Just Fall In!
With this post, I draw to a close my series of How to Read Poems, Steps 1 – 10. In these posts, I tried to give you knowledge and perspective you need, along with a step-by-step method to follow, to help you unfold the meaning of classic poems and appreciate their beauty. I’ve seen this method work for many students who, by following and practicing these steps, understand and enjoy poetry for the first time. They are amazed by it. They often say they never realized there was so much to enjoy and appreciate in a poem. Having a methodical close reading technique for unfolding meaning in poems really helps. But here’s a secret: method isn’t everything!
Now I want to share with you a different joyous truth: understanding a poem doesn’t usually begin with any method at all. It begins with a shock, with a possession, with a fall. It doesn’t have to happen at the beginning, at the end, or at any particular point in the poem. Somewhere, anywhere, in that flow of words, the poem reaches out and grabs you, shocks you, puzzles you, or seduces you.
It could be a turn of phrase, a startling idea, a beautiful picture, an amazing sound, a tone of voice—anything. At first reading, you might not understand it at all. That’s OK—you don’t have to understand it yet. All you have to do is to fall in. Around this moment in the poem, that point that truly captivates your mind, the meaning will slowly crystallize.
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?
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!
Tune your ear to the sounds of traditional poetry.
Trochees and Iambs and Dactyls and Meters and Lines? Oh My! What are all these strange terms, and what do they have to do with reading and enjoying traditional poetry written in English? Each of these terms describes a characteristic of traditional “accentual-syllabic” poetry—that is, the kind of poems that have standardized line lengths, patterns of rhythms that recur, and often, patterns of rhymes.
All of these structures, things like Iambs or Dactyls, recurring line lengths, or rhyme patters give a poem particular kinds of sounds and rhythms. They also connect one poem to a long line of other poems that have been written in the same traditional forms. Knowing a bit about rhythm, meter, and stanza forms can help alert us to the wonderful and complicated designs built into traditional poetry.
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!
Arbury Hall. George Eliot’s father managed Arbury Estate, giving his daughter ample opportunity to observe people from every background.
A Monumental Saga
The Wall Street Journal says we should read Middlemarch. In 2014, the Guardian’s Robert McCrum chose it as one of the top 100 novels written in English, ever. I have told friends for years it’s like a soap opera for smart people–or to update the comparison, let’s say it’s a binge worthy Netflix “town and family” saga. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is bursting with yearning, beautiful young people, dysfunctional marriages, bemused mothers and fathers, business people both honest and shady, medical men of various skill, clergy, manipulative rich uncles, politicians, newspaper publishers, innkeepers–people from every social class and background whose fates and choices form an interconnected web of mutual cause and effect.
The telling of this giant tale is liberally interlaced with gentle humor, empathy, psychological penetration, and philosophical discussion by one of the wisest narrative voices in literature. For these and other qualities, both the light and the deeply philosophic, I have loved Middlemarch for over 30 years. I love it for its humane and intricate presentation of the psychology of so many kinds of people. I love it for its careful analysis of how communities function—how opinions form and spread, whether well-founded or no, and how individual choices impact the larger social network. I love it for understanding how the petty daily-ness of life can chip away at our ability to achieve great and ideal goals, and yet, paradoxically, that’s all right.
Above all, I love Middlemarch for showing us that our individual moral choices matter. Our smallest moral acts, both good and ill, can spread like ripples in a stream, affecting others far beyond ourselves.
Classics are books that yield more treasures every time you reread, especially at different times in life.
What are literary classics, and why should we read them? Some of my ideas on that are spelled out in my post “Four Qualities that Make Great Literature Special.” What do some other prominent thinkers, writers, and literature lovers have to say? A quick survey of famous critics and writers suggests that the classics are the books that are not only good to read, but great to reread. We can come to them again and again, and still reap new pleasures and new ideas from the experience.