Russell A. Hunt
St. Thomas University

Conditions of Reception, Conditions of Construction:
The Strange Case of "Mons, Anzac and Kut"(1)

[As published in Poetics 26:5-6 (1999), [455]-468.]


Against the background of a consideration of the history of "reception theory" in North America, an instance of varying readings of a particular text in an educational context is presented, and the role of context of situation and readers' own history examined, in order to show how much more complex the act of meaning construction is than can be accounted for by either reader-driven or text-driven models of literary reception.

1. The conditions

The history and status of studies of literary reception is a peculiar -- and illustrative -- test case in a number of ways. If, on the one hand, its history illustrates the role of ideology in conditioning the recognition of challenging ideas, on the other its current status illustrates the power of the immediate situation to mask itself and its influence on the act of reading.

As Robert Holub (1993) has pointed out, the penetration of the study of literary reception into the North American marketplace of ideas, after the first German flowering following Hans Robert Jauß's (1967) proclamation of reception studies as a challenge to literary history and hermeneutics was extremely delayed, and the activity has remained marginal. This was, Holub argues, in large measure because American academic circles preferred the sorts of approaches to literature which spoke directly to (even if apparently in contradiction of) the dominant New Critical orthodoxies that had been in place since the middle of the century.(3)

What Holub makes clear is how versions of structuralism, poststructuralism, and eventually "deconstruction" came to supplant New Criticism as a sort of default mode of academic approaches to literature in American graduate schools, and how German "reception theory" was largely ignored. In large measure, this has been a matter of continuing to ignore the concrete act of reading and the social context of the reader.

The American tradition, Holub points out, was dominated until at least 1980 by "a fundamental adherence to the heritage of text-centered criticism and a continued neglect of nontextual factors, particularly history" (21), and this adherence was not fundamentally challenged by these postructural approaches. In fact, what they actually did was afford more sophisticated and subtle ways of centering on texts and marginalizing other issues (and, not entirely incidentally, retaining the classroom practice of "close reading" as basic to literature instruction). Holub quotes Paul de Man's call for "reading the close readings more closely" (11) as an example of this continuing focus on text and the consequent lack of attention to the realities of what readers were actually doing, and the situations they were doing it in.

What Holub does not acknowledge is that "reception theory" did, in fact, penetrate the North American market -- but not in traditional literary circles. Where it did have some influence (in parallel with what can be argued to be a domestic product, "reader response theory") was in pedagogical circles. For example, it became important in composition studies and departments of education and applied linguistics, where words like "social" or "empirical" do not cause a kind of automatic sneer. "Reader response theory," in fact, had begun with the work of Louise Rosenblatt in the thirties (1938), and had been entirely ignored (as "educational") in academic literary circles until the eighties, when it was "discovered" by academic literary theory (cf. Suleiman & Crosman, 1980, and Tompkins, 1980) -- only to be returned to the margins almost instantly as the dominant mode shifted once more toward the more abstract and theoretical (and acontextual) formulations of poststructuralism and deconstruction. Holub, significantly, doesn't mention Rosenblatt at all, and dismisses "reader-response criticism" as a derivative version of reception studies.

The whole story is far too complicated to retell here, but it can be argued plausibly that underlying the swings of this particular pendulum is a difference of fundamental assumptions on the two "sides" as to whether literary studies is a theoretically based discipline, on the analogy of traditional philosophy, or whether it is a fundamentally social discipline, concerned with understanding particular examples of human behavior. These opposing ideas tend to be associated with a parallel dichotomy between people whose central commitment is to teaching and research on teaching and learning and those focused on scholarship and publication on literature or culture.

Even within those opposing camps, however, the same split tends to reappear. Among those concerned with "reader response" or reception theory in the eighties, for instance, there were those for whom the issue was primarily theoretical, and others for whom the center of interest was individual readers -- specifically, usually, individual learners. Stanley Fish is a central example of the former class: though he was ostensibly concerned with classrooms in a book like Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), in practice his focus was on the ways in which one could move to generalizations about the nature of code systems and interpretive communities, rather than on how it might be that individual readers came to their relationships to literary texts. Others, like Robert Scholes (e.g., 1985), were more concerned with the general implications of such ideas for classrooms, and Rosenblatt herself, with the republication of Literature as Exploration and other new publications in the eighties, continued to focus as before on reading in classrooms. Still others found these ideas of interest as tools for understanding individual readers and individual readings of literary texts in and out of school and experimental situations -- for instance, in explicitly empirical studies of the nature of literary reading (e.g. Vipond & Hunt, 1984).

In fact, as is so often the case, what seems a dichotomy is actually a continuum, defined by the observer's focus of attention. On one end there is attention to individual, unique reading experiences (defying the New Critical injunction about avoiding the "affective fallacy" [Wimsatt and Beardsley, 1946]), and on the other, preoccupation with exploring what is implied by the text -- as Wolfgang Iser (1974) had urged -- or what is generalizable about interpretive communities (this was Fish's central project).

Paying attention to what individual readers know and do makes more central the question of how the immediate context of situation shapes their reading -- and what kinds of forces in that context must be reckoned with in order to understand what they do, and what they can do, and under what circumstances they can be expected to do it. But context is an extremely troublesome issue, for everyone concerned.

As Haswell et al. (1999) have recently pointed out, "context has a long track record of upsetting research findings about competency" (3). Tracing a decade-long history of attempts to isolate some truths about "rhetorical strategies in reading" (Haas and Flower [1988]), Haswell et al. show how powerfully the immediate context of situation influences whether or not readers deploy those strategies. "Rhetorical strategies" are described as "considering rhetorical aspects of the text: that is, speculation on situational information about the motives of the author, the responses of the reader, or the generic / cultural / historical background of the text" (Haswell et al., 5). Vipond and Hunt (1984) earlier characterized a similar phenomenon as "point-driven reading." In such cases, a reader understands a text as a situational utterance, and attempts to account for anomalies in the text by reference to a constructed rhetorical intention on the part of an utterer, in a way similar to the listeners to conversational stories described by Polanyi (1979, 1985) and Labov (1972).

Both the Haas and Flower and Haswell et al. studies show a difference between the extent to which undergraduate and graduate readers think of texts as potentially rhetorical. Undergraduate readers, they report, are far less likely to think of them, or respond to them, as having rhetorical force. The Haswell et al. paper suggests that some of this may be a function of familiarity of subject matter; Vipond et al. (1990) have suggested, however, that creating an immediate conversational context in place of an experimental or classroom context serves, at least for some readers, as a trigger to activate relevant rhetorical knowledge about, or awareness of, the author which other readers, in other contexts, did not activate or see as relevant. Similarly, readers engaged in "point-driven reading" are more likely to respond to "evaluation points" in text, by ascribing intention to anomalous or unexpected words or constructions (Hunt and Vipond, 1986).

Such attention to the behavior of individual readers in individual situations requires that we find a way to talk about such individual instances of perception. One suggestion for such a discourse has come from the psychologist J. J. Gibson, with his concept of "affordance" (1979) -- that is, the idea that what we can know of the permanence of objects comes from seeing what perceptions they "afford" different perceivers. This is an important idea, and useful for understanding the nature of perception in such cases. However, it is often seen as requiring us to make decisions about vexed questions like whether we believe in an "objective reality." A related, but more flexible and subtle approach, is the transactional view proposed by John Dewey -- most explicitly by Dewey and Bentley (1949) -- and brought again to the attention of at least the educational community by Louise Rosenblatt (1978, 1985).

What the language and concept of "transaction" offers us is a new tool for considering the fact that -- as Bakhtin (1986) told us about utterances -- every event is unique. In language, no utterance is ever the same as another, even if the same signifiers are recreated in the same order. This uniqueness, like the uniqueness of every transaction, has to do with the fact that the "meaning" that occurs around and by means of the utterance is shaped -- by the mutual influences of the participants in the transaction: in the case of reading, as Vipond and Hunt (1988) argued, the reader, the text, and the situation. We can, using Gibson's language, agree on a what a given text appears to afford, but it is clear that it would afford something rather different in another situation, or to another reader -- or to the same reader at another time, when the reader knew, or felt, differently. Indeed, as anyone's perception of the text is socially constructed, it's clear that we can say that the text itself, and what it affords, is not the same from one instance to the next.

One implication of this is a recognition that context of situation -- whether, for instance, the reader (often tacitly) constructs the situation as one in which she is accustomed to read texts for "educational purposes," meaning to remember what they say, or, on the other hand, as one in which her role is to see what an author might have been "getting at," what "rhetorical motives" might have been at work -- becomes far more important.

