Mini-Grant Report: A conversation on Blake with Paul Yoder

My seminar on William Blake was privileged to have as a guest Paul Yoder, Professor Emeritus from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Paul is the author of The Narrative Structure of William Blake’s Poem Jerusalem: A Revisionist Interpretation (Edwin Mellen Press, 2010) as well as a number of articles. He and I first met at a conference around 1996, and (as often happens when scholars work in closely related areas) we continued to find ourselves on the same panels over the years. The result has been a deeply rewarding intellectual friendship. We’ve read and commented on each other’s work, sometimes challenging each other in the best sense of Blake’s proverb that “Opposition is True Friendship.”

Since Paul retired from teaching a few years ago, we had discussed his coming to Sewanee to give a talk. By the time we got serious about it, the pandemic was upon us, but Zoom and the CfT came to the rescue. While the class did not read Blake’s 100-page illuminated poem Jerusalem (Paul’s particular specialty), we did read his shorter epic Milton, which casts the poet Milton as a character who returns from heaven to earth (by way of Blake’s left foot) in order to correct errors in his poetry, his theology, and his relationships with women. This is the last text we tackle as a class, and it’s always the most difficult, even for students familiar with Milton’s work. So my idea was not to have Paul give a lecture, but rather for the two of us to model how literary scholars talk through a challenging text and make arguments about it.

It worked beautifully. Since Paul and I already knew each other well, we were able to launch right into conversation about Blake’s relationship to Milton and to his readers as demonstrated on the opening pages:

The students were somewhat shy, but they did join in and ask questions. I had given them an article of Paul’s to read beforehand, which helped them get a sense of his voice and his interests.

In summary, this was a great way to boost a class toward the end of a long semester. As one student wrote later, ”It was very interesting to hear Dr Yoder speak as it helped to open up Blake’s poetry and lent a different point of view to the poem we discussed.” Another student added, “It was so fun to talk to Paul and get a chance to hear his take on a variety of Blake topics!” I’m grateful to the CfT for the funds to make this virtual visit possible.

 Jennifer Michael, English

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