Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

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Four Themes in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? And in the end, why would a modern reader want to read it? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost, and makes the case for plunging in to this magnificent work.

Miss Part I? Click here to start at the beginning.

Paradise Lost Part II

As discussed in the post “Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost,” this magnificent epic tale tells the story of how Satan tempts Adam and Eve to disobey God and lose their place in paradise. In that post, you can read about the historical background behind the great poem, and how each major character helps Milton make his case for the existence of individual liberty.

Here, I will take up that theme in more detail, along with three other ideas that Milton promotes throughout the poem. It’s not surprising that such a vast work expresses more than just one big idea. Let’s take a look at four major themes I see in Paradise Lost.

And then, some words about why you would want to read it.

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Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost depicts the same episode from Genesis as this painting, showing God rebuking Adam and Eve for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve. Painting by Charles Joseph Natoire, 1740.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost Part I

Part II HERE

Voices in Paradise Lost

Some authors become their characters. Charles Dickens is a conspicuous example. Reading a Dickens novel is like watching a one-man play. It’s as if, in the mind’s eye, Dickens himself does all of the voices and each antic and somber gesture.

But not all authors become their characters. Sometimes it’s more like the characters become their author, by becoming spokespersons for his different points of view. In the case of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667/1674), the characters we meet—Adam, Eve, even Satan–are various adaptations of Milton the man. Like Milton, they all have rich intellects and strong reasoning skills. They all are persuasive and utterly committed to their causes.

But more than that, just as did Milton the English citizen, all the major characters place great importance on individual freedom.

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Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge: Book Club, Meet Classic!

Book Club, Meet Classic

Book Club, Meet Classic

My neighborhood book club has read many contemporary works, but what happened when they agreed to read a classic, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge?

It was the night of my neighborhood book club meeting, and I was nervous.

The club usually reads and discusses contemporary genre fiction and bestselling nonfiction. In recent months we had discussed Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, Lansing’s Endurance, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad,  Bohjalian’s Sandcastle Girls (a love story set in Syria at the time of the Armenian Genocide), Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife (based on the Anne Morrow Lindbergh story), Mundy’s Code Girls (on the role women played in codebreaking in WW II), and more.

But this time was different. This time I had persuaded them to read a classic. Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, published in 1886, was to be the one.

The club members are smart people with rich career backgrounds who love to read, and they read a lot; but no one was in the habit of reading older works. Great works from earlier times often differ enough from current writing to make the reading experience significantly different.

How would they respond to a work written not just about an earlier time, but in an earlier time?

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Reading the Renaissance: English Literature from 1485-1660

Painting of Queen Elizabeth shows her from the waist up, reddish hair in elaborate close waves, wearing elaborate Elizabethan gown with lace, gold, pearls, and gems.

Queen Elizabeth I, portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, essence of the English Renaissance era..

From its beginnings during the 14th century, Renaissance ideas based on classical learning and a focus on all things human–including art, literature, culture, and politics–spread from Italy throughout Europe. Luckily for today’s lovers of English literature, when the Renaissance came to England, it inspired a flowering of magnificent English literature throughout the 15th and 16th centuries that readers still revere and thrill to read today.

This Renaissance era in England (also known as the Early Modern Period), from about 1485-1660, is freighted with famous writers and treasured texts. Spenser, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton, Donne, and the incomparable William Shakespeare are just a few names that appear on the Renaissance Writer Roll of Honor.

You can find out about the best-known works of these and many other Renaissance English writers by checking out our literary timelines focusing on Renaissance English Literature, HERE:

Tudor/Sixteenth Century Early Modern Literature, 1485-1603.

Jacobian/Early Seventeenth Century Early Modern Literature, 1603-1660

Before you dive in to the great works of the English Renaissance, take a few minutes  here  to read some background on Renaissance life and literature. It will help you understand, appreciate, and enjoy these beautiful, enduring works in the Western tradition.

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For Valentine’s Day: Reprise for Great Love Poems

Artist pose-able wooden figure rolls stuffed red heart toward mini caravan: Take a quick trip back down Love's highways and byways: re-sample "All Kinds of Poems About Love."

Take a quick trip back down Love’s highways and byways: re-sample “All Kinds of Poems About Love.”

Valentine’s Day is upon us again. Whatever the state of your love life, I invite you to celebrate the day by taking a look back at one of my favorite posts from the past: “All Kinds of Poems About Love.” Click for a quick walk down memory lane.

Whether Cupid has been kind or not-so-kind to you this year, even if “Love” is a concept you are in the mood to reject, everyone can find just the poem to suit the mood in this post. We hope you enjoy taking another stroll through Cupid’s garden to sample all kinds of poems about love, here on Read Great Literature.

Pink plate showing several candy hearts with messages: Valentine Candy Heart message: Read some Great Literature about love!

Valentine Candy Heart message: Read some Great Literature about love!

Photos from Pexels.com. Candy heart photo by Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush from Pexels

Reading Middle Ages English Literature from our List

Middle Ages Tapestry depicting many folk in period dress with dogs and spears ready to hunt bear and boar.

Boar and Bear Hunt, from Devonshire Hunting Tapestries in V & A Museum, late 1420s.

Now available on Read Great Literature: an annotated listing of the best literature from the English Middle Ages.

Click here to take a look at the best and most famous works from the Middle Ages. Pick out something new to read, or just enjoy learning something about the major works and authors from the very beginnings of literature written in English!

Before you click, however, take a minute to read this post for some great background on Middle Ages English Literature.

First, this!