Theorists have often talked about literary "reception" as though it were either a passive act -- the text having its way with the reader -- or, on the other hand, as though the reader were somehow autonomous, independent not only of the text and the intentions of the "author," but independent also of the society around her. This is partly because we haven't had a widely accepted language which allows us to avoid slipping into either trivialization. With it, we find ourselves in a much more challenging, but potentially rewarding, situation.

All this is not to argue that we cannot know anything about texts (or about situations, or about readers), or that it's impossible to be wrong about them. It is, however, to suggest that if we are to describe instances of reading, as a way of understanding the nature of reading and thus the nature of literary experience, we must acknowledge that we are talking about actions, not objects; verbs, not nouns; energy, not matter. It is useful, as a way of reminding ourselves not only how complicated the transactions we characterize as "reception" can be, but how much actually can be understood about them, to stop occasionally and consider specific cases. Here is one.

2. The text



'Sad stories chancèd in the times of old'
Have held me oft by candle's faltering light,
When all outside my bed was winter-cold,
And shy, small noises crept about the night.
Myself thus safe, of perils have I learned,
And ancient strifes, that I have never shared;
Thus have I tasted, while my wick still burned,
Comfort from that discomfort I am spared.
Thus have I hasted on from page to page
With tingling blood that other's blood should flow
From piercèd bodies in a far-off age
Fabled to stir me by their pageant woe.

Your terrible true tale of our to-day
Thus holds me, till my candle melts away.

What I'd like to consider here is a process of reading whereby a poem produced originally in 1920, and rooted inextricably in the literary and social context of the post-World War I era, is read in different ways by students and others in various contexts of situation, including a first-year university class, in 1998. Questions about the nature of contextual knowledge, the circumstances under which it is relevant (and seen as relevant), institutionalized attitudes toward poetry, and the role of warranting (who has proffered this text as of interest?), ownership (whose utterance is this text seen as?), and the dialogic social transactions underlying the events are, I believe, raised and perhaps even illuminated.

Here is the situation: this poem, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1920, is stumbled upon by a student in 1998, brought to the attention of a class without any information as to its context or its references, and read in various ways by various individuals, as information about the poem's historical context changes its immediate context for some readers. The central issue I want to explore is the role, in that immediate situation, of that information and the way in which it either is, or is not, relevant to, and used by, different readers depending on their own enculturation into the society of readers of poetry.

3. The immediate context

I teach in a first year program which is designed as a year-long interdisciplinary introduction to university study and to the culture of academia and scholarship, and at the same time as first year courses in three separate disciplines. My main responsibility in our section of the program, which enrolls a group of 20-40 students in this "learning community," is to see that the students experience the equivalent of a conventional "introduction to literature" course.(4)

In the 1997-98 year, one thing we asked students to do was to spend much of the first two weeks of the winter term reading anything they chose as long as it had appeared in a list of journals and magazines which we issued to them to start the process and which could be found in the university library's reading room. These periodicals had been selected by the three teachers to represent a range of more or less intellectual journals, not so scholarly or recondite as to be daunting, but challenging enough to present the students with new and important ideas and reflections. We gave out a general statement of how much they needed to read each week; beyond that they were on their own in deciding what to read.

For each item they chose and read they were asked to write a "reflection" in which they described their reading -- it might be an article, a story, a poem -- and indicated ways in which it might be of interest to others in the class. They posted these "reading logs" on a course "Web site," situated on the university's local area network in a directory where anyone in the course could read what they'd written, simply by following hypertext links from the main course Web site to a directory of student names, each linked to a "home page." Each page included a list of readings, each described by a sentence or two and then linked to the student's longer reflection on the reading.

All of this was an explicit attempt to create a social context for the readings which would afford a more rhetorical stance toward the texts, to put the students in the situation of reading texts in their original immediate context -- in a journal, for instance, rather than homogenized into an anthology of readings -- and to put them in a situation which afforded seeing the text in a social role -- as, for example, recommended by a colleague rather than assigned by an institution. It turned out to be even more difficult than we expected to change the way students relate to texts seen as academic.

