Archive for the ‘Literary Analysis’ Category

Webinar Vignettes – Part 8

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Hart Crane (1899-1932)

Hart Crane was a disturbed young poet who committed suicide at age 33 by leaping into the sea. He left striking poems, including an epic, The Bridge (1930), which was inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, in which he ambitiously attempted to review the American cultural experience and recast it in affirmative terms. His exuberant style works best in short poems such as “Voyages” (1923, 1926) and “At Melville’s Tomb” (1926), whose ending is a suitable epitaph for Crane:

This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

Marianne Moore once wrote that poems were “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Her poems are conversational, yet elaborate and subtle in their syllabic versification, drawing upon extremely precise description and historical and scientific fact. A “poet’s poet,” she influenced such later poets as her young friend Elizabeth Bishop.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

One of many talented poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s — in the company of James Weldon Johnson and others — was Langston Hughes. He embraced African- American jazz rhythms and was one of the first black writers to attempt to make a profitable career out of his writing. Hughes incorporated blues, spirituals, colloquial speech, and folkways in his poetry.

One of his most beloved poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921, 1925), embraces his African — and universal — heritage in a grand epic catalogue. The poem suggests that, like the great rivers of the world, African American culture will endure and deepen:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset
I’ve known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Webinar Vignettes – Part 7

Friday, January 29th, 2010

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)

A painter, e. e. cummings was the first American poet to recognize that poetry had become primarily a visual, not an oral, art; his poems used much unusual spacing and indentation, as well as dropping all use of capital letters.

Like Williams, Cummings also used colloquial language, sharp imagery, and words from popular culture. Like Williams, he took creative liberties with layout. His poem “in Just ” (1920) invites the reader to fill in the missing ideas:

in Just —
Spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman
whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

Webinar Vignettes – Part 6

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams was a practicing pediatrician throughout his life; he delivered more than 2,000 babies and wrote poems on his prescription pads. His sympathy for ordinary working people, children, and everyday events in modern urban settings make his poetry attractive and accessible. “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923), like a Dutch still life, finds interest and beauty in everyday objects.

Williams cultivated a relaxed, natural poetry. In his hands, the poem was not to become a perfect object of art as in Stevens, or the carefully re-created nature scene as in Frost. Instead, the poem was to capture an instant of time like an unposed snapshot — a concept he derived from photographers and artists he met at galleries in New York City.

His epic, Paterson (five vols., 1946-58), celebrates his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, as seen by an autobiographical “Dr. Paterson.” Williams wrote this very unpretentious narrative poem to celebrate the ordinary. Like Whitman’s persona in Leaves of Grass, Dr. Paterson moves freely among the working people.

-late spring,
a Sunday afternoon!
– and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting:
the proof)
himself among others
– treads there the same stones
on which their feet slip as they climb,
paced by their dogs!
laughing, calling to each other –
Wait for me!
(II, i, 14-23)

Webinar Vignettes – Part 5

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Born in Pennsylvania, Wallace Stevens was educated at Harvard College and New York University Law School. He practiced law in New York City from 1904 to 1916, a time of great artistic and poetic activity there. On moving to Hartford, Connecticut, to become an insurance executive in 1916, he continued writing poetry.

Stevens’s poetry dwells upon themes of the imagination, the necessity for aesthetic form, and the belief that the order of art corresponds with an order in nature. His vocabulary is rich and various: He paints lush tropical scenes but also manages dry, humorous, and ironic vignettes.

Some of Stevens’s poems draw upon popular culture, while others poke fun at sophisticated society or soar into an intellectual heaven. He is known for his exuberant word play: “Soon, with a noise like tambourines / Came her attendant Byzantines.”

Stevens’s work is full of surprising insights. Sometimes he plays tricks on the reader, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’clock” (1931):

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

This poem seems to complain about unimaginative lives (plain white nightgowns), but actually conjures up vivid images in the reader’s mind. Stevens is not easy but well worth the effort.

Webinar Vignettes – Part 4

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Robert Lee Frost was born in California but raised on a farm in New England United States until the age of 10. The New England countryside became Frost’s favorite setting. A charismatic public reader, he was renowned for his tours. He read an original work at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that helped spark a national interest in poetry. His popularity is easy to explain: He wrote of traditional farm life, appealing to a nostalgia for the old ways. His themes were universal and immutable– apple picking, stone walls, fences, country roads. His subjects were ordinary people. He was one of the few modern poets who uses rhyme. This endeared him to American readers.

Frost’s work is often deceptively simple. Many poems suggest a deeper meaning. For example, a quiet snowy evening by an almost hypnotic rhyme scheme may suggest the not entirely unwelcome approach of death. Beneath the falling snow and gentle raindrops are pain and unhappiness. Some critics blame Frost’s bitterness on the early years of his marriage when he tried to make a living on an inhospitable New England farm. From: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923):

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweepOf easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Webinar Vignettes – Part 3

Monday, January 25th, 2010

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

T. S. Eliot was both an American and a British writer of unprecedented stature. He was the best! He lived on two continents but he belonged only to God . . .Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a well- to-do family with roots in the northeastern United States. He received the best education of any major American writer of his generation at Harvard College, the Sorbonne, and Merton College of Oxford University. He studied Sanskrit and Oriental philosophy, which influenced his early poetry. Later, he became a born again Christian. Like his friend Pound, he went to England early and became a towering figure in the literary world there. One of the most respected poets of his day, his modernist, seemingly illogical or abstract iconoclastic poetry had revolutionary impact. He also wrote influential essays and dramas, and championed the importance of literary and social traditions for the modern poet.

The famous beginning of Eliot’s “Prufrock” invites the reader into tawdry alleys that, like modern life, offer no answers to the questions of life:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Similar imagery pervades The Waste Land (1922), which echoes Dante’s Inferno to evoke London’s thronged streets around the time of World War I:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many… (I, 60-63)

The Waste Land’s vision is ultimately apocalyptic (i.e., end times) and worldwide:

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal (V, 373-377)

Webinar Vignettes – Part 2

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was a turning point in American history. The innocent optimism of the young nation gave way, after the war, to a period of exhaustion. Reconstruction grew out of this fatigue–it was as if the American political system was not going to try to solve its problems. Before the war, Idealists and Romantics championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the self-made man. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau remained as icons of inevitable American progress. However, many philosophical changes were in the air. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator, robber barons and trust busters, when Darwinian evolution and the “survival of the fittest” seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon. Naturalism grew naturally out of the fertile ground of social Darwinism. This so-called “Gilded Age,” a term coined by Mark Twain, was an age of thoughtless excess.

Business boomed after the war. The new intercontinental rail system, inaugurated in 1869, and the transcontinental telegraph, which began operating in 1861, gave industry access to materials, markets, and communications. The constant influx of immigrants provided a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive labor as well. More than 23 million foreigners — German, Scandinavian, and Irish in the early years, and increasingly Central and Southern Europeans thereafter — flowed into the United States between 1860 and 1910. American business interests imported Asian contract laborers on the West Coast. This created tensions that remain in America even today. In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half the population was concentrated in about twelve cities. Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared. From 1860 to 1914, the United States changed from a small, young, agricultural country to a huge, modern, industrial nation.

America, however, was full of problems. The differences among people groups were immense and growing larger. It was to this world that men like Stephen Crane wrote. He attacked social problems. American literature openly discussed significant social problems. Previously American fiction was entertaining and didactic, but not evaluative. Characteristic American novels of the period Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London’s Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy depict the damage of economic forces and alienation of the vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Twain’s Huck Finn, Humphrey Vanderveyden in London’s The Sea-Wolf, Hemingway’s Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms, and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, endure through inner strength and, above all, individuality. No longer is there a hint in American literature that there is a loving, caring God. The world that Anne Bradstreet knew is dead . . . Research the Gilded Age and write a three page explanatory essay on this important era.

A particularly popular writer of the Gilded Age social history was Sinclair Lewis. Lewis brought late 19th Century Americans into the small towns and bedrooms of American homes all over the land. Why not read one of his books?


Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Rome was one of the most important and influential city-states in world history. What Jerusalem was to the religious world, Rome was to the geo-political world. Legend said that in 753 B.C. twin boys, Romulus and Remus, were abandoned by the river Tiber to starve. A mother wolf cared for them until they were young adults. Years later, Mars, the Roman God of war encouraged the boys to build a city where they had been found. The two boys built this city; however, they could not get along and ended up at war with each other. Romulus won the battle, and the city became known as Rome. Today, historians and archaeologists agree that people started living in Rome long before the time of Romulus and Remus, but many people throughout Roman history continued to believe that this legend was true. Nevertheless, from this cryptic beginning the Roman civilization literally conquered the entire known world.

There is evidence, of course, that there were people in the Tiber River area long before the apocrypha stories about Romulus and Remus emerged. There were nomads in the Tiber River area that created sedentary villages around 800 B.C.

The history of Rome is marked by three epochs. In the first period from 753–5099 B.C. the city developed from a village to a city ruled by kings. Then, the Romans expelled the kings and established the Roman Republic during the period from 509–27 B.C. It was much like the Greek Republic existting about the same time in Athens. The Republic collapsed and Rome was ruled by despotic, if at times benign, emperors from 27 B.C.—A.D. 4766. It was during the last period that The Aeneid, Virgil, and Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, were written.

The Italian Peninsula provided the Romans with a secure base from which to expand over the Mediterranean and then European world. Italy was easy to defend and with its numerous deep-water ports, was an ideal launching pad for expeditions into the interior Mediterranean world. Italy is a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea and protected to the north by the Alps mountain range. The climate is generally temperate, although summers are hot in the southern regions.

From the beginning, there were Italian competitors to Roman hegemony. At the beginning of Roman history, somewhat south and north of Rome, Etruscans had a vigorous civilization. Nevertheless, by A.D. 80 the Etrusca ns were conquered and absorbed into the expanding Roman city-state.

From the beginning of Roman history, the family lay at the center of all personal and social relations in Rome and even influenced public and political activities. Romans valued stable family life and passed laws to reward families led by two parents. At the same time, religion—which until the middle of the first millennium A.D. was a form of polytheism—was the most important element that shaped early Roman life.. Religion and stable families remained closely connected as the twin pillars of Roman society, especially for the five centuries of the Roman Republic. Later in Roman history, some Romans looked back to these early institutions for the salvation of the Roman Empire. These values are expressed in both the writings of Virgil and Marcus Aurelius.

Virgil was born in a rural town north of Rome and grew up in the most prosperous era of Roman h egemony. Emperor Augustus was reigning, and he -heralded unprecedented prosperity and peace for the Roman Empire. Virgil became one of the most famous poets in Roman history. His most famous work was the Aeneid. Virgil worked on the Aeneid for eleven years. This epic poem reflects his great skill and care in writing and his tremendous knowledge of Greek literature, which he studied throughout his life.

What is Literary Criticism? Why teach it?

Monday, September 14th, 2009

The heart of literary criticism is the notion of rhetoric. Quality rhetoric is important and necessary. It seems to me, and to the Greeks, that a democracy demands a responsible, well considered rhetoric. It is absolutely necessary that we participate in legitimate conversation about important issues.

Rhetoric demands that we reclaim the use of metaphor. Our mindless search for relevance and literalness has gotten us pretty lost in the cosmos. Metaphor or comparison between two ostensibly dissimilar phenomena is absolutely critical to creative problem solving. Metaphor, along with other mysteries, have been victims of 20th century pretension and pomposity.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking Into the Abyss, laments that great literary works are no longer read–and if they were, there are no rules for interpreting them. In philosophy, indeed in all communication, truth and reality are considered relative. With no rules the rhetorician is invited to come to any conclusion he wishes. He is invited to pretty shaky ground. Gordon Conwell Seminary professor David Wells in God in the Wastelands argues that evangelical�Christians who believe in a personal relationshipp with God– and non-Christians have both drunk from the trough of modernity. We have both embraced a sort of existential faith instead of a confessional faith. If it feels good do it and believe it. Unless evangelicals participate in serious apologetics, God will be “weightless.”

The rise of relativism has had disastrous results. The British historian Philip Johnson laments “the great vacuum” that has been filled with totalitarian regimes and fascile thinking. Rhetoric ferrets out truth. If there is no truth, can there be any sense of authority? And can a society survive if there is no authority? Without a legitimate, honest, well considered rhetoric, will history be reduced to the “pleasure principle?

In some ways the American Evangelical Christianity’s loss of rhetorical skills–and I think rhetoric is akin to apologetics–has presaged disaster in many arenas. Without rhetoric Christians have no tools to engage modern culture. In some ways we have lost the mainline denominations to neo-orthodoxy and we have lost the university to liberals. Today the vast majority of American, indeed, world leaders come from 12 universities and not one is a Christian university (Wall Street Journal). Where are the Jonathan Edwards? C. S. Lewis? Good thinking, good talking, may redeem the Church from both the Overzealous and the Skeptic. Rhetorical skills may help us regain the intellectual and spiritual high ground we so grievously surrendered without a fight (Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity). George Marsden in The Soul of the American University and Leslie Newbigen in Foolishness to the Greeks both conclude that we Christians have conceded much of American culture to modernism by our inability to merge thought and communication in a cogency and inspiration that persuades the modernist culture. Without the main tool to do battle–rhetoric–Evangelicals allow orthodoxy to be sacrificed on the altar of relativism. It all begins, I believe, with our inability critically to analyze the classics.

Immanuel Kant

Friday, August 7th, 2009

As I travel across country this summer, I have been blessed to have many hours of reading time. My son Peter, thankfully, is doing most of the driving and I have been able to focus on long overdue reading assignments.

One of those is Immanuel Kant. I highlight Kant in my FIRE THAT BURNS (2005) book as a “seminal 18th century thinker.” Will Durant says that “never was a system of thought so dominate an epoch as the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.” Kant as it were, brilliant no doubt, tried to reclaim philosophy from the cold stupor of 18th century rationalism (e.g., John Locke) and self-indulgent narcissism of French romanticism (e.g., Rousseau).

Kant makes a great observation–Knowledge cannot be derived entirely from the senses. Hitting one’s finger with a hammer, for instance, is surely a sensory catastrophe, but, in the long one, it can be much more: it may cause us to flinch everytime we hold or see a hammer which is more than a sensory response. Kant says there is knowledge that separate from experience a priori knowledge, so to speak. There is, Kant, explains a transcendent dialect that goes beyond the senses. And where does that take us? Religion. And what is religion? Why it is morality.

Later in another book. RELIGION WITHIN THE LIMITS OF PURE REASON, argues that “an interest in the beauty of nature for its own sake is always a sign of goodness.” Indeed. Sounds a lot like Ralph Waldo Emerson! Goodness is tied to nature. Hum . . .

To Kant, churches and dogma have value only so far as they assist in the moral development of the race (Durant).

Well, Kant is better than Locke or Berkeley but he ultimately misses the mark. The God we serve is not a moral dogma, however altruistic. He is not a good feeling or good moral. He is the I AM. He is the Creator of the Universe. He is, as Carl Henry later so eloquently explains, transcends even the Kant. In fact the God I serve leaves Immanuel Kant gropping in a metaphysical darkness. It is not so much that God is farther than Kant could reach; He is in another universe. The mind cannot take us to that universe.

But the heart can. And God reached down and touched our hearts. God so loved the world to create in us a transcendental dialectic. Ha! I don’t think so. Thank you very much Mr. Kant.