Where Meanings Live

I Wonder as I Wander

Anne Sofie von Otter

John Jacob Niles


Where Meanings Live


Painting of a man standing on a sandy beach looking out over the water

Harmony in blue and silver: Trouville

James McNeill Whistler



The song is “I Wonder as I Wander.” It is a Christmas song. I remember listening to this song while in my senior year of college. It was Christmas time and I was, with many other students in my History of the English Language class at our professor’s house preparing for the final exam. She invited us all over and served home made donuts, cider, and, of course, coffee (we had to stay awake after all). In the background Joan Baez’s album Noel was playing, one of the songs of which is “I Wonder as I Wander.” To this day when I hear that album I am transported back to that evening in 1975. I used the Anne Sofie von Otter version here because she has a wonderful voice (though so does Joan Baez), but also because I like the somber sound of the cello in the background. The song asks us to contemplate the journey we are on, the life we are living and where this life is taking us. As a Christmas song it asks us to contemplate both beginnings and endings.

In the same year I took this course on the English Language I also took a course from W. D. Snodgrass on the interpretation of modern poetry. He told in that class a story about John Jacob Niles, the writer of the song. Niles did not like photographers or being photographed. Snodgrass said that he attended a concert given by Niles where a photographer came down the aisle while Niles was in the middle of a song. Niles saw the photographer, stopped singing and put his head down on the lectern or whatever it was that he was standing behind. He would not look up, but asked from time to time “has he gone yet.” And when the answer came back that he was, Niles raised his head and continued the song he was singing. So whenever I hear this song, I think about that evening learning about the history of the English language and a man who lived by his principles.


Photograph of a page from the Guttenberg Bible

The beginning of the Gutenberg Bible: Volume 1, Old Testament, Epistle of St. Jerome. (The Epistle is not a part of the Bible itself, but an introduction by St. Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin Vulgate, which the Gutenberg Bible is written in.)



This is the 400th anniversary of the King James Translation of the Bible, the only great work of literature (and it is that in addition to whatever value it has to people as a religious work) that was composed by a committee, it is, I suppose the exception that proves the rule that nothing of value comes out of a committee. Of course it should be acknowledged that large chunks of this translation came from Tyndale and the translators of the Geneva Bible. There was an article recently in the National Geographic magazine about the making of this translation, “The Bible of King James.” One of the things that Adam Nicholson, the author of the article, points out is that the committee was as concerned with how the text sounded when spoken aloud as they were for the quality of the translation. They did not compromise accuracy in favor of a more musical language, but sought the most musical text that was at the same time an accurate translation. They wanted those listening to the words as they were spoken to be as moved by the sound of what they were hearing as they were by the sense.

I think this is the reason the translation has fared so well and become such an important part of the cultural history of the English speaking people. The paper I did for that History of the English Language class looked at different translations of The Book of Common Prayer because I thought that a religious text would strive for the greatest accuracy and speak as clearly as possible to the time that it was written and that as a result the changes in the language used would suggest two things, a change in cultural attitudes and beliefs within that religious community and changes in the language as well. I no longer have a copy of that paper and I am sure I am much more impressed by the memory of it, than I could hope to be by anything I had to say in that paper. But such is memory.

Medieval theologians believed Biblical texts could be understood on four levels, levels of interpretation that increased in difficulty and required greater depths of knowledge and understanding. I think the seriousness with which the medieval theologian approached the Biblical texts, especially the language of the text, is useful to consider when reading and trying to understand, any difficult text, sacred or secular. The four levels of interpretation are:

