Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Category: Thoughts on the Greats (page 1 of 2)

Posts featuring thoughts and ideas about famous authors and works.

How to Read American Modernist Literature from Our New Reading List

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Kandinsky's abstract image in bright pinks, yellow, whites, and greens is a good parallel to the freer written forms of American Modernist literature.

Kandinsky’s 27-Garden of Love. This image was printed on the postcard commemorating the Armory Show of 1913, the art show that introduced Modern Art to the American public.

What is American Literary Modernism?

When most people hear the term “Modern Art,” certain styles and images spring to mind: Cubism and the lyrical fundamental forms of Picasso, abstract lines and child-like bright colors of Kandinsky or Miro, the raw emotional expressionism of Munch in “The Scream.”

But how do the tenets of Modernism translate to literature? In honor of the unveiling of our new American Modernist Literature Reading List, covering American literature from 1915 – 1945, let’s touch on some of the qualities we’ll find in the works on that list—things like rejection of older forms of literature, invention and experimentation with new forms, minimalism and pastiche, streams of consciousness in narrative, impressionism and subjectivism, a new interest in primitive art and forms of belief, and a drive to make reality appear “new” and “strange.”

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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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All Kinds of Poems About Love

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Close-up of spray of brilliant pink bleeding heart flowers (shaped like hearts with white drop coming out of the bottom of bloom)

The blooms called “Bleeding Hearts.” Apt image for Love?

Wrestling with love–the falling, the feeling, and the losing–has probably sent more pens to paper than any other topic.  With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, It’s the perfect time to spend half an hour of shivers, sighs, and tears to savor some of our great poems about Love. In this post I’ll share some of my favorites from different poets and eras that offer multiple perspectives on “la grande passion.” If, however, no lucky star presides over your love life right now, and Valentine’s Day finds you in no mood to celebrate, despair not. A couple of selections here may just suit your mood.

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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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Happy Christ-tide: Milton’s Nativity Ode

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Painting showing Nativity of Christ. Baby in manger center bottom, Mary and Joseph with folded hands behind and to left and right of baby. Small angels kneeling in foreground.

The Nativity of Christ by Francesco Francia. c. 1490.

By Guest Writer David E. Miller

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” affectionately called The Nativity Ode, is John Milton’s first great poem. The Nativity Ode is an elaborate carol1  that describes how the world, sinful and ashamed, became the reluctant site of Christ’s birth.  The poem begins and ends peacefully but contains a surprising, violent commotion in the middle, when all the shrines to pagan gods are paradoxically destroyed by the mere presence of a defenseless baby—Jesus. Such a startling combination of sensuous and shocking images could drown out more lightweight songs like “Frosty the Snowman” that radio stations play on a loop this time of year.

These days, not many people know much of, let alone have read Milton, the poet who wrote the famous work Paradise Lost. Some background: Milton lived from 1608 to 1674. Following the generation of great writers led by Shakespeare, he would have only been 7 years old when Shakespeare died in 1616. Milton was only 21 when he wrote The Nativity Ode.

Let’s take a closer look at this important writer’s first great poem.  You can read The Nativity Ode here. 

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David Elias Miller graduated from Miami University (Oxford, OH) with an M.A. in English Literature. A “cultural conservative” who sees great literature as an inheritance, not a problem to be deconstructed by cultural, gender, or other theoretical studies, David is setting a career path outside the university in the non-profit sector while continuing to learn and enjoy literature as a personal passion.

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Vintage Christmas Poems: Ringing In Hopes for Peace

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Photo shows more than a dozen small brass bells on gold cords with red bows above them.

Christmas Bells: longing to ring in the new!

It’s Christmas season for many folk who practice Western classic traditions, a time that used to inspire many a sentimental poet’s pen. Therefore, it’s the perfect time to dip into this sampler of formerly famous poems about Christmas, written in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Currently popular seasonal songs often focus on jollity, mistletoe, and “ho, ho, ho,” but poets who have written about Christmas are far from naïve about the state of the world. Often they struggle to affirm their faith that the birth of Jesus indeed portends ultimate redemption for a troubled globe.

Though the style of these partially forgotten poems may seem vintage, some of the sentiments may surprise you by their modernity. Even if Christmas is not part of your tradition, you may still find these poems of interest for the sentiments that apply to all humans, not just Christians alone.

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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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Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: All of America in a Blade of Grass

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Little girl wearing white lacy summer dress lying on green grass with long red hair spread out.

“A child said ‘What is the grass?’fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child?”*

In Whitman’s sweet and stunning poem Song of Myself,  first published in 1855, grass becomes the overarching symbol for the people of the new democratic America: common, plentiful, vigorous, and every one precious. Each time I read this work again, I am inspired, joyful, puzzled yet enlarged, and uplifted. I know of no other poem expressing such total love and acceptance for every kind of person, especially common American working people, embracing every kind of human experience, even every aspect of creation and the universe, from vegetation to animals to the cosmos.

However, not every reader has this experience when first attempting this strange and beautiful, yet down-to-earth, poem. Though written using everyday vocabulary completely free of traditional poetic structures, this poem may at first seem odd or hard to decipher.  For, as Robert Haas, critic and editor of Whitman’s work has written, “It was then and is now an astonishment, perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. It is also an important document in the history of American culture.”

I would like every reader to have access to this remarkable multi-faceted, landmark work. Walk with me a while and let me see if I can share some ideas that will help orient you toward understanding and enjoyment of Song of Myself.

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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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News! New Reading List on America’s Gilded Age Literature

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Wide-angle photograph showing entire elevation of Biltmore mansion, near Asheville, NC. In the style of a French chateau.

From America’s Gilded Age: The Biltmore Mansion was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet.

