Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

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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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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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Why Does “Jane Eyre” Still Matter?

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Black and White movie still showing Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine as Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre, 1943*

Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine as Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre, 1943*

Readers still love Charlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre—and why not? The novel has every quality needed for total story immersion: a sympathetic heroine in plain, mistreated, brilliant, independent Jane; a dashing mysterious sexy romantic lead in Mr. Rochester; a spooky Gothic atmosphere and a chilling mystery; a host of villains in Aunt and John Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Blanche Ingram, and more; aides to the heroine, such as Helen, Mrs. Fairfax, and Jane’s  cousins Mary and Diana; moral temptations, thrills, fires, courageous escapes, sorrow, and suspense. But beyond joyful immersion in a wonderful, well-told story, why would readers return to it again and again? Is it just a pretty romance? Today, Jane’s moral dilemmas and particular set of problems seem outmoded; so why does Jane Eyre still matter, in a more serious intellectual sense?

More than just a fun read, Jane Eyre is a subtle, intelligent discussion of the difficulty of choosing among competing value systems. What values and principles should underpin our choices in life? What forces motivate us to choose and adhere to one set of values over another? These are the important questions Jane Eyre asks us to consider. We watch Jane struggle with these questions, and gain insight into how we struggle with values of our own. That is why Jane Eyre still matters.

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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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Four Qualities that Make Great Literature Special

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Picture of live oak tree on the bank of the Cane River. Classic literature is like this beautiful Live Oak tree in Natchitoches, Louisiana: it lasts for hundreds of years, growing in beauty and complexity every time someone regards it.

Classic literature is like this beautiful Live Oak tree in Natchitoches, Louisiana: it lasts for hundreds of years, growing in beauty and complexity every time someone regards it.*

If you are an avid reader, I clasp you to my heart, whatever and why ever you are reading—for pleasure, escape, knowledge, social concerns. There are a myriad of good, and  even mediocre, books and poetry that can keep us entertained, or give us vicarious experiences of  unknown places and times, or inform our opinions on social issues.

But what I am here to advocate, and why I have started this site, is that Classic Literature—truly Great Literature—is something different, something especially worth treasuring, preserving, learning about, experiencing, re-reading, and pondering. The experience, the grace given to the mind and soul, is a larger, higher experience than that offered by the average popular novel or poem or drama, well-crafted though each may be.

Devoted readers of the Classics know this from experience, yet defining the exact qualities that make a piece of literature “Great” is never easy. Not that many lovers of literature haven’t tried. In a future post, I’ll tell you about some writers who have said things about classic literature that I find  persuasive. But let me take my own preliminary stab at it here. My main purpose in this post is to start a discussion in a forum here on the site about what makes classic literature great, and what it gives to readers that most books can’t.  So here goes!

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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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Notice a Poem’s Title: Understanding Poetry Step 1

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Photo of painting by Bruegel the Elder-Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, showing plowman behind his horse in foreground, ocean view with ship and a miniature pair of legs, which is Icarus disappearing into the sea.

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Bruegel the Elder. ca 1558*

If you find yourself confused, thwarted, and frustrated when you try to understand poetry, fear not. Over a series of ten upcoming posts in the Literature 101 category, I will explain one method of helping you unlock and enjoy  the meaning of poetic texts.

Let’s start with Step 1. This seems so simple, and yet for some reason I have noticed that many readers overlook it: stop and think about what the poem’s title means. In this post, we’ll talk about one poem in which understanding the title really sets us up to understand what is going on in the whole poem: W. H. Auden’s “Museé des Beaux Arts.”

When Reading Poetry, Take Your Time

Let’s back up for a second, though, to consider that, in general, reading poetic texts is not the same as reading regular prose. Expect to read poems more slowly, and to read multiple times, for one thing. However, reading a little slower is not at all a bad thing, as you can learn by reading and enjoying more poems. Slower reading gives time to savor the beauty, the language, and the ideas of a good poem.

Also, be aware that readers can’t always depend on context to help them guess what words mean, if they don’t know those words already. Truly great poems are built tightly and efficiently, so that sometimes the whole meaning of a poem turns on one word or phrase, especially the title. Sometimes the title of a poem is the only clue given about the situation being depicted in the poem. That’s why it’s helpful, before you begin reading a poem, to spend a couple of minutes looking up unknown words in the title and generating some ideas about what the title might mean.

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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 Community of Great Literature Readers

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Circular Reading Room of Stockholm public library.

About This Blog

Hi, I’m MJ! This is a blog about Great Literature in the Western tradition. I have read the classics since youth, pursued advanced degrees in English, taught literature in university classrooms for seventeen years, and talked about it with many other literature lovers. Through all, my enthusiasm for “the Greats” has only continued to grow.

I am here to share that enthusiasm with you, drawing on my conversations about literature with people ranging from beginning university students to expert readers. I will also share some tips for getting more out of what you read, and some of my own thoughts about some of my favorite classics.  On occasion, Guest Writers may appear as well, to share their ideas about literature with you.

What Can You Find on the Site? Click “Continue Reading” for index:

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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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An open book lying on the grass, surrounded by fallen leaves, brings to mind the widespread focus on nature in the works of many writers during the American Romantic era.

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