  1. The Literal Interpretation, that is the words mean what they say and can be understood at this level by anyone capable of reading the words (which may have required more education than most living in the Middle Ages possessed). The medieval theologian would assert that all scripture would have to be understood at this level before the interpreter could move on to the next level. In fact each level presupposes an adequate understanding of the text at the level that precedes it.
  2. The Historical Interpretation, that is the text needs next be understood within an historical, and probably cultural, context. This level of interpretation suggests that an understanding of the time and circumstances that produced the text amplifies our understanding of that text and brings out additional dimensions to our understanding of what we are reading. The medieval theologian would probably assert also that no understanding suggested by the historical or cultural context can contradict or in any way diminish the literal understanding, and this is to be understood as true for each of the levels of interpretation that follows, as the interpreter proceeds from one level of interpretation to the next nothing found in a previous level can be contradicted. Part of what guarantees a proper understanding of the text is that each interpretation has to be, if not supported, not contradicted by any other level of interpretation, it must be true at all levels.
  3. The Allegorical Interpretation, that is characters, events, themes, etc. are all “types”, that is they represent principles, values, and truths, that make them models for daily life, they are guideposts that reveal to the interpreter how life should and should not be lived.
  4. The Eschatological Interpretation, that is the texts point to how all things will end and the knowledge necessary for meeting that ultimate end. This refers to the ending of all things in a final judgment, but it also to each individual’s ending at the time of their death and therefore gives each individual truths that need to be known in order to prepare for that death.

Obviously these levels of interpretation cannot be introduced, at least not in this fashion into an English class, or into any other kind of public school classroom, but there are principles here that are transferable and it is useful to bear in mind that any literary text, that is any text that can withstand multiple readings at different stages in one’s life, operates at many different levels and what a story, poem, essay, or play means at a literal level is probably only a place to begin. Many who read literature, not the stuff read solely for entertainment, though no work of literature would be likely to survive if it did not entertain, but the complicated, multi-layered texts that make a literary work literary, read not only for the story it tells but for all the things going on around the story.


Painting of a tree lined country lane opening out onto an open field

The Cornfield

John Constable



Middlemarch is about people living in a rural English town, it is about the reforms that some try to implement and others try to thwart, it is about relationships and families. But it also raises deep questions that are often made clearer by an understanding of the time and place that produced the story. It also makes suggestions about how life ought to be lived if we are to be happy and are to see that our lives have counted for something when we reach the end of them. Each of the characters at some level fails to live up to the expectations they have set for themselves, some are thwarted by the cruelty or bigotry of other characters, others are thwarted because they did not fully understand themselves or the potential of the gifts they were born with and therefore did not develop those gifts to their fullest or in a timely enough fashion to put them to their best use. Some characters believed much more of themselves and their gifts than their actual abilities would warrant. And almost all at crucial times made foolish choices or were lacking in courage.


Painting of people walking through a wood in the rain

Rain in an Oak Forest

Ivan Shishkin



In reading a story like Middlemarch we can see how Dorothy, Casaubon, the good doctor, and the Pre-Raphaelite painter (I left out the names of the last two characters in part because I forgot them but in part to provoke curiosity, after all with the technology available today it would not be difficult to retrieve the names) can be seen as having allegorical or archetypal qualities; they represent certain kinds of people and certain attitudes towards life and success. The book is a big book and a lot happens. We do not see these people as snapshots but we see their growth over time, so they illustrate not just the consequences of choices made but how those choices came to be made in the first place and how they were lived out in the second. They help us to see what it means to be human and how we might more fully and deeply put our humanity to good use and in a way that brings us greater satisfaction and a greater sense of fulfillment when we each face our own eschatological moment.


Kathryn Schultz

TED Talk


The video is about regret and the importance of being regretful. It begins with a quote from a literary work that encourages us to get on with things, that what is done is done and cannot be undone. You know from the video who it is that said this and what it is she and her husband had done and why it is they needed to spend more time with their regrets learning from them and the consequences of failing to learn from our regrets, for ourselves of course and for those that live around us, some of whom we love quite deeply. Regret ultimately killed the character that exhorted us to get on with things. This too is an important element of the literary text (and even of texts that aren’t so literary) they give us the opportunity of learning from others’ mistakes. The Greek drama existed to remind its audience that actions had consequences that did not go unnoticed. Sometimes the consequences to the performer of those actions were years in coming but they always came and those consequences were always tragic. That was the point. At the end of the tragedy the culture is cleansed and order is reestablished. We weep for the hero, but we leave the theater knowing all is well, or at least becoming well, with the world.


Cave painting of a group of people standing about

This portion of the Great Gallery, found in Horseshoe Canyon, is an example of a Barrier Canyon Style pictograph (painted rock art). The full panel is 200 feet long, 15 feet high and the paintings are life-sized human figures. The largest figure pictured is about 7 feet tall.



As a teacher of English these (Middlemarch, concepts like regret, and the Greek tragedy) capture the importance of story telling, or reading literature; not just to say we read a great book but to grow in wisdom and self understanding. I am not the characters I admire (or those I detest for that matter) in the books I read but I admire the characters in the books I read for qualities which I either lack or do not realize as fully as I would like, so for me they hold up a standard and a challenge, just as those I detest force me to confront in myself qualities I do not wish to acknowledge. But of course it is only in knowing ourselves that we can change ourselves and exercise some control over the direction our lives take. There was an article in The Atlantic about being wrong and admitting it, “I Was Wrong and So Are You”. The writer of the article published another article a year and a half or so earlier which argued that the latest evidence revealed that Conservatives knew their stuff about the economy and that liberals were woefully misinformed. A year later he did some more research and found that in fact the questions in the first survey were slanted in favor of conservative respondents.

This was not done deliberately, it happened by accident, but he was, being a libertarian, overjoyed with the findings. What the later study revealed is that we gravitate towards those statements we already believe and that the conservatives did so well because they were being asked to essentially affirm what they already believed. The new study was more balanced and therefore produced a much different result. But the real conclusion he drew was that we are all victims of “conclusion bias” and that we all need to be open to the fact that the rightness of our views and the wrongness of the views of others may be a form of self-deception. I think stories, to get back to the original point, help us avoid this form of deception. Stories are told from many points of view, informed by many different worldviews, and often require us to get a bit outside ourselves in order to experience the world of the story.

Students often, like the respondents to Daniel B. Klein’s survey, read only the stories, or at least only immerse themselves in the stories, that feed the views, interests, and passions that they bring to the story and avoid those stories that confront those views interests, and passions. It is not necessary to enjoy Henry James to appreciate the world he creates in his fiction and to contemplate the psychology of his characters and how that psychology produces certain behaviors. Even if you fundamentally disagree with the psychology, there is value in considering why you disagree. The problem with James, for many, is that we have to spend a lot of time learning what makes his characters tick. We need not share the interests of James or his characters to learn something about how it is important to be aware of where our mind’s inclinations are leading us. It is important for all of us to recognize that the views of those we do not like or understand have some merit, and that for the people holding those views there is often a rational body of thought that underscores them, and what is worse there may not be an equally rational body of thought underscoring what we believe. It is at least worth thinking about.

When we study a book in my class these things are not always (perhaps it would be more truthful to say they are rarely) what the students want to explore or consider. They are for the most part, like me at their age, captivated by plot. They want fun and excitement and this is not a bad place to begin, the history, the archetypes, and the psychology can come later. With many a good story, a focus on the literal meaning of the work can be a useful place to begin, if, of course, the students can relate to the characters and what they are experiencing. After some success has been achieved at this initial level, I think there is value to spending time considering some of the deeper levels of meaning that are to be found in a story, just as we want students to look for deeper meanings in most things they will experience in life and not live superficially. There was an article on Lionel Trilling in The Daily Beast, “Adam Kirsch’s Why Trilling Matters Reminds Us of Power of Reading”. Trilling also makes this point, that reading is our “best hope for being better” (this is the reviewers summary of Trilling). So there is a place for considering the history that produced the story and the archetypes the story contains, and the suggestions it offers for living a better, richer, fuller life that is not clothed in too much disappointment when time’s winged chariot begins its approach.


Painting of a house on a hill overlooking a river with an island in the distance

Above the Eternal Tranquility

Isaac Levitan