4. The story

Robyn first came across the poem. She was apparently browsing through bound volumes of back issues of The Atlantic Monthly. These volumes are bound by year, without obvious covers or separations into issues. At the time, the magazine had been printed in a double-column format which looks very much like a traditional literature anthology. Part of our aim in inviting students to read in a wide range of periodicals was to offer them a chance to see some of what periodical publication entails (almost none of our first year students have ever opened a periodical other than a newsstand special interest or news magazine), but it seems unlikely that Robyn was aware that what she was reading had once been delivered every month by subscription, or sold on newsstands.

This is suggested partly by her misdating of the poem on her web site, which shows, I think, that she did not realize -- at least on that reading -- that the poem had been published in 1920 (or, of course, consider what that might mean):

3. Wister Owen, "After Reading Mons, Anzac, and Kut. ." The Atlantic Monthly, Jannuary 20, 1998, P.612(5)
What she said about the poem as a one-line introduction suggests the same thing. For her -- and, I think, for most students, partly as a result of generations of literature taught by instructors conditioned by New Criticism and later text-centred approaches -- literature exists in a kind of synchronous world, a continuing, unchanging "now."
This is a poem that I enjoyed very much. It discusses the state our world is in today.
Her longer reflection, which was linked to this sentence, reinforces this impression. (Some of this sense of "presentness" is probably due to the fact that first year students don't usually understand exactly how the convention of discussing literature in the historical present works.)
"After Reading Mons, Anzac, & Kut'. By Owen Wister.

I really liked this poem. Wister begins to explain how at night he will curl up with a good novel, a thriller, or, a mystery, and will find comfort in the fact that he is not suffering the way the characters in the novels he is reading are. At the end of the peom, Wister says that the horrible true story of the way our world is, holds him even stronger than the thriller and mystery novels do, this is because the tale is even more horrific.

It is obvious that Wister wrote this poem as a commentary on our world today. The poem shows that he is very upset at the corruption we now face. This poem is a poem that worns us of the destruction we will cast on to ourselfves. It says in a very powerful way, that our world is more exciting and fearful than a novel written for the purpose of scarring people.

In any case, it is interesting to note how she assimilates a generalized idea of "corruption" into what seems, in the poem as read by most colleagues I've shown it to, a concern with "perils," "strifes," "discomfort," and "blood."

A week or so later we introduced the idea that students -- who, theoretically, were already reading in each others' reading logs in order to find things to read which might be of interest to themselves -- were to find a specific reading in someone else's log, go to the library and locate the text and read it, and write their own reflections (and, as part of the process, create hypertext links back to the original reflection). Katie was apparently intrigued by Robyn's reflection, and chose to search out "After Reading 'Mons, Anzac and Kut'" as well. She noticed that it had been published in 1920 -- or at any rate she dated it accurately in her listing -- and she said, on her main page:

This selection which I found by reading Robyn's Reading Log Page was a poem about the ability of literature to release one from the turmoil of the real world, and whether or not this is a necessary facet of existance.
And in her reflection she said this:
This was a short poem about the ability of literature to take it's reader away into worlds not unlike our own but different enough to allow the reader some relief from the world we live in. It speaks of the authors desire to read about the pain and turmoil of someone else as opposed to himself while he lies comfortable and warm in his own bed. It accentuates the fact that he feels that we are trapped in this world we live in, but though literature there are no bounds to our existence. Whether this is a meaningful existence or not is debated but through comparison with other poems of the same genre, it is evident that Wister is merely taking a break from the hassles of the daily world and delving into something that makes him feel better about his own place on this planet. One may call this ignorance to the more important matters that need attending to but I see it as a necessary break from reality. Robyn was the first to read this peom and it was through reading her reflection that I have come to the conclusions that I have.
Here is a very different reading -- one which apparently draws on experience, presumably in some measure in English classes, of understanding literature as escape ("relief from the world we live in"). Both, however, make the same fundamental move, inquiring about "the message of the poem for us." And, interestingly, neither raises even for an instant the problem of the title.

At this point, I had seen none of this writing. About 35 students were writing an average of five or six reflections every week; I regularly browsed through them, but had not noticed the pair of writings on this poem.

5. The seminar

Early in the term we began a series of weekly seminars in which a third of the class (about 13 students) met with one of the three instructors to address issues of particular interest to their discipline. I set up the "English seminars." At the first meeting, I handed out a prompt which asked the students to be on the lookout for "literary" texts in their reading, and to bring photocopies of one they thought worth talking about to the next meeting. The next week, Robyn brought in the Wister poem.

