Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Pastiche Writing Assignment: William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with John Milton’s Comus and Lycidas

In Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, during her visit to Stratford on Avon, Harriet Beecher Stowe has an extended discussion of affinities and distinctions between John Milton and William Shakespeare. In brief, she designates Milton as classical or Grecian, Shakespeare as Gothic. The later writer possesses “calm, severe majesty” that enlists only the “the very highest range of our faculties.” By contrast, the earlier is capable of “wreathed involution of smiles and tears, of solemn earnestness and quaint conceits,” or “complications of dizzy magnificence with fairy lightness.”

Nor do I think it’s too much to suggest she in same section has in mind the aims and methods of her own novelistic art, when she notes that Shakespeare exhibits “sudden uprushings of grand and magnificent sentiment, like the flame-pointed arches of cathedrals; those ranges of fancy, half goblin, half human.”

But prior to her summing of the differences, she notes the affinities that both poets, Gothic and Grecian share, by first citing an extended passage from scene-setting by Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream through the conclusion of Oberon’s opening speech (see 5.2.1-26). But rather than herself supplying the pastiche that would blend those lines (and others like them) to Milton’s Comus and Lycidas, she assigns the reader the prospective task:

I have often noticed how much the first writings of Milton resemble in their imagery and tone of coloring those of Shakspeare, particularly in the phraseology and manner of describing flowers. I think, were a certain number of passages from Lycidas and Comus interspersed with a certain number from Midsummer Night’s Dream, the imagery, tone of thought, and style of coloring, would be found so nearly identical, that it would be difficult for one not perfectly familiar to distinguish them. You may try it.

I think we have a hint toward a pastiche assignment and experiment that could involve creative writing and analysis of reading tests. Fourth-year English majors, who have studied both Shakespeare and Milton and are interested in creative writing, would blend passages from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with Milton’s Lycidas and Comus, and do the blend so seamlessly that the aim would be that an inexpert reader would be unable to distinguish the Shakespeare from the Milton. Test the creations against two types of readers, first-year college students and American literature professors, to see if either group can identify the switches between voices.

But the actual test should be more sneaky, one subject of the study will be whether American literature professors, who think they are being asked to serve as judges, will instead be faced with the dilemma of whether to do their homework before agreeing to serve as test pool in evaluating the quality of the first-year undergraduates’s detection of the creative writing students’ switches between voices. No key should be provided, or it would ruin the experiment.

Likely no Internet access available either, such as that which I shamelessly relied when looking up line numbers for Puck’s and Oberon’s speeches. But is this not modern reading too? In any case, so no, I as an American literature professor won’t participate in your reading study, since maybe this is just a speculative example of cruelty to people, subject of an earlier post.

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