How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: classic literature (Page 1 of 5)

Give Reading Poetry Another Try with Guided Reading Questions

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Who says you can’t read poetry?  And why bother? Here’s why and how:

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “Poetry just isn’t my thing!”

My response to that: Don’t be so sure! Could it be that you just haven’t met the right poem?

I can well believe that some particular poem, or poet, is not your thing. Many famous poems are quite old, therefore using language that seems unfamiliar to modern readers. Even some poetry written after 1900 may be hard to understand, given that many 20th century writers followed a modernist aesthetic calling for experimental, strange, or highly figurative language. That kind of poetry might seem puzzling at first reading. If you’re not accustomed to poetic language of these kinds, reading poetry might not seem worth the effort.

However, classic and much beloved poems are hardly all alike. Many lovely poems are not that hard to understand; reading them can add meaning and beauty to your mental life.

Besides, making poetry is natural to the human mind: poetry is playing with language, finding meaningful and powerful ways of expressing ideas, and reveling in beautiful and interesting sounds of words. From the very beginning of language, people have naturally sought memorable words to capture, enshrine, and encourage contemplation of human experience.

Besides offering meaning, so many poems are just pretty—their pictures, their sounds, the feel of the words upon the tongue. Experiencing poetry taps into something primal and pleasurable in the human mind.

Whether you are poetry skeptic or poetry-loving enthusiast, I invite you to join me now for a little poetry read-along. Just below, I quote three different poems. Below each one is a series of guided reading questions I hope will help you understand and enjoy the poems more.

Want to play?

To get the most out of the process, read each poem a couple of times through, then get a piece of notepaper to jot down your own responses to the questions. I hope the little time it takes to think through the questions will bring each poem to life for you.

If  You Like:

When you’ve interpreted each poem for yourself, you can click the link or scroll down to the bottom of the article to see some of my responses to each question. I expect we won’t have all the same answers to every question, and that’s OK! Every reader has a personal response to every poem.

It doesn’t follow, though, that a poetic text can mean just anything at all. Words, even poetic ones, do communicate specific ideas. As you develop your ideas of what each poem is saying, test those ideas to see if they truly fit with the words, phrases, and references in the poem itself, as the writer seems to have used them.
One object of reading poetry, just like reading any literature, is to lend an open mind and ear to exactly what that writer is communicating to us, whether the idea is familiar to us or completely strange or new.

Ready to go on this guided poetry-reading adventure? If doing a slow and deep analysis is the sort of thing that just makes you nuts, no problem! Just choose some great poems and read away. You can skip to this post for suggestions about how to “Just Fall In,” or skim on down this post, leaping over the reading questions to take today’s poems direct and straight.

However, if you do want to come along on this guided poetry reading journey, read on!

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Is Now the Time to Read That Beefy Classic 19th Century Novel?

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Time to Read? Pick up a Beefy 19th Century Novel!

Here’s a list of great 19th Century Novels to try. You can find inexpensive copies, or download and read for free!

With a pandemic raging, many of us are in official or self-imposed quarantine. I send you prayers and hopes that you and your loved ones are well, or soon will be, and that this epidemic will soon pass. If you are well but stuck inside, maybe now is the time to pick up one of those beefy classic novels you always meant to read.

But what to go for first?

Here I offer a smattering of my suggestions for best overall Big Reads that, for me, offer not just classic status, but also engaging stories and characters, worthy and thought-provoking ideas, and immersion in other times and places in western cultural history.

The great thing about choosing Classics for reading is that you can find many of them online for free, or pick up inexpensive second-hand copies from online booksellers. If you have a Kindle or other e-reader, you can even download copies of many classic works from Gutenberg.org in the correct format. The listings below provide links to Gutenberg download pages for each.

Here is the link to Gutenberg’s Book Search page, where you can search for any other out-of-copyright book you’d like to read.

A word to the wise: be patient when first starting your Classic Read. It might take a chapter or two to become accustomed to the more elaborate language and leisurely pace of fiction written in bygone years. But if the experience of most of my students is any indication, you won’t read far into these great books before you are wholly absorbed in the story-line, captivated by the characters, and stimulated by the thoughtful commentaries about being human that these great authors can offer.

Here are my picks for some great classics I think you would like to meet.

Note: If you want to choose readings from other eras, visit our Literature Lists and Timelines category page for ideas. Make a choice then search the Gutenberg link above for online copies.

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Poems Lamenting Love Lost: Is it Really Un-Valentine Poetry?

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Silhouette of Man under tree shaped like heart with twilit background

The most well-known day to celebrate romantic love, Valentine’s Day, is upon us again, so it may be a bit contrarian to focus on poems about Love Lost.  But let’s be realistic: sometimes–a lot of times–love goes wrong; and probably, no theme inspires more heartfelt verse than Love Lost.

When Love is Lost, how do people respond? First may come lament, the long, unfettered howl of the broken heart.