At that meeting, on January 22, the group read all the texts and the supporting documents students brought with them (Robyn's explanation of her choice was a printout of her reading log text), and decided on three to explore further. A subgroup was to work with each of the texts and prepare to structure a half-hour discussion of it for the next seminar. Katie and Robyn became the sub-group preparing a discussion of "Mons, Anzac and Kut."

This was the first time I had ever seen the poem. As I read it and listened to the discussion -- which led to the decision that it should be one of the three texts to which more attention should be paid the following week -- I realized that the poem was a golden opportunity to help students see how much difference contextual information might make to their reading and their relation to the text.

I also knew, however, that simply giving them the information wouldn't do. There are at least three reasons for this. First, I did not believe my primary aim was to help them understand this particular poem. This is in part because I didn't, and don't, think it a particularly good poem, but also because, in general, I'm much more interested in reading they might do ten years hence than in the reading they're doing right now. Second, I don't think you learn by having someone answer questions you haven't asked: there's lots of evidence that information offered about literary texts has little effect on student reading. Finally, of course, in fact I didn't have the information to give them.

I knew that my own questions during the class discussion had to do with the phrase "Mons, Anzac and Kut" and with the identity of the author, and I was mildly surprised that no one in the discussion raised them. I became interested in why not, and what it might take to provoke someone to raise them.

6. Two other readers

Back in my office, I puzzled over the poem. It wasn't too difficult to get the basic shape of it -- but I had no idea what the title of whatever the speaker had been reading meant, nor who Owen Wister was (though I vaguely associated his name with "the Western"). The historian across the hall was in his office. "Bill, what do you know about Owen Wister?" I asked. "The name doesn't ring a bell at all," he said, "why?"

Within an hour we'd amassed a trove of information of the kind that only a couple of curious scholars would put together. I'd found that Owen Wister was an American writer primarily known for one blockbuster novel, The Virginian (1902), which has become a classic of sorts -- there's a substantial literature about it, it's on university reading lists and has been published as a Penguin classic, and it was made into a very well known movie starring Gary Cooper.

Bill had immediately recognized "Mons" as the site of a World War One battle, and after some reconnaissance through his memory, had come up with "Australian and New Zealand Army Corps" for "Anzac." We were both stumped by "Kut" for a while, but eventually, in a search through the online Library of Congress catalog, discovered what the poem's occasion was. The previous year (1919) had been published a book about three World War One battles, by the Honorable Aubrey Nigel Henry Molyneux Herbert, titled Mons, Anzac and Kut.

The problem remained, however: what to do with this information? I was now in a position to answer a question if anyone asked, but I was not sure I wanted to be in that position, since my aim wasn't to supply information about the poem but to help them become people who would want information in the first place, would know what sort of information might be useful, and would be able to use it to enrich their experience. It had been our hope that encountering a text in a situation like this would more effectively afford a rhetorical response, a "what is this person getting at?" question. I now knew that if such a question were asked, an answer was possible; I didn't know how to adjust the situation so that the question would be asked.

7. Another seminar

At class the next time, Katie and Robyn had prepared a "lesson," one which, as it turned out, shaped the experience of the poem as an "English class" experience rather than a communicative one. They had brought, along with the Wister poem, copies of Lovelace's "To Althea, from Prison." They distributed them and asked the other students to read both poems and write a short comparison of them. They then went round the circle, asking their colleagues to comment. The discussion turned much more heavily on the Lovelace than on the Wister -- in part, I surmised, because some at least of the students had encountered the Lovelace poem in high school and felt they had something to say about it. My notes on the seminar discussion are sketchy, but make it clear that most made some connection between the idea of freedom as they found it in the Lovelace and what we might call the escapist reading of the Wister poem. Robyn (whose original reading of the poem was not an escapist one) made the point that both speakers were in places that restricted them and that outside "things were crumbling." But, she said, both could get "mental freedom," Wister through books and Lovelace through his love. So, she said, we're talking about freedom in the soul or imagination.

There was a continuing discussion, primarily focused on the Lovelace poem. My notes indicate that, just before the end, and after a long pause in the conversation, Michelle raised what seemed to me the critical question. "What does 'Mons, Anzac and Kut' mean?" Robyn suggested they might be the names of authors. I restrained myself.(6) In any case, the discussion turned directly back to issues of why society restrains people, and what mental freedom might mean. Kate rounded the discussion off -- bringing it back to Wister -- by noting that "the guy in the Wister poem is trapped, too -- they're just trapped in different ways."

