The popularity of superhero stories and movies in our present culture is an intriguing phenomenon. I have noticed that the more secular we get, the more popular “superhero” stories there are. Human nature is such that we admire virtue and justice, even when we live in a society which is leaving traditional mores and beliefs in the dust. The human spirit longs for purpose and meaning, which is simply a reflection of our innate understanding that there is objective truth, right and wrong, good and evil. Superheroes don’t just catch the bad guy: they sacrificially perform acts which help to transform the community for the better. Their commitment is – extreme. Some give up relationships with family and potential spouses in order to accomplish their missions; some willingly offer their lives in the causes they have committed themselves to.
Superheroes’ “special powers” can be viewed as literary “tropes” – vehicles through which the author highlights these protagonists’ moral qualities. The powers are not good in and of themselves, but are only valuable when the virtuous superhero chooses to use them well. The evil “nemesis” characters who attempt to foil the superheroes use their powers for destruction; this seemingly simplistic story pattern never grows old because inside all of us is the desire to triumph over the struggles and conflicts inherent in our world and in ourselves. There was a period of time in the 1960’s and most of the 1970’s when “anti-hero” movies were pretty much all that were being produced (other than musicals). If you wanted to watch a movie with a redemptive storyline, it was hard to come by. When the first “Star Wars” movie came out in 1977, its popularity was beyond belief. People returned to watch the movie 10, 12, 20 times, and lines in the theater parking lots snaked back and forth – and this went on for months. It’s true that the special effects techniques were new, but the most important aspect of the film was that there were good guys and bad guys, and there was right and wrong and there were heroes, not anti-heroes, as the protagonists. Audiences, starved for such fair for over almost two decades, clamored for more of the same.
It is interesting to contrast the modern superheroes to the Greek gods and goddesses. While the Greek gods did have many powers, their universe was essentially an amoral universe. The gods were selfish and self-oriented. They were capricious, and their actions were not predicated on the concept of a moral universe where virtue is rewarded and fulfilling, and evil is punished. However, the superheroes popular today are selfless and hold to the traditions of western values and justice. Their role is to help others, not to craftily scheme against their fellow gods or humans.
Another reason superheroes are popular is that so often now, children are not taught about important leaders of the past, or if they are, only the leaders’ faults are highlighted, without focusing on the greatness of their deeds and their character strengths. So – there is a vacuum there. This is a cultural shift: even back in the 1950’s, there were books and movies about great figures of history and their accomplishments; epic films such as “The Ten Commandments” and others highlighting saints such as Joan of Arc. Most or all of you who are reading this newsletter are already aware of the importance of highlighting great and good historical figures, and that need is all the more true today. The great popularity of superheroes is a “sign” of the cry of the human spirit for lives of honor, sacrifice, and goodness, rather than just being an entertainment phenomenon.
It would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t appreciate the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, but I do have a question for you: Which Winnie-the-Pooh do you know?
Do you know only the cute cartoon Pooh Bear whose facile, happy-go-lucky visage traverses the screen in classic Disney cartoons? If so, you may want to become familiar with the original Winnie-the-Pooh whose seemingly dense but truly thoughtful proclamations speak to the depths of a child’s heart. His friend Tigger is not the hyper, bouncy-flouncy character he is portrayed as in the films or Disney versions in their little children’s picture books. You can even see these contrasts through Milne’s drawings. For instance, Tigger’s visage and persona are not goofy: he is joyous, and there’s a difference. He may have silly aspects to him but like the others who inhabit the wood, he and his friends are sober-minded, genuine characters who express real questions and observations about their world. For instance, Eeyore is the personification of the side of us which thinks the worst; he reveals to children how others see pessimism, but he also “allows” them to feel this sad side of life. Children with a melancholy bent may find comfort in knowing Eeyore while at the same time recognizing that there is more to life than the discouragement he personifies. Christopher Robin’s living stuffed animals are only stuffed in the sense that they are full of the wonderment and curiosity of God’s children.
The inhabitants of The Hundred Acre Wood reflect the trust Milne had in the insights of children and also, the puzzlement they express about the larger reality, for they do not yet know the infinitude and the limits and of the world. They don’t know what bees can do; they don’t know what balloons cannot do. They don’t know that they may get stuck in a knothole in a tree. Unlike many children today, they (and Christopher Robin) have occasion to do a lot of waiting. They wait by their homes: they wait, and wait, and wait. And while they wait, they have the opportunity to think and we, their friends, get to hear their cogitations and ponder along with them. We especially get to know Pooh’s thoughts about that which he considers or does not understand as he navigates his way through a world he doesn’t comprehend but believes in.
The tone and atmosphere of Milne’s books are in stark contrast to the Disney movies. The stories are placid and meditative. They are slow-moving and polite. They focus on the interior lives of children. When Christopher Robin first bumps down the stairs with Pooh, he opens our eyes and returns us all to a world of childlike wonder where the imagination is celebrated with bliss, freedom, and a sense of rightness. The real Winnie-the-Pooh belongs alongside The Tale of Peter Rabbit as one of the best children’s/adults’ stories of all time.
*You can find the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories by A. A. Milne in any good bookstore or online. There are several books of stories and a book of poems for younger children, also, entitled Now We are Six.
Azure guitar shimmers, And flamenco dancers whirl: They careen inside, crying for escape, Kicking long, strong legs against the wood for freedom. A band of importunate strings responds, The instrument’s black hole releases its magic; Pierces our hearts like the sadness of crystal waves, And opens up sparkling blue eternity.
In high school courses I teach, we read about ghosts in short stories and plays, and students sometimes ask me why we do this. When I return the favor and ask them what they think, we often have some interesting discussions about the soul, spirituality, and self-knowledge.
Truly, literary ghosts are extremely important if we understand their metaphorical meaning.
First, the ghosts we know are often really–ourselves. Great literature reveals the human condition; it shows us how to rise above our weaknesses, mistakes, and sins, and what happens when we don’t. Ghosts tell us about ourselves and the things that haunt us, especially our own failings. They reflect what we are thinking, deep down, underneath self-delusions, guilt, and hidden self-knowledge. For instance, when we read Macbeth, we understand that ghosts can be the creations of our own minds: they may be forbidden desires, desires which dominate us so fully that against our own consciences, we believe in them and obey them. If we give in to them, we become ghosts ourselves: shells of our former selves who cower in fright as we hide from the results of our own selfish, evil actions.
Often, ghosts are about place and space. Virginia Woolf’s story, “A Haunted House,” expresses how connected we are to the places in which we’ve lived and loved. Here the new owners of a house find mysterious ghosts whose residual experiences inspire the them to continue the love which the original couple has, it seems, extended to them through time, in this cherished home which still emanates the deep, abiding commitment of its previous owners. As we grow older we learn how important our homes and communities have been to us, and they become part of the warp and woof of our own spirits–so much so that sometimes, we find it hard to consciously assimilate the depth and breadth of our past experiences.
Finally, ghosts reveal the spiritual nature of our existence and our connection to immortality: life which extends beyond the present. When Hamlet is presented with the ghost of his father, he is not sure if the ghost is a demonic deception, or his dead father, directing him from the beyond. Even those of us with strong religious beliefs can’t conceive exactly of what lies beyond, or how those who have died view us. While Christians are instructed not to attempt to hold seances with the dead, this doesn’t abrogate the question: what, exactly, is the relationship of those of us on earth to those who have died? And what is it like for them, in their new state? Hamlet wrestles with how he should relate to what he thinks may be his father’s spirit, and in so doing reveals the internal conflicts we all experience when we confront personal tragedies, and how we might have been responsible for them, or may be able to repair them afterwards.
Ghosts may bring forth our regrets: sorrows which challenge us to either wallow in self-pity and anguish, or to accept reality, in the recognition that it is only in embracing our situation and our own failings that we find healing, peace, and maturation. Or, perhaps ghosts will bring comfort to us: the memories of times with loved ones now gone, the times with children now grown. Whatever our personal ghosts are, reading and writing about them is a way forward to understanding ourselves, the world we live in, and the God who created us.
The Fellowship of the Ring sets the stage for the Lord of the Rings series as Frodo and his companions begin their perilous and often confusing journey, which stands in contrast to the ordered world in which they live, The Shire, in Middle Earth. This “disordered” journey is a form of entering chaos: Like King Arthur’s knights as they sally forth from Camelot, the members of The Fellowship venture far and wide to conquer evils which surround them. However, unlike the Knights of the Round Table, the members of The Fellowship recognize that as they set out to destroy evil, they also bear the potential for the destruction of the kingdom within themselves. The Ring itself is a constant reminder to them that they must first fight their own internal selfish desires in order to save The Shire.
