On Literature, the Humanities, and Humanity



The painting depicts the end of the 1381 peasant’s revolt, mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The image shows London’s mayor, Walworth, killing Wat Tyler. There are two images of Richard II. One looks on the killing while the other is talking to the peasants. / Library Royal via Wikimedia Commons


By Dr. Theodore L. Steinberg
Distinguished Teaching Professor, Emeritus
State University of New York, Fredonia


Introduction


There are many reasons that an article like this has become necessary, but all of those reasons can be reduced to this point: we as a society seem to have forgotten that reading classic literature is supposed to be both enjoyable and beneficial. The Roman poet Horace made this point some two thousand years ago and the English Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney expanded on it some four hundred years ago. Sidney’s point was that the enjoyment of reading literature encouraged people to continue reading and therefore made them more likely to profit from the instruction that was contained in the literature. This formulation sounds a lot like “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” and anyone who has ever tried to give a child medicine hidden in some favorite treat knows that the process never works quite so simply. But Sidney does have a point. Classic literature is enjoyable to read, and it does have a great deal to teach us about what it means to be human and to live in this world. Literature teaches and it delights, and these functions are related.

Unfortunately, we have forgotten that literature is enjoyable and I fear that too often we distort it when we teach it. Thus the state of New York pays me a comfortable salary to be a professor of literature, but I wonder whether either the legislators or the taxpayers really understand why. I hope that this will help to explain why, at least in part by showing how literature delights and how it instructs. I hope, too, that it will inspire other teachers to emphasize the value and delight of reading literature without watering it down, without cheapening it.

On The Humanities

Image by Phillip Baron, Flickr, Creative Commons

One idea that requires immediate emphasis is the importance of the humanities in general. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama said: “Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math—the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.” While that statement presents a laudable goal, it also totally ignores the value of the humanities. In fact, at a time when we see an increasing dehumanization in society, a greater focus on economics, more reliance on technology, and ever more attachment to material goods, the humanities are increasingly vital to our individual and collective well-being. The humanities can help us learn how to manage, how to use properly, those skills that the President emphasized.

Now let me correct the oversimplifications of that last paragraph. A focus on the economy is not evil, so long as the economy is used to better people’s lives. Technology is certainly not evil. I owe my life to technological advances. But less dramatically, technology also allows me to communicate with my children, who have chosen to live four hundred miles distant. And the humanities surely do not have an unblemished record. One of my favorite poets, Edmund Spenser, played a shameful role in the Elizabethan suppression of Ireland. T.S. Eliot, like so many others, was anti-Semitic; and the Nazis and the Soviets both manipulated the humanities to further their enterprises. So it is not enough to say that we need to study the humanities. We also need to study how to study the humanities, which is itself, paradoxically, part of the humanities. If we simply make the humanities into another example of unthinking, rote learning, then we transform them into a means of oppression rather than liberation.

The humanities, after all, are among the things that make us human. The concept of the humanities presents a number of problems, which are evident in our vague notion of what we mean by the term. Too often we simply equate the concept with the related but historically quite distinct terms “humanitarian” and “humane,” and we tend to think of a humanist as someone who has certain humane qualities. Actually the term “humanities” comes from the Latin studia humanitatis, a phrase that we might translate as “a liberal education.” Because few of us can agree on the meaning of “a liberal education,” however, that definition is of little help, though the early connection between the notion of the humanities and an educational system is significant.

For the modern world, the idea of the humanities was revived in the Renaissance, and although there is considerable dispute over what the word meant to the Renaissance humanists, we can say some definite things about it. For example, we know that it was again used to refer primarily to an educational system, in this case a system that developed largely as a reaction to late medieval scholasticism and that emphasized the study of classical Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek literature. Significantly, an overwhelming majority of Renaissance humanists were educators (most of the rest were statesmen), and consequently they conveyed their program not only through their numerous books and pamphlets, but also through their students.

Yet the idealism of the Renaissance humanists, their concern with human affairs and the higher aspirations of humanity, did little to keep the Renaissance from being a brutal age, and in fact led, by a rather complex process, to the excesses of the Reformation, the Counter-reformation, and the Inquisition. Even so, one of the leading humanist ideas focused on the dignity of humanity, the notion that humans can be either bestial or angelic, but that they have a duty to opt for the latter. Thus, the ideas and ideals of the humanists were good, but the overall program failed. With relatively few exceptions, Renaissance humanism did little to make human beings better, despite a lasting influence on education, which continued to emphasize the Greek and Latin classics until the twentieth century. At the same time, precisely because it was an ideal, it was bound to fail: ideals are things we strive toward, not necessarily things we accomplish. It is the striving that makes us better.

