The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination


Encounters with the Classical European Arts for the Curious Beginner
All original text and media Copyright 2014 Robert Millar


Lesson 6 - Drama   (coming soon)
Lesson 7 - Ballet   (coming soon)


The inspiration for this project came about one afternoon as I was leaving an exhibit at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The Legion is a lovely art museum on a wooded hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean not far from the entrance to San Francisco Bay, and it houses a remarkable collection of varied works. But the thing that caught my eye on that day was the museum guestbook in which visitors were signing their names as they made their way out, putting down any comments or thoughts they might have had as a result of their visit. In leafing through the book, I came to find that most of the comments seemed to reveal more about the museum-goers themselves than about their thoughts and feelings regarding the art.  Here are a few examples:
“It took me too long to find the café. Great food, by the way!”
“Boring, boring, boring!  I’m just glad there were benches.”
“Wish I could take that parquet chest home. It would look beautiful in my dining room!”
“Didn’t they film VERTIGO here? Cool!!”
I was disappointed. Where were the thoughtful reactions to the artworks in the museum? There were a few incisive remarks, but the majority of the entries did not seem to reflect anything about the patrons’ appreciation or experience of the works of art.  As a long-time professor of Arts Appreciation courses, I was concerned to find that most of the time the comments were not central to what a work was trying to convey and often revealed a kind of confusion about how to begin to engage with a work of art.   I’ve seen the same difficulty in engaging with the arts elsewhere, too. At the theater, movies, ballet, or symphony, one hears similar kinds of comments from the audience, rather than discussion about what their reactions have been to what they have just experienced.  I had noticed this perplexing situation many times over the years.  What was the reason for this apparent lack of involvement in the artistic experiences?  What would it take to keep people more engaged?

As I mulled these matters over, I recalled all the animated conversations a colleague and I have had throughout our 40-plus years of teaching at the same college ---- passionate, ongoing discussions about how to best realize our educational objectives. As we discussed how to give students a solid foundation for arts appreciation,  we found ourselves going back into our own histories to recall the factors that made us love the arts in the first place. Four main themes emerged:  the thrill of the experience, the excitement of discovery, the expression of feelings and ideas, and the interrelationship between technique and content. Having identified these elements, it became clear that, initially at least, engagement with the arts did not have to be a complex affair.  I recalled my own first live encounter with music. It was a spirited marching band coming down the street in the annual town parade, drums booming, trumpets and trombones blaring, cymbals crashing, and it sparked my first genuine artistic thrill. What an exciting visceral and emotional experience!  It didn’t require extensive knowledge of music history and theory (although both of those things added greatly to my appreciation later on), it just happened spontaneously. I was only six years old at the time, but the occasion made a lasting impression upon me and launched me on a lifelong path in pursuit of similar inspirational encounters. Reflecting upon it, I was reminded that such experiences are at the center of what the arts are all about; they are the essential element that keeps us engaged. Could it be, my colleague and I asked ourselves, that many people have not yet had the initial opportunity to be drawn into the arts in such a straightforward, uncomplicated way? As educators, had we missed a step by assuming they had?  Without experiencing that active involvement, everything else is only academic, in the least inspirational sense of that word. Somehow, we resolved, we had to find ways to promote that same state of excitement and spontaneity in our students.

So I reorganized, paring down my teaching efforts to the essentials and focusing on meeting the challenges we had identified. Textbooks became harder to find, largely because most of them provide novices with far too much information to absorb ---- so much that the average person may feel overwhelmed by its sheer volume, rendering the overall experience unpleasant and alienating. Instead, I moved toward a more streamlined approach that would give students just the minimum of information needed to begin to explore and discover the arts while still providing them with substantial aesthetic experiences.  As I implemented the revised techniques, suddenly students who had previously been dozing at the back of the classroom started to come to life. Those who had remained silent began to enter into the discussion and as they became increasingly involved, their enthusiasm grew.  Clearly, the approach was working, and I continued to make improvements on it with each new group of students. This project was designed to offer the same kind of classroom experience to a wider public.

