Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Month: April 2017

“Is it Paris?” Literal and Figurative Language: How to Read Poetry Step 5

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Long view of Eiffel Tower on a sunny day, from the end of Trocadero Fountain takes in some of the city. A student thought Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" country might be here.

Where is Yeats’s “country” in “Sailing to Byzantium”? Is it Paris?

“Sailing to Byzantium”: Where, or What, is Yeats’s  Country?

Black and white profile photo of older man with a mustache, with his chin resting on his hands.

A man in the winter of life.

My freshman Literature and Composition class was discussing Yeats’s strange, beautiful, and very intellectual poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” (Click here to read it first.)  We were just starting on the first stanza, tackling these lines:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

There is a lot of life-filled imagery packed into these lines—lovers, waterfalls full of fish and trees full of birds—as well as a huge serving of abstract language (see Step 4) that covers absolutely everything alive: “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” But where are we? I asked my class, “What is the country that is not for old men? What does Yeats mean here?”

No one would speak for a few beats. Clearly they had no clue. Then suddenly a daring young woman in the back row looked up with a light in her eye: “I’m not sure—but is it Paris?”

There were some problems with her theory, but how could I explain? They do say that Paris is for lovers, so perhaps Paris might qualify as a place where Yeats would think that “old men” are not comfortable. But are there salmon? I have read that salmon are making a comeback in the Seine river, though I’m not sure whether they can be glimpsed swimming along the Left Bank.

But the mistake this student made in her interpretation was not simply choosing the wrong geographical location. She was failing to distinguish between literal and figurative language. To understand poetry, or indeed, any text, readers have to distinguish between words that mean exactly what the dictionary would say they mean, and language that means something very different from what it literally says. Continue reading

Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”: the Allegory that Wasn’t

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Book plate from an 1849 book on American History shows crowd of Pilgrims looking humorously self-satisfied. Like Hawthorne's view, this artist's view of Pilgrims was not entirely positive.

Pilgrim figures as imagined in 1849. Like Hawthorne, this artist did not see the Pilgrims as entirely positive.*

1917 Photo of Street in Salem, Massachusetts, suggesting what the town might have looked like in Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown's day. Photo shows treelined street with New England 2-story style houses on left of the street. Black and White.

1917 Photo of Street in Salem, Massachusetts, suggesting what the town might have looked like in Goodman Brown’s day.*

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details will be mentioned. You may want to read the story first, if you haven’t already: “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835.

Everyone who’s ever had a class on this story knows that Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is an allegory, right? In an allegory, everything in the story stands for something else. Onto every character and many of the objects, we can pin a definite alternate meaning, an idea or a type of person or moral rule. In Hawthorne’s allegory, readers can enjoy picking out how Goodman Brown represents an ordinary, naïve young man, a newlywed who has always believed what adults have told him was true. His wife Faith represents his Puritan religious faith–of course,  since her name is “Faith” after all, and she wears those innocent pink ribbons in her hair.

The mysterious man Brown meets in the forest must be the Devil, even though he resembles Brown’s grandfather, because he carries a staff that seems to morph into a snake. Brown’s journey into the dark pathless wood at midnight to meet this man must represent the temptation to engage in some unspecified evil behavior. When Brown discovers that his innocent wife is in the evil forest too, he completely loses his faith/Faith and turns to the dark side. He discovers in the process that everyone he has ever known, even revered family and religious leaders, has already joined up with the devil. This rude awakening to the evil that is present in every person sours him completely on humanity. He lives henceforth a misanthropic and sour judgmental man.

What is the Moral of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”?

Nathaniel Hawthorne portrait by Charles Osgood

Nathaniel Hawthorne portrait by Charles Osgood*

Simple  allegories, like Aesop’s fables, have a moral, or a clear meaning. What,then, is the moral of this one?  Maybe the moral is: don’t flirt with the dark side or you might get in so deep you can’t get out. OR maybe the moral is kind of the opposite: we all have foibles, so just accept people as they are and don’t be so judgmental. Which one is it?

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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Emotional Tone and Kinds of Language in “Snowy Evening”: Understanding Poetry Step 4

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Scene shows woman at right in red jacket admiring a blue lake down in a canyon.

Similar to the speaker in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” this lonely person pauses to admire a spectacular natural scene.

So far I’ve urged you to wade in to a poem slowly, taking time to imagine and experience the images and the situation described. When do we begin to understand and think about the meaning, the bigger ideas, in the poem?  Right now.

Emotional Tone

Let’s take a second look at Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” here.  While focusing on the poem’s imagery in Step 3, you have probably been sensing the speaker’s mood all along.  But now, let’s pause and get a fuller sense of the emotional tone of the poem, and how it uses both concrete and abstract language.  Think first about what the speaker seems to feel and also what the text seems designed to make readers feel.

This poem’s lovely but stark imagery conveys a sense of awe at the scene’s beauty, but also loneliness and un-humanness. It is the “darkest evening of the year.” The mentioned village seems to be far from this unpopulated spot. The speaker is very attracted to this lonely scene and wishes to linger (he is “stopping” after all); yet apparently this stop is untypical for him. He feels a sense of tension and trespass, since he mentions the owner who won’t be able to see him, and senses the horse’s confusion and impatience at this unusual stop.

Snowy forest with rough road passing into its depths, showing two tracks of vehicles. Reminiscent of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Frost’s speaker travels a lonely path next to a snowy forest.

Taking in the emotional tone, we can now notice points where the poem’s word choices shift from concrete to abstract language. The appearance of abstract language is an important signal for readers to start thinking about what the poem means, not just bask in the experience of sound and imagery.

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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William Faulkner’s Literary Acrobatics: A Look at “A Rose for Emily”

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Photo of William Faulkner posing against a brick wall, by Carl Van Vechten

William Faulkner. By Carl Van Vechten*

In his famous piece of short fiction “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner writes under seven pages to cover over 50 years of an unusual woman’s life, along with the mystery of a strange crime, and what her fellow townspeople thought about it all. Even more amazing, this small gem of a story asks important philosophical questions about how much we can really know about other people, and why we invent stories about folks to fill in the blanks, usually without realizing we are making things up. All this in under seven pages? How does Faulkner do it?

“A Rose for Emily” is intriguing not only for its characters, its grisly plotline, and its themes; it is a showcase for Faulkner’s consummate literary acrobatics. Let’s take a closer look.

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details will be mentioned. You may want to read the story first, if you haven’t already.

You may have read “A Rose for Emily” in high school. A lot of my students had. Nobody forgets the end of the story, the big revelation that Miss Emily had murdered her Yankee lover (who was about to leave her) and spent years sleeping next to his rotting corpse. Creep factor is definitely high enough to merit the oft-awarded descriptor “Southern Gothic.” However, this isn’t the part that stuns me the most. What amazes me is how complex, interesting, and thoughtfully composed this little tale is.

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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Experience Imagery: The Easiest Step in Understanding Poetry (Step 3)

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View of a snowy forest in the evening, tall ghostly trees, snow on the ground, no people in sight.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

Don’t Jump Too Fast to “What the Poem Means”

Reading literature, especially poetry, is more than deciphering words; it is a mental experience. Therefore, don’t be too quick to sum up what any poem “means” or “what the poet is trying to say.” Jumping too fast to some theme or main idea of a poem is a sure way to miss much of the value of reading poetry, and possibly the meaning, too. Certainly we will come to analyzing ideas and meanings, but not just yet.

First, go on in to the poem; read it through a couple of times, and walk around in it for a little while. Where are you? What do you hear, see, taste, touch or feel, and smell? Language that depicts an experience of any of the five senses is called “imagery.” Dwell a bit on the imagery of the poem to create the poem’s setting in your mind, and to experience the situation or drama of the poem along with the poem’s speaker (the word we use for a narrator of a poem).

Let’s practice with one of my favorite poems, great for beginning readers of poetry, yet with plenty of big ideas for more experienced readers: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. You can read it here.

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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How Not to Be at Sea about the Author, Era, and Situation of a Poem: Understanding Poetry Step 2

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Photo of Shakespeare Cliff at Dover Beach by John Mavin* shows the rocky strand in the foreground and the tall white chalk cliff in the background.

Shakespeare Cliff at Dover Beach by John Mavin*

When I was new at teaching college literature, I assigned Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” for the first lesson in Literature and Composition because, naively, I thought it would be simple and transparent for students to understand. Ha! I was soon to learn that most people who come to this poem with no sense of cultural, historical, or geographical context are pretty thoroughly baffled by it.

That’s why I recommend finding out just a little bit about a poem’s author and era before you wade in. By looking up some minimal information about Matthew Arnold and his era, as well as investigating the meaning of the title, as we did in Step 1, we will see how a little bit of knowledge goes a long way toward helping us “find our feet” in the world of a new poem.

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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Why Does “Jane Eyre” Still Matter?

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Black and White movie still showing Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine as Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre, 1943*

Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine as Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre, 1943*

Readers still love Charlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre—and why not? The novel has every quality needed for total story immersion: a sympathetic heroine in plain, mistreated, brilliant, independent Jane; a dashing mysterious sexy romantic lead in Mr. Rochester; a spooky Gothic atmosphere and a chilling mystery; a host of villains in Aunt and John Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Blanche Ingram, and more; aides to the heroine, such as Helen, Mrs. Fairfax, and Jane’s  cousins Mary and Diana; moral temptations, thrills, fires, courageous escapes, sorrow, and suspense. But beyond joyful immersion in a wonderful, well-told story, why would readers return to it again and again? Is it just a pretty romance? Today, Jane’s moral dilemmas and particular set of problems seem outmoded; so why does Jane Eyre still matter, in a more serious intellectual sense?

More than just a fun read, Jane Eyre is a subtle, intelligent discussion of the difficulty of choosing among competing value systems. What values and principles should underpin our choices in life? What forces motivate us to choose and adhere to one set of values over another? These are the important questions Jane Eyre asks us to consider. We watch Jane struggle with these questions, and gain insight into how we struggle with values of our own. That is why Jane Eyre still matters.

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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Four Qualities that Make Great Literature Special

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Picture of live oak tree on the bank of the Cane River. Classic literature is like this beautiful Live Oak tree in Natchitoches, Louisiana: it lasts for hundreds of years, growing in beauty and complexity every time someone regards it.

Classic literature is like this beautiful Live Oak tree in Natchitoches, Louisiana: it lasts for hundreds of years, growing in beauty and complexity every time someone regards it.*

If you are an avid reader, I clasp you to my heart, whatever and why ever you are reading—for pleasure, escape, knowledge, social concerns. There are a myriad of good, and  even mediocre, books and poetry that can keep us entertained, or give us vicarious experiences of  unknown places and times, or inform our opinions on social issues.

But what I am here to advocate, and why I have started this site, is that Classic Literature—truly Great Literature—is something different, something especially worth treasuring, preserving, learning about, experiencing, re-reading, and pondering. The experience, the grace given to the mind and soul, is a larger, higher experience than that offered by the average popular novel or poem or drama, well-crafted though each may be.

Devoted readers of the Classics know this from experience, yet defining the exact qualities that make a piece of literature “Great” is never easy. Not that many lovers of literature haven’t tried. In a future post, I’ll tell you about some writers who have said things about classic literature that I find  persuasive. But let me take my own preliminary stab at it here. My main purpose in this post is to start a discussion in a forum here on the site about what makes classic literature great, and what it gives to readers that most books can’t.  So here goes!

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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