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



Wondering Where the Lions Are
Bruce Cockburn


Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red
Piet Mondrian

There was an article recently in the New York Times, “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” about boredom. Fredrick Nietzsche said that “Boredom is a necessary precondition to creativity” and perhaps there is truth in this. The article suggests that boredom is hard work and that when we are doing nothing the creative centers of our brains are hard at work imagining things, being, as Nietzsche suggested, creative. The song is about finding “ecstasy,” overwhelming joy. That joy is found in simple experiences of the natural world, watching waves or smelling the trees in a forest. Perhaps boredom is represented by the lions that do not frighten him so much anymore.

The paintings by Mondrian are found boring by some because not much seems to be happening and even after close study and scrutiny some still find the paintings boring because they just aren’t to everyone’s taste. This suggests other aspects of boredom that have to do with the cultivated mind and individual likes and dislikes. Many do not like opera the first time they hear it, but many that did not like opera on a first hearing go on to become quite enthusiastic about it once they have learned something about how it works and are exposed to the music as performed by those that know how to perform it well. For many opera is something you grow into and perhaps the same is true of Mondrian’s paintings, they need to be grown into.

Of course it must be remembered that one can like opera without liking all operas and perhaps the same is true with painting, that one can enjoy some abstract paintings without enjoying all abstract paintings. The issue is not one of exposure so much as not having a taste for certain things and this is true of people with the most cultivated tastes. There are of course others who feign an interest in something because they are trying to impress others. No one, whatever the stage of cultural development they live at, enjoys everything. Out tastes are defined as much by what we do not like as they are by what we do like.

The Piet Mondrian – Nike Dunk Low SB

On the other hand it is difficult to know what will excite people and some things, like a Mondrian painting, that might bore a person if they were encountered in a museum might excite that same person if they were found on a tennis shoe. If we are attracted at all to the Mondrian painting it is probably the design that we find attractive and the design does not have to be found solely on a canvas to excite our interest, in fact a design that does not attract us in one venue may attract us in some other. As with fine dining, presentation is an important part of design.

I suppose the whole issue of what is art and why we ought to appreciate it is at the heart of boredom. There are aspects of culture that we feel guilty for not appreciating and other aspects of culture for which we feel the need to suppress our appreciation. In some parts of the world sports are at the heart of one’s cultural experience in others it may be the ballet. But in any culture there are things folks feel compelled to know and other things that are more discretionary. In America it is more acceptable, I suppose, to be bored at the opera than at a football game.

The Human Condition
René Magritte

This painting plays with the idea of art imitating life to the extent that it is difficult to see where “life” ends and the painting begins. But is it the purpose of art to imitate life. I remember reading somewhere that E. B. White (writing under a pseudonym) once said that “art should not only “not” imitate life, it had better be a helluva lot more interesting.” I do not know if I remember correctly and I have not been able to verify the quote anywhere, still the quote is apt. A work of art may be true to life, but to keep the work from boring its audience the artist is selective about what is put into the work and what is kept out.

A Young Hare
Albrecht Durer

The choice of what to put in does not need to be “exciting in and of itself, it just has to have a quality about it that holds our interest. A painting of a rabbit could be maudlin or “cute” but it can also been done from life and catch our interest. The rabbit in the painting seems a serious fellow deep in thought. I think what attracts me is the level of realism, the texture of the fur, the facial expression, the tension in the body. But the point is simplicity is often exciting and capable of holding our interest. Perhaps the ability to find pleasure in simple things is an essential life skill, one that frees us from all the busyness and activity that goes on around us. Often what makes a good reader is the ability to see beyond the plot of a story, to see the well drawn details that help establish the reality of the story without contributing that much to what happens in the story. In some stories (Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles comes to mind) the scenery and the weather and the “actions” of the natural world reinforce or give insight into what is happening inside the characters.