Everyone should have the opportunity to reap the rewards of an active involvement with our artistic heritage, but many of us are unsure of what to look for in the arts. There is no embarrassment in this for any of us; it is just that we have not been adequately prepared in how to approach them effectively. I know that in my own experience, there was nothing in my formal education that properly laid the groundwork for me to get to the heart of the arts, nothing that sufficiently opened the way to the deeply satisfying aesthetic experiences I currently enjoy. On the one hand there seems to be a commonly held belief that an appreciation of the arts can be acquired without any particular knowledge or skills --- that exposure is enough and the rest just comes naturally. On the other hand, general education Arts Appreciation courses, when they are available in schools, are all too often developed around scientific or history-based models that tend to overburden students with information. The aspiring biology student, for example, learns extensive vocabulary and sufficient facts to enable her to identify a “Salvia dorrii” while hiking. Having made the identification, she may feel that she can then move on, confident that she has pretty much successfully summed up that organism. As far as she is concerned, the plant has gone from being an unknown entity to a known one, even though she may actually understand very little about the complexities of its nature and essence. Education in the arts often follows the same pattern. An art student learns to identify works of art and place them into a chronological context. A music student learns to identify pieces of music by ear, name the composer of each, and put them into the correct aesthetic period. When more understanding is required, it is usually provided in the form of historical and biographical background. In each of the examples cited above, the student often comes to believe that identification is nine-tenths of the job, and that having accomplished that, he has been more or less academically successful in coming to terms with the thing, whether it is a flower, a painting, or a symphony. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
In order to begin to understand most things in life, including the arts, you have to go beyond identification, historical information, and biography. Much as traditional native peoples around the world have come to find meaning in the natural world by learning not just the name, but the character of individual plants and animals and about the ways in which they connect and interact;  just as today’s science of ecology recognizes significance in the important contribution of each individual creature as it interrelates with its fellow creatures in an interdependent bio-system;  the student of the arts must learn to perceive and draw together the technical elements of each art form and use them to help find the uniquely human meaning in an artistic experience. Because in the end, the desire for expression, meaning, and significance is what gives birth to any great artistic endeavor. Many people can identify a painting by Van Gogh or a Beethoven symphony and list many interesting details about the artists' lives and times, yet they may remain in the dark when it comes to gleaning the meaning from their works. Facts about the arts are interesting and oftentimes illuminating, but they in no way insure that we will be able to successfully go toe-to-toe with the works themselves and encounter their significance head on. For that, we need to be prepared for direct involvement with each work on a personal basis.

And so this project is for those of you who crave something more than a superficial experience when it comes to the arts, those who entertain a desire to more closely engage with them and make them a significant part of your life.  Please think of it as an Arts Primer, an initial entrée into the ways of the arts. It is not intended for the connoisseur, nor does it aspire to be particularly scholarly or comprehensive. I have deliberately refrained from burdening the reader with extensive historical or biographical information (which is available in abundance elsewhere), and have reduced the use of arts-specific terminology to a minimum. The informal guided tour that follows aspires to provide a  basic foundation upon which you can continue to build as you gain more and more experience on your own in the future, experience that can be acquired through further reading, greater exposure, and a good deal of attentiveness. This project is intended to excite you, to challenge you, and to start you down the path to a more deeply fulfilling relationship with the artistic treasures of Western Civilization. I hope you will find it helpful and that your future explorations in the arts will be enriching and enjoyable.
As we begin our exploration, there are a few points and attitudes we need to keep in mind so that we can best connect with the arts at this moment in history. We must set the stage for all that is to follow. While I understand that you will be impatient to get right on to the works themselves, please bear with me while we go over just a few essential concepts.

1. Optimum conditions
If we want to get the most out of the arts, we must try to experience them under the best of conditions.  At a time when they are so readily available, it’s easy to take their presence for granted.  The commercial interests of media and mass marketing have filled nearly our every waking moment with an overwhelming onslaught of exposures to the arts.  Music provides ongoing background ambience to life for us in elevators, malls, medical offices, and restaurants, in our cars, while waiting on the phone, and through the omnipresent ear buds of our digital devices.  Visual arts clamor for our attention from billboards, shop windows, magazines, TV, and the Internet.  The written word is delivered daily in newspapers, magazines, best-selling books, and online.  Drama, dance, and now opera and symphonic concerts, are as close as the nearest TV or movie theater.  With this flood of artistic abundance rushing at us, is it any wonder that our poor senses, besieged and stretched in all directions, begin to shut down?