As a “quest” story, the novel contains elements of both classical and medieval literature. Middle Earth is a highly ordered world in which all creatures have their proper roles which are integral to the natures of the characters: an elf could no more attempt to behave like a hobbit than you or I could attempt to behave like a dog or a cat. This order is hierarchical; some creatures’ duties—and some characters’ duties– are more significant in the larger community than others; some folks are more civilized and wealthier than others. However, in this sort of society, a person with a “lower” occupation or status is not a less important person. For instance, the Innkeeper at The Sign of the Prancing Pony, Mr. Butterbur, is no less valuable than Gandalf. Rather, his role suits him and his class of creature; his job “belongs” in the fabric of the society just as much as Gandalf’s does. But Tolkien breaks free of the traditional medieval roles when he calls Frodo, that modest and insignificant hobbit, to save the kingdom.
As is also true in the King Arthur stories, Middle Earth is a place where the natural world is important and valuable. Being “good stewards” of what we are given to tend, whether it be a garden, a forest, or a river–is key, and there is a balance between the creatures’ using and respecting nature. Thus, the hobbits cut back the trees from the Old Forest at the edge of their lands, but leave the Old Forest alone in every other way. Nature is connected to many of the creatures closely, as we see with Goldberry, who, we are told, is the daughter of the River. Also, the natural world reflects the nature of the creatures who inhabit it; the hobbits’ shire is green and cozy and friendly. In Middle Earth, the physical world embodies the goodness and concreteness of reality, and this is most carried forth into the lives of the hobbits, whose liking for beer, food, gift-giving, home and companionship emphasizes their close and deep connection to the earth and world around them. The interactions which the members of The Fellowship will make with the forest and the river serve to help us understand that nature itself is being corrupted and disfigured; the hobbits are responsible for recovering both the kingdom and its environment.
As did the knights of medieval times, Frodo accepts the challenge to go
forth in search of danger. Though Gandalf tells him that he should not
go out of his way seek danger, the truth is that in order to make sure
that the Shire is kept safe, Frodo must plunge headlong into an
unknown evil, putting his life in jeopardy. Like martyrs and war
heroes, Frodo charges ahead to do the right thing despite his fear,
weakness, and sinful desires. Where the quest ends he does not know; the
path he must follow is also a mystery. What is clear is that Frodo and
his friends choose to respond to the challenge of the quest regardless
of their great personal weaknesses and fears.
A Land Remembered is a uniquely American epic—set in Florida, but reminiscent of the best of the Western histories and sagas. It reflects and retells the settling of Florida, incorporating stouthearted characters who survived swamp, jungle, hurricanes, wild animals, to conquer the humid and often unfriendly Florida territory. The story also has themes redolent of the tales of Wild West: the arguments between those who want to fence the land and the earlier settlers who want the land left free and open; the fiercely independent spirits of those who dared to settle and conquer this hazardous, uncivilized land.
The tale covers 3 generations, beginning with Tobias MacIvey, the bold pioneer who first entered the Southern wilds, and continues with his son Zech and then grandson Solomon. Each man represents (and furthers) a specific era in the development of Florida. Tobias, the patriarch, is the one most in tune with nature, as with his wife and baby he attempts to survive in the free, open lands while battling the elements. His attitude towards the Native Americans is one of friendly coexistence, and when his son Zech grows up, he inherits this attitude, and falls in love with a young Seminole woman—instead of choosing between her and the white woman he marries, he loves them both, thus symbolizing the tenuous “marriage” of the two cultures, and the influence of each upon the other.
The story also exhibits the ways in which this uncultured land, like the west, equalizes the races, as African-American ranch hand, “Frog” becomes part of the warp and woof of the MacIvey family. This primitive land, untouched by “culture,” providentially allows for all peoples to meet on a level plane, and they build the future together, rather than as master and servant. Florida is a new kind of “south.”
