Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

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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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A 20-Story Tour Through 19th Century American Literature

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Curving asphalt road winding between red hills beckons.

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.

Girl in beach chair reading American short stories.

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.)

Happy reading!

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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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Magnificent Sounds in Poetry: How to Read Poems Step 8

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Two little girls stand in a field reading poetry from and open book.

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.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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“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

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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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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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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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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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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