Think of the last time you eased yourself into a steaming hot bath to soften the day’s discomforts---ever so slowly at first because the water seemed almost scalding.  Once settled in the water, though, didn’t you eventually begin to feel comfortable---even to the extent that, although the temperature hadn’t really changed much, you may have felt it necessary to add a little more hot water to maintain that delicious sensation of penetrating warmth?  Surrounded by heat, over time you ceased to feel its intensity.  You got used to it.

It seems as though we humans have the ability to get used to just about anything. This capacity is good at times as an adaptive mechanism to help us survive amid extreme challenges, but it can also become an impediment that intrudes on our appreciation of the arts. The process of getting used to our overstimulating environment can involve developing the equivalent of callouses on our artistic sensibilities.  The daily din can become just so much background static, preventing us from receiving the full potential of any one of our experiences.  We may find ourselves lapsing into a state of bland desensitization.  As a consequence, we require stronger and stronger stimulation in order to register a significant response.

We only have to take a quick scan of the current arts scene to see the process in action.  There is hyperbole everywhere –--popular music with deafening rhythm tracks, films and TV with unending explosions of both anger and weapons accompanied by musical scores ratcheting our emotions up to the highest possible pitch, theatrical plays “re-staged” and “updated” to include greater shock value---usually through the generous addition of graphic sex, violence, and kinkiness, great works of visual art being reduced to commodities as they are promiscuously reproduced for place mats, drink coasters, greeting cards, and ads for perfume, and many of the newest works struggling to be “edgy” in  an effort to create impact – often substituting raw notoriety for expressive eloquence.

Immersed in a sea of such an exaggeration, our aesthetic “skin” thickens and hardens to bear up under the constant onslaught.  Quite simply, we begin to shut down.  How can we possibly be expected to respond to works of a more subtle nature under these conditions?  Are we destined to allow most of the greatest masterpieces ever produced to slip into the oblivion of history just because we have become so overstimulated that they can no longer touch us?  What an incalculable loss that would be. Is there still a way to maintain contact with the best of what the world of the arts has to offer?  Fortunately, the answer is “yes," but it requires the cultivation of three acquired skills:

Exercising discrimination,
Training our attention to be one-pointed,
Slowing down our outer and inner lives.

Exercising discrimination
Sometimes we assume we’re not really living unless we are experiencing life at a perpetual peak of excitement.  For many, life consists of a manic oscillation between the opposite poles of excitement and boredom (Disneyland/school, Las Vegas/back to work,  partying/doing the monthly bills). But this hyperbolic condition, developed through years of living in an atmosphere of over-stimulation, does not allow us to fully appreciate the broad spectrum of everyday human experience that lies between the two extremes---the very arena in which the arts have their greatest resonance.  Under these radically polarized and exaggerated circumstances, the quality of our personal and cultural lives can often seem somehow less than optimum, and our day-to-day existence can feel flat and lackluster.

We may not think so, but we do always have the option to withdraw somewhat from our participation in the more sense-hammering aspects of modern culture.  We can set our own limits on the amount of media exposure and high-impact amusements we will allow into our consciousness.  In the resulting islands of quiet, our frozen sensibilities can begin to thaw, to unfold once again, and to receive and respond to subtle cues.

Training our Attention
Attention is the ability to concentrate the mind willfully, focusing our awareness in a particular direction and keeping it there.  Without the ability to “aim” our minds deliberately in this way, a host of intrusive distractions can overwhelm us, fragmenting our awareness, shattering the continuity and quality of our experience.

Most everyone has at one time or another had the experience of inadvertently  becoming so totally absorbed in an activity that we lose all track of time.  Often it happens before we realize it.  We start reading the opening pages of a novel.  Slowly we are drawn into the atmosphere of the story.  Before we know it we look at our watch and are astonished to find that an hour or two has gone by without our knowledge, seemingly defying our ordinary sense of the passage of time.  That is the experience of concentrated attention, and when it graces us spontaneously, it provides some of the most intensely enjoyable moments of our lives – moments of complete absorption.