Special Announcement! Now available on Readgreatliterature.com: a new reading list covering American literature from the “Gilded Age,” the period from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the beginning of WW I in 1914. Click HERE to see the new reading list—but before you click, you might want to take a moment to read in this post about three important literary trends that happened during these years: Regionalism, Realism, and American Naturalism.

What is the Gilded Age?

First, what is the Gilded Age? These years between the ending of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of WW I in 1914 ushered sweeping changes into American life and culture: rapid industrialization, large numbers of people moving from the country into cities, an explosion in immigration numbers (over 20 million immigrants between 1880 and 1920), increasing wealth, and pursuit of material success shown through conspicuous consumption. The era got its name from The Gilded Age, a novel published in 1873 by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The novel satirized greed and political corruption that suddenly seemed more common in American life than it had before.

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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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Blown About by Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

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B & W Still Photo of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy in 1939 film Wuthering Heights.

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy in 1939 film Wuthering Heights.*

Note: A few Plot Spoilers!

Wuthering Heights is often billed as a love story, and portrayed sentimentally in old film versions. But readers who come to Wuthering Heights expecting a grand love story won’t just be disappointed; they’ll be shocked. Right from Chapter 1, when readers encounter the Wuthering Heights family for the first time, following alongside the prissy, citified sentimentalist newcomer Lockwood, they are plunged directly into a whirlwind of primitive, raw, elemental emotions. Love is there, though not easily recognizable, along with unbounded vitality and lust for life–but also hatred, selfishness, derision, cruelty, vengefulness. What makes this stormy story a classic, and in the end, believe it or not, a truly uplifting read?

Foremost, Wuthering Heights is a realistically observed, elegantly written work about flawed, often dislikable, yet very powerful people, enough in itself to make it interesting, even informative. More than that: Wuthering Heights is a book about Big Ideas. Emily Brontë’s novel challenges readers to re-frame every common assumption about Love and Hate, Mercy and Revenge, Life and Death, Heaven and Hell. One function of great art is to enable people to witness painful realities and strange ideas by making them in some way beautiful, thus granting us a larger perspective from which to view and consider. And Wuthering Heights does precisely that, making it a work of art on more than one level.

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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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Ten Reasons Why Readers Love (and Sometimes Hate!) Dickens’s Bleak House

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B & W Illustration from Bleak House by H. K. Brown showing wards in Jarndyce meeting Miss Flite.

The Wards in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce meet Miss Flite*

 

Charles Dickens is known for his comedy as well as his social criticism and reformist temper, so when readers pick up most Dickens novels, they look forward to gaining hope and laughter along with their tears. However, the title of what many critics say is Dickens’s best novel, Bleak House, sounds pretty discouraging to new readers. “Bleak” can mean stark, bare, exposed, charmless, dreary, or without hope. What could possibly be cheerful or hopeful about a Bleak House? And yet, for over 160 years, readers from many different backgrounds have loved and praised this novel. Why?

Photo of Bleak House, Broadstairs, Kent, on which Dickens modeled fictional Bleak House

The Original Bleak House Dickens used as model for the fictional one. Is Bleak House Really Bleak?*

I can think of at least ten reasons people love Bleak House—strangely, the same reasons a few readers have hated it! Ultimately, though, most readers discover that Bleak House is not bleak at all, but rather ends with encouraging light and wisdom for all people who are oppressed by unjust systems gone out of control.

Here’s my list. Note: this book is so rich, not even ten reasons can cover all its events and characters. I’m saving my two favorite reasons to love Bleak House for last!

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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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Wordsworth Revisited: Can Nature Renew Us?

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Close-up of golden daffodils "fluttering and dancing in the breeze"

“A host of golden daffodils. . . / Fluttering and Dancing in the Breeze”*

Many of us are feeling that “The World is Too Much With Us” these days, as a famous sonnet by William Wordsworth puts it. We are downcast by politics gone awry or a general lack of civility in our public discourse. Where can we turn when, as Wordsworth put it in 1798, “. . . [t]he fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, / Have hung upon the beatings of my heart”? As a central figure in the revolutionary English Romantic movement in art and poetry, Wordsworth did more than analyze the ills of a rapidly modernizing society. His beautiful, meditative poetry suggests one possible therapy for sick souls in a frenzied world: communing with Nature.

“Bathing” in Forests: Wordsworth New Again?

If sitting around contemplating the trees sounds silly, old-fashioned, or simplistic, consider that studies are now revealing the positive effects of “Forest Bathing.” See this Washington Post article for more information on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, which means to spend time strolling quietly through a natural forest, now shown to aid both physical and mental health. If people are learning anew that spending time with trees is good for you, a fresh look at some old poems celebrating the benefits of nature might reveal a surprisingly fresh message.

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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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Pied Piety: Herbert and Hopkins Celebrate God’s Paradoxes

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Brilliant blue dragonfly perched on a green blade flashes iridescent colors.

Dragonfly wings flash iridescent colors into the eyes of beholders, an apt image of the divine diversity Hopkins perceived throughout God’s creation.

Born 250 years apart, George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins are two English Christian devotional poets who conceived of God and their own walks of faith quite similarly. Both men of passionate faith, Herbert and Hopkins saw God in every aspect of created Nature, depicting it richly in their poetry. Their poems also make use of nature to convey the multiform aspects they perceived within God’s character: light and dark, sweet and sour, life and death. Their work celebrates God’s divine diversity. It also acknowledges paradoxes in people’s experience of God and the world: ecstasy and depression, obedience and rebellion, love and fear.

These ideas may sound heavy and complex, but paradoxically, the poems of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins are delightful to read. They are full of beautiful sounds, imagery, and surprising comparisons that burst pleasurably upon the mind, like solutions to beautiful riddles.

Let’s take a closer look at two brief poems by each author. Prepare to appreciate the paradoxical!

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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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