The grandson, Sol, chooses not to live on the land, but instead becomes a real estate developer, thus introducing us to the “new” Florida we know today: a land of entrepreneurs and people who, for the most part, do not live in the agrarian and ranching culture of those white people who previously populated the land. The story begins with a flashback as Sol, aged and dying, chooses to return to the cabin of his forefathers, leaving behind the life of luxury he has led, regretful that he has not kept the values of his father and grandfather. A Land Remembered is a profoundly “American” piece of literature in every way, genuine in its telling. It pulls powerfully at the spirits of those of us who love the pioneer character, with all of its bravery, faults, and independence of mind; the spirit which created America. ⸸
“All I’m trying to tell you is to be strong. Don’t ever let nothing get
you down. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to love, or to grieve when the
thing you love is gone. Just don’t let it throw you, no matter how much
it hurts.” ― Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered
Parents want to give their children the best education they can and there are two extremes often applied regarding what this means. On the creative, experiential end of the spectrum are parents who focus exclusively on enriching and inspiring their children; on the other end are those who believe that learning must be strictly formulaic. Which is correct?
[Nathan Siemers – Attribution – ShareAlike 2.0 Generic CC
– 5970089724_674349ede7_b_0The answer is neither.]
Students need to be constantly inspired and challenged to investigate the world for themselves, or at best, they will learn to hate school while simply “storing up” information. On the other hand, if children are not given the framework on which to “hang” knowledge, they are not learning at all, but are simply wallowing in a well of self-deception and narcissism.
A classical education is not about learning ancient terminology: it’s about learning to think for yourself, as the classical authors did.
A classical education is not about learning certain facts: it’s about developing a worldview which honors truth and beauty and engenders a love of knowledge.
A classical education is not about competing in the marketplace: it’s about believing that if students are passionate about learning they will be passionate about life and therefore, their vocations will become self-evident.
A classical education is not about believing in “experts” who claim to have grabbed the brass ring, and all you need to do is jump on their merry-go-round and — Voila! your student will be classically educated. Rather, it’s about developing a disciplined, virtuous mind and life. A person’s true vocation and joy in life will be evident if he or she follows this authentic classical path.
True classical scholarship is rare: most of us will never attain it, and that includes the many poseurs in the classical market who purport to have it and attempt to sell it to us. But given a genuine classical philosophy and pedagogy, all students can discover their God-given potential, find their place in the world, and live rich, joyous and successful lives.
Next Time~ Part 2
Curriculum Gimmicks vs. The Great Knock: Formulas vs. Structure and How C. S. Lewis Answers the Dilemma
I continue to discuss what it means to be truly classical, and this includes what it is NOT. Since we are adding Latin to our Integritas Academy courses next year using a program which is genuinely classical, I’ve been meditating upon why and how many Latin programs out there are not “classical” in methodology. What I mean is defined by what I’ve previously discussed in articles on this blog: a classical education is about how to think, not what to think, and too many schools in this rather new “classical” movement have lost track of that, in their attempts to sell their wares to a broad market and give parents a simplistic explanation of what it means to be classically educated.
First, as the motto of Integritas Academy states, students must write in order to learn to think. Many recent Latin programs which are so called “classical” are so dumbed down as to be a misrepresentation of what it means to learn Latin. A classical program must include serious writing which involves translation, not just of vocabulary, but of entire paragraphs, and later, literary works, and this kind of work must be given often, in order to move students into understanding how to read and understand classical literature.
Second, if a program is so simplistic (dumbed down) that it does not even get through the first declension, and at least most of the second declension in the first year, it defeats the purpose of presenting the student with a global understanding of the language, and therefore, any understanding of its literature or culture.
Third, students must learn thoroughly, but it is true that they must not be overwhelmed with a barrage of information which “attacks” them so that they have trouble sorting it all out. There is a balance: a program should incrementally introduce the components of Latin, yet it needs to present these components in a timely manner wherein the students understand the language conceptually; they must be able to see the forest for the trees, so pacing is everything.
Finally, students must understand early on that, unlike English, Latin is an inflected language (thus, “declensions”). For those who do not know what this means, it’s fairly simple: the meaning of English language sentences is determined by the order of the words in the sentence, so it is not “inflected.” In Latin, it doesn’t matter if the words are in a particular order or not, because designated endings with meanings which assign their syntax in the sentence are added on to the ends of the words, and determine their context; the ending syllable of the word changes, and this determines its grammar. For students to grasp what “declensions” (endings) are, they must be presented within the “big picture” – the concept that there are declensions, and what they consist of, categorically, – within the first year of their study of the language. Unfortunately, many popular Latin curricula do not accomplish this because they are so dumbed down.
Mastering Latin is an “extreme” exercise in logic. Students learn how to apply the various word endings in their exercises and writing, and in so doing, develop logical processes which are not gained in other ways. If a Latin curriculum does not get students to gain this skill in the first year of study, it is a pretty much a waste of the student’s time and effort. While Latin is, as many say in criticism of it, a “dead language,” it is important to know it, not just for understanding past literature and history, but because you learn how to think with the kind of flexibility which learning the various declensions demands. In fact, if you take a Latin program which doesn’t help you to understand the deeper logical aspects of learning this inflected language, it may even be harmful, because you are under the impression that learning a language is only a matter of memorization. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and Latin itself is a prima facie example of this, with the richness of the works which lie waiting for the student who masters the language.
So, let’s say a student completes two “years” of a particular Latin program, but the curriculum doesn’t get past the first declension, or maybe, the second. What that really means is that the parents (who, like most of us, have probably not had Latin) have been deceived into thinking that their child has now had a grounding in classical Latin, when, in fact, nothing of the sort has occurred. The student walks away with some Latin vocabulary roots, which he or she may or may not remember, but this is not the same as having gained a classical understanding. The student is not able to translate or grasp the meanings of any important classical works, and has no sense of what it means to “manipulate” an inflected language. Probably, the student would have been better served learning Spanish, French, or German, because at least these languages can be used pragmatically in the modern world, and also have referents in literature.
I am not saying that no students in the current classical school revival go on to master Latin: some do, but – not most. I am saying that there is a plethora of programs out there which simplify and slow down the process of learning Latin to the point where, unless a student perseveres and goes on to more sophisticated programs, he or she will not have gained a genuine grasp of the language, or its logic, and will not have been able to access the important classical works and thoughts of the classics.
Another benefit of actually mastering Latin is that students often do not need much instruction in English grammar (if any). The reason is simple: Latin teaches the English constructs, and more. While it might seem at first that taking the time to learn Latin well is a burden, this study time is counteracted by the fact the students grasp grammar to such a degree that English grammar exercises are either unnecessary or easily and
Detailed Roman portrait mosaic in the Museo di Capodimonte from the city of Pompeii. Found in the cubiculum of a house, this unique floor mosaic portrays a young woman of a rich family – probably the domina of the house, as indicated by the jewelry and the dress.
quickly understood. Also, one other aspect of classical learning that is often overlooked is that of the translating, back and forth, of Latin to English. It’s important to get a curriculum which does this consistently and thoroughly, in order to get the mind’s muscles practicing the back and forth “conversions” that must occur in order to truly learn and write a language.
My hope is that more and more people who seek a classical education will discover the benefits of taking a legitimate Latin course as part of their fully classical experience. Latin in the Christian Curriculum is such a program. Ever since my own five children were lucky enough to have been taught with this curriculum, I have wanted to be involved in promulgating it. It is already used in prestigious brick-and-mortar schools, such as Valley Christian in Silicon Valley, a school I am personally familiar with, since I grew up in that area. I support this curriculum because it is authentically classical, in all of the ways I have delineated above, while also teaching students in a step-by-step manner, using the mastery approach. You can find a review of the program by the homeschool curriculum maven, Cathy Duffy at this link: https://cathyduffyreviews.com/homeschool-reviews-core-curricula/foreign-language/latin/latin-in-the-christian-trivium.
Discussing the pedagogy of learning Latin is just one aspect of what it means to have a classical education, but it’s a pretty important component. Most of us are products of an educational system which has not taught us classically, but we are seeking ways in which we can expand our understanding of what it means to have a legitimate classical education, and to make sure we make it possible for our own children to do so. If you are interested in having your student take Latin, I hope you will investigate either the program I support, or some other program which is comprehensive in scope.
There are various approaches to understanding poetry. In the 20th century, the rise of literary criticism began the process teachers now use of analyzing specific literary (rhetorical) devices such as similes, metaphors, etc. to explain the poem. In the 19th century, though, the focus was on having students memorize the poetry and experience the language of the works as a whole. Which approach is best? My answer is both. Memorizing a poem “makes it your own,” but understanding the diction leads you to richer understanding which causes the poetry to enter deeply into your soul.
Today, honors courses require that students take the poems apart rhetorically. This approach to literature, and poetry specifically, is due to the influence of the New Critics, the group of 20th century authors who popularized the idea of literary criticism. They, and their approach, are no longer “in vogue” in universities today, due to the rise of
Marxist-feminist and other post-modern critical approaches. But in truth, literary criticism as we know it owes its existence to the New Critics such as I. A. Richards, et al, since they taught us how to break apart diction with such careful and specific techniques.
Some assert that analyzing literature rhetorically in this manner “ruins” the enjoyment of it; this is not true. Like any aspect of learning, the more you understand the specifics of the topic, the better you can appreciate its unity. Those who have had negative experiences “digging into” literature have simply had poor teachers who have not successfully passed on the truth that in the humanities, we must comprehend what we read both inductively and deductively, and when a student is challenged to do this, he begins the process of independent thinking, of unifying his thought so as to see the poem as a powerful communicator of truths, both emotional and spiritual.
Let us take Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” as an instance of a poem which yields rich results when we “unpack” it rhetorically. Here is the poem:
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” ~ Robert Frost
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.
Frost is deceptive. He uses nature to write “beautiful” poetry, but upon examination, we find that his diction is complex, and if we are not extremely careful in approaching the poems, we will be led astray, rather like a detective who is distracted by false evidence, and thus misses the clues which will lead him to discover the true topic at hand.
Although he lived during the time of the development of modern poetry, or “free verse,” which abandoned traditional rhyme schemes and meters, Frost despised this movement. He famously quipped that writing free verse is “like playing tennis with the net down.” In other words, without the rules, there is no poem, no way to create a work of value and structure. Thus, Frost’s poetry is traditional, but deceptively so because of his informal diction; he appears to be holding a conversation with us over the backyard fence or a cup of coffee, when in fact he is always giving us fresh assessments about life and the world, and our relation to it as humans.
After reading the poem out loud, we establish the rhyme pattern. (For those already familiar with these basics, please forgive this brief review.) The rhyme pattern is that referred to as “couplets,” as two consecutive lines rhyme before moving on to the next set of two. Always use lower case letters to show a rhyme pattern, as shown at the end of each line. Frost’s is traditional here, as always:
flower/hour b (skip the “er” in flower, and read it in the 19th century way, as “flow’r”)
leaf/grief c day/stay d
We engage next with the meter: The rhythm of the poem. Each syllable is stressed or unstressed in our natural speaking manner, creating the “patterns” we know as “meter.” The first and last lines do not line up with the meter of the rest of the poem; lines 2-7 are strictly iambic, but the first and last lines are not. Iambic meter means that the first syllable is stressed, and the second is not. There are two syllables in each “iamb”; each “iamb” is called a “foot.” A poet may have as many “feet” in a line as he chooses. Frost chooses to have three in his lines here, so this is called iambic trimeter.
But let’s get back to the intrigue of those first and last lines not being iambic. Why? The lines have more stressed (emphasized) syllables in them than the iambic lines. When a poet uses stressed syllables in this manner, he is drawing the reader’s attention to these lines. Frost wants us to notice these first and last lines because they are communicating his theme. Additionally, he uses alliteration to pound home the stress: the hard “g” sound in “green” and “gold” wakes us up. Let’s look at the first line:
The emphasized (stressed syllables) are shown in capital letters:
NAture’s first GREEN is GOLD.
Nature, green, and gold are emphasized. We get it that this poem is about nature. But—is it? Why is nature’s first green also gold? Is that true? Nature’s first green is actually in spring. How can green be gold? The leaves turn gold in the fall, right before they die and fall off. So even in the first line, Frost is presenting us with a dilemma—a quandary. Let’s go on and see if we can find some explanation in the next three lines:
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Gold is the hardest hue (color) to retain. Why? – because the leaves are dying. While the shimmering gold leaf is the height of beauty, it is also bittersweet; it is a sign of impending death. So, this poem might not be about how beautiful nature is; it might be about something else, such as, perhaps, that death is inevitable. And, not only is death unavoidable: importantly, life’s climax, this nadir of perfect glory, is fleeting, and even as the leaves enjoy their golden glory, they are moving towards death, as we are.