At other times though, we are required to call our attention up at will, and that takes a combination of practice, self discipline, and effort---especially amid today’s high-speed lifestyle in which a myriad of competing demands for our attention are being issued at any given moment.  Our phones frequently and unpredictably interrupt the course of our daily activities. The constantly shifting images, flashing colors, sharp voices, strident sounds, and evocative background music of our entertainment media make simultaneous demands that fragment our ability to sustain a single line of attention for any length of time.  Yet, a focused, single line of attention is precisely what is required for an appreciation of the arts.  To develop it, we simply need to practice the skill of fixing our attention on one thing at a time and not allowing distractions to break our concentration.

Slowing down
I don’t know anyone who has enough time these days.  We are all so busy dealing with the challenges and demands of our daily lives, and there are so many of them, that it seems the only solution is to accelerate our pace of living so that everything receives due attention.  Unfortunately, the time-saving, instant-gratification technologies we have developed, from the microwave oven to the cell phone to the computer, seem to have increased our impatience rather than provided us with more available time.  And the speed at which we move bears a price.  The faster we go, the less we have the ability to just “be,” fully centered in one place at a given moment.  We seem to be all the time thinking about the future.  Yet, “being there” is essential to appreciating the arts and, for that matter, savoring life.  Concentrated immersion is required to examine, to absorb, to reflect, to draw conclusions, and to feel.  You cannot have a speedy relationship of any substantial value with a person or with the work of art.  Connecting takes time.

So at this point in history, it is up to each of us to find the wherewithal to deliberately readjust our lives so that they can begin ticking along at a somewhat slower pace.  Steps like getting up earlier in the morning, not over-scheduling ourselves, and otherwise not allowing ourselves to be swept up in the accelerated tide of contemporary life, can pay great dividends in both the overall quality of our lives and in our ability to get the most out of the arts.
2. Live experience
There are no two ways about it; the arts are best experienced live. Looking at paintings in a gallery is far superior to viewing them as prints or photos of paintings in books. Hearing live music is superior to listening to recordings. Even a film is best experienced on the large cinematic screen for which it was intended rather than the TV screen which reduces the image to a smaller size. The fact is that whenever some form of media gets between us and a work of art, something important is always lost – fidelity to the artist’s original concept. Only part of the artist’s “truth” can be conveyed.

It may help us to keep in mind that the word "media" is derived from the Latin word "medius," meaning middle. In this case the word refers to any delivery medium that comes between us and an artwork, like the technologies of sound or photographic reproduction used in the creation of recordings, video, and picture books. The problem with these kinds of reproductions is that while they do deliver the work to us, they do so in a compromised form. The original version has been distorted to some extent. In fact, this distortion is an unavoidable consequence of the reproduction process, and it is a problem because it inevitably alters the impact of the original.

 Think of the old party game in which everyone forms a circle, and then a secret is begun at one point on the circle and whispered from person to person around the circumference until it reaches the last person nearest the originator. Inevitably, when that last person states aloud the “original” secret as he heard it from the person next to him, it has become hopelessly distorted – often to a pretty humorous extent. It has been misunderstood, modified, and reinterpreted by each participant, and each modification has produced a version further removed from the original.

So it is with the technologies used to reproduce the arts. The best sound recording and home stereo equipment almost captures the “bloom” and ambience of live music in the concert hall – almost, but not quite. Fine quality prints of great paintings almost capture the spirit of the original, but not quite, and so on. There is a special something – a spirit, an essence – that is available to us only when we are in the presence of an original work of art. It gets lost when media intervenes. Our task is to try and seek that elusive “something” if we wish to fully experience what the world of the arts has in store for us. Not that we should dismiss mediated experiences entirely. They have their place as previews or hors d’oeuvres that can whet our appetite for the real thing. But we must take care not to mistake the experience of the reproduction for the real thing. It is not.

