Tough Lives Need Poetry’s Toughness

Fred Gardner, Poor Student (1934)


I’m currently reading Thor Magnus Tangeras’s Literature and Transformation: A Narrative Study of Life-Changing Reading Experiences, thanks to an alert from Oberlin librarian Valerie Hotchkiss. Given that I’ve just finished my own book on literature’s life-changing potential, I found myself strangely defensive when I first started it. Had he beaten me to the punch in talking about the impact of literary immersion?

Thinking about it further, however, made me realize that this is all to the good. When the world is starting to wake up to your ideas, that’s the best time to publish.

I also appreciate it how Tangeras is introducing me to others who have written on the subject that I’ve missed. I share some their observations today and will discuss the book more in upcoming posts.

Although I have heard about novelist Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography, I haven’t read it and and so didn’t realize the degree to which literature came to her rescue. Winterson was raised to be a Pentecostal Christian missionary but came out as a lesbian at 16 and left home. At a time when she was “confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels,” she read T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. The play turned her upside down, especially the lines,

This is one moment,
But know that another
Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.

Winterson says the “unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable.” She goes on to comment,

I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot book helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it’s irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

And elsewhere:

Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.

Tangeras writes that reading helped Winterson

feel belonging, gave her access to new experiences and helped her deal with hardship: “I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground…Literature is common ground.”

Tangeras also notes that literature helped author Rachel Kelly negotiate dark times. In Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me – My Journey through Depression, Kelly describes how reading poetry

helped her conquer two serious episodes of depression: “It’s no exaggeration to say that poetry proved a lifeline.” She drew strength from the ability of Gerard Manley Hopkins to celebrate the healing powers of nature, and George Herbert’s “Love (3),” which functioned as an antidote to the negative stories that dominated her mind at the time.

Literature and Transformation has put me on to some other great quotations as well, including this one from philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method:

The work of art is not an object that stands over against a subject for itself. Instead the work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.


In the experience of art we see a genuine experience induced by the work, which does not leave him who has it unchanged.

And then there’s Czech literary theorist Jan Mukarovsky, who in the following passage writes about the arts in general but in ways that apply to literature:

The work becomes capable of being closely connected to the entirely personal experiences, images and feelings of any perceiver – capable of affecting not only his conscious mental life but even of setting into motion forces which govern his subconscious. The perceiver’s entire personal relation to reality, whether active or contemplative, will henceforth be changed to a greater or lesser degree by this influence. Hence the work of art has such powerful effect upon man not because it gives him – as the common formula goes – an impression of the author’s personality, his experience and so forth, but because it influences the perceiver’s personality, his experiences and so forth.

In his book, Tangeras sets out to figure out how exactly this influencing works by sharing five extended conversations with readers about their life-changing experiences with specific works. Then, turning to the specialized language of psychology, he looks for patterns in their accounts. More on Tangeras’s book to come.

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Dryden on Charismatic Demagogues

John Riley, Monmouth (Absalom in Dryden’s Absalom and Architophel)


I wrote recently about John Dryden’s magnificent political satire Absalom and Architophel, applying the Earl of Shaftesbury’s 1679 attempt to strongarm Charles II to Donald Trump’s attack on American democracy. I’ve found some more passage from the poem that I just have to share.

Shaftesbury (Architophel in the poem) wants to establish Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth (Absalom), as Charles’s successor in place of Charles’s Catholic brother James. In the poem he persuades Absalom to go along.

Not that Absalom needs much persuading, just as Trump didn’t need much persuading to pressure a crowd and various election officials to overturn the 2020 election. In the passages I share today, the charismatic Absalom/Monmouth uses his rhetorical powers to persuade the masses to follow him. Think of him forsaking the White House court and, surrounded by 17th century Rudy Giulianis and Steve Bannons, dazzling “the admiring crowd” with his own rally:

Surrounded thus with friends of every sort,
Deluded Absalom forsakes the court;
Impatient of high hopes, urged with renown,
And fired with near possession of a crown.
The admiring crowd are dazzled with surprise,
And on his goodly person feed their eyes.
His joy concealed, he sets himself to show;
On each side bowing popularly low:
His looks, his gestures, and his words he frames, 
And with familiar ease repeats their names.

