This paper first appeared in Teaching Perspectives, Spring 2004, pp. 2-3.

The objects of this particular series of teaching strategies, which I use in the third year Advanced Reading course, are

  1. to demonstrate how to read in depth;
  2. to demonstrate how perception changes, across languages, for each student;
  3. to show the difficulty of trying to reproduce, in words, a visible world; and
  4. to develop a series of links between topics of increasing importance and difficulty.

I begin by writing the word amarillo on the board. The students happily tell me that amarillo means yellow. I then ask each student in turn to explain what they understand by amarillo / yellow. Describing a colour is surprisingly difficult, especially in another language, so we soon resort to describing the colour of things that are yellow: Evening Grosbeaks, American Goldfinches, Yellow Canaries, the eye of a daisy, the moon, sunshine etc.

It does help to have relatively small classes for this exercise, because then I can work with individuals and help develop their conversational language skills. In a larger class, this work will be done in groups (little or no individual correction), and the groups will report back to the class. Group work is relatively easy to set up, of course, but individual contact between student and teacher is lost when group work dominates; as a result, language contact tends to be more inter-active and peer driven, but much less accurate.

When we have almost exhausted this exercise, I give to each student a copy of Hola, the glossy Spanish society magazine. There is always a flurry of interest and activity whenever Hola appears. Students read the cartoons, look at the many and wonderful pictures, read the headlines of the stories, admire the glossy advertisements ...

But on this occasion, I ask them to scan Hola and keep a record of the pages on which the colour yellow appears. In an eighty page Hola, there are usually thirty or forty shades, tints, hues of yellow, and when the students have understood the incredible richness of the colours grasped by the camera and transferred to the human eye, we turn to a brief description of how colours are composed on the computer screen and of just how many colours the computer can actually reproduce. There is generally someone in the class who understands the colour process better than I do and this, of course, always gives the group a good feeling!

Now we move to the central point and I circulate Juan Ramón Jiménez’s poem Primavera amarilla / Yellow Spring to the students. Here it is, in my own translation:

    Yellow Spring

    April arrived full of yellow flowers ...
    The stream was yellow, the path was yellow,
    and the hill, and the children’s graves
    and the orchard where love used to live.

    The sun anointed the world with the yellow
    of its fallen rays. There were gilded lilies
    and aureate water, warm and sparkling.
    Yellow butterflies perched on yellow roses.

    Yellow garlands climbed yellow trees.
    Daylight was a gift of golden perfume
    in a glistening awakening of life.
    Amongst the bones of the dead,
    God was opening his yellow hands.

The next task is to place the poem, in Spanish, but side by side with one or more English translations, on a Bristol Board. Around the edges of the Bristol Board we place all the swatches of yellow that we have by now cut out from Hola with a scissors. We organize these colours and place them in roughly the same order that we find them on a computer colour template. Then we attach a thin thread from each of the sixteen occurrences of the word amarillo / yellow, or its synonyms (gold, golden, gilded, aureate) to the colour on our swatches that we imagine it to be.

Then we re-ask the initial question: what does amarillo mean? But we no longer get the same answer. Light breaks where no light shines and smiles light up the classroom.

In terms of the linkage of progressively more difficult topics, there are several printed variants to this poem. An additional exercise, at a higher level of stylistic analysis, asks students to determine the amount of golden and yellow light which is shed in each of the variants. This exercise leads into the de-construction and re-construction of the poetic text and from there to the roots of poetic creativity and manuscript revision: why did the poet choose version A not version B for his final text? What differentiates the two versions? From here, we can move into other poems and passages of prose that express the colour yellow. And from yellow we can move into other colours of the spectrum.

“Intelijencia,” Juan Ramón Jiménez once wrote, “Dame el nombre exacto de las cosas.” / “Intelligence: give me the exact name for things.” From here, if the moment is ripe, we can move to the poet’s search for le mot juste, la palabra exacta, the right word in the right place at the right time. This in turn can lead into a discussion on the current poverty of language and the need for students to develop language skills in their own mother tongue. This search, in turn, can lead us into the logical positivism of A. J. Ayer and into Bertrand Russell’s ideas on the meaning of meaning.

Or, it can be followed by an introduction, however brief, to the philosophical roots of early twentieth century Spanish literature. These are described by Basilio de Pablos [El tiempo en la poesía de Juan Ramón Jiménez. Madrid: Gredos. 1965: 76-77] as the influence of Western philosophy as it flows from Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas to Leibniz’s “being who is capable of action” and the “se faisant” human of Bergson, from whom we arrive at the “possibilities of being” of those Existentialist philosophers [Scheler, Jaspers, Heidegger], for whom humans rather than existing, do and create.

This act of creation, or in the case of Juan Ramón Jiménez, the poet’s recognition of, and attempt to recapture, the creations of the divine creator, leads back to the old Platonic idea of the participation of the Supreme Being in the structure of universal beauty: a theme which is omnipresent and ubiquitous in the creative work of Juan Ramón Jiménez, the Spanish Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1956).

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