I was reminded of this point last summer when I visited London’s National Gallery. There on the walls were the original versions of many of the great paintings I have come to appreciate from prints, picture books, and TV programs over the years. Works so famous that, sadly, I have even seen some of them reproduced on decorative doormats and drink coasters. But viewing these paintings in person was unlike any previous experience I had with them --- more satisfying and far more moving. At last, with nothing between me and each painting, I was free to experience their truth afresh, unhampered by the distorting lens of media. There was a compelling magic in the realization that I was looking at exactly the same image and surface the artist was regarding when he stood back and declared the work finished. In witnessing 100% of the artist’s intentions, I was stunned and delighted as each work sprang to life before me, filled with new vitality and meaning.  Colors were more vivid, moods more pronounced. I spent the whole day there, marveling.
3. The nature of the imagination
For each of us the imagination is a private, multifaceted world within the mind. Part memory, part invention, part emotion, and part dream, it draws together the images, impressions, and feelings of a lifetime and uses them to respond in complex ways to the events of our lives. It can even conjure with vivid clarity scenarios we may never have actually experienced. The imagination is essential to the creation and the appreciation of the arts, because it is both the seat of their origin and the center utilized for understanding them. It is meant to be nourished and informed by the kinds of experiences that have characterized human existence since the beginning of time --  direct interactions with the natural world, with other human beings, with the events of our daily lives, and with the cosmos. Unfortunately, for many these kinds of direct experiences have largely been replaced by virtual experiences made up of the predigested thoughts and ideas of others. Movies, television, video games, and computers have largely replaced their experiences of traditional reality, and the result has been a dramatic narrowing of the incoming channels of perception along with a corresponding impoverishment of both the individual and collective imaginations.
 For children, the problem is further complicated. Recent trends in education have seriously neglected the nurturing and development of the imagination in favor of a relentless, all-consuming, and I would say shortsighted insistence upon the assimilation of data in the form of facts and figures for tests. Even in their play, the all pervasive, corrosive influences of mass media, computers, and electronic toys have confined children’s imaginative lives to a narrow field of commercial possibilities, denying them access to the broader range of imaginative alternatives open to their predecessors.

Unfortunately, like a muscle, imagination needs exercise or it atrophies and eventually ceases to function in an original way. In the absence of a personal imagination, our responses begin to refer by default to the “canned” responses that have been served up to us by others. The uniqueness of our personal, indigenous reactions is lost. To avoid this, it is important to include in our lives ongoing interaction with the natural world, social time with friends and family, solitary time for relaxation and reflection, and the pursuit of interests that do not require media and electronics.
4. Sensuality, Intimacy, and Actual Reality
Imagine yourself seated in a fashionable restaurant.  At a nearby table sits a couple enjoying their meal and quietly talking.  Suddenly, he leans in towards her, looks deeply into her eyes and asks,

“Do you consider yourself to be a sensual person?”

What does he mean by that question?  Most of us would assume that he was flirting with her and that the real subtext had more to do with whether or not she considered herself a smolderingly sexual person.  After all, hasn’t each of us, thanks to the relentless efforts of media and advertising, been repeatedly conditioned to think of the words sensuality and sexuality as synonymous? And hasn’t the same fate befallen that other supercharged word– intimacy?  Phrases such as “intimate contact,” “the experience of intimacy,” or “sensuous delight” spontaneously conjure up visions of steamy encounters in the minds of most of us thanks to the persistent influence of media. Commercial efforts to manipulate our tastes and buying habits have slowly but surely reduced the broader historical connotations of the words “sensuality” and “intimacy” to very narrow proportions, impoverishing their wider expressive potential in the process.

So, other than attempting a seduction, what else could the man in the restaurant possibly be trying to learn from his companion by asking that question?  What does it mean to be a sensual person?  When it comes to the arts, sensuality is primarily the ability to be truly alive in all of our senses, to respond with keen awareness to our world through the organs of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing.  To the truly sensual person, daily  experience is filled with a variety of evocative shapes, colors, scents, textures, sounds, and flavors, all presented in diverse degrees of intensity and complexity.  Each sensory impact upon him leaves an impression which is stored in the memory to be savored later singly, or combined with other impressions to produce the multi-layered experiences that so enrich mature human existence.  And not only are the sensory impressions recorded, but so are the events and feelings connected with each occasion.  We have all had moments when a scent, a sound, a taste, or a particular cast of light on a scene can evoke memories and moods with striking intensity.

The word Intimacy refers to the penetrating insight we can gain from being in close proximity to someone or something.  The closer we get, the more our senses and feelings can give us information that will help us form a precise impression of what the subject is actually like.  Any profound wisdom regarding our perception of the nature of reality is fundamentally based on this sort of intimate contact.

