not just at his understanding. It must involve not only his intelligence but also his senses, his emotions, and his imagination. Poetry, to the intellectual dimension, adds a sensuous dimension, an emotional dimension, and an imaginative dimension.

Poetry can’t be quantified:

You may have been taught to believe that poetry can be recognized by the arrangement of its lines on the page or by its use of rime and meter. Such superficial tests are almost worthless. The Book of Job in the Bible and Melville’s Moby Dick are highly poetical, but a versified theorem in physics is not. The difference between poetry and other literature is one only of degree. Poetry is the most condensed and concentrated form of literature, saying most in the fewest number of words. It is language whose individual lines, either because of their own brilliance or because they focus so powerfully on what has gone before, have a higher voltage than most language has. It is language which grows frequently incandescent, giving off both light and heat.

And that’s just the first chapter! Despite that one iniquitous passage at the end of Sound and Sense, Perrine spends much of the book arguing against the quantification of poetry. At one point, he contrasts the chemical equation for sulfurous acid with the limitless connotations of the word “sulfurous” in a poem. “The poet, we may say, plays on a many-stringed instrument,” he writes. “And he sounds more than one note at a time.” If Perrine often mentions science and psychology, particularly in the chapter on imagery, he does so because he assumes his students already speak those languages. He’s not diminishing poetry; he’s offering novices a way in.

Perrine frequently sounds just as you’d imagine someone who got a Ph.D from Yale in 1948 ought to sound, but I find his old-fashionedness refreshing. “The difference between your figures of speech and the poet’s is that yours are worn and trite, his fresh and original,” he tells his readers, making clear that he’s not some fretful “facilitator,” but the expert in the room. A man of his times, he urges the cultivation of taste through study, scrutiny, and thought—and in his own genteel way, he advocates zeal:

Undoubtedly, so far in this chapter, we have spoken too categorically, have made our distinctions too sharp and definite. All poetic excellence is a matter of degree . . . But a primary distinction between the educated man and the ignorant man is the ability to make value judgments.

A final caution to students. In making judgments on literature, always be honest. Do not pretend to like what you really do not like. Do not be afraid to admit a liking for what you do like. A genuine enthusiasm for the second-rate is much better than false enthusiasm or no enthusiasm at all. Be neither hasty nor timorous in making your judgements. . . . Honesty, courage, and humility are the necessary moral foundations for all genuine literary judgment.

Yes, Perrine can be stuffy. The 1956 debut edition of Sound and Sense contains more than 200 poems, but there aren’t many by women, and as far as I can tell, only one is the work of a non-white poet, Countee Cullen. (Not even Paul Laurence Dunbar? Oh, professor.) Perrine’s idea of a wild, loosen-the-spats, extra-credit challenge? The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. 

Still, the poets in Sound and Sense would make fine desert-island companions—Noyes, Tennyson, Millay, E.A. Robinson, Wilfred Owen, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, even James Joyce—and anyway, isn’t academia usually behind the times? My professors in the 1980s and 1990s taught the poets of the 1950s and 1960s as if they were the consummation of poetry itself. They didn’t clue us in to the New Formalism occurring off-campus. Perhaps they weren’t aware of it.

(Sound and Sense is still in print in an overpriced 14th edition. Two editors have updated and broadened the selection of poems—but amazingly, as recently as the 13th edition, the first half of the paragraph that bred “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D” is still stinking up chapter 15! At what point in the past 50 years did that passage get pruned: before or after Dead Poets Society in 1989?)

It’s a shame Perrine has been vilified in fiction, because in chapter 15the chapter with the dreaded Dead Poets Society passage—he begs students to think for themselves, with no histrionic page-ripping or standing on desks. He flings out examples of trite popular verse so students won’t be suckered by sentimentality, rhetoric, didacticism, and cheap appeals to emotion, patriotism, and religion. A truly excellent poem, he says, will be complex and fresh; it “will not be merely imitative of previous literature, nor appeal to stock, pre-established ways of thinking and feeling which in some readers are automatically stimulated by words like mother, baby, home, country, faith, or God, as a coin put into a slot always gets an expected reaction.” He would have liked Roger Ebert’s dismissal of Dead Poets Society as “a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand,” a movie that “pays lip service to qualities and values that, on the evidence of the screenplay itself, it is cheerfully willing to abandon.”

Four years ago, I sat across a conference table from an assistant dean with a Ph.D in the humanities who, with no evident trace of self-loathing, asked me to write bullet points summarizing the “workplace relevance” of medieval literature. (That day I confirmed that the soul really does exist, because I felt mine howling to leave my body.) More recently, I rolled my eyes at the news that a “professor emeritus and former chair of the department of recreation and leisure studies at Southern Connecticut State University” has developed the “Collegiality Assessment Matrix and Self-Assessment Matrix,” which are “designed to clearly assess the level of collegiality of a faculty member.”

This sort of dehumanizing Taylorism thrives in education these days, but you won’t find an endorsement of it even in the final subdued paragraph of Sound and Sense:

Yet, after all, we have provided no easy yardsticks or rule-of-thumb measures for literary judgment. There are no mechanical tests. The final measuring rod can only be the responsiveness, the maturity, the taste and discernment of the cultivated reader. Such taste and discernment are partly a native endowment, partly the product of maturity and experience, partly the achievement of conscious study, training, and intellectual effort. They cannot be achieved suddenly or quickly; they can never be achieved in perfection. The pull is a long pull and a hard pull. But success, even relative success, brings enormous rewards in enrichment and command of life.

Perrine’s conclusion is tepid, but his purpose is profound: He wants you to use poetry to think harder, live better, and feel more deeply. There’s more depth, pleasure, and (every committee’s Questing Beast) “critical thinking” in the stuffiest chapters of Sound and Sense than you’ll find in the latest platitude-sodden government report on the humanities. If you live to defend the value of literature, history, and the arts, turn your Dead Poets Society DVD into a drink coaster and take heart. In real life, “Dr. J. Evans Pritchard” is an ally after all.

“Not under the thumb of the cynical few…”

“In fact, the great champions of liberty against oppression, if their own words are to be trusted, have fought for the maintenance of liberties inherited from the Middle Ages. In our own day such traditional conceptions of liberty appear less seldom perhaps, for many liberals, and certainly most extreme radicals, are now frequently struggling for rights for which the Middle Ages can furnish few precedents. But this should not blind us to the all-important fact that for a long period in this historic struggle, indeed for the whole of the early part of it, it was for their medieval inheritance that all opponents of oppression engaged.”

—C.J. McIlwain, “Medieval Institutions in the Modern World,” Sixteenth Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, April 26, 1941, Princeton, N.J.