Next we  might try to forget, deny, or just to cope somehow.

When forgetting seems impossible, we may do the opposite: linger on memories of Love Lost that we just can’t expunge.

Of course, there are beautiful, amazing poems for all of these phases. After lingering over a few of these poems, we might wonder: with all the misery that love can bring, would we just be better off without it? You won’t be surprised that there are excellent poems all about that too.

The pains of Love Lost have inspired so much lovely, wise, moving, and enduring poetry, I personally can’t wish to do away with all the pain. Let’s take a tour of a variety of poems focusing on Love Lost.

In the end, though love has caused plenty of pain to poets and non-poets alike, most of us can’t make up our mind to do without it. Ironically, that observation may be a truly appropriate Valentine’s Day sentiment.

Side note: if you want to read something a little more upbeat about love on Valentine’s Day, take a look at these two Valentine’s Day-appropriate posts:

Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Is Love Real? (Hint: Yes it is!)

All Kinds of Poems About Love

To continue the tour of Poems Lamenting Love Lost just continue reading.

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Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Is Love Real?

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Painting of scene from As You Like It--Jester Touchstone talks to country lass Audrey in Arden forest.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Touchstone the Jester romances Audrey, the country lass.

As You Like It: Is Love Real? Learning and Laughing at  this and other Big Questions

How could a very old play about an imaginary forest where shepherds and shepherdesses tend their flocks, sing of love, and write poems on trees have anything to say about our lives in the 21st century?

Plenty, as I and my students repeatedly found—because this play, As You Like It, was written by the magnificent William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s knowledge of the human heart shows as full and rich today as ever it did when As You Like It was first performed in 1599.

One reason I love this play so much is that it tells us something so many of us modern cynics need to hear today:

Love is real. Yes, it may be complicated, twisted, and strange–but ultimately, love  is good, and can truly be long-lasting.

Here’s another good message in this play:

Simplifying your life, taking it right down to the basics even for a short while, can help you gain self-knowledge and regenerate your soul.

Not that Love, or Anything, is Simple. . .

Of course neither message is presented as just that simple. As You Like It may be high on love, but also illustrates its negative aspects.

For one thing, love is not as nearly so “romantic” as poems and romance novels often describe it. People get mixed up, mistaking obsession, lust, or ambition for love. We call all kinds of relationships “love” that, in truth, really aren’t. And not all loves are going to last.

As You Like It also shows that a “simple” life in the country—living rough and leaving a “small footprint,” as we might call it today–isn’t always that simple, or even very pleasant. However, life in the sophisticated city doesn’t always offer the best life either.

For one thing, civilization isn’t always that civilized. “Civilized” people can treat each other with savagery. The best people struggle to keep their positions in society as the worst people strike out from behind false smiles.

Yet when all is said and done in Shakespeare’s comedy, after many witty dialogues by the characters and much laughter from the audience, As You Like It ends with some clear messages:

  • Though some folk are corrupt and selfish, there are good people in the world.
  • A simple country life, for all its hardships, has valuable lessons to teach.
  • Urban civilization, for all its corruptions, can also enrich people’s characters.
  • And. . . True Love, despite its complexities, is very much worth pursuing.

As You Like It: Part Parody 

It’s doubly fun and interesting that Shakespeare conveys these, and many other themes and ideas, through engaging in a a re-mix of another popular work: Thomas Lodge’s pastoral fiction RosalyndeAccording to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, “Thomas Lodge’s prose romance  Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacy  (first published 1590) is best known today as the major source for Shakespeare’s  As You Like It, but its own success is apparent from its numerous reprintings.”   As You Like It, coming along nine years after Rosalynde’s first printing, is both homage to and parody of Lodge’s pastoral fiction.

Shakespeare’s play follows many of the conventions popularized by Lodge’s work and other Renaissance pastoral romances,  in which well-born ladies and gentlemen leave their sophisticated lives at court to wander an idyllic forest and countryside among simple shepherds and shepherdesses.  (“Pastoral” means “country.”) In traditional pastoral, these fictional lads and lasses have little to do but discourse of love and woo one another from morning to night.   Thus,  Lodge’s work is lively and enchanting.    Shakespeare’s version of the pastoral in As You Like It, however, is as gritty, real, and elemental as it is charming and sweet.

Though funny and very entertaining, As You Like It goes well beyond Lodge’s Rosalynde in presenting a balanced view of the elemental questions about life and love.  Let’s take a closer look at As You Like It.

Shakespeare's As You Like It characters painted in forest scene.

Shakespeare’s forest of Arden in As You Like It. 1864 painting by John Edmund Buckley.

 

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Four Themes in Milton’s Paradise Lost

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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

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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!

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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

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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 latest 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 head to the  Renaissance English Literature timelines, you can stay here for a few minutes 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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Dickens Talk: A Fun Conversation on Social Media

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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

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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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