I think that we read stories, poems, plays, and essays (and whatever else that is out there requiring us to decipher symbols on a page) to help us answer questions about life and how to live it well. Perhaps we become bored with a story when it stops answering questions that are relevant to our own existence. A story may be a good story for others without being a good story for me, or it may not be a story I need for this stage in my life. There was a review in the Guardian recently of a new biography of Michel Montaigne, “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.” Montaigne’s life was radically changed by an encounter with death. He lived in a time when death was a much more common occurrence than it is for us, at least on a personal level. And, as is often the case with things we have in abundance, he took death for granted, until he had his accident.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
Thomas de Leu

Montaigne went on to invent the essay (well he didn’t really invent the essay so much as give it a name). He used the form to answer questions, how should we live, what should we do with the time that we have? Primarily, he thought, we need to stop worrying about death. But he also thought we should read more, though not remember that much of what we read (we must wade through a lot of nonsense I suppose before we find things of real value), take things slowly, be curious. His essays help us understand friendship, the importance of learning from the experience of others, and knowing the difference between those that would deceive and those who can be trusted. But can someone find these essays interesting if she or he is not already aware of the importance of coming to grips with the issues the essays address. Often what bores us is not the work itself, but our own immaturity that blinds us to the need to confront the problems the work confronts.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro
20th Century Fox

This clip from the film The Snows of Kilimanjaro raises another issue of story telling. How does the storyteller make a static scene interesting? I suppose this is an especially serious problem for the filmmaker. How do we hold the audience’s interest in a man in bed who is slowly dying? A large part of the responsibility falls on the actors who must capture the audience almost solely with their words and the emotions that can be packed into the words. What we watch, I imagine, is the behavior, is it true, is this how a person would act and speak and “be” under these circumstances? Because under the surface of the action, such as it is, is the same question Montaigne raises, how do we face our own mortality without “worrying about death.” If a scene like the one in the film is boring, it is either because we do not feel our own mortality or because the actors failed to convince us they were confronting their own.

In a good story it is not the action entirely that holds our interest. A good story, for me anyway, is one we can come back to and read again and still draw something from the experience. Where all a story has to offer is a plot, a series of events, unfortunate or otherwise, there is nothing to hold our interest on a second reading. If the action of the story is presented exceptionally well it may succeed in arousing our interest on one or two more readings, but once we get to the point we can “tell the story” to ourselves without needing the book there will be nothing left to draw us back in.

But in a well told story where real questions of human existence are being confronted, where the characters confront these questions in a meaningful and honest way, there will always be something to hold our interest. We are not reading because we have been captured by what people do but because we have been captured by the people themselves and they hold us, at times perhaps, against our will.

Well Written, Well Told

Ever After
Stephen Sondheim
Into the Woods

Well Written, Well Told

The Death of Chatterton
Henry Wallis

The song title is a play on the most familiar storybook ending “and they lived happily ever after.” The song is from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, a play about the role of folk and fairy tales in shaping our lives. The song suggests that we all must go into the woods, that dark place where all of our fears live and come out the other side if we are to “live happily ever after.” If we do not, whatever is our secret terror will continue to haunt us. It is, I suppose, the place where we all go to learn courage and fortitude.

Thomas Chatterton went into the woods in his effort to achieve acceptance as a writer. He is perhaps most famous for the poems he claims to have found written by a medieval monk, Thomas Rowley. Chatterton was never successful as a poet or a writer, at least not during his lifetime. Everyone thought his best known poems were written by someone else. It is believed he committed suicide at the age of seventeen in poverty and discouragement at his inability to be taken seriously as a writer. I bought in a library book sale once a two volume set of the poems of Chatterton that was published by Little Brown and Company in 1863 and donated to the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1867. It is an interesting collection and as Horace Walpole said the poems are “wonderful for their harmony and spirit.” Here are a few lines from Chatterton’s poem The Battle of Hastings:

Duke Wyllyam drewe agen hys arrowe strynge,
An arrowe with a sylver-hede drewe he;
The arrowe dauncynge in the ayre dyd synge.
And hytt the horse Tosselyn on the knee.
At this brave Tosslyn threwe his short horse-speare;
Duke Wyllyam stooped to avoyde the blowe;
The yrone weapon hummed in his eare,
And hitte Sir Doullie Naibor on the prowe;
Upon his helme soe furious was the stroke,
It splete his bever, and the rivets broke.

Those that knew what Middle English looked like were not fooled by the vocabulary or the quaint spellings and did not believe the poems to be ancient. He is probably not a great poet but there is a romantic aura that clings to him that attracted poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth and the other Romantics to his cause. The poems themselves do tell stories that if not well written were effectively told, at least for their time.

