December 18, 2009

Items from the University's special collections give students a real-life perspective on old materials.

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Professor John Rickard shows students in his English 326 class a 1917 issue of The Little Review that includes the earliest printed version of William Butler Yeats' poem "The Wild Swans at Coole," as it was written before the poet made a critical revision.

He compares the original poem with a later edition in which Yeats swapped the final melancholy stanza with the more upbeat third passage, significantly changing the meaning.

"By moving what was the third stanza to its final position at the end of the poem, Yeats changes the focus from presence to absence, from swans to the speaker, and ends the poem with a question rather than a statement, stressing the speaker's sense of uncertainty and loss of balance," Rickard said. "Of course, students get the idea if you just tell them about it, but seeing the poem in the June 1917 issue of The Little Review in the flesh, so to speak, is more interesting for them."

The literary magazine, in the Special Collections and University Archives at Bucknell University, is part of an extensive collection of Irish Renaissance material. The special collections, which include fine facsimiles of manuscripts, including the Bedford Book of Hours, The Book of Kells, the Ellesmere Chaucer rare books, and artists' books, are used in courses on subjects ranging from the study of medieval art to the study of how propaganda played a role in World War II, said Isabella O'Neill, curator of Special Collections and University Archives.

Part of the equipment
Just as a laser-scanning microscope assists biologists examining cell structure or a flume helps geologists measure characteristics of sediment flow, items in the special collections are part of the academic equipment to support teaching and classroom work and to enhance the learning experience at Bucknell, O'Neill noted.

Janice Mann, the Samuel H. Kress Professor of Art History, incorporates items in the special collections into her art history, medieval art and Islamic architecture classes. Facsimiles of medieval manuscripts such as The Book of Kells allow students to examine and interact with materials on a real scale and to get a sense of what the books are like - without traveling to Trinity College in Dublin, where the original manuscript is kept. Pages from medieval manuscripts give students a feel for the way the books were constructed and illustrated.

"Students can pick up an actual page of a medieval manuscript and see how gold leaf is applied," Mann said. "They get to see the erasures and corrections and this brings a sense of authenticity to the dialogue about art of the past. There are things you can see by looking at the actual manuscript pages that you could never see in a digital image, for instance the difference between the hair side of a piece of sheep skin parchment and the smooth interior side."

A closer look
One of Mann's medieval art students, Haley Clark, Class of '10, said she especially enjoyed leafing through the facsimiles of The Canterbury Tales.

"There is so much narrative that goes into it," said Clark, an art and art history and economics double major from Greenwich, Conn. "There is so much symbolism behind each small character and drawing. We learned about how the illustrations were important for explaining the story."

Russell Dennis, an assistant professor of education, uses the University archives collections for his capstone course: "Bucknell of Yesteryear and Today." Students view old movies and examine primary and original documents and artifacts that tell the story of the University's history, including detailed minutes from Board of Trustees meetings, documents from former Bucknell President David Jayne Hill (1879-1888), as well as physical remnants of the time such as the stakes used to lay out the foundation for the former West College, built in 1899.

"It's very useful in terms of relating past to present," Dennis said.

War posters inspire class
Three years ago, Assistant Professor David Del Testa developed a history course partially around dozens of World War II propaganda posters, which former archives and collections curator Doris Dysinger told him about. Students complete a six- to eight-week project in the library. This year, students focused on the oral history of World War II-era alumni.

"They looked at not just the posters but copies of alumni magazines and yearbooks from the time," Del Testa said. "One of the goals is to learn how to handle original materials. They learn about preservation, too. Students say they use the knowledge directly or indirectly in future courses, and it gives them a sense of satisfaction. They've had the chance to put their hands on the actual materials. It gives the students a sense of responsibility and the ability to handle the material world."

After discussing Samuel Johnson with students in his "Sense and Sensibility" course, English Professor Greg Clingham shows his students a first edition of A Dictionary of the English Language.

"It's a way of establishing a physical relationship with the actual book," which weighs about 25 pounds, Clingham said. "The students on the whole tend to be quite astounded by the physicality and the smell. The course is called 'Sense and Sensibility,' so of course we concentrate in part on sight and smell. The way in which we smell plays a part in our memories of the past."

Words on the page
In Yeats' swan poem, the order of the words on the page made all the difference, a distinction Rickard was able to show in The Little Review. The earlier version ends with a focus on the symbolic swans:

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old,
Passion or conquest wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

Yeats' final version contrasts the speaker of the poem with the seemingly eternal swans in the ending stanza, Rickard noted:

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Contact: Division of Communications