Supposing we want to know something about the sea.  How could we go about acquiring that knowledge?  For many, video documentaries, books, magazines, the internet, and school coursework would be first choices for gathering information.  These are certainly excellent resources which can provide vast amounts of information.  However, in-depth knowledge demands greater intimacy (closeness) with the object of our interest, and that kind of understanding can only be attained by directly engaging with it using all of our senses.

If you were to arrange the five senses in order from the least intimate (those that can be experienced from the greatest distance) to the most intimate (those that can only be experienced within the closest proximity), you would probably end up with something like this:​
We were made to experience our environment with all of our senses.  They are the best tools we have to help us discover as best we can what we perceive as reality.  With each step on the continuum outlined above, we draw closer to the object of our interest, and as we do so, we increase our understanding of it.  So it is not enough to base our knowledge of the sea solely on media experiences which involve only our senses of sight and hearing.  As it turns out, those senses are the least intimate of the five.  By neglecting our other senses, we are deprived of the full experience of the sea and our understanding of it will necessarily be diminished and incomplete.

Instead, we need to go down to the sea in person – to wade or swim in it, to feel the power of the surf, to hear the hiss of the receding waves, to smell the briny air and taste the saltiness of it on our lips.  We need to see it in all of its changing moods; sometimes quiet and gentle, sometimes majestic and wild, sometimes dark and stormy, sometimes still as glass, or enshrouded in foggy silence.  We need to feel the slick, chilly viscosity of the water and the insistent pull of the undertow.  We need to hear the seabirds crying out overhead and to bask lazily on the sunny beach until we lose all track of time.  We need to float on the sea in boats, to swim under the surface, to sit at length by the water’s edge watching the rollers grow in intensity until they explode spectacularly against the rocky shoreline.   Only after a lot of this type of experience can we begin to develop true wisdom and understanding with respect to the sea.

We are called upon to fully reference such deep and diverse understanding when we engage with the arts. When actual life experiences are perceived in their full-spectrum immediacy by our senses and registered in the memory with all of their attendant associations intact, there is rich material for our imaginations to draw upon as they dream, create, and play, and as they respond to a poem, a painting, or a piece of music.

If we wish to enjoy the pleasures of the arts fully, we must push beyond the truncated version of experience that is currently called “virtual reality” and plunge into traditional or “actual” reality (real life) with all of our faculties functioning.  Historically speaking, the vast majority of works of art are based on the assumption that the experiences life has to offer are broad and deep, and that if we are actively and intimately involved with them, our internal reservoir of experiential knowledge will be likewise.  The richer we are in this respect, the greater our potential for enjoyment of the arts.
5. The Arts vs. Entertainment
Most people expect that when they spend their hard earned cash on entertainment they should come away feeling as though they had a good time---that the experience was amusing, exciting, and fun, and rightly so.  Such experiences are the proper province (and the bread and butter) of the entertainment business.  But to bring only that set of expectations to the world of the arts can be a mistake.  The aim of the arts is not necessarily to provide us with a good time, although they are often perfectly capable of doing so. Rather, the arts attempt to explore the widest possible range of human experiences, the sweet and the bitter, in order to illuminate the core of what it means to be human.

Now, I do not want in any way to project a negative view of the legitimate place entertainment plays in our lives.  Anyone who is not a complete stick has to enjoy a bit of well-done, creative entertainment.  It can’t be underestimated in its ability to lighten, refresh, and put some fun into our daily lives. But the purpose of the arts is not simply to provide us with fun experiences. The arts are able to take us on a deeper journey into the terrain of human consciousness where we may explore everything from the highest mountains to the deepest canyons that lie there. This journey, too, can be enjoyable as we come to experience an increasing breadth in our understanding of the human condition. It is essential that we understand the distinction between art and entertainment or we will be expecting too much from our entertainment and leaving ourselves vulnerable to disappointment in our experiences with the arts.
And finally,

KEYS MASTER LIST – Things To Look For In Any Work of Art

Before we plunge into any exploration of individual works, let’s set out a specific list of some of the places we can look for clues that will help us receive whatever it is they have to communicate to us. I refer to the terms that follow as “keys” because they can help us unlock the secrets of these great works.  The good news about this list is that it applies to all of the arts. As we consider each of the individual arts in turn, we will amend the list slightly to make it specific to each one, but if you are able to keep these MASTER KEYS in mind you will be well on the way to engaging with any of the arts.