Like Trump, Absalom knows how to glide unfelt into the people’s hearts:

Thus formed by nature, furnished out with arts,
He glides unfelt into their secret hearts.
Then with a kind compassionating look,
And sighs, bespeaking pity ere he spoke,
Few words he said; but easy those and fit,
More slow than Hybla-drops [honey], and far more sweet.

To be sure, Trump doesn’t limit himself to a few words, nor does he look at his crowds with a kind, compassionating look. But, like Absalom/Monmouth, he knows how to play a crowd.

Absalom and Trump also talk about their personal disappointments as a national tragedy. I’m so sorry, Absalom tells his adoring crowds, that you have lost your country, and that “arbitrary laws” (a rigged election, in Trump’s telling) have deprived you of (here he wipes the tears from his eyes) me:

“I mourn, my countrymen, your lost estate;
Though far unable to prevent your fate:
Behold a banished man, for your dear cause 
Exposed a prey to arbitrary laws!

And later:

Take then my tears,” — with that he wiped his eyes,—
“’Tis all the aid my present power supplies…

Meanwhile, of course, he is hoping that the people will rise up and establish him as Charles’s heir.

At this point in the poem, Dryden steps in to comment on the action. And while Trump may not have Absalom’s youth, beauty, and grace, but he has his own ways of “mak[ing] the people’s wrongs his own”—which is to say, persuading the people that his grievances are theirs. What results is a gathering march to support Absalom’s claims (“now begins his progress to ordain”):

Youth, beauty, graceful action seldom fail;
But common interest always will prevail;
And pity never ceases to be shown
To him who makes the people’s wrongs his own.
The crowd, that still believe their kings oppress,
With lifted hands their young Messiah bless:
Who now begins his progress to ordain
With chariots, horsemen, and a numerous train…

Like Trump, Absalom has no problem with grandiose comparisons:

From east to west his glories he displays,
And, like the sun, the promised land surveys.

Fame runs before him as the morning-star,
And shouts of joy salute him from afar;
Each house receives him as a guardian god,
And consecrates the place of his abode.

Dryden, however, warns us that beneath all the pomp lurks a dark agenda:

This moving court, that caught the people’s eyes,
And seemed but pomp, did other ends disguise…

In our case, the pomp of Trump’s January 6 rally, we now know, was intended to disguise its real end, which was unleash insurrectionists that would stop the vice president from certifying the election. We can therefore think of our Shaftesbury/Architophel as those manipulators behind Trump, Steve Bannon and Trump legal advisor John Eastman.

But in truth, Trump is also his own advisor, Absalom and Architophel combined. The last five years, Trump has been constantly testing the system to see how much he could get away with and testing people to see how loyal they were. Here’s Architophel doing the same, even as he claims he is acting out of love and duty to his prince (in Trump’s case, to America). Religion and justice (“redress of grievances”) are always on lips of scoundrels:

Achitophel had formed it, with intent
To sound the depths, and fathom, where it went,
The people’s hearts, distinguish friends from foes,
And try their strength before they came to blows.
Yet all was colored with a smooth pretense
Of specious love, and duty to their prince.
Religion, and redress of grievances,
(Two names that always cheat, and always please…)

At the end of the poem, Charles has finally had enough and lays down the law. Here’s hoping that the Department of Justice does the same with the insurrectionists.

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Toni Morrison’s Flying Lessons


Spencer Doerr, a Sewanee student who is one of my tennis hitting partners, recently earned his pilot’s license. Sewanee has a tiny airport and Spencer, in addition to taking flying lessons, has started a flying club (the Flying Tigers). I was honored to be his first official passenger and marveled, as I looked down, at the stunning beauty of the Southern Cumberland Plateau.

I shared with Spencer what Toni Morrison writes about flight in Song of Solomon. He loved the passages, which he said capture his passion. The first occurs in the opening pages. Milkman is born on the same day that a man makes an abortive attempt to fly from a bell tower, which somehow links the two:

Mr. Smith’s blue silk wings must have left their mark, because when the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier–that only birds and airplanes could fly–he lost all interest in himself. To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft that he appeared dull…

The second flight passage occurs when Milkman and his best friend Guitarare discussing peacocks. Milkman at this stage is a bit of a peacock himself and must learn to jettison his self-absorption and his materialist values:

“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?” Milkman asked.

“Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

The peacock jumped onto the hood of the Buick and once more spread its tail, sending the flashy Buick into oblivion.”

