Two Exam Poems To Lift Your Spirits

Mathias Stomer, "Young Man Reading by Candlelight"

Matthias Stomer, “Young Man Reading by Candlelight”


Today is the last day of classes for St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the first day of exams for Sewanee-University of the South, where I’m spending my sabbatical. My mother, who writes a weekly poetry column for the Sewanee Messenger, alerted me to a couple of humorous exam poems. If you are a student, hopefully they will help you laugh in the face of what I know are intense pressures.

I should warn you, however, that Helen Bevington’s “Professors Like Minutiae” does not describe accurately how literature is taught these days, perhaps because Bevington was born in 1906. True, there was a time when literature teachers free associated about poems they liked and would mention authorial trivia. Formalism in the 1950s, however, pretty much brought an end to that approach, focusing instead on the text. Indeed, Robert Scholes in The Crafty Reader thinks that we can rekindle an interest in literature amongst students by returning to our old approach in biography. Maybe there’s something to be said for mentioning Walpole’s cat and Byron’s dog.

Anyway, here’s the poem:

Professors Like Minutiae

By Helen Bevington

Professors taught me by the learnèd hour
That Keats was tiny, Burns a hefty man,
Geraniums were Dickens’ favorite flower
And Shelley was a vegetarian.
I have met Walpole’s cat and Byron’s dog
In pious company of pedagogue.

With whom how friskily did I pass by
The literature for the minutiae.

Regarding professors’ love for minutiae—well, once one delves into any field of learning, one starts making fine distinctions. That is what Aristotle is all about. But okay, pointing out that some teachers focus on minutiae rather than the literature itself is a valid point, a version of Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect.” I have a colleague who polled his entering Introduction to Literature students and discovered that, while they all knew the difference between a metaphor and a simile, almost none of them could name ten poems that they had read. Some “passing by” had evidently occurred in their high school English classes.

And now, for extra credit, here’s a lyric that parodies literature exams. The allusion is to Wordsworth’s “To the Cuckoo”:

To the Cuckoo

By F. H. Townsend

O,Cuckoo, Shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering voice?
     State the alternative preferred

     With reasons for your choice.

Townsend’s punchy little poem gives me ideas for other possible exam questions that take advantage of poetry’s penchant for asking rhetorical questions and hypophoras (where one asks a question and then immediately answers it). For instance:

If winter comes, can spring be far behind? Answer yes or no. In explaining your answer, factor in how climate change has affected weather patterns since Shelley’s time.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Explain why or why not. Why might you, as the loved one, be just as happy if Shakespeare didn’t make the comparison? Keep in mind that the poet wrote during a mini-ice age and that rough winds and summer’s lease might be different today. (See previous question.)

When the nightingale was singing, was Keats awake or asleep? Elaborate.

How do I love thee? Are there any ways that Elizabeth Barrett Browning forgets to count?

How can we know the dancer from the dance? Stand up at your desk and do a demonstration. (You will be graded on style points.)

For those students worried that you may not survive, keep reminding yourself that, although winter comes, winter vacation is not far behind.

This entry was posted in Bevington (Helen), Browning (Elizabeth Barrett), Keats (John), Shelley (Percy), Townshend (F. H.), Wordsworth (William), Yeats (William Butler) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete