Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

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Books to Read and Reread: Writers and Critics Define Classic Literature

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Older man seated reading a book, with stacks of books behind him.

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.

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Our Beloved Pets: Two Poems, Two Ways to See Them

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Close-up King Charles Cavalier Spaniel

We love our pets! But how do we define their natures? Two poems show us two different ways.

Goodness knows, we love our pets. Just look at how cats– silly, cute, or cuddly– dominate the Internet, followed closely, if not recently overtaken, by lovable, funny dogs.1  We live in close relationship to these animals, but how do we define this relationship? How do we conceive of these beings that seem so much like us, and yet so much their own, not-human kind of special beings? Two famous poems about pets showcase two different ways to regard our intimate animals: Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” and Elizabeth Browning’s “To Flush, My Dog.

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!

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Expect the Mind Twist, the Turn in Meaning: How to Read Poems Step 7

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Picture of small sun in a blue sky with clouds provides us with an image for a mind twist in two different poems, Sonnet 130 and "Apparently with No Surprise"

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.

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Those Near Death and Those Near the Dying: Thomas’s Portrayal in “Do Not Go Gentle”

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Man sitting on a high peak with clouds blanketing sky at his feet. Visual depiction of Thomas's "sad height"--but for whom is it sad? For the dying, or those left behind?

“On That Sad Height”: But for Whom is it Most Sad? For the Dying, or Those Left Behind?

A Conversation with Two Hospice Nurses

So often I am reminded how great literature accurately mirrors the true complexities of real human struggles. Recently, I had an interesting conversation with two longtime hospice nurses, Nancy and Debbie, about their experiences with people nearing death and the family members who cared about them. Most often, family included the adult children of the patient, who not surprisingly had a very different attitude toward the death that was approaching than the patient who was in the act of dying. These women’s report from the front lines between life and death made me think immediately of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” As I read this poem, “Do Not Go Gentle” portrays the same differing attitudes toward death that these hospice professionals observed in patients and their families.

Debbie recounted her experiences this way: “I can’t tell you how often I’ve had this conversation: An adult child of the patient will say to me, “Dad’s just giving up! Why doesn’t he fight?” I try to explain that there’s a difference between ‘giving up,’ and ‘accepting.’ ‘Giving up’ means a person still has some choices, some way to change what happens in their life. But when there is nothing that will change anything, and a person has reached the end of life, accepting this situation is a good, not a bad thing.” Nancy nodded, saying her experience had been similar.

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Metaphor and More. How to Read Poems Step 6

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This close-up of a quizzical cow in a meadow brings to mind the old joke: "What's a metaphor? A place to keep cows in." NOT!

What’s a Metaphor? Hint: It’s not a place to keep cows in.

What is a Metaphor?

Did you hear this old joke about metaphors when you were a kid? “What’s a metaphor? A place to keep the cows in!” It probably seemed funnier back when kids actually knew what metaphors, AND meadows, were. Right now, I’m not going to talk about the fading of “meadow” from the modern American vocabulary, but I will ask this: Do you know what a metaphor is for? Knowing just a little about how metaphors and some other important figures of speech function can help you understand and enjoy a poem more deeply.

A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are apparently not much alike. For instance, if I say that Sue’s coffee tastes like Starbucks coffee, I am not making a metaphor; I am just making a literal comparison between two things that are already largely alike. But if I offer you “some of this molasses Sue calls coffee,” I am speaking figuratively, making a metaphor.  In sober reality, coffee and molasses are very dissimilar, but Sue’s coffee makes me think of molasses for some reason, maybe because it is thick and sludgy, or over-sweet. In this metaphor, the coffee is the “tenor,” or topic of the metaphor, the object or idea I want to make a point about. Molasses is the “vehicle,” the thing I am using to convey my rather insulting ideas about Sue’s coffee.

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The Large and Skeptical Mind of Emily Dickinson

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Picture of Space Galaxies and Stars--Emily Dickinson's mind is unbounded.

Ranging the Cosmos: The Large and Questing Mind of Emily Dickinson

A Mind Unbounded

For most of her adult life, Emily Dickinson stayed within the bounds of her family home and garden, but her poetry declares that her mind knew no boundaries. Her compact poems may begin with humble domestic details, but suddenly expand into questioning life, the universe, and our human position on a cosmic scale. We could look at many of her nearly 1800 verses to find examples, but I’m going to pick two of my favorites, both well-known but both widely misunderstood: “Because I could not stop for Death,” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Feeling brave enough to visit the edge of a cosmic existential void? Then click and read the poems, and we’ll take a closer look.

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“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

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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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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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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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