The Muse and the mouse

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Arnold Evans examines the Internet's potential for building links with our literary heritage

When I asked my 17-year old whether he enjoyed Keats, he said: "I don't even know what a keat is." He might be a new Philistine but he does know all the old jokes. The electronic media have been responsible for severing his generation from its cultural roots, but can that same technology be put to the service of our literary heritage as we enter the New Dark Age? Quite simply, is a computer any use to someone who doesn't know what a keat is?

With some trepidation, I turned to the Internet's fabled World Wide Web for answers. It's notoriously anarchic, and can be painfully slow. I was certain there would be something on Keats somewhere, but would I find it before a drowsy numbness pained my sense?

To get the most from the Internet, it's best to start with a "search engine" which will undertake the hard slog on your behalf. I turned, as I invariably do when I'm using the Internet for anything vaguely educational, to RM's Internet for Learning. Incidentally, the Pathways element of that resource is an excellent starting point for teachers in search of resources. The key word "English", for instance, yields 204 discrete topics, every one of which leads effortlessly to dozens, sometimes hundreds of other sites.

At the moment, you don't have to be a subscriber to RM's Internet service to access it, but that is about to change. Get there at once, and do as much pillaging and plundering as you can before RM pulls up the drawbridge.

Using a (run-of-the-mill) 14.4K modem connected to an ordinary (expensive) BT line, it took me 46 seconds to connect to the RM site, and I had to wait for about as long again for the search engine to come up with its list of 10 sites to do with Keats.

Of course, a list on the Internet is something special. It's in hypertext, so every item contains a "hotspot": ie, press on it, and you're transported directly to the site without having to bother with those complex addresses, or even know where you are being taken.

I could have seen and downloaded Keats's portrait, looked at his journal, read his biography, or rushed off to the much larger list of Keats links stored on a computer in British Columbia. This, in turn, could have taken me to the British Museum where I could have accessed a facsimile of "Ode to a Nightingale", and downloaded an audio file of a nightingale to check whether it did indeed sing of summer in full-throated ease.

But I had no time for such indulgence, so instead I accessed the list of poems which are on line. I would guess that his entire works are there, but I quickly selected my favourite sonnet which took 11 seconds to download. It was less than four minutes since I'd started my search and I had "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" on the screen in front of me.

"Miraculous" is a much abused word in the credulous world of information technology, but it can sometimes seem singularly appropriate when using the Internet. You do feel like stout Cortez silent upon a peak in Darien gazing at the Pacific for the first time or like an awed watcher of the skies when some new planet swims into his ken.

It's usual to praise the Internet because it's interactive - don't ask what the Internet can do for you, but what you can do for it. The decent citizens of cyberspace are all earnestly contributing to the common good by participating in news groups and setting up their own Web pages. Unless you have world enough and time for such altruism, don't feel under any obligation to join them. Honestly, it is more blessed to receive than to give. Regard the Internet simply as a magnificent gift of free resources that are there for the taking.

To have an inkling of what is available, take a peep at Yahoo. It is one of the Internet's many compendious (but inevitably incomplete) "lists of lists". Visit Yahoo and you will find that every major English poet is represented on the Internet every bit as well as Keats and many - Blake, for instance - far better. Shakespeare is almost as popular with Netties as Star Trek (and, incidentally, Sonnet 87 has been translated into Klingon). There are critical and biographical works on the great novelists,and often, as in the case ofPride and Prejudice, complete editions of the novels with hypertext annotations.

Media studies teachers, of course, are spoiled for choice with comprehensive databases on movies, television, comics and multimedia. More than 200 newspapers from around the world have electronic editions. These include our own Daily Telegraph, The Times and Sunday Times, which are actually better in some respects than the paper-based versions. For instance, they have facilities which allow you to search for the subjects and issues of relevance to the curriculum.

Everything you read on-line can be quickly and easily saved to the hard disc, printed, duplicated and distributed to a class. This falls far short of the romantic notion of pupils being free to follow their own instincts and enthusiasm as they surf the Net. But if the school can only afford a single modem, using it simply to harvest free resources is one certain way of making sure it pays its way.

"Floating in black nothingness suspended in time motionless trapped."

Although those lines are not actually about the Internet, they are a pretty fair description of what it can be like when things go disastrously wrong. (They frequently do, which is a good reason for never making it an indispensable element in your lesson plans.) They are written by Hayden Sawicki and Martin Rafferty, pupils at Mereway Middle School, Northamptonshire. I was able to read their poem on the Internet because the school has its own Web pages.

This service, which RM provides free to its subscribers, offers a remarkable new medium for publishing pupils' art and written work. With hand on heart, the teacher can promise the class a potential audience of over 40 million readers - enough to awaken the most lethargic Muse. Even without a Web site, pupils can contribute to dozens of electronic magazines, many intended solely for children's work, others specialising in every conceivable genre.

None of this need involve too much disruption to normal lessons or a massive phone bill. Pupils simply word-process their contributions off-line, and these can then be e-mailed to the appropriate Web site when the teacher has a spare moment.

Of course, when the pupils' work does appear, they will want to see it in all its glory. Although there might not be time to give them more than a fleeting glimpse of what else is published on the Internet, children should have the chance to visit Yahoo and to discover for themselves what it feels like to be a stout Cortez. Given longer, one of them might even find out what a keat is.

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