I resisted the urge to impose my own closure on the discussion, hoping that someone had heard Michelle's question. We went on to discuss a short story that another subgroup had prepared, and only at the very end of the seminar, in the conversation as we packed up our papers, did I find it impossible to resist saying, "I thought it was interesting that Michelle raised that question about the Wister poem and nobody found it important." A number of people agreed, but no one suggested we stay to discuss it.

8. Michelle takes a hint

As part of the process of ensuring that students read each others' logs, I suggested again that people should feel free to go back and read works we'd discussed and reflect on them. About a week later, I found the poem listed in Michelle's reading log, with this introductory sentence:

This poem concerns how tragic the battles of Mons, Anzac and Kut' and how the author is happy he is spared them.

This selection, was given as part of the English seminar and its source is Robyn's Web Page.

Feeling that at least I had connected somewhere, I clicked on the link to her log and found this:
World War I, often called "The Great War", was the first war of such magnitude and such killing. Wister obviously had an interest in WWI having lived through it, however, it went beyond that. Wister wrote several books on the First World War on the politics of the War and would have been knowledgeable about the battles that happened. So a poem about Mons, Anzac and Kut fits in with his writings on WWI. So what is Mons, Anzac and Kut and what do they have in common? They were all battles in which the Allies were forced to retreat due to great losses to their men. Throughout the following essay you will see how increased knowledge of WWI will increase your understanding of the poem.
In a 500 word document (it's significant, I think, that she calls it an "essay"), Michelle gives basic outlines of the three battles, and concludes:
Now in light of this new information we can read the poem in the context it was meant to be read as in 1920. The World War is over and the Peace Agreement stage as also ended the world is in time of peace, a time to reflect on what has just happened and a time for news of battles lost and won to get out. Wister and indeed the world by this time would have heard about the terrible losses due to folly that was acquired in the war. Wister is safe in America and his home in which an ocean has separated and protected them from the destruction of the war. However, despite the distances between America and Europe the "terrible true tale" of his today holds his mind and imagination like no book can. It will continue to hold him till the day he died or " till my [his] candle melts away".
In one way, this was, I thought, wonderful: Michelle (although to some extent prompted by my professional curiosity) had gone through the same sort of scholarly exercise that Bill and I had gone through -- and with much less in the way of resources and sophistication to start with. Although some of her information is wrong (as far as I know, Wister never wrote about the First World War), this little essay is evidence of remarkable scholarly endeavor for a first-year student with only curiosity to drive her.

And yet. There is no evidence here that Michelle's experience of the poem was deepened or even much changed by this infusion of information. What has happened is that she now read the poem as about these first world war battles, where most skilled readers I've consulted have taken it rhetorically (as Haas and Flower, and Haswell et al., would predict), as an elaborate compliment to the author of the book. Essentially, Michelle's new reading, driven by her historical investigation, ignores the first twelve lines of the sonnet, attending only to the title and the concluding couplet. I should make clear that this is not to suggest that Michelle is not a skilled reader: clearly, she is very sophisticated in many ways. But her position as a student in an English class, a role she is very comfortable with, is one which entails decoding and ascribing meanings rather than rhetorical engagement of the kind that might impel her to take anomalies as rhetorical moves.

Further, and more important, I'm not convinced that her approach to the next poem that presents her with the challenge of incomprehensible references will be much altered by this experience. Certainly, she knows that it's possible to explore such references for yourself, and has placed this poem in a larger context of resource materials, but my inference from her text is that her engagement with the poem was not significantly deepened in this process.

When I contrast her investigation with the one that my historian colleague and I conducted, I can see two important differences. One is that ours was shaped and occasioned by rhetorical engagement with the text. It is by positing intentionality to text ("what are those quotation marks doing there?" "Who's being addressed as 'you' in the couplet?") that we are primed to see "noise" in the syntactic structure as of significance. The text, in other words, only affords a rhetorical reading if the reader is prepared to read in that way; and a reader is prepared to read in that way by her history and by the immediate situation as much as by the text itself.