​There are only two fundamental questions you must try to answer when you encounter a work of art:​

First, try to detect the overall impact of the work – what is it trying to communicate, capture, or express? This usually takes one of three forms, or a combination:
Something Emotional -- Feelings/Emotions/Moods
Something Intellectual – Idea/Concept
Something Sensual – Essentially making a direct appeal to the five senses
Secondly, try to determine how the expressive content is being accomplished technically – how is the artist using his or her technical skills to deliver the expression?
Here are some of the primary places to look in your quest:
Subject Matter – the obvious subject  content , along with any possible deeper implications.
Form, Composition, and Design - the arrangement or laying out of various components into a specific relationship to one another to create the whole work.
Contrasts – elements that are strikingly different from one another.
Dramatic Tension – the increase and decrease in the flow of action and/or feeling.
Textures – the arrangement of the surface structure, “fabric,” or density of a work of art.
Patterns – repeated elements that result in a perceptible arrangement.
Colors/Nuances/Subtleties/Hues – the unique character or shading of an element that makes it expressive.
Sensuality – elements making their appeal to the bodily senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
Movement/Stillness – the implication of action or repose.
Superficiality/Profundity – Is it lightweight, or is it deeply felt, going far deeper than is usually encountered?
Symbols – things that stand for or represent an idea, state of being, or other abstraction.
Skill/Craftsmanship – the ability to expertly handle the technical craft of the art.
Uniqueness/Originality – created in a fresh, independent, or innovative manner.
Stylistic Similarities – characteristics favored by an artist which occur repeatedly in his/her works or among works from a similar historical period.
Elements unique to each specific arts genre. (These will be marked in red on the lists of things to look for in each individual art.)
Often in actual practice our responses to a work are not as linear as I have set it out here. The overall emotional impact may hit us first or it may not. We may find ourselves being drawn in by some of the technical aspects of the work first and coming to a greater appreciation as we put the pieces together. The order of things really doesn’t matter as long as we eventually have the experience of the essence of the work being fully revealed.
Now, armed with all of the foregoing, let’s begin to look at some specific works to see what we can find in them. 

Download your own free Arts Keys Bookmark

Here is a handy, free bookmark you can download and take with you for reference when you are at an arts event. It is a short version of the Master Keys List that you can use to jog your memory regarding the kinds of things to look for in a work of classical art, music, literature, drama, or ballet. Simply click on the image of the bookmark to receive your copy.



This is the first of a series of Keys (things to look for) that are intended to open the way to greater understanding of the arts. There will be an individual set of Keys for each area of the arts we cover. All the elements of the Master List are here and many of them will apply to each work. Some of the elements are further defined by the items in red, which refer to important subcategories within a particular category.

​There are only two fundamental questions you must try to answer when you encounter a work of art:​

First, try to detect the overall impact of the work – what is it trying to communicate, capture, or express? This usually takes one of three forms, or a combination:
Something Emotional -- Feelings/Emotions/Moods
Something Intellectual – Idea/Concept
Something Sensual – Essentially making a direct appeal to the five senses
Secondly, try to determine how the expressive content is being accomplished technically – how is the artist using his or her technical skills to deliver the expression?
Here are some of the primary places to look in your quest:
Subject Matter – the obvious subject  content , along with any possible deeper implications.
Form, Composition, and Design - the arrangement or laying out of various components into a specific relationship to one another to create the whole work.
Contrasts – elements that are strikingly different from one another.
Dramatic Tension – the increase and decrease in the flow of action and/or feeling.
Textures – the arrangement of the surface structure, “fabric,” or density of a work of art.
Patterns – repeated elements that result in a perceptible arrangement.
Colors/Nuances/Subtleties/Hues – the unique character or shading of an element that makes it expressive.
Sensuality – elements making their appeal to the bodily senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
Movement/Stillness – the implication of action or repose.
Superficiality/Profundity – Is it lightweight, or is it deeply felt, very great, going far deeper than is usually encountered?
Symbols – things that stand for or represent an idea, state of being, or other abstraction.
Skill/Craftsmanship – the ability to expertly handle the technical craft of the art.
Uniqueness/Originality – created in a fresh, independent, or innovative manner.
Stylistic Similarities – characteristics favored by an artist which occur repeatedly in his/her works or among works from a similar historical period.
Elements unique to the specific art.