The next line is tricky, but is a continuation of his now clear theme, that life is temporal, and we are all on a journey towards death:
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
The question here is: What does “subsides” mean, in context? It can mean lessen, become less severe, etc. We can discover what Frost means by paraphrasing some: As it dies, one leaf gives way to another leaf which will spring fresh in spring, green and bright. A leaf dies, but it is replaced by another, new leaf: the cycle begins again, and the process repeats itself each year. That’s fine, but – didn’t we already know that? Frost was just laying the groundwork: now he goes on to zing his point home in the last three lines, explaining all in the poem’s “shift”:
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Most poems have this “shift”- a point where the author surprises the reader somehow as he changes his viewpoint; it might be a minor twist, or it might be a big one. It’s minor in this poem, if you’ve been paying close attention. Paraphrased, the first of these lines says,
“In the same manner, death came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.” The allusion to Eden encapsulates much, but it’s key to understanding the poem; “thus death came into the world,” as the New Testament says. Notice the word “sank” in the phrase “sank to grief,” which implies that originally, the progression to death did not exist. There was a better world, but we do not live in that world. We must accept not only the mortality of nature in general, but our own mortality.
Although Frost is not religious, he relies heavily upon this Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of humanity: death entered into the world, and it is inevitable. Think about the line
So dawn goes down to day
Here is another quandary. Shouldn’t dawn be the beginning of day; don’t we say that the sun comes “up”? Isn’t it sunset that goes “down”? Why does dawn go “down” to day? You may already see the answer: because dawn brings forthanother day, time has progressed. The dawn goes “down” not only because it disappears as day springs forth, but because it is another harbinger, a marker on the march of time towards death.
The poem concludes with a strong accent on the word “nothing,” which we now understand much more clearly than we did when we read it as the title:
NOTHing gold can stay.
The unspoken messages are now clear: life is precious, but transient, and we should value every minute, for we do not know when the golden leaves of our lives will drift into eternity. Nature’s first green is gold because the very start of life (spring, green) is also the beginning of our journey towards death—we eventually become “gold,” when we reach our maturity, and then will soon pass from this life to the next. We may or may not believe in the biblical explanation for the brief nature of our lives, but we know that its point is true. And, he implies, if we accept this reality, we will have a better chance of appreciating the life we experience here, before we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”
I teach writing according to the Jane Schaffer writing method, used by high achieving schools in their honors and AP programs. The Schaffer pedagogy meets the definition of “classical” because it leads students into developing critical thinking skills at an early age. Schaffer is qualitatively different from other popular “classical” writing methods, because Schaffer teaches them how to analyze, interpret, and assess ideas. Put another way: students’ minds are engaged in such a manner that they are inspired to develop independent thought. This is because students are led to ponder what a character’s (or historical figure’s) motivations are, or what the consequences of his or her actions or words are, within the context of the theme and diction of the story.
Schaffer is simply a codification of how analytical writing was taught traditionally. As I often tell students, they are like Sherlock Holmes walking onto a crime scene. They must look at the situation presented, as a whole, and from that assess what the important “evidences” are. The Schaffer method calls these “concrete details” (CDs). From there, students use the context of these facts to determine the theme(s) of the text. Why did the author use those facts at that point? Students also bring their own knowledge of life and universal truths to bear on the situation: What is the point of the passage? What does it reveal about the character, or what message is the author communicating to the reader?
When students begin to think analytically, they begin to think independently. Of course, this is the goal of a classical education, not the memorization of a bucketful of facts or texts. The necessity of having such skills before entering the halls of higher education cannot be overemphasized. The Jane Schaffer approach takes time to learn in the beginning–students are building up their “deductive” muscles. But with guidance and practice, they become independent thinkers.
The “method” is a proven way to bringing students’ minds to bear, in order to train them to focus so that they successfully learn the process of analytical reasoning. As students begin to incorporate the techniques so that they think and write inferentially, they no longer need the Schaffer steps, as they have begun the process of independent thinking–the ultimate goal of our educational efforts.