Milkman is with his aunt Pilate when she is shot by Guitar, who has gone crazy with race hatred. One of Morrison’s greatest characters, Pilate is not weighed down with ego, which Milkman has finally learned to appreciate:

Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly. ‘There must be another one like you,’ he whispered to her. ‘There’s got to be at least one more woman like you.

And finally, in one of the finest last sentences in American fiction, Milkman learns the secret of one of his slave ancestors. Shalimar, so legend has it, was one of the mythical slaves who flew back to Africa. In this magical realist novel, flight is a metaphor for being so in touch with who you are and where you come from that anything seems possible. In this instance, Milkman leaps from a precipice to close with his Guitar, who has been trying to shoot him as well. In this moment of completion, where he transcends division, who can say for sure that he’s not flying?

For now he knew what Shalimar knew. If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

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Columbus from the Natives’ Viewpoint

Dioscoro Puebla, Columbus, 1862 (an idealized version)

Monday – Columbus Day

I can believe that part of the United States still celebrate Christopher Columbus, even though we now know that he was a horrible, horrible man. Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko lets us know what the people he “discovered” think of him.

First, though, here’s Wikipedia’s account of some of his crimes against humanity on his third voyage:

Columbus’s colonists bought and sold slaves. Columbus executed Spanish colonists for minor crimes, and used dismemberment as punishment. Columbus and the colonists enslaved the indigenous people, including children. Natives were beaten, raped, and tortured for the location of imagined gold. Thousands committed suicide rather than face the oppression.

In February 1495, Columbus took over 1,500 Arawaks, some of whom had rebelled. About 500 of them were shipped to Spain as slaves, with about 40% dying en route.

Oh, and it wasn’t just the natives and those of us looking back who condemn Columbus. Jesuit priest Bartolome de las Casas was horrified, and his reports horrified Europe.

The Silko passage is from an account of a witches convention. There’s a contest about who can be the biggest, baddest witch, but rather than boiling babies or something comparable, the winner simply tells the story of the colonial conquest. First, there’s the lead-in:

The important thing was
this witch didn’t show off any dark thunder
or red ant-hill beads.
This one just told them to listen:
“What I have is a story.”

At first they all laughed
but this witch said
go ahead
laugh if you want to
but as I tell the story
it will begin to happen.

I pick up midway through the story:

The wind will blow them across the ocean
 thousands of them in giant boats
 swarming like larva
 out of a crushed ant hill.

They will carry objects
 which can shoot death
 faster than the eye can see.

They will kill the things they fear
 all the animals
 the people will starve.

They will poison the water
 they will spin the water away
 and there will be drought
 the people will starve.

They will fear what they find
 They will fear the people
 They kill what they fear.

It goes on a bit longer in this vein. Even veteran witches can’t imagine anything this horrible:

So the other witches said
“Okay you win; you take the prize,
but what you said just now

‘it isn’t so funny
It doesn’t sound so good.
We are doing okay without it
we can get along without that kind of thing.
Take it back.
Call that story back.”

But the witch just shook its head
at the others in their stinking animal skins, fur
and feathers.
It’s already turned loose.
It’s already coming.
It can’t be called back

History doesn’t have to be told by the winners.

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A Fire of Becoming

Carl Borromaus Andreas Ruthart, Adam Naming the Animals

Spiritual Sunday

Last week’s Old Testament/Hebrew Bible reading was Adam naming the animals. If I’d been alert, I would have shared John Hollander’s “Adam’s Task,” which imagines Adam entranced by the poetic excitement that comes with inventing new words. So I’m running the poem this week.

The poem reminds me a little of Lewis Carroll, who in one of his greatest poems comes up with his own series of new animal names: “jabberwocky,” “toves,” “borogroves,” “mome raths,” “Jubjub bird,” and “Bandersnatch.” Not to mention adjectives like “brillig,” “slithy,” “mimsy,” “vorpal,” “frumious,” “manxome,“ “uffish,” and “beamish.” And verbs like “gyre,” “gimble,” “whiffle,” “burble,” and “galumph.”

