How to Approach the Classics

Many people have trouble reading the Classics, both ancient and modern. This is because we live in a culture of instant gratification. We are used to blake2
reading passively. The key to understanding literature prior to the age of instant gratification is ‘active’ reading. People must change the way they approach these works. They need to change their mindsets. They need to read actively.

Think of all the great literature that has been written prior to the 20th century, going all the way back to Homer and the dawn of Western literature over 2600 years ago.

You don’t know what you are missing!

Most people think that fantasy, as a genre, was born in the 20th century with the advent of the great imagineer, J.R.R. Tolkien. Not true. The first great work of fantasy literature was Homer’s second epic, the Odyssey. And there have been many great imagineers over the ages. One of the greatest is the English visionary poet and painter, William Blake. But people are turned off these authors because they are too ‘difficult’.

All that is needed is some active reading and you can access these works and their like. You don’t need to be an English professor. You don’t even need to be an English graduate. All you need to be is someone who loves to read. So, what exactly is active reading? Basically, it means thinking about the text. It means asking questions. It means using your own knowledge and experience to make sense of the text, to make it meaningful. It means constructing meaning out of what is already inside you and what you are encountering in the text.

Making the transition from passive to active reading is easy and incredibly rewarding. You don’t need to spend three years in college. It’s just a matter of using your God given intellect to extract meaning from the text, to see shapes and patterns in it. This is true ‘reading’, not just taking in words but actively engaging with them.

We’ve already mentioned Blake.  A lot of his poetry is challenging but if you take the active approach it is immensely rewarding. A good place to start active, analytical reading is his Songs of Innocence and Experience. They seem simple on the surface but if you take the time to really read them you will discover hidden depths and layers. New meanings will spring out of the text.

Reading the ancient Classics is also a good place to start, as many classical works have a mechanical quality: they are full of mechanisms and devices which makes them easier to analyse. They also tend to be very structured which makes it easier on the active reader. Of course, these are vast generalisations but they serve our purpose here and hopefully they will embolden you to read the likes of Homer, Sophocles and Virgil.

The important thing to remember is not to be intimidated by literature that is pre 20th century. All you need to do is approach it with a different mindset. Get into a different way of thinking. An objective way of thinking. That and, of course,  a library ticket!

Irish Mythology and W.B. Yeats

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If you are interested in Irish mythology and you haven’t read the early poetry of W.B. Yeats, you really should. Through his early volumes of poetry such as The Rose and The Wind Among The Reeds he re-invented Irish mythology, making it more accessible to anyone who could read.

There is an animism to his early poetry – he brings the natural landscape to life better than any other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poet. There is also danger. His Sidhe or Danann are amoral creatures and there is the suggestion that if you hang out with them too much you run the risk of going insane.

And there is the sheer escapism of his poetry at this stage. Or maybe escapism is the wrong word. Transcendentalism might be more accurate. The early Yeats sees art as separate from reality. It exists in its own transcendent realm and this is reflected strongly in the work. The natural world stirs the imagination and allows us to enter a place where the troubles and toils of daily living can be left behind. This kind of escapism is best demonstrated in the poem, Who Goes With Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,

And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,

And dance upon the level shore?

Young man, lift up your russet brow,

And lift your tender eyelids, maid,

And brood on hopes and fear no more.

 

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love’s bitter mystery;

For Fergus rules the brazen cars,

And rules the shadows of the wood,

And the white breast of the dim sea

And all dishevelled wandering stars.

The early poems are also heavily symbolic and intuitive – they have no precise meaning, which is how all poetry should be. You get the sense that this is a world that exists in the poet’s imagination and not based on experience. The poet William Blake was a huge influence on Yeats, especially in his celebration of the imagination. For both poets, there is more to life than what we take in through the five senses. There is something we all own which is unique to all of us and we can access it through the imagination, something that is ours and nobody else’s. In Yeats’ early work there is a strong sense of a deeply private world been depicted. Because Yeats was so young, he didn’t have much else to draw on except his intuition and imagination, but what a body of work he gave us!

His early work far surpasses the other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poets such as Samuel Ferguson and Thomas Moore. You will find no leprechauns and fairies in Yeats’ early poetry. His work harks back to the old, pre-Christian mythology of Ireland. To the Tuatha De Danann and the Book of Invasions. To the hero, Cu Chulainn and his epic, The Tain. Yeats recognised what a treasure trove of imagination the myths are and how they could provide a framework with which to express his own unique vision of Ireland.