I changed the formatting slightly to make it fit here, all credit to Professor Hutchinson. (And hat-tip to David H., who brought it to my attention.)
In 1941-42, W. H. Auden taught two courses at the University of Michigan. His final in one and his research project for the other are both pedagogically astute. A student reports, first about his fall course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature”: “When he finished this, he explained what we should expect in the way of a final exam, four or five weeks down the road, after Christmas vacation. Pens, pencils, papers for the first time in the semester suddenly materialized and flashed into view. [He had forbidden note-taking on the first day of class — ed.] It would be a three-hour written exam. We would write from memory seven cantos of The Divine Comedy, in the Carlyle/Wicksteed prose version — ‘the one used by Eliot in The Waste Land,’ he confided — beginning with Inferno III, and V, then certain Purgatorio cantos (e.g. XXVIII) and finishing with Paradiso XXXIII. The consternation of the class on hearing this was what one might expect: frozen silence. In a few minutes grumblings began to be heard, mutterings. A group of students, forming themselves into a ‘committee,’ declared the exam impossible and inhumane. Auden, surprised, replied that he did not think it was either, but offered to reduce the number of cantos from seven to five. Resistance, nevertheless, continued. ‘Very well. I am going to be driving to California over the Christmas vacation. If I find I can’t memorize these five cantos by the time I reach Los Angeles, I’ll phone your representative and cancel the assignment.’ It was a deal–rather a reluctant one, on both sides. The ‘phone call never came, so the Dante exam was on.”
The student found that with each successive canto the memorization got easier, until he could memorize an entire one in one afternoon. He later said, “This was possibly the most valuable thing I learned from W. H. Auden, and I have never ceased to be grateful for it.”
In the second semester [Auden] taught a class on the analysis of poetry. Here was the project he assigned: “…Auden gave the class its research project for the semester, which was to compile a list, drawn from the O.E.D., of all the variant meanings, including the etymologies, of each word in Milton’s ‘Lycidas,’ from the earliest recorded usages down to those that were current in the year Milton wrote it.”
This is particularly brilliant. It’s the kind of assignment I never considered giving, but, now that I see that someone else did it, I’m struck by the patent obviousness of what a valuable exercise this would be. The former student comments, “Not being enrolled in the class, I never did the assignment; but one of the students who did once said to me that ‘Lycidas’ was the only poem in the English language he really felt he knew very much about.”
~ E. J. Hutchinson on Twitter
Tweet-threads are the worst.