But back to the Hollander poem. I like the way that Adam will float a name and then elaborate on it: “thou, glurd; thou spotted Glurd” (emphasis mine). Or how he’ll be stumbling towards ways to distinguish different members of a species and then just give up: “Thou; thou; thou—three types of grawl.” And sometimes he builds up real momentum and gets lost in the excitement so that, by the end, he wants to embrace all of creation: “Thou, flisket, thou, kabasch; thou, comma-/Eared mashawok; thou, all; thou, all.” When he mentions in the next line “a fire of becoming,” it’s as though he’s marveling at the creative powers of language as much as at the animals themselves.

I’m not entirely sure what Hollander means, in stanza two, by the contrast between “gay, first work” and “sunk to the primitive.” Is “primitive” a way of describing what occurs when the name and the animal have become joined so that we just take them for granted so that the excitement is gone. Is it what Robert Frost is telling us in “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

In “Adam’s Task,” the naming is hard work but, like any activity we love, it doesn’t feel like work. The fourth stanza is challenging but, as I read it, Hollander is indicating that naming is like burning away—perhaps like burning away the impurities in a crucible so that one gets to the essence. And when he inverts our expectations with “serious as play,” I think of children, whose job it is to play because in playing they develop vital life skills. If we could see all work in this light, measuring (which is hard) but humming along as we do so, we could recapture some of Adam’s excitement.

Having reflected on the process, Adam then goes back to the excitement of naming, ending in a flurry of new labels. The problem that stumped him earlier with the grawls he has now solved with the wherrets: he’ll just call one greater and the other lesser. (By the way, I just learned there’s a lesser spotted eagle to go along with the greater spotted eagle.) Then, feeling all the satisfaction of a job well done, he ends the poem abruptly. “Naming’s over. Day is done.”

Our challenge in this life is recapturing Adam’s excitement as we gaze out at God’s creation. Poetry helps us do so.

Adam’s Task

“And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field. . . “
– Gen. 2:20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdle; thou, McFleery’s pomma;
Thou; thou; thou — three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket, thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
Eared mashawok; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
Naming’s over. Day is done.

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Fox News and Its Crow(vid) Victims


MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, one of the smartest political commentators I know, doesn’t use the word “evil” lightly, so I was startled to hear him direct it against Fox News last night. For the occasion, I also have a good fox poem.

Hayes is thinking how figures like Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity are persuading their viewers not to get vaccinated, even though (1) they themselves have been vaccinated, and (2) they work for a company that has very strict anti-Covid policies, requiring its employees either to be vaccinated or to be tested every day. That is more than even President Biden is demanding of large businesses.

In other words, they’re lying while the people who swallow their lies are dying. Fox doesn’t care that America’s death toll has surpassed 700,000. Its business model requires that viewers stay riled up at all times, regardless of the human cost.

In Jean de la Fontaine’s “The Crow and the Fox,” Master Fox knows just how to flatter Mr. Crow to get his cheese. Tell him you want to hear his beautiful voice and the morsel will drop in your lap. And so it happens.

Fox News flatters its viewers by assuring them they are much smarter that so-called experts (beginning with Dr. Fauci) and don’t need to listen to anybody. Sound off with your beautiful opinions about Covid, they tell people, even though those opinions are as mellifluous as a crow’s caw. Then Fox picks up the cheese.

In the poem, however, the Fox confesses to the trick. “Learn that each flatterer/ Lives at the cost of those who heed,” he tells the Crow. In real life, Fox just uses the same trick over and over.

And Crow falls for it every time.

The Fox and the Crow
By Jean de la Fontaine

At the top of a tree perched Master Crow;
In his beak he was holding a cheese.
Drawn by the smell, Master Fox spoke, below.
The words, more or less, were these:
“Hey, now, Sir Crow! Good day, good day!
How very handsome you do look, how grandly distingué!
No lie, if those songs you sing
Match the plumage of your wing,
You’re the phoenix of these woods, our choice.”
Hearing this, the Crow was all rapture and wonder.
To show off his handsome voice,
He opened beak wide and let go of his plunder.
The Fox snapped it up and then said, “My Good Sir,
Learn that each flatterer
Lives at the cost of those who heed.
This lesson is well worth the cheese, indeed.”
The Crow, ashamed and sick,
Swore, a bit late, not to fall again for that trick.