When you read Middle Ages English literature, you will encounter a lot of firsts:

  • First major poem written in the English language (The Canterbury Tales)
  • First autobiography written in English (The Book of Marjory Kempe)
  • The oldest book known to have been written in English by a woman (Revelations of Divine Love).

You will also encounter many kinds of writing:

  • Compendiums of tales and stories
  • Chivalric romances recounting Knightly adventures
  • Tales of courtly love and love laments
  • Devotional writing
  • Mystery and Morality plays, some serious but more often funny
  • Philosophical and social critique
Beautiful stained glass in shades of brown and blue depicting author William Langland, reclining in contemplation near a brook.

Author William Langland depicted in stained glass, Church of St Mary the Virgin in Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire.

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Dickens Talk: A Fun Conversation on Social Media

Color photo up close: smartphone screen showing social media icons, Facebook in center.

Classic literature comes to Social Media

If you are a Facebook member, you may have seen this challenge going around on people’s Timelines: a friend nominates you to post the cover of a book that is significant for you, one book cover for each of seven days—just the cover, with (I quote) “No Explanation.” With my reputation for loving books, it’s not surprising that this challenge came around to me. With my penchant for talking about books, it’s also not surprising that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut (or my keyboard silent) to follow the “No Explanation” rule.

In short, I explained.

I commented briefly on why I chose David Copperfield as one of my “significant to me” book selections. I’m glad I did, because the comment gave rise to a fun and interesting conversation about Dickens with several of my friends.

This was so much fun, I wanted to share it with my blog readers as well. My friends kindly gave me permission to post our Dickens chat here, just to show how much fun it can be to have shared experience and love of a classic author. Several different topics come up, as you can see, the usual case when readers discuss an author of sufficient depth and accomplishment to be valued as classic.

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Going Deeper: Five More Characterization Techniques; How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 2

Barefoot young man wearing suspenders sits in wooden chair in middle of dirt road with book open on his head and book pages flying around him in the air. Characterization techniques help characters spring from pages as if real.

Characterization techniques help characters fly from the page. Readers experience them as if they are real people.

In “How to Read Fiction Step 4, Part 1,” we discussed four ways that writers create living characters in fiction, focusing on the four qualities readers are most likely to perceive first: Characterization Through Naming (1), Through Physical Description (2), Through “Tags” and Catchphrases (3), and Through Associated Objects (4). These characterization techniques give readers an immediate and forceful first impression of characters as they first meet them in fiction.

As readers read further and deeper into a tale, they encounter fuller and more subtle means of characterization. Narrators and other characters give readers guidance about main characters. Even more powerful, the characters reveal their own personalities and psyches through their own words and actions. Let’s wade in deeper to see how these techniques work to flesh out fully-developed characters.

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How Characterization Makes Characters Live: How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 1

20th century typewriter in turquoise, shown with paper inserted and cup of coffee to the left--writer's characterization tools!

Words are the writer’s only tools for characterization in fiction. Just 26 letters can bring hundreds of characters to life.

Yours could be any one of thousands of great literary characters–Atticus Finch, Jo March, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Janie Crawford, Clarissa Dalloway, Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Raskolnikov, or the Artful Dodger; all serious readers have their favorites.

The characters in a novel or story are usually the first thing everyone wants to talk about. When I talk to excited readers about fiction they like, most people speak about the fictional characters as if they are real people:

“I love Lizzie Bennett’s independence, and she’s funny!”
“Holden Caulfield is a brat but I like the way he sees through all the fakiness.”
“Gatsby seems so romantic and so lonely.”
“I like watching Janie search so hard for her identity.”
“My heart goes out to Jane Eyre, she’s so mistreated!”

But of course, literary characters are not real people. Writers only make us feel as if they are. How do writers convey to readers the sense that their characters are actual human beings?

Writers use a multitude of clever methods to bring their characters to life. These characterization techniques sometimes vary according to literary fashion, and some endure through every era of storytelling. Learning to spot methods of characterization in fiction helps us come to a deeper understanding of the personality and psychology of a character as the writer conceived it. It also helps us see and enjoy themes or plot conflicts.

Even more, recognizing characterization techniques points out the degree of a writer’s skill, so we can see how one writer differs from another and appreciate excellent fictional artistry all the more.

Woman in Bookshop. Books are lining the walls and woman, wearing skirt, jacket, and light pack, is scanning shelves.

In one bookshop alone are thousands of characters for readers to meet and get to know through clever characterization techniques.

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Trollope’s “The Warden”: Empathy v. The Media

View of Medieval almshouses in yellow stone with roofed walk and row of arched supports.

St. John’s Almshouses in Sherborne could be a model for Hiram’s Hospital in “The Warden.”*

Do you like taking quizzes? Try this one:

  • What famous novelist attacked false news and the unbalanced power of a money-driven mainstream media, and in what novel?
  • What famous novelist, in this same novel, faulted popular storytellers for creating blind emotion and simplistic portrayals of “good” or “bad” people?
  • What famous novelist attacked a famous public intellectual for his bombastic cynicism about everything in the modern world?
  • What novelist thought the central character of a work should be neither a faultless victim nor a morally pristine super-person, but rather an ordinary man, weak but well-meaning, a “mixed” character with good and bad, noble and foolish characteristics all mixed together?

As contemporary as these ideas may sound, the answer to all these questions is not someone writing today, but a writer whose 200th birthday was celebrated in 2015, along with his novel that was published in Victorian England back in 1855: writer Anthony Trollope and his sweet little gem of a book, The Warden.

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An open book lying on the grass, surrounded by fallen leaves, brings to mind the widespread focus on nature in the works of many writers during the American Romantic era.

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