How do we choose great texts for our schools?
In Part I of this series I covered how not to choose a text for a classical reading list. My next post will cover non-fictional works. This week we explore what we should look for in works of imaginative literature: plays, poems, novels and short stories.
When we are looking for works of imaginative literature, we should choose texts that move us to feel more deeply the human condition and to see more clearly the life we have in common.
Great texts convey what is human through physical and psychological details, crafted by writers in their works. These details are the material of story and poetry: the rosy fingered dawn at Homer’s Troy; Dante the Pilgrim’s confusion as he encounters fellow Florentines in the poet’s Inferno; the sorrow Shakespeare’s Ophelia suffers with Hamlet’s cruel words and her father’s death; the summer’s overwhelming heat in Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg; the bitter, winter cold in Solzhenitsyn’s gulag; the pines and pecan trees of O’Connor’s South; the convergence of wagons and cars, farmers and clerks, in Agee’s Knoxville one hundred years ago.
Such details are particular, born from region, dialect, gender, race, religion, politics, and age. As such, they are believable. We are all human and born from particulars of our own. Our minds are capable of connecting to or even recreating the experience of another. Those two foundational truths mean that the expression of humanity we find in literature is accessible to the reader, and a deeper appreciation for our shared condition is entirely attainable through the details carefully built in the written work.
When we think of the human condition, our minds turn to matters of great importance: life, death, love, iniquity, adventure, disappointment, faith, doubt, courage, regret. No story or poem speaks to everything. But if it is to illuminate our lives, it has to convey what is real: in other words, we the readers need to see in the work something true about our humanity. The details of the text have to take shape in recognizable images that sharpen our vision of the familiar.
Let’s focus on one of those matters of importance and see how a great text deals with something real and its illuminative power. Take death. The common, shared perspective on death is that it is a great evil: there is nothing good about death as such. We avoid dying; our hearts break at the early death of a loved one or the cruel loss of life at the hands of tyrants; our minds grow sober at the prospect of war. Against death, we want to live. Against death we want to live as ourselves, which for Christians means resurrection. This longing for life is genuinely human and shared by all. It is common ground.
So is the bald fact that death comes for all of us. And part of what great writers do is capture for us how that inevitability looks and feels, how it imposes its shadow on the days we have remaining, how we face it, how we the living move on after death has struck our kind. Great writers imagine all of that for us.
Let’s take a look at one of the greatest reflections on death in the English language, an Emily Dickinson poem, #479, known more widely by its first line, “Because I could not stop for Death.” I include the entire text here. Let’s read it and think through how her reflection, built with her selection of details, is real, believable, and illuminative.
This is a difficult poem and often misunderstood. In preparing this post, I found Helen Vendler’s essay on #479 in her collection called Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries a great help. It is a beautiful and insightful piece. I recommend it and the entire collection to all my readers.
From the first stanza, Dickinson’s is clearly the voice of the poem. She occupies the heart of the poem’s movement—its action and thought. Death is personified as the driver of the carriage in which she finds herself. To him she attributes a courtly manner. He stops for her; he bears a “Civility” toward her. Without resistance, nor evident regret, and under no pressure of “haste,” she gives up her “labor” and her “leisure,” which, taken together, is the core of her life. But why does she do this?
Perhaps Dickinson is ready to take that ride, to pass away. Is there evidence in the poem that she is prepared to let this life go? There is that other passenger, Immortality, and his presence would seem to lend something good. Immortality means something personal after all: a woman with an immortal soul lives on after death. That would be a reassurance, a foundation for some kind of hope. Her companion, this line of thought might go, will help her over to the other side. To support that, one can observe that Dickinson rhymes and thereby identifies “me” in the second line with “Immortality” in the fourth.
In the second stanza, Dickinson’s “I” and the “he” referring to Death, are replaced by “We”; and, given the last line of the first stanza, that first person plural must include the second passenger, Immortality. At first glance, Dickinson seems to take in the progress of the carriage without anxiety, traveling through her town, passing three sites: first the school, then the fields, and then the sun. At this point—beyond the name Death—nothing ominous about the driver stands out. The party of three appears to roll along.
At second glance, we cannot help but notice the odd adjective “gazing” predicated to “Grain.” Why is the grain taking a long look? Perhaps it is a last look, since grain exists to be harvested, cut down by the same tool used by the Grim Reaper. Death collects lives the way a farmer gathers wheat.
Nor can we miss the reversal of perspective regarding the sun in the first line of the third stanza: from having noted that they passed the sun, now Dickinson reverses and says, “rather—He passed us.” Something appears to be dawning on her at this moment—a creeping sensation that the ride is not what she initially thought it was. The feeling of courtliness and the general ease of the ride appear to have slipped away. What if she passes the sun? What is beyond the sun but death? It seems that by allowing the sun to pass by, she recoils from the forward progress of the carriage ride. We might say she keeps her foot in this life with its suns and sunsets. Perhaps better said, she keeps her mind in this life. It is as if she suddenly sees clearly the ride for what it is.
The third stanza continues by detailing her attire. And what we find is that it is entirely deficient for the ride. The “gown” is of “gossamer,” which is a very thin pearly colored material; the “tippet” is a shawl and hers is of “tulle,” which is mere lace. The sun has set. Death has driven her from the day, where there was no deficiency in her dress, into the night, where there is. Now, she feels the drawing “Dews” and the “chill.” Her dress and shawl are no barrier to the night’s cold. She is not prepared: she is not ready for the night, nor for death.
The full drama of the poem is emerging as events are rapidly developing. The first line of the fourth stanza shifts the rhythm and pace of the poem. Compared to the other first lines, the syllables here are fewer by two, the accented syllables fewer by one. It is as if the horses drawing the carriage had made a turn or pulled up on a step or two.
For another thing, up to this point in the poem, three times the party had “passed” by something: first the school, then the fields, then the sun. That action is abruptly interrupted in that first line of the fourth stanza: rather, they “paused” this time “before a House.” Why the pause? Why did Death bring her here to this spot?
When we look more closely, we realize it is no house at all. It looks like “A Swelling of the Ground”; its Cornice is “in the Ground.” This is no house in the normal sense of the word; it is merely a grave with its tell-tale mound of earth and angle-topped tomb sinking into the earth. It is a “house” for the dead. Note too that this is the only time Dickinson rhymes the same word—”Ground” with “Ground,” as if to say, that is all there is.
Dickinson lives beyond the ghoulish carriage ride. The poem’s last stanza gives evidence of that: “Since then,” it begins, and then she reflects back on the “Day” she noticed those horses and the eternal direction in which they pulled their carriage. In the image of the horses, there is one final feint towards something we might identify as hopeful. At first glance, we might think the horses’ heads were bent heavenward because they bent “toward Eternity.”
The image of the horses’ heads is lovely; their bending conveys energy, much like the “striving” of the children at the school. We would like their countenance to be meaningful. But like a sudden jerk on the horses’ reins, Dickinson sharply turns our attention in a direction we had likely not anticipated. There is no sense of heaven in these final lines. “Immortality” had anchored the opening; it was the last word in the first stanza; but by the end, Immortality has vanished from the poem. Now, “Eternity,” the last word of the sixth and final stanza, ends the poem. Eternity is utterly impersonal if it stands alone as it does here. In its position as the final word, it definitively ends the hope for lasting life. All that it leaves Dickinson with is the lasting image of the grave. In that image, all that is left for the dead are their remains in houses built of dirt and sinking tombstones. This is why the passage of time, or “Centuries” as we find it named in the first line of this final stanza, feels “shorter than the Day” on which the image of the grave struck her. After her encounter with the grave, the comparison she employs is final: No passage of time in this life can alter the measurement of death’s eternal empty promise.
Recall how this post opened with a few observations about death. No one wants to die. At least by the end of her poem, Dickinson herself sees clearly that death is no friend. At the least, death offers her nothing. At the most, death is the final enemy. Death would take from her all that she does, all that she is. Death would finally reduce her to a meaningless end.
We sympathize with that response to death. It reminds us of Homer’s Achilleus who broods over the fact that the fate of all men, warrior and farmer alike, is the same: they all die. In the face of that fact, what is the point of his return to battle? We understand how the graveyard can pull us up short, as it does for Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he contemplates that it matters not whether one is a court jester or an emperor: each ends up in the ground. We feel the despair and confusion of Dostoyevsky’s Alyosha at the death of his beloved elder, Father Zossima: all hope seems to have vanished until, of course, his restorative vision of the wedding feast at Cana.
We all know death’s pall as part of the tender sorrow of the human condition. We know too that it stands opposed to the abiding desire for life. That longing for life, for life beyond death, for life as ourselves, is real. Emily Dickinson helps us feel that. Her poem makes us feel what we ought to feel. It illuminates the ground we have in common.
That ground is a good place to start for choosing great imaginative texts.
In my next post, we turn to expository literature.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.
Header image of Emily Dickinson's handwriting and image of Emily Dickinson PD-Old.