Further, our goal was rhetorical: our research helped us to see the way in which the poem was engaged in its time, and to imagine, at least at some distance, what a reader of the poem in The Atlantic Monthly in June of 1920 would have known and understood. The title, for that reader, would have been a reference not only to a current best-seller, a book which the reader would instantly recognize, but also invoked the exotic names of famous battles of the recently concluded war, and invited the comparison between those battles and the legendary, historic and romantic ones the octave of the sonnet refers to. And perhaps equally important, our relation to the text was embedded in our personal and professional relationship: we challenged each other to find out more, and referred to the poem in the hall. It became part of our rhetorical world.

9. Reflections

What could possibly save such a poem for a young reader now? What context could help a student reader deploy the sort of rhetorical strategies we know skilled readers use, or have anything even slightly like the experience such a reader of The Atlantic Monthly would have had in 1920? In 1920, the text was an utterance in a conversation about books conducted in The Atlantic Monthly, and elsewhere, and depended on an immediate situation in which views of the War were important and in which people would know about Herbert's book. For a modern reader, a rhetorically engaged reading involves both at least a sketchy reconstruction of that context, and also an active taking on the role of an appropriately observant and actively responsive reader.

The reason for creating the reading log process and the exchange of texts among students was that I hoped such a text might become an utterance in a conversation in the class. I had hoped that, in this case, it might be understood as Robyn and Katie's text, even their utterance, rather than one proffered by an institution with the coded message, "it's good for you," or even "it's good." This clearly did not occur. Even for Michelle the poem remained a museum artifact, an occasion for explication of background, a puzzle to be solved.

That none of the students took the poem as an occasion for a dialogic transaction, either with each other or with the "author," is, I would suggest, evidence of the fact that the context in which the poem was read was shaped, perceived, or constructed by different readers in significantly different ways, with profound consequences for the way the text itself was categorized and thus understood.

The work Douglas Vipond and I have done (for a summary, see Hunt & Vipond, 1991) on the reading of literary texts by students and professionals, I believe, throws useful light on this phenomenon, by suggesting that engaged literary reading has an intrinsically dialogic component whereby the reader is driven to understand what a writer (or the person who is proffering the text) is "getting at," why the text is being offered in this situation. In the situation described here, it seems clear that none of the students took the text in that way -- rather, it seems clear that they took it as a "school text," proffered by an institution as a test of their ability to construct and phrase interpretations. Peculiarities of the text such as the quotation marks or the incomprehensible words ("Anzac," "Kut") were pushed aside as anomalies rather than attended to as intentional.

The force with which this immediate context of situation -- a "literary" text, encountered in a school situation -- shaped and constrained the responses and understandings of everyone involved indicates, I would suggest, how radically we need to extend and rethink what has traditionally been understood as "reception theory," and how cautious we must be in moving from theory about reception to general assertions about practice. Perhaps, instead, we should be talking about conditions of construction, and attending to matters as apparently trivial as the binding of the text, its provenance, and the reader's reading colleagues.


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Russell A. Hunt is Professor of English, and currently holds the Aquinas Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies, at St. Thomas University. His graduate training was in Restoration and Eighteenth Century Literature and literary theory, but in recent years he has worked primarily in language and literacy development, empirical studies of literary reading, and electronic communication in learning and teaching.

1. Thanks to Kees van Rees and an anonymous reviewer for Poetics for suggestions which have led to a much sounder version of this article.

2. E-mail:

3. For a more discursive account of the long and tortuous process by which New Criticism was displaced by alternatives in theoretical and academic circles, but persists in classroom practice, see Hunt (1990); for a characterization of the way in which that text-centered and acontextual approach to literature shapes that practice, see Hunt (1991).

4. Perhaps the most important aspect of this program for the present situation is that the structure in place enabled me to explore the potential of putting traditional literary texts into contexts designed to background or minimize the usual school-constrained reading processes. Further information about the course and the program is available on the university's Web site, at

5.Student texts are presented exactly as they were originally posted; since the students were writing extempore, exploratory and internal documents, proofreading and editing were often skipped. Permission to use these texts has been obtained from the students concerned.

6. It was only later that I realized that no one apparently knew, or recognized, the significance of the quotation marks around the phrase -- that is, the implication that the subject of the poem was a published text. The significance of quotation marks is currently in a state of flux: they are so often used in popular culture simply as means of emphasis (one sees signs saying, for instance, "strictly 'fresh' eggs") that it's possible no one had even noticed their existence.