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Sunday, November 20, 2011

SAT II and Shakespeare (Talent vs. Striving, cont'd).

Oh, speaking of the SAT (in the recent post about striving vs. talent), here’s a sample question from the SAT II – English Literature (available for free on the SAT web site).  I'm using it here to demonstrate that you have to dumb yourself down for reading comprehension on the SAT.  So rather than viewing people who get 800s on the SAT as "profoundly gifted" (per Hambrick and Meinz, the authors of the NYT article) let's just acknowledge that they've learned how to take an SAT test:

Read the following poem carefully before you choose your answers.


Against that time (if ever that time come)
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
When as thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Called to that audit by advised respects—

Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find of settled gravity—
Against that time do I ensconce me here

Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear,
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part.
To leave poor me thou has the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause.

If the speaker is implying in line 10 [the bolded line above] that he is not deserving of love, which of the following most strongly supports the implication?

    (A) "defects" (line 2)
    (B) "utmost sum" (line 3)
    (C) "strangely" (line 5)
    (D) "love, converted" (line 7)
    (E) "settled gravity" (line 8)

The practice quiz gives the following hint, which of course you won’t get on the actual test: "Look for the choice that most directly comments upon a perceived shortcoming in the speaker."
The obvious answer is “defects.”  A person who acknowledges that he has “defects” might consider himself unworthy of love.  And that's the right answer.  End of issue.  

Lesson:  Don’t overthink it.  If you overthink it, you’ll likely end up going down a rabbithole.  Here's what happens.  You ask yourself:  is "defects" really the "best" answer?  Look at the context from the first two lines:

Against that time (if ever that time come)
When I shall see thee frown on my defects

Here, the speaker (Shakespeare, for the record – Sonnet 49) is noting that the time that his lover (the young man of the sonnets, actually) will “frown on my defects” might never come.  He is acknowledging that he has defects, and he is implying that his lover knows them, and he is even contemplating that s/he might never even frown upon them; in other words, that s/he will know about them and accept them.  Right now he feels loved, and there is no indication in these two lines that he feels that he doesn’t deserve the love.  Of course, the hypothetical tells us to assume that the speaker is “implying . . . that he is not deserving of love.”  But it’s just not clear that the “defects” passage is where the “implication” is.  Let's look elsewhere.

What are the other choices?  Well, b,c, and d clearly make no sense.  Eliminate those. 

But what about “settled gravity”?  

When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find of settled gravity—
Against that time do I ensconce me here

Here we’ve got “love” finding “reasons” of “settled gravity”.  This is probably ambiguous, but one way of reading is it that his lover might find good reasons – hitherto unknown to the lover – to stop loving him.  "Gravity" means "weight," and "settled" can certainly mean “agreed upon.”  In other words, reasons that everyone would agree upon – i.e. GOOD reasons.  These are not mere “defects” – which could be something as slight as a physical defect or an annoying habit, but real “reasons,” which could well mean “moral defects”. 

So the choices are:  “defects” – which might just be physical defects or annoying habits that the lover overlooks initially but which after a while start to grate on the lover and turn love to disdain.  If that “definition” of defects is open, then answer (a) is suboptimal, since that kind of “defect” would not imply that the speaker is unworthy of love.

Reasons of “settled gravity” – we can’t tell exactly what this means, and maybe the speaker is being sarcastic, but it seems likely that this refers to real, good reasons for not loving the speaker.  If that’s what it means, then it means that the speaker has reason to know that he is not actually worthy of love.  That seems to match the question better.  Yes, the word “reasons” is not in the quote.  But “settled gravity” is the modifier that makes the reasons what they are – and creates the implication of a true moral defect, and unworthiness of love.

But the makers of the test were apparently unaware of this potential for confusion, and they even list this as an “easy” question.

For the record, I’ve looked at four books of the Sonnets (the Bush/Harbage Pelican version, the Duncan-Jones Arden version, the Cross/Brooke Yale version), and the Wright/Lamarr Folger version), and none of them provide a clear answer to the question.  Wright and Lamarr give“for staid decorum” for “of settled gravity,” which seems like a bit of a stretch.  This would have to be the “sarcastic” interpretation suggested above.  In their “translation” of the entire sonnet, they seem to equate “reasons of settled gravity” with “prudence.”  I’m not saying this interpretation is wrong, it’s just far from clear.  They don't explain why they reject the plain language interpretation of "settled gravity."

Cross and Brooke simply give "for a grave demeanor" with no further explanation.  So they read the line as "Shall reasons find for a grave demeanor," even though the line says absolutely nothing about demeanor or looks.

Bush and Harbage are more straightforward in acknowledging the ambiguity of the line:  for “of settled gravity” they write:  “for continued coldness (?) “of sufficient weight(?).  I have no idea where they get “coldness" from (or "continued," for that matter).  I still think "agreed upon" is better than "sufficient" for "settled" but I won't quibble -- their “reasons of sufficient weight” option is similar to my reading as suggesting true defects, for which there is good reason not to love the person.

Duncan Jones gives “gravity” as “the mature judgment associated with age” and cites 2H4 (Henry IV Pt. 2) line 1.2.60 (where the Chief Justice says: "There is not a white hair on your face but should have his effect of gravity" and Falstaff responds "His effect of gravy, gravy, gravy." She thinks the sonnet parallels Henry V’s rejection of Falstaff (a different, much later, passage of the same play), and she says:  “Since neither his own love nor that of the young man can be justified, the future cessation of the youth’s affection needs no justification either.” It’s not clear where in the text she is getting the "no justification for cessation" idea from. But it seems inconsistent with the premise of the SAT II question, which is that the speaker is not worthy of love, and that the cessation of love CAN be justified in some way.  It also seems inconsistent with what she just said about "mature judgment." Seriously, it’s hard to tell what she’s saying or where she’s getting it.

So by now you've spent fifteen minutes thinking about it and are no closer to the right answer than you were when you first looked at the problem.  No matter how you look at it, there are problems with BOTH answers.  In your mind you're trying to figure out which one is less wrong, which might well lead you to check "settled gravity," which at least has a chance of being right (and it is consistent with one of the suggestions from Cross and Brooke).  But remember -- if you have to think about it this long, it's because you're thinking of something the question writer didn't think of.   Just check "defects" and move on!

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