Reading George Herbert’s poem called “Prayer” today, I came across this phrase -- “plummet sounding heaven and earth” – and started wondering what would happen if I used an imaginary plummet (or plumb bob, as it’s now known) in English class. What would happen, in other words, if I “sounded” the depths of my seemingly straightforward and commonplace curriculum? During a discussion about a story, if I dropped my imaginary plum bob “overboard” (as sailors in Herbert’s time regularly did), when would it hit bottom – when would we know that we’ve said all that can possibly be said about the story? How far down would the plumb have to drop to touch the very bottom of a Keats sonnet? And where is the bottom of good writing – the base, the foundation, the single, final, and first substructure on which all good writing rests? As I thought about this today, I began to realize that my make-believe plumb bob would never touch the bottom of any aspect of English class. Where, after all, is the bed, the final truth, the bottom floor of any work of literature? Wouldn’t my plumb bob just keep descending into the depths of a Faulkner novel forever, falling past one interpretation after another, one opinion after another, one scholarly treatise after another? Can there be a final foundation for any true work of literature? And what about the secrets of good writing and reading? Where’s the bottom of that vast and inscrutable ocean? Toss Herbert’s plummet in there, and you’ll be waiting forever to feel the bottom. My students and I, if the truth be told, are sailing on a bottomless sea. Hopefully I have some dim idea of where we’re going, and hopefully I won’t entirely wreck the frail vessel, since it is a long, long way down.
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