|Moses erects the brazen serpent|
to heal the snake-bitten Israelites
Numbers 21:6-9 tells the story of the Israelites getting bitten by fiery serpents. Their cure: a serpent made of brass that Moses affixed to a pole. The bitten could simply look toward the brazen serpent and they would be healed.
I didn't know that story, nor how it could apply to literary study, until I was slogging my way through Shakespeare for the first time in my 9th grade English class at Brighton High School. The teacher, Richard McAllister, had us read Julius Caesar aloud in class. We'd come across a word, like "carrion" and give him that blank stare that only a 14-year old can give.
"Where is your brazen serpent?" he would intone, maybe even looking upward.
We had no idea what he meant. So he would sigh and open the dictionary, read to us that "carrion" meant "dead carcass" and back we'd go to Shakespeare. We'd hit another word like "betimes." Again, the blank stare from us, and again Mr. McAllister sighing and looking up woefully to ask, "Where is your brazen serpent?"
Finally, one of us got brave enough actually to get up, go to the back of the room and consult the huge dictionary from the shelf. "Betimes" meant "at once." Over time, we got better at being "betimes" in seeking the brazen serpents we needed. Going to the effort to consult a worthy source would earn the student what Mr. McAllister called "anti-philistine points." We had to look up "Philistine" to realize getting anti-philistine points was actually a good thing. But we could, now, because we knew at least one reliable brazen serpent to which to turn--the dictionary.
The dictionary is a core source for literary study, but certainly not the only "brazen serpent" to which one may turn. I'd like to introduce just a few.