Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 12, 2011

Suspect Commentary

Consider this a cautionary tale.

Recently, I posted a series of blogs describing portions of a trip my dad and I made to the state of Washington. In the final entry in that series, “By This Distant Northern Sea,” I used the occasion of standing on the northwesternmost point of land on the continental United States as an opportunity to recall some famous poems about the sea. One of the poems was “The Seafarer,” a widely anthologized work in Old English that’s studied in most introductory courses on Anglo-Saxon language and literature. I know, I know: I’d get more traffic on my blog if I would write more about vampires or the lyrics of Justin Bieber or the court proceedings of Lindsay Lohan, but I rather like the irony of using the social media channel to write about things originally recorded with a quill pen on parchment.

Now, more than a week after I posted that article, I received an unusual comment on it. Here’s what the unknown commentator said:

Lines 27-30: The speaker constructs another opposition, one between himself and the comfortable city dweller who puffs himself up with pride and drink. This city person cannot possibly know of the seafarer’s suffering. The wilderness experience of the speaker cannot be translated for the sheltered urban inhabitant. The landlocked man cannot possibly understand the seafarer’s motives; however, like all people, he will eventually be held accountable for his choice of lifestyle. This theme becomes predominant in the poem’s second half.

That’s unusual, to say the least. My blog, like — I assume — every and all sites on the WWW, gets a lot of spam. The administrative function of the WordPress infrastructure alerts me to some likely spam messages in the “comments” section and allows me to determine whether to publish them or delete them as spam. Almost without exception, I delete them. Additionally WordPress automatically deletes a significant volume of messages it identifies as coming from known spammers without my intervention. As I write, the current count of such deleted messages from the 2-year history of UWS is 4,482 that equals 20% of the bona fide hits the site has received; by anyone’s estimate, that’s a lotta spam.

I paused over this one, though. If the content of the message seems plausible, the tiebreaker for my approval/disapproval is the source of the message. In this case, the address of origin was not obviously some phishing site (like,, etc.), or pornographic (many are), or other suspicious malware. The last thing one wants to do is blithely click on one of those Web addresses out of casual curiousity. One could immediately find one’s computer in possession of a virus.

What puzzled me most, though, was the text of the comment. It seemed familiar. I cannot count myself as a scholar of good ol’ Anglo-Saxon. Scholarship demands knowing not only the works themselves — the primary sources — but the secondary literature: criticism and commentary by other scholars. One of the greatest tasks the aspiring scholar in any field faces is mastering this secondary literature, which can be vast in scope if one sets out to study well-known work, regardless of the field, whether it’s the works of Shakespeare or the mathematical theorems of Riemann or the physics of Einstein.

But I had read this before. Nor did it read like something an ordinary person had dashed off as a comment. The language is somewhat stilted and maybe even a little dated: perhaps from the ’50s or ’60s. If it was something I had read (and I have a reasonably good retention of what I read), it most likely would have been in the introductory comments of one of my old Anglo-Saxon texts, a few of which I scanned though before I did that piece on The Seafarer. However, since this blog is a hobby and not my profession, I didn’t really want to invest the time required to read through the commentaries and introductions. I took the easy way out. I pasted that first sentence of the comment into the Google search bar. Why don’t you try it? I invite you to try it. I’ll wait.

If you did that, I know what you found: NUMEROUS exact matches that contain that entire paragraph.  All or nearly all of the hits are “online study guides” which — one deduces — are used by students to crib papers about works they haven’t read or don’t want to take the time to write themselves. (If you didn’t try it yourself, CLICK HERE to see just one of many of these sites that invite plagiarizing.)

Apparently, someone back there in the mists of Internet time lifted this commentary from some scholar’s work. It’s now propagated multiple times into all sorts of online “resources.” (After all, the original writer of that ur-“study guide” was plagiarizing to begin with, so they obviously have no recourse to prevail against others plagiarizing the same work!)

This is a problem that teachers face every day. While we can assume that the greatest percentage of material on the WWW is pornography and another big chunk is worthless political and religious railing of every stripe, there is a vast pool of STUFF that students can copy and paste into their reports on The Causes of the French Revolution or Raw Materials of Peru. It makes me weary to think of the task that teachers face in sorting through the duff that fills their students’ homework to determine which ones have only demonstrated their skill at the copy/paste functions. At the top level, in the halls of Academe, it’s not quite so difficult. There, the instructors ARE, typically, scholars of at least some modest accomplishment, familiar with the secondary sources for their fields. But for the 7th-grade teacher grading the annual Missions of California reports from their students, it’s a daunting task.

I did finally look at the site that posted the plagiarized comment. It was in Spanish, hawking a variety of — I think — various cosmetic cure-alls. It boggles the mind to consider how someone trying to get a link posted in the comments section of Under Western Skies found a blog post about The Seafarer, pasted in some text from one of those study guides, and posted it here. Are there ‘bots so sophisticated that they can do that? Wow.

Be careful what you click on out there. And be careful about believing what you read online. It’s still the Wild West on the WWW, and the Marshall’s all the way up in Dodge. He doesn’t get out here into the back country all that often to keep things in line.

I’ve previously written several articles about the amazing spam that arrives here. For just one of them, CLICK HERE.


  1. Ezra Pound was one of the early writers of what would eventually become known to lazy students of literature as “The Cliff Notes.” But in the early 20th Century, he called them “The Cantos.” No, no just kidding! 🙂

    Actually, I can’t imagine how you could recall that tiny bit of scholarly work about The Seafarer. Guess it must have made quite an impression on you, as I don’t remember the poem at all. Perhaps I was on a little “walkabout” — so to speak — during our English Lit. class.


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