Today we might think that the humanities consist of all those fields of study and activities that teach us what it means to be human; in ways both bad and good. The humanities present us with numerous alternatives for behavior and the basis for choosing among them. This, of course, is hardly a new idea; and it may be appropriate at this point to quote Sir Philip Sidney, who says in his “Apolologie for Poetrie,” the following: “this purifying of wit, this enritching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceyt, which commonly we call learning…[its] final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate soules…can be capable of…so that, the ending end of all earthly learning being virtuous action, those skilles that most serve to bring forth that have a most just title to be Princes over all the rest” (160-61). This equation of knowledge with virtuous action, which goes back to Socrates, is central to my belief in the value of the humanities; and I should add here that I include religion as one of the humanities. By making us aware of alternative forms of action and by giving us a basis for choosing among them, the humanities should make us more truly human in the best sense of the word. The humanities, then, take advantage of our ability to dance, to sing, to sculpt, to draw or paint, and to use language in order to show us both what we have been, what we are, and what we can be. And I cannot stress this point enough: the humanities have a dimension of enjoyment.

On Enjoyment

Photo by MorBCN, Flickr, Creative Commons

When I used to enter some of the chain bookstores that existed in shopping malls, I was struck by the way they classified their books. There was usually one section called “Fiction” and one, much smaller, called “Literature.” Invariably the “Fiction” section was crowded with browsers, while the “Literature” section stood nearly deserted. Occasionally these stores made a further division and offered a section of “Poetry.” If “Literature” was nearly deserted, “Poetry” looked like a quarantine zone.

What could these divisions mean? There are several possibilities to consider. One is that “fiction” and “literature” are regarded as quite different things. “Fiction,” for example, is what people read for enjoyment. “Literature” is what they read for school. Or “fiction” is what living people write and is about the present. “Literature” was written by people (often white males) who have since died and is about times and places that have nothing to do with us. Or “fiction” offers everyday pleasures, but “literature” is to be honored and respected, even though it is boring. Of course, when we put anything on a pedestal, we remove it from everyday life, so the corollary is that literature is to be honored and respected, but it is not to be read, certainly not by any normal person with normal interests.

The bookstores, of course, were not wholly to be blamed for making this artificial distinction. They simply reflected societal attitudes, attitudes that are still shared by devotees of both fiction and literature. Sadly, it is the guardians of literature, that is, of the classics, who have done so much to take the life out of literature, to put it on a pedestal and thereby to make it an irrelevant aspect of American life. Even an eminent critic like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., someone who is concerned with the nature of literature, once wrote in the Book Review section of the New York Times (February 27, 1989) that “no one went into literature out of an interest in literature-in-general.” I hope that Gates’s statement is mistaken; I know that in my case it certainly is. What this statement illustrates, however, is the power of specialization, which forces people into a much too narrow view of the field of literature. It would surely be more accurate to say that “no one went into literature out of an interest in the poetry of Matthew Prior” (just to choose one example). People study literature because they love literature. They certainly don’t do it for the money. But what happens too often, especially in colleges, is that teachers forget what it was that first interested them in the study of literature. They forget the joy that they first felt (and perhaps still feel) as they read a new novel or a poem or as they reread a work and saw something new in it. Instead they erect formidable walls around these literary works, giving the impression that the only access to a work is through deep learning and years of study. Such study is clearly important for scholars—I work in some highly esoteric fields myself, and I enjoy reading other scholars’ publications—but this kind of scholarship is not the only way, or even necessarily the best way, for most people to approach literature. Instead it makes the literature seem inaccessible. It makes the literature seem like the province of scholars. “Oh, you have to be smart to read that,” as though Shakespeare or Dickens or Woolf wrote only for English teachers, not for general readers. Is it any wonder that people who have learned about literature in such a system tend to shy away from it? We do not tell students that they must learn music theory before they can listen to music. If they like music enough, they should want to understand it. The same is true for literature.

The teacher of literature has to remember why he or she entered the field of literature. The motivation was likely a love of words and of stories and of what good writers can do with words and stories. That sense is what we have to convey. When I see a good play in a baseball game, I call whoever might be home to watch the replay; or when I hear a new piece of music, I invite someone to listen with me. I want to share my enjoyment. So, too, with literature. I love The Iliad. It provides both aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment, and I want to share that enjoyment with my students.

On Misconceptions

Close up of relief showing spoils from the Siege of Jerusalem / Photo by Dnalor 01, Wikimedia Commons

Of course, there are a number of misconceptions about literature that have to be gotten out of the way before anyone can enjoy it. One misconception is that literature is full of hidden meanings. There are certainly occasional works that contain hidden meanings. The biblical book of Revelation, for example, was written in a kind of code, using images that had specific meanings for its early audience but that we can only recover with a great deal of difficulty. Most literary works, however, are not at all like that. Perhaps an analogy will illustrate this point. When I take my car to my mechanic because something is not working properly, he opens the hood and we both stand there looking at the engine. But after we have looked for a few minutes, he is likely to have seen what the problem is, while I could look for hours and never see it. We are looking at the same thing. The problem is not hidden, nor is it in some secret code. It is right there in the open, accessible to anyone who knows how to “read” it, which my mechanic does and I do not. He has been taught how to “read” automobile engines and he has practiced “reading” them. He is a good “close reader,” which is why I continue to take my car to him.

The same thing is true for readers of literature. Generally authors want to communicate with their readers, so they are not likely to hide or disguise what they are saying, but reading literature also requires some training and some practice. Good writers use language very carefully, and readers must learn how to be sensitive to that language, just as the mechanic must learn to be sensitive to the appearances and sounds of the engine. Everything that the writer wants to say, and much that the writer may not be aware of, is there in the words. We simply have to learn how to read them.

Another popular misconception is that a literary work has a single “meaning” (and that only English teachers know how to find that meaning). There is an easy way to dispel this misconception. Just go to a college library and find the section that holds books on Shakespeare. Choose one play, Hamlet, for example, and see how many books there are about it, all by scholars who are educated, perceptive readers. Can it be the case that one of these books is correct and all the others are mistaken? And if the correct one has already been written, why would anyone need to write another book about the play? The answer is that there is no single correct way to read a good piece of literature.

Again, let me use an analogy to illustrate this point. Suppose that everyone at a meeting were asked to describe a person who was standing in the middle of the room. Imagine how many different descriptions there would be, depending on where the viewer sat in relation to the person. Furthermore, an optometrist in the crowd might focus on the person’s glasses; a hair stylist might focus on the person’s haircut; someone who sells clothing might focus on the style of dress; a podiatrist might focus on the person’s feet. Would any of these descriptions be incorrect? Not necessarily, but they would be determined by the viewers’ perspectives. They might also be determined by such factors as the viewers’ ages, genders, or ability to move around the person being viewed, or by their previous acquaintance with the subject. So whose descriptions would be correct? Conceivably all of them, and if we put all of these correct descriptions together, we would be closer to having a full description of the person.

This is most emphatically not to say, however, that all descriptions are correct simply because each person is entitled to his or her opinion. If the podiatrist is of the opinion that the person is five feet, nine inches tall, the podiatrist could be mistaken. And even if the podiatrist actually measures the person, the measurement could be mistaken. Everyone who describes this person, therefore, must offer not only an opinion but also a basis for that opinion. “My feeling is that this person is a teacher” is not enough. “My feeling is that this person is a teacher because the person’s clothing is covered with chalk dust and because the person is carrying a stack of papers that look like they need grading” is far better, though even that statement might be mistaken.

So it is with literature. As we read, as we try to understand and interpret, we must deal with the text that is in front of us; but we must also recognize both that language is slippery and that each of us individually deals with it from a different set of perspectives. Not all of these perspectives are necessarily legitimate, and we are always liable to be misreading or misinterpreting what we see. Furthermore, it is possible that contradictory readings of a single work will both be legitimate, because literary works can be as complex and multi-faceted as human beings. It is vital, therefore, that in reading literature we abandon both the idea that any individual’s reading of a work is the “correct” one and the idea that there is one simple way to read any work. Our interpretations may, and probably should, change according to the way we approach the work. If we read War and Peace as teenagers, then in middle age, and then in old age, we might be said to have read three different books. Thus, multiple interpretations, even contradictory interpretations, can work together to give us a better understanding of a work.

On The Best Of Intentions (Or The Worst)

Intentions are a problem in studying literature. One complication is easily dispensed with. Teachers should never ask, “What was the author trying to say here?” The question, of course, implies that the author was an incompetent who was so unsuccessful in making a point that student readers have to decipher it. The real question is something like “What do these words say?” You may notice the phrasing of that question, which does not ask, “What does the author mean?” or “What does the author intend?”

The reason for that phrasing is that we cannot know (or we have to pretend that we cannot know) what the author intended. When we read literature, our focus has to be on what the words say, not on what the author intended. One reason that we have to take this stance is that an author’s words, even an author who is totally in control of those words, inevitably say more than the author intended. It even happens that the words may mean something that the author did not intend. I once attended a poetry reading, at the end of which someone asked the poet, “Why do you have so many images of flayed animals and animal skins in your poems?” to which the poet replied, “Do I?” After rereading his poems, he said, “Yes, I see that I do,” and he then tried to find a reason for those images, but clearly he was taken by surprise at what he himself had written.

Another reason to avoid focusing on the author’s intention is that if we know (or even think we know) what the author intended, we might cease our own interpretive activities. The author’s understanding of his or her work might be important, but strangely enough, it is only one understanding and might not be the best one. To use an analogy from music, Igor Stravinsky conducted many of his own compositions for recordings. Those versions are good, and they are surely important, but they are not the best interpretations of his own music.

Furthermore, we can never really know what an author intended, even if the author tells us. For one thing, authors are cagey creatures and might lie to us. For another, the author might not always know what his or her intention was. After all, how often do we really know our full intentions when we do or say something? And authors frequently use speakers in their works who are not themselves. If one of Shakespeare’s characters says something, we have to remember that we are listening to a character, not to Shakespeare. So, too, with poets and storytellers. Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver tells us many things that Swift himself would never have believed. So focus on the words, not on the author. Furthermore, even if we think we know what the author intended, we must remember that the author’s reading of a work is still only one among many possibilities.

On The Language Of Literature

Desdemona and Othello, by Antonio Muñoz Degrain / Chiado Museum via Wikimedia Commons

One of the problems in reading literature, of course, is that language itself can be so slippery. Let me give two examples to show what I mean. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello is describing how Desdemona loved to hear the tales of his adventures, and he says

She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man. (I.3.162-63)

Now what exactly do those lines mean? We must assume that Shakespeare knew what he was doing with language, and yet these lines contain an obvious ambiguity. Do they mean that Desdemona wished that heaven had made a man like Othello for her (reading “her” as an indirect object) or do they mean that she wished she had been made a man so that she could have such adventures (reading “her” as a direct object)? Should Shakespeare have clarified what he meant? Did poor old Shakespeare make a mistake here? As you might expect, the answers to those last two questions are both “no.” The ambiguity is intentional, and both readings are “correct.” On the one hand, Desdemona is revealing her love for Othello. She admires him and his deeds and wishes that a man like that existed for her. When we consider the kind of circumscribed life that a Renaissance woman of Desdemona’s class was forced to live and the poor impression that most of the other men in the play make on us, her wish is even easier to understand. On the other hand, given that circumscribed life, she also might well wish that she had been male and she reveals that she is not simply a timid, shrinking woman who exists to be used by men in any way they choose. She is someone who rebels against the limits that confront her, and her words here prepare us for her independent actions as the play progresses. So Desdemona’s wish is deliberately ambiguous, and both sides of the ambiguity are significant. What we must remember, then, is that writers use words the way artists use paint. In a work of literary artistry, none of the words are accidental or arbitrary, and if they seem ambiguous or out of place, we must try to understand why the writer used them. Yes, occasionally a writer makes a mistake, as Keats did when he identified Cortez as the European discoverer of the Pacific Ocean, but generally we have to assume that writers know what they are doing; and before we attack their use of words, we must try to understand them.

This point leads to the second problem with language, which is that words change their meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary(affectionately known as the OED) gives examples of how every word in it has been used over the centuries, and browsing in the OEDto see how words have changed can be a lot of fun. Such browsing can also be important. One simple but well-known example will illustrate my point. In the Declaration of Independence we read that “all men are created equal,” but we must ask what this important phrase means. If it means that I am as good a baseball player as Stan Musial or as good a singer as Placido Domingo, then it is clearly untrue, but surely that is not what it means. It means rather that all men are equal before the law. Fine. But what about the phrase “all men”? Although Garry Wills has argued that Thomas Jefferson included African-American men in the category of “all men,” we can safely assume that many in his audience, including many of the Declaration’s signers, certainly did not. And no one would argue that Jefferson or any other signer of the Declaration included American Indians or women in the category of “all men.” Thus while we read (or I hope we read) the phrase generically to mean that everyone, of every gender, race, or religion, is equal before the law, the earliest readers of the Declaration understood it to mean that all white males are created equal.

Whose reading is correct? The question itself is almost absurd. Apparently Jefferson may have meant one thing while his audience understood another—both eighteenth-century understandings—while we, from another perspective, understand it in yet another way. So, from an enlightened eighteenth-century point of view, Jefferson was correct. But from a common eighteenth-century point of view, deplorable though we may find it, Jefferson’s audience was correct. And from an ideal twenty-first-century point of view, which has not yet become a reality, our reading is correct. While it is essential that we recognize the superiority of our reading of this phrase, we also must, in the interest of historical accuracy, acknowledge at least two eighteenth-century readings of the phrase. As we saw in the example from Othello, multiple meanings abound; and even if we can argue that one interpretation has some kind of primacy, we must be sensitive to other possibilities that exist not as alternatives but as complements to the readings we prefer. And to return to our earlier discussion of intention, do we want to read this passage according to what we think Jefferson’s intentions might have been or according to the way the language is now understood?

Of course, this approach to reading requires a great deal of flexibility from the reader, who must be open to multiple interpretations and to taking different approaches, an openness that may contradict human nature. This view also runs counter to what we usually learn in school, where the emphasis is so often on finding the single correct answer to a question rather than on asking complex questions and then considering their complexity. Certainly the latter method cannot be tested with a multiple-choice exam and graded by a computer, but schools are responding to and reinforcing a society that rewards the single correct answer. Consequently, when people read literature, they are afraid that they are not getting what it “really” says. Even if they enjoy the reading, they fear, often quite mistakenly, that they are missing the “message.”

On Messages

A detail of the 13th-century Fontana Maggiorein Perugia with the fables of The Wolf and the Crane and The Wolf and the Lamb / Photo by G.dallorto, Wikimedia Commons

Here is another misconception about literature: that it contains messages, hidden or otherwise. Too often people approach literature as though it were all like Aesop’s Fables. Those fables are wonderful: they tell stories, and each story is followed by a moral, such as “Necessity is the mother of invention.” But very little literature works that way. Literature does have a moral dimension, of course, but great works cannot be summed up in pithy moral statements. A person who reads Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and decides that the point of the play is “don’t kill your father and marry your mother” has perhaps followed the action of the play but has missed the important points that the play makes. Of course, anyone who needs to read a play to learn that important lesson probably has other, more serious problems. One basis for such misconceptions is our uncertainty about what a work may be saying, which leads us to the easiest answer we can think of, an answer which is often a cliché or a moral truism. (This tendency is obviously related to our desire to get the one “correct” answer.) Another basis is the tendency among teachers to ask what the “theme” of a work is. This question is one that has often puzzled me because any good work contains multiple themes; when we pretend that a work has a single theme, we are likely to reduce a complex work to a single, aphoristic “message.” Telegrams convey messages, and if authors wanted to communicate such messages, they would send telegrams (or tweets) or write tracts or publish aphorisms. However authors want to convey some of the complexities and contradictions of human existence, and to reduce those qualities to “messages” or even to “main themes” is to do violence to what an author is trying to accomplish.

For example, the theme of most Renaissance love poetry (most of which was written by men) can be reduced to “I love her. She doesn’t love me. Oh rats.” We can find this “theme” in Petrarch, in Shakespeare, in Spenser, in Sidney, even in contemporary country-western music. Frankly it does not need to be said all that often, and if this is really all that those poets were saying, we would be foolish to waste our time reading them. But what they were doing was in fact quite different. They were using this stock situation to explore such aspects of the world as religion, the self, the nature of relationships, and the nature of love itself. Focusing only on their usnrequited love is like buying a bicycle because of its color: the color may be interesting, but a person who decides on the basis of the color has missed the whole point of the bicycle.

Furthermore, a good deal of the enjoyment in such poems comes from the clever ways in which poets use that stock situation for their own purposes, often to mock their own speakers, as Sir Thomas Wyatt does in “They Flee from Me,” or even to be deeply critical of their speakers, as Sir Philip Sidney does in Astrophel and Stella (a point, incidentally, about which many Renaissance scholars might disagree).

The speaker in Wyatt’s poem may lament his beloved’s apparent lack of faithfulness to him, but the words he uses to describe their relationship make it clear why she has abandoned him. He compares her to birds (or perhaps to squirrels—it’s hard to tell), little creatures that come to his window and eat out of his hands. This comparison reveals that he thinks of her as a little domesticated pet, another creature who eats out of his hands; and as the poem continues, he reveals further that he thinks of her only in sexual terms as an object that he can use, not as a real person. Can it be any wonder that she has abandoned him? Part of the fun of this poem comes in watching the doltish speaker reveal himself as a fool while he thinks that he is exposing his lady’s unfaithfulness. At the same time, this speaker is completely mystified because he truly believes himself to be a sincere and faithful lover. Similarly, Sidney’s Astrophel shows himself to be a shallow, if ardent, lover—a young man who knows the rules of the game of love but who seems incapable of realizing that his beloved Stella does not want to play. On the other hand, Edmund Spenser’s lover in the sonnets of the Amoretti learns what it means to be a real lover and, in an extraordinary turn of events for a Renaissance sonnet sequence, actually marries the lady.

Can we take three such different poets, all of them writing in the sixteenth century, and talk about the “theme” of their poems? They are exploring human existence by examining the essential human emotion of love, but they are doing so in distinctly different ways and having fun while they do so.

On Reading Literature

Written text from the earliest illustrated handscroll (12th century) of Tale of Genji / Imperial Palace Kyoto via Wikimedia Commons

So if language is ambiguous and if literature does not send aphoristic little messages, what is the point of studying or even of reading it? Since the State of New York pays me to teach students about literature, I ought to be able to answer this question—and I think I can. Actually I have several answers, some of which might strike other literature teachers as old-fashioned and even naïve but which I prefer to think of as enduring.

Let me begin my answer by saying that literature is not just an escape. Sometimes, of course, people do want to escape and there are books—or sporting events or television shows or video games—that will help them to do so, but so much in our everyday lives has become a means of escape that I wonder how terrible life is to make people want such escapes. Literature, however, offers not escape but confrontation. Literature forces readers to confront the complexities of the world, to confront what it means to be a human being in this difficult and uncertain world, to confront other people who may be unlike them, and ultimately to confront themselves.

And how does literature force these confrontations? The first thing we must realize is that reading literature is an interactive engagement. The composer Gustav Mahler said that a symphony is a world. So is a work of literature, but the relationship between the reader and the world of a work of literature is complex and fascinating. Frequently when we read a work, we become so involved in it that we may feel that we have become part of it. “I was really into that novel,” we might say, and in one sense that statement can be accurate. But in another sense it is clearly inaccurate, for actually we do not enter the book so much as the book enters us; the words enter our eyes in the form of squiggles on a page which are transformed into words, sentences, paragraphs, and meaningful concepts in our brains, in our imaginations, where scenes and characters are given “a local habitation and a name.” Thus, when we “get into” a book, we are actually “getting into” our own mental conceptions that have been produced by the book, which, incidentally, explains why so often readers are dissatisfied with cinematic or television adaptations of literary works. Having read Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights, we develop our own idea of what Anna Karenina and Heathcliff are like, and no actress or actor, even Greta Garbo or Laurence Olivier, can replace our ideas. (Digression: Teachers may think that they are helping their students by showing film versions of works that they have read for class. Unless the work being read is a play, which was meant to be performed, they are not. Students should be encouraged to think of books as books, not as the rough material out of which films, often bad films, are made.) The author of a book creates, but the reader is called upon to recreate. The reader cannot function without the book, but neither can the book function without the reader. The book is the point where minds meet for a kind of communication that can take place nowhere else; and when we read a work, whether by an ancient poet like Homer or a contemporary novelist like Kazuo Ishiguro, we are encountering a living mind, a mind that can give us a different perspective on the world we inhabit right now.

In fact, though it may seem a trite thing to say, writers are close observers of the world who are capable of communicating their visions, and the more perspectives we have to draw on, the better able we should be to make sense of our lives. In these terms, it makes no difference whether we are reading a Homeric poem, a twelfth-century Japanese novel like The Tale of Genji, or a novel by Dickens. The more different perspectives we get, the better. And it must be emphasized that we read such works not only to be well-rounded (whatever that means) or to be “educated” or for antiquarian interest. We read them because they have something to do with us, with our lives. Whatever culture produced them, whatever the gender or race or religion of their authors, they relate to us as human beings; and all of us can use as many insights into being human as we can get. Reading is not separate from experience. It is itself a kind of experience, and while we may not have the time or the opportunity or it may be physically impossible for us to experience certain things in the world, we can experience them through sensitive reading. So literature allows us to broaden our experiences, though it is up to us to make use of those experiences.

Reading also forces us to focus our thoughts. The world around us is so full of stimuli that we are easily distracted. Unless we are involved in a crisis that demands our full attention, we flit from subject to subject. But when we read a book, even a book that has a large number of characters and covers many years, the story and the writing help us to focus, to think about what they show us in a concentrated manner. In this sense, too, a book is like a world. When I hold a book, I often feel that I have in my hand another world that I can enter and that will help me to understand the everyday world that I inhabit. Though it may sound funny, some of my best friends live in books, and no matter how frequently I visit them, each time I learn more about them and about myself. And if what I have just said is true about narratives, it is even more intensely true about poetry, which is often a more intense form of literary creation.

And, to return to the point with which I began, reading literature in this way is enjoyable. Unfortunately, teachers, with the best of intentions, too often forget that literature is intended to be enjoyed. No writers (and this may be hard to believe) ever set out to bore an audience, nor, with relatively few exceptions, have they intended to be obscure. Thomas Hardy did not write his novels so that students could mine them for vocabulary words, and Jane Austen did not write hers so that students could be quizzed. Though such activities may have their practical value, they surely serve to make the study of literature something less than enjoyable. If those activities are what constitute the study of literature, why would anyone ever want to study it?

A real indication of how unsuccessful so much teaching of literature is can be found in the frequency with which students speak of “dissecting” poems, stories, plays, and novels. What other kinds of things do they dissect? Dead things. So students are learning, whether overtly or by implication, that literature is dead, like the frogs in their biology classes. What a tragedy for them (as well as for the frogs). Literature may not literally be alive, but we can infuse it with life when we approach it correctly. Approaching it correctly means not relying on reading quizzes, not mining it for vocabulary words, and not forcing students to engage in searches for what is commonly called “symbolism.” Allow students to engage with the work, to take it apart very delicately—word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, verse by verse—so that they can examine those parts and then put them back together so that they can understand the work more deeply. Doing so will allow students to go beyond paraphrase but will not require that they get lost in the symbol hunting that they hate.

Another hindrance to the study of literature is the practice of making students memorize rules and terms before they have a chance to get excited about literature, as though the only way to enjoy music would be to memorize chord progressions. I do what I do now, that is, I teach English, because of a junior high school English teacher who made me so excited about literature that I wanted to learn the rules and terms; and when I learned them, of course, the literature became even more meaningful and exciting. The job of the schools should be to encourage that excitement. Help the students enjoy what they are learning and they are more likely to learn. Of course, that is an easy statement to make and a hard one to accomplish. Best-sellers are often fairly simple, while works that I categorize, in what may seem like an elitist way, as “literature” tend to be more difficult. Why would we voluntarily undertake something difficult, especially when there are so many easy alternatives available? In fact, we often do difficult things because we enjoy them. Golf may be difficult, but apparently a lot of people like to play the game. So again, as Horace said, enjoyment is fundamental to our experience. In addition, some things pay off more if we work hard at them.

And what exactly is so enjoyable about reading literature? This is a difficult question for me to answer. I happen to love literature, so that it seems self-evident to me that reading literature is enjoyable (just as to someone who loves fishing, the joy of fishing is self-evident). I enjoy all the things that I have just finished describing as the valuable aspects of literature, the chance to meet interesting characters and to visit interesting places, the chance to use my imagination and to think about things that might otherwise escape my notice, the chance to see the world from perspectives that I would otherwise not have. In fact, some of these perspectives I would rather not have. I would rather see Oedipus, for example, than be Oedipus. At the same time, I will never be a woman or an African-American or a medieval man, but reading sensitively can help me see the world from those and other perspectives. These are exciting possibilities, and they are enjoyable, though perhaps difficult.

On Words

Gerard Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) was an English poet, Roman Catholic convert, and Jesuit priest, whose posthumous fame established him among the leading Victorian poets. / Wikimedia Commons

But there are other kinds of enjoyment as well. There is, for example, the enjoyment of words. Because we are so surrounded by words, we take them for granted, but we must remember that words and our ability to use them, to manipulate them, differentiate us from all other animals. As Philip Sidney says, the writer’s ability to use words makes the writer like God. After all, the biblical story of creation shows God creating by using only words: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” And the Gospel According to John begins, “In the beginning was the Word.” In Hebrew, the same word, davar, means both “word” and “thing.” Words are things, and through words we understand and recreate our world. So, too, though in a more systematic away, does the writer. But the writer also plays with words.

One pleasure that we seem to have lost in the modern world comes from the sound of words. Back in the fourth century, St. Augustine mentioned how odd his teacher Ambrose was because he read silently to himself, without even moving his lips. Obviously for Augustine, who was himself well-read, reading meant reading out loud; and even today when religious Jews study the Talmud, they do so by chanting it softly but out loud. Overall, however, we discourage the practice of reading out loud, and we even make fun of those who move their lips when they read. What a sad development. When writers write, they hear the music of their words, and we do them a great disservice when we fail to hear that music. Of course, we live in a world that is always in a hurry (what happened to all that extra time that computers were supposed to give us?) and reading out loud takes more time, but reading literature is not an activity that should be done quickly. We should savor it. We would not rush through a Beethoven symphony or a Duke Ellington song just for the sake of finishing it, nor would we fast forward through a movie and then claim that we had watched it. Nor should we speed our way through a work of literature, and when we read poetry we should by all means read it out loud. That is how poetry is meant to be read.

Again, let me use a specific example to illustrate my point. Take a few minutes and read the following poem out loud, slowly and with expression:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West wen
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

I have chosen this poem very deliberately and for a number of reasons. One reason is that it is simply so beautiful in so many ways. Another reason is that it is by one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. And another reason is that Hopkins was a Roman Catholic priest in late-nineteenth-century England and consequently wrote from a time, a culture, and a religion that were completely different from my own. Given those basic differences between us, realizing that I share relatively few of Hopkins’ assumptions, why do I find Hopkins’ poem so beautiful? Why do I take such pleasure in it?

Clearly one aspect of the poem that is beautiful is the way it reads. “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” What a wonderful line that is! Here we have nine one-syllable words, with all but the first two using short vowel sounds. The third and fourth words, “men then,” use the same sound and rhyme with each other, while the fifth and sixth words, “now not,” alliterate and use the same vowel sound but do not rhyme, and the seventh and ninth words, “reck…rod,” repeat those vowel sounds in the same order, separated by the new vowel sound of “his.” Put together, those seven short vowels, introduced by the long vowels of “Why do,” create a kind of music. So, too, in a strange way, do the words “and all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil.” At this point Hopkins is bewailing the effects of industrialization on the natural world, so he is hardly trying to paint a beautiful picture. He wants us to see how nature has been blighted by what human beings have done to it. Nevertheless, in what may seem like a paradox, he describes this blight in a way that can only be described as beautiful, as the three rhyming adjectives “seared…bleared…smeared,” two of them alliterating, contrast with the two long-vowelled alliterating nouns “trade…toil.” Furthermore, those adjectives are not particularly pleasant sounding words. The whole poem is full of such playing with sounds.

Another effect that Hopkins achieves comes from the way the words he uses sound like what they are meant to describe. We can hear this point in those adjectives or in the lines

It will flame out like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

Here Hopkins describes two ways in which what he calls the “grandeur of God” can be perceived. The first way is sudden and brilliant, like light reflecting off the multifaceted, shining surface of crumpled foil. Again we have not only the alliterations of “flame” and “foil,” “shining” and “shook,” but the words actually sound like what they describe, “shining from shook foil.” Similarly in the next line, which shows the “grandeur of God” not as a sudden and diffuse phenomenon but instead as something that gathers slowly in a single spot, Hopkins makes the sound of his words reflect the meaning. There is, of course, more alliteration in the words “gathers…greatness…ooze…oil,” and that last phrase, “like the ooze of oil” is particularly effective in conveying the idea of a slow and deliberate gathering of that grandeur. Finally, the last word of the sentence, “crushed,” is postponed until the next line. All it means, literally, is that Hopkins is talking about the oil of crushed olives, plain old olive oil. But the effect of that word, the last word of the sentence occupying the first position on a new line, is, well, crushing. It changes the tone of what he has been saying from a description of the grandeur of God to the despair of “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” It is a brilliant transition because it is both jarring and harmonious, disturbing and appropriate. It is absolutely the right word in the right place, and there is something satisfying and pleasurable about that combination.

Hopkins, like other writers, creates similar pleasures by creating new phrases that show us things in new ways. Just as an artist might paint a portrait that reveals something new about a person or a composer might find a melodic or harmonic twist that makes us hear differently, so a writer, by using words in new combinations, can produce what Herman Melville called “the shock of recognition.” Suddenly we see something as we have never seen it before, at least not consciously. This effect is necessarily subjective; that is, different phrases will affect different people. For me, every time I read Hopkins’ line “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” I feel that shock of recognition. All he is saying is that nature constantly renews itself, that no matter what human beings do to it, there is something regenerative in nature. I know that. Everyone knows that. But what makes this line special is how Hopkins says it. “There lives,” there is something alive and organic, something that we cannot kill no matter how we try. And what is that something? It is “the dearest freshness,” a phrase that I could try to comment on for pages but that I would never surpass for concision and descriptiveness. For me, it is a phrase loaded with significance, and contemplating that phrase in its context, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” as I consider the sounds, the words, the hopefulness, the promise of renewal, raise me above the mundane, the everyday problems that cloud our vision. And though Hopkins goes on to attribute this “dearest freshness” to his Christian, more specifically his Roman Catholic, view of God, I do not have to be Catholic to appreciate the poem. I can appreciate Hopkins’ faith and the genius that allowed him to transform that faith into art.

Finally, I find great pleasure in the structure of the poem. Formally the poem is a sonnet, that is, basically, a fourteen-line poem. No one needs to know that it is a sonnet in order to enjoy it, but knowing that it is and knowing the many ways that sonnets have been used in the last seven centuries increases one’s enjoyment of Hopkins’ particular manipulation of the tradition. Seeing how skillfully he uses the first eight lines (the octet) to pose a problem and the last six lines (the sestet) to resolve the problem, and seeing how he uses the meter and rhyme scheme to reinforce that point make me enjoy the poem even more.

Perhaps what I am getting at here is that the poem, both in what it says and how it says it, is beautiful. I certainly am not foolhardy enough to try to define beauty, but I do know that there is not enough of it in our world. I once surprised a class—and myself—by asking what there was in their lives that was beautiful. When they did not seem to understand the question, I asked if the music they listened to or the pictures they looked at, the books they read, or the things that surrounded them were beautiful. They never did understand what I meant. Apparently no one, in all the years they had been in school, ever talked to them about the beauty of what they were studying, whether it was music or art, mathematics or biology. Students read poetry in school and are supposed to identify “themes” or define vocabulary words or distinguish between Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets. That’s not how to read poetry. Sometimes the best initial reaction to reading a poem is simply “Wow!” And the next reaction is to read it again. Students often apologize for having had to reread poems—“I didn’t get it the first time,” they say. Of course they had to reread it! Poems are meant to be reread, many times. Each reading should bring new understanding and new pleasures, and no reading will ever be exhaustive, will ever reveal all the meaning that is in the poem. That inexhaustibility is also part of the pleasure, just the way that finding new aspects of a person one loves increases one’s understanding and love. That inexhaustibility is why I have been teaching for forty-two years without getting tired of it.


By Theodore L. Steinberg, et.al, provided by SUNY Fredonia, published by Lumen Learning under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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