Additional Note: When I was an eighth grader attending a French school in Paris, I was required to memorize this poem and still remember it to this day. For those of you who know French, I run it below:

Le Corbeau et le Renard

Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché,
Tenait en son bec un fromage.
Maître Renard, par l’odeur alléché,
Lui tint à peu près ce langage:
“Hé! bonjour, Monsieur du Corbeau.
Que vous êtes joli! que vous me semblez beau!
Sans mentir, si votre ramage
Se rapporte à votre plumage,
Vous êtes le phénix des hôtes de ces bois.”
A ces mots le Corbeau ne se sent pas de joie;
Et pour montrer sa belle voix,
Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tomber sa proie.
Le renard s’en saisit, et dit: “Mon bon Monsieur,
Apprenez que tout flatteur
Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute:
Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.”
Le Corbeau, honteux et confus,
Jura, mais un peu tard, qu’on ne n’y prendrait plus

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Dryden on Trump’s Coup Attempt

James Maubert, John Dryden


In our Faculty Dante-Virgil-Dryden-soon-to-be-Pope Discussion Group—which I think I’ll just start calling our Faculty Discussion Group—I’ve been leading our exploration of Dryden’s Absalom and Architophel. Considered one of the world great political satires, it’s proving to be eerily prescient of Trumpism’s attacks on American democracy. Hold on while I explain.

Written in 1681, the poem deals with the attempt by the forerunners of the Whig party to exclude Charles II’s brother from succeeding to the throne after Charles died. Because James was Catholic, the Earl of Shaftesbury wanted to bypass him and have the throne descend to his illegitimate son, the solidly Anglican Duke of Monmouth. Requiring political chaos to pull this off (at least in the poem), the character representing Shaftesbury (Architophel) attempts to take advantage of an allegorical version of the “Popish Plot,” a supposed plan to assassinate Charles that was actually the fantasy of the unscrupulous Titus Oates. The accusation had as much truth as Donald Trump’s claims  that Democrats stole the 2020 election, but because enough people took it seriously, at least 22 Catholics were executed, some of them horribly.

Shaftesbury was not allied with Oates but sought to take advantage of the ferment to push the Exclusionary Bill—a bill excluding James from succession—through Parliament. In the poem, Architophel/Shaftesbury says at one point, “the people have a right supreme/To make their kings; for kings are made for them.” Charles, correctly viewing this as an affront to the divine right of kings, fought it.

Charles won the battle in the short run as Parliament voted down the Exclusionary Bill. (In the movie Libertine, poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, is depicted as persuading the House of Lords to reject the bill.) James succeeded him to the throne and subsequently put down Monmouth’s rebellion, but Shaftesbury’s views prevailed in the end. James shortly thereafter was ousted in the Glorious Revolution and his Anglican daughter Mary, along with her husband William of Orange, came to the throne. England finally got the constitutional monarchy that Dryden feared and Shaftesbury fought for.

The poem is set up as an allegory, purportedly about the Bible’s King David and his rebellious son Absalom, with David standing in for Charles and Absalom for Monmouth. As Dryden tells the story, Architophel/Shaftesbury persuades Absalom to stand up against his father’s desires.

It so happens that I’m more with Architophel than David/Charles when it comes to the politics, preferring a constitutional monarchy to the vision of the king as divinely appointed. But put that aside. Dryden understands how demagogues take advantage of political unrest, and that’s where the poem lines up with our current situation.

Think of Trump first as Titus Oates—Corah in the poem—a radical priest who fabricated evidence to whip up anti-Catholic hysteria. In Trump’s case, it’s anti-immigrant and racist hysteria. Dryden pours on the sarcasm when describing Corah/Oates, and I like the following passage since Trump too likes to boast about his own prodigious memory. The passage also raises a question people have had about Trump: is he lying if he actually believes  his wild stories (“exceeding man’s belief”)? Dryden says that, when Corah/Oates’s grasp of facts breaks down  (“where the witness failed”) he just gives himself over to the visionary spirit:

His memory, miraculously great,
Could plots, exceeding man’s belief, repeat;
Which therefore cannot be accounted lies,
For human wit could never such devise.
Some future truths are mingled in his book;
But where the witness failed the prophet spoke:
Some things like visionary flight appear;
The spirit caught him up, — the Lord knows where,
And gave him his rabbinical degree,
Unknown to foreign university.

Maybe Trump gets his “alternative facts” from Trump University.

In any event, the result of Corah/Oates’s anti-Catholicism is the same as Trump’s racism and Islamophobia. Suddenly hate speech and racist violence, dormant in America for years, are breaking out again. Here’s how Dryden describes the process:

For as, when raging fevers boil the blood,
The standing lake soon floats into a flood,
And every hostile humour, which before
Slept quiet in its channels, bubbles o’er;
So several factions, from this first ferment,
Work up to foam, and threat the government.

January 6 was the foaming result of Trump’s lies and a dire threat to the government. We’re increasingly discovering that the event was a planned attempt to pressure Republican legislators and Vice-President Mike Pence not to certify the election. Had Pence refused to do so (and the pressure on him was intense), the House of Representatives would have chosen the president–one vote for each state—giving the Republicans an edge. As it was, for the first time in American history most legislators in the losing candidate’s party voted not to certify the result, even though Biden was the clear winner.

Architophel is like those Republicans who, while distancing themselves from Trumpist violence, nevertheless seek to take advantage of it. In the GOP’s case, they are using Trump’s “big lie”about a stolen election to push voter suppression measures and replace bureaucrats responsible for overseeing elections with Trumpists. Dryden’s description of Architophel’s coalition is not a bad description of today’s pro-Trump GOP:

So several factions, from this first ferment,
Work up to foam, and threat the government.
Some by their friends, more by themselves thought wise,
Opposed the power to which they could not rise;
Some had in courts been great, and, thrown from thence,
Like fiends, were hardened in impenitence;
Some, by their monarch’s fatal mercy, grown
From pardoned rebels kinsmen to the throne,
Were raised in power and public office high;
Strong bands, if bands ungrateful men could tie.

The “fatal mercy” is a reference to Charles pardoning many of those who overthrew his father. If the Democrats and the Justice Department don’t hold people responsible for January 6, they will be seen as Architophel sees Charles, his mildness as a weakness. As it is, many Trumpists view Joe Biden as a doddering old man. (In Trump, by contrast, they see “manly force.”) Here’s Architophel seducing Absalom to rebellion:

Not that your father’s mildness I contemn;
But manly force becomes the diadem.
‘Tis true, he grants the people all they crave;
And more, perhaps, than subjects ought to have;

But when should people strive their bonds to break,
If not when kings are negligent, or weak?

Dryden then goes on to lecture those who want to set up their own kings. While I don’t agree with Dryden’s monarchical views here, if one replaces “king” with Constitution, I’m on board. If you abandon foundational principles (“give away” your “native sway”), then you are “left defenseless to the sword/ Of each unbounded, arbitrary lord”:

What shall we think? Can people give away,
Both for themselves and sons, their native sway?
Then they are left defenseless to the sword
Of each unbounded, arbitrary lord…


For who can be secure of private right,
If sovereign sway may be dissolved by might? 
Nor is the people’s judgment always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few;

And then, in a passage which gets at how GOP legislators are in thrall to the Trump base, Dryden says that the Sanhedrims (the Jewish assembly/Parliament) may be infected by the anti-king sentiment—or as I’m applying it, anti-democracy sentiment:

Nor only crowds but Sanhedrims may be
Infected with this public lunacy,
And share the madness of rebellious times,
To murder monarchs for imagined crimes.
If they may give and take whene’er they please,
Not kings alone, the Godhead’s images,
But government itself, at length must fall
To nature’s state, where all have right to all.

“Nature’s state” is a reference to Thomas Hobbes’s nightmare vision of a society without laws in Leviathan, where he writes, “Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

I noted in a recent post that President Biden reminded me of David/Charles when, upset that persuasion was no longer working with vaccinations, started mandating them for the federal work force and large businesses. In Dryden’s poem, David/Charles is tired of indulging Absalom/Monmouth and finally lays down the law. “For lawful power is still superior found,” he says, “When long driven back, at length it stands the ground.”

Dryden looks to heaven to affirm David/Charles’s claim, which is how those who believe in the divine right of kings see it. In our case, all we have is the Constitution and the laws of the land. Let us desperately hope that their “peals of thunder” will indeed shake the firmament:

He said; the Almighty, nodding, gave consent,
And peals of thunder shook the firmament.
Henceforth a series of new time began,
The mighty years in long procession ran;
Once more the godlike David was restored,
And willing nations knew their lawful lord.

May our nation, red states as well as blue, hold fast to representative democracy. Otherwise we’ll end up with an unbounded, arbitrary lord.

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Debating How Lit Changes Lives

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson


I hope readers will forgive me for today’s post, which feels like cheating. I have received a promising nibble on the book I’ve been writing, excerpts of which I’ve shared with you from time to time. An editor, after seeing a description and then interviewing me via zoom, has been working with me to produce a formal proposal. Since I’ve been working on that, I didn’t have time to write today’s essay, so you’re getting part of the proposal instead. I’ll let you know how it all goes.

Incidentally, you can tell by the spelling that the publisher is British. Wish me luck.

Book proposal for Better Living through Literature:
A 2,500-Year-Old-Debate


Better Living through Literature aims to take readers through a fascinating survey of conversations that have been occurring since the time of Plato about literature’s life-changing power. Written in a witty, engaging and conversational style, the book highlights some of history’s great literary battles and controversies that are still relevant today. Starting with Plato’s and Aristotle’s arguments over Homer and the Greek tragedians, it includes chapters on (among other thinkers) Sir Philip Sidney and Percy Shelley’s defences of poetry; Marx and Freud’s reliance on literature; Du Bois’s concern about ‘art as propaganda’; feminism’s attacks on ‘the marriage plot’; and the culture wars of the 1990s. It then applies the theories by examining the impact that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has had on readers, and by looking at Jane Austen’s warnings about the negative effects of popular literature.

At the core of the book are accounts of how literature has made better the lives of both the featured theorists and everyday readers. Discussions of what Sophocles meant to Aristotle, Virgil to Sidney, Balzac to Marx and Engels, and Wordsworth to John Stuart Mill differentiate this book from other surveys of literature’s great theorists. Readers, meanwhile, will relate to stories of how people like them have found personal meaning in the classics. At the book’s core are three sets of paired questions:

– Can great literature in fact change individuals’ lives?
– If so, does it change them for the better or can it also change them for the worse?
– Can great literature change not only individuals but history itself?
– If so, is great literature necessarily progressive or can it have a conservative or even reactionary impact?
– Is there a difference between the effects of great literature and so-called popular or pop lit?
– If so, is great literature good for us and pop lit less good, if not outright bad?

While Better Living ultimately concludes that great literature, unlike most popular literature, can in fact change individual lives and history for the better, multiple examples and a survey of debates through the ages are necessary to fully appreciate how it does so.

The Outline

General Introduction

The introduction makes the case for studying literature from the perspective of how it has changed lives, and it surveys thinkers throughout history who have theorized about how it does so. I explain the selection process for choosing these particular thinkers and explore why literature’s behavior-changing potential has been understudied (the main reasons being because reading experiences vary from person to person and are hard to measure). Despite the variety, however, certain patterns emerge when one studies multiple thinkers and examines multiple examples.  

Part One

1. ‘Hardwired for Story’ looks at the role stories have played in human evolution and how they register, according to scientific studies, upon the human brain.

– Prehistory: Telling Stories to Ensure Species Success
– Psychological Studies: Literature’s Impact upon the Brain

2. ‘The Debate Begins’ looks at the debate between Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle about whether literature is good or bad for us and how they, along with the Roman poet Horace, set the terms for many of the later discussions about literature’s impact.

Plato: Poetry, a Threat to Justice and Virtue
– Aristotle: Poetry, Truer Than History
– Horace: Instructing While Delighting

3. ‘Literature as a Force for Moral Transformation’ looks at how Sir Philip Sidney in the sixteenth century and Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth see literature having an impact on public morality, sometimes positive, sometimes (as Johnson argues in his attack on novels like Tom Jones) negative.

– Sir Philip Sidney: Poetry as a Guide to Virtue
– Samuel Johnson: Shakespeare as a Faithful Mirror of Manners and Life

3. ‘Literature as a Force for Social Transformation’ looks at the society-changing potential that the nineteenth-century Romantic poets, John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold saw in the creative Imagination and then examines the role literature played in shaping the social and psychological theories of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Romantics v. Utilitarians: Connecting through the Poetic Imagination
– Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poetry as a Force for Liberation
– Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Literature as a Portrayal of Real Conditions
– Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung: Literature as a Blueprint for Self-Mastery
– Matthew Arnold: Poetry as Civilization’s Saviour
– Hans Robert Jauss: Literature That Expands Horizons 

4. ‘Literature as Activist Handbook’ looks at how twentieth-century political activists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Bertolt Brecht, Frantz Fanon, the Frankfurt School and Rachel Blau DuPlessis conceived of literature in the struggle for human liberation, introducing and problematizing [AQ: clarify – what or who is introducing and problematizing these issues?] issues of race, class, colonialism, and gender.