This is probably the easiest way to dive into our exploration of the arts. Photographic images are around us everywhere and many of us routinely take amateur pictures of our own, either with a camera or with our phones. We feel comfortable around photographs, mostly because of our everyday association with them through news publications and other journalistic endeavors. A lot of very fine news photos have been produced over the years, pictures that capture the full impact of a story and stun us with their power and immediacy. All, however, are intended to illustrate or compliment an accompanying story, and it is here that many of them stop short of crossing into the territory of art. Art is not just about capturing the subject matter which, although vitally important, is only one aspect of any artistic endeavor. Most of us can do that, even with our cell phone photos. But art goes beyond that level of attainment --- it aspires to something more. Let’s begin to find out what that might be.
All of the photos below can be traced to their sources by clicking on the photos.

Chapter 1

So you walk into an art gallery and the first thing you see is this landscape photo by the great American photographer Ansel Adams, 1902-1984.  What do you make of it?
Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, California, 1944
What we’re looking for here, if we can manage it, is some initial inkling of a mood, feeling, emotion, or (failing those things) an idea communicated by the work.  Permit me to plunge ahead on this initial venture and suggest the following:
                                                                                                                      Repose/mild restlessness/mystery
This first “take” by no means makes up the whole experience of the work, and you may have noticed that even here such a limited response is somewhat complex.  How can repose, restlessness, and mystery all coexist in the same moment when they seem to be incompatible states of feeling?  Yet a complexity of message is typical in many works, just as it is in the events of our daily lives if we examine them carefully. But how do we know if our response is correct?  On what are we basing our conclusions?  After all, as with any other sphere of human endeavor it’s not enough to make blind assertions that aren’t  based on anything.  Why should they be taken seriously without supporting evidence?  And where might that evidence lie?

Let’s change perspective for a moment and come at this problem from another angle.  The year is 1944, and Ansel Adams is whistling along a lonesome back road near California’s route 395 in his famous woody station wagon, not another car in sight, when something catches his eye .  Pulling over, he breaks out his photographic equipment and takes this picture.  The question is, Why?  What struck him?  What prompted him to stop the car, go to the considerable trouble of setting up all his equipment, and select this specific scene when he had access to a full 360° view of the entire area?  To answer these questions we must understand something about the way an artist sees the world --- something about the nature of the “artist’s eye.”
Most of us are accustomed to seeing the world somewhat literally much of the time.  A tree is just a tree, a flock of geese is flying north, the sun is coming up, there are mountains in the distance.  Whatever it is, is simply what it appears to be, nothing more.  We note it and move on with the “important” things in our lives.  But for the artist the world is a kaleidoscope of mood, feeling, and expression.  He sees the same world we all do, but to him everything has a significance and impact that goes beyond its surface appearance.

Back to the photograph. 

At first glance there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly noteworthy here; just a bunch of rocks in the foreground, some mountains, a shaft of light, and a few clouds.  But watch....
(By clicking on the button below, you will open the first in a series of PowerPoint presentations that serve to illustrate the text of the lessons. These presentations are best experienced on a device larger than a phone. Click on the button and a new window will open with the PowerPoint. You can proceed through the presentation by clicking on the "NEXT" button in the lower right corner of the presentation screen. Simply click and then wait for each segment of the presentation to materialize. No need to hurry.  The process works best if you take a leisurely approach, leaving time between your clicks. Happy viewing!)
Now we’re a little better prepared to try and answer the question of what prompted Ansel Adams to take this picture and why it conveys what it does.

Adams was an artist who was keenly aware of the mood or feeling conveyed by a scene in nature and he used all of his technique to try and capture it.  He was able to look at a rather ordinary vista and recognize the extraordinary in it.  He saw and very carefully framed the particular view we are looking at precisely to bring out the extraordinary points we just explored in the PowerPoint.  He saw the symmetry and balance and felt that it contributed a sense of harmony and order, of calmness and serenity.  The solidity of the mountains further suggests a timeless repose, as do the ancient granite stones strewn over the landscape.  They have been there a very long time and are not likely to show signs of mobility anytime soon.  The immense depth perspective that stretches before us underscores this feeling by showing us just how vast this silent and static landscape is.  Nothing moves in all that we see --- not a bird, not an animal, perhaