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.
“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.
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!
Tour American literary history: 20 days of stories!
It’s summer, when many of us make plans to visit beautiful or historic places, but we also like the idea of relaxing on our vacations. In today’s post, I offer you a way to do both. You can tour all of 19th and early 20th century American literary history without leaving your chair. Read one of these classic short stories each day for 20 days, and you’ll have a great sense of the variety, richness, and evolution of American fiction, from the Romantic era beginning in 1820 right through the late Gilded Age, ending in the first few years of the 20th century.
Relax while you read.
If you read through the whole list, you’ll be reading famous works by America’s most celebrated writers from the 19th century.
You’ll also be touring many areas of the country, and even the world, from New England forests and villages to a plantation in the south to a battlefield in Tennessee to Switzerland and Rome to the Wild West to the Yukon to Nebraska and back to New York City. All these stories are absorbing to read, though written in many different styles. It’s especially appropriate to approach American literature via the short story genre, since American writers were instrumental in developing this genre into an art form.
You can find all 20 of the stories on our tour list online; all but two are available on Americanliterature.com, a wonderful website that preserves and promotes classic American literature. For the stories that aren’t on that site, I provided a link to another online text. I also provide a brief note about each story and why I chose it for this list.
Pick and choose, or read them all! If you do read any or all of them, I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions. Please leave a comment at the end of the post. (You will enter your nickname and email, but your email will not appear on the site.)
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.
Poetry should be read aloud to appreciate its magnificent sounds.
Sound in Poetry: Meaningful Music
Great poetry is composed to be heard, not just seen. The luscious, the lyrical, the edgy, the melancholy, even the jarring–all these sounds can make beautiful music in the hands of a master poet. When we read aloud and listen to great poems, we not only enjoy their sounds, whether lovely or powerful. We also receive more of their emotional tone and message through direct visceral experience. We can enjoy, even luxuriate, in the beautiful sounds of a well-crafted poem even when we don’t yet understand what it means, letting the sounds themselves lead us toward a fuller meaning.
Let’s listen to some great poetry and talk about some of the devices poets use to make their meaningful music.
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.
Gray’s more formal 18th-century poem views the beloved lost cat Selima from the outside, almost anthropomorphically. Her cat-like qualities seem human, her actions something people can observe and learn from. In her 19th-century work, Browning, on the other hand, praises the personal loyalty and love her Flush has for her, but acknowledges from the beginning that she and her dog are different kinds of beings. The poem celebrates Flush but also ponders the nature of the relationship between person and beast. Is the beast really a lower form? If so, what is the nature of their intense connection?
After reading, all you animal lovers can decide which way is closer to your own way of regarding your beloved pets: almost as another type of human, or as a distinctly different kind of creature? Maybe a bit of both? Replies with any thoughts on the topic will be welcome in the comment section!
The Sun is not like her eyes and not sympathetic! Still the same sun after “the turn” in meaning in two different poems?
The Mind Twist: What is It?
In murder mysteries and thrillers, everyone likes a good plot twist. Great poetry provides something even better: The Mind Twist. Many great poems open by echoing ideas that most people already hold, so you think you know what they are going to say. But then, Boom! Suddenly comes the Mind Twist, where the poet offers a completely different, and unexpected, interpretation of the topic. Other poems assault common thinking right at their beginning, by presenting a topic in ways readers have seldom considered, right from line 1. Still other poems play deadpan, repeating platitudes with a straight face while undercutting common or superficial ideas through irony, hyperbole, or understatement.
To understand, close read, and enjoy great poems, learn to expect the Mind Twist, so you won’t be blindsided when unforeseen ideas start flying at you. To find the Mind Twist, look for contrast and tension in the poem. Contrast and tension are the basic tools for creating complexity, interest, and depth of thought in most great literature, and indeed, in great art in general.