– W. E. B. Du Bois: Literature’s Hidden Biases
– Bertolt Brecht: Art as a Hammer to Shape Reality
– Frantz Fanon: Post-Colonial Literature, a Form of Combat
– The Frankfurt School: Great Literature Challenges One-Dimensional Society
– Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Literary Endings: Marriage or Death

5. ‘Literature as Training Ground for Citizenship’ looks at the role English teachers play in socialization, explains (but does not defend) the critiques of multiculturalism by cultural conservatives, and lays out the cases made by literary theorist Wayne Booth and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how great literature helps readers negotiate the challenges posed by today’s world.

– Terry Eagleton: Literature and Classroom Socialization
– Allan Bloom, E. D. Hirsch: Literature as Essential Being
– Wayne Booth: The Best Books Build Character
– Martha Nussbaum: Literature, Indispensable to Democracy

Part Two

The second, much shorter half of the book contains two follow-up chapters where the theory is applied at length. It also has a chapter aimed directly at the reader.

6. ‘Has Jane Eyre Made the World a Better Place?’ looks at the impact that Brontë’s novel had both upon early readers and upon the 1970s feminist movement. I also contrast Jane Eyre with Stephenie Meyers’s pop gothic and teen sensation Twilight (2005–8).

7. ‘Jane Austen on Pop Lit: Enjoy but Be Wary’ begins with a general discussion of the issues surrounding popular literature, touches on three such novels that have had an outsized impact (Jean Raspail’s Camp of the Saints, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and then examines Austen’s warnings about lesser lit.

8. ‘Assessing Literature’s Personal Impact’ walks readers through a process of active reflection, showing them how they can systematically assess the impact that intense reading experiences have had on their own lives.


The final chapter pulls together the questions the book has been exploring and, with the elaborations and complications that the various thinkers have contributed to the discussion, concludes that (1) yes, great literature has changed individual lives; (2) yes, it has at times impacted history itself; and (3) yes, great literature is better for us than popular literature.

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Stay Focused When Out on a Walk

Edvard Petersen, A Walk in the Woods


It was perfect October walking weather in Sewanee yesterday so here’s a John Cowper Powys poem for how to take full advantage of such hikes.  Piece of advice #1: Focus on your surroundings and do not let your mind drift to “thoughts unmeet.”

In fact, if you’re a poet, it’s your job to “give speech to stones and wood.”

If you don’t, Powys tells us, the silent trees above your head and the silent pathway at your feet will shame you:

“Alas!” they seem to say “have we
In speechless patience travailed long
Only at last to bring forth thee,
A creature void of speech or song?”

So don’t let mind fill with trivial notions. Stay present:

Wood and Stone

THE silent trees above my head
The silent pathway at my feet
Shame me when here I dare to tread
Accompanied by thoughts unmeet.

“Alas!” they seem to say ” have we
In speechless patience travailed long
Only at last to bring forth thee,
A creature void of speech or song ?

“Only in thee can Nature know
Herself, find utterance and a tongue
To tell her rapture and her woe,
And yet of her thou hast not sung.

Thy mind with trivial notions rife
Beholds the pomp of night and day,
The winds and clouds and seas at strife,
Uncaring, and hath naught to say.”

O Man, with destiny so great,
With years so few to make it good,
Such fooling in the eyes of fate
May well give speech to stones and wood!

I looked up Powys and discovered that he is a descendant of 18th century Romantic poet William Cowper. Perhaps Powys is inspired by how his ancestor gave speech to stones and wood in his poem The Task:

For I have loved the rural walk through lanes
Of grassy swarth, close cropped by nibbling sheep,
And skirted thick with intertexture firm
Of thorny boughs: have loved the rural walk
O’er hills, through valleys, and by river’s brink,
E’er since a truant boy I passed my bounds
To enjoy a ramble on the banks of Thames.

This incidentally is only one of several walks that Cowper describes in his poem. Cowper was Jane Austen’s favorite poet, a clear forerunner of William Wordsworth, and someone well worth reading.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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