The Boyhood of Raligh
John Everett Millais

There was an article recently in the Guardian, “Museum ‘of story and storytelling’ planned for Oxford”, about a museum to be built at Oxford University to celebrate story telling. It will begin with the stories that originated at Oxford, stories by Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman. The museum already lives online as The Story Museum. It sounds like it will be a fascinating place where children can go to hear stories and to invent them. It seems that many of the stories that speak to the development of our humanity are stories written for children. This is a generality of course but more and more of the stories written for adults (aside from genre fiction, which many seem to dismiss as stories written for “older children”) address the inner lives and psychology of their characters who often do not seem to “do” very much. Their courage lies in the way in which they confront their inner demons. There is value of course to these stories and they do attract readers but many of the elements of traditional storytelling seem to be missing. Perhaps I have been exposed to too narrow a spectrum of modern stories.

Cover of the pulp magazine Mystery (February 1934)
A Tower Magazine

The suggestion is often made that genre fiction and those stories that attempt to tell a more traditional kind of story are not that well written. For example “serious” literary critics often trivialize the work of J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Stephen King. Yet these stories resonate with many readers. One of C. S. Lewis’ favorite books was A Voyage to Arcturus, a book Lewis said was badly written but tells a mesmerizing story. Does a story have to be well written to be well told? It is difficult to know whether or not the storytellers that move us today will move anyone else tomorrow. I think sometimes that what is considered good writing is more transitory than what is considered good storytelling. A good story can perhaps survive bad writing but as writing styles and tastes change the “good” writing of one generation is often seen as wanting by the generations that follow.

A further complication of writing well is that often it is impossible to quantify. There was an article in the Guardian, “Marking computer says no to lazy Dickens and dull Austen”, about a new computer program used to score the essays for student proficiency exams given by the English government. Sort of like the exams we give students here before we will give them a high school diploma. The machine gave low or failing grades to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and many other prominent writers when their work was fed through the machine. The opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, was marked down “for repetition and poor and restricted choice of vocabulary.” As soon as we try to define what is and is not good writing, writing that ought to be bad will be recognized for its brilliance.

City Lights
United Artists

The film tells a powerful story. The full effect of this final scene from City Lights cannot be felt without knowing the story that precedes this moment. The woman giving Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” the flower and the coin was, at the beginning of the film, a blind flower seller on the street. Chaplin is able to “manipulate” events so that she is able to have an operation that will restore her sight. Unfortunately the tramps “manipulations” get him arrested. The scene in the clip is the reunion of the tramp and the blind flower seller, who now can see, but she has never seen the tramp. She does, however, know the touch of his hand and recognizes him immediately upon touching his hand. It is a remarkable piece of story telling and to do it justice the film should be seen in its entirety. But what this film clip suggests is that the power of story telling is often in its images and relationships. It is not the narrative so much as how the settings and events are woven in our minds. In a film the filmmaker creates this for us and leaves us free to focus on other things. But for the story told with words on a printed page the reader has to be able to construct the settings, characters, and events in her or his mind and the more vividly the story is told the more easily the reader makes these constructions.

Scheherazade Went on with Her Story
Illustration from Arabian Nights by Virginia Frances Sterrett

My favorite storyteller, or at least one of them, is Scheherazade. She tells the stories found in the 1001 Arabian Nights. Perhaps this is because these are stories I grew up with, both in written form and through, when viewed today, quite awful film versions of the “Voyages of Sinbad” or “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” But even when I look at these films today with their awful production values and often equally awful performances, the images of the films as I remember them still captivate. The image of the thieves’ captain saying “open sesame” and a wall of rock parting to reveal a huge cave full of mountains of treasure in all its brilliance (or at least as brilliant as black and white cinematography could make it) still captures me to this day. I do not know if it is just because these are the stories of my youth or if there are other aspects to the stories that preserve their magic.

There are many stories I read as a child but these stories have endured in my imagination. I have only read them in translation and as I grow older I continue to read them in different translations. Some of them very good and others quite wanting. But no matter how bad the writing the stories usually come alive. This suggests to me that it is not the writing that gives life to a story but the ability of the story to enchant the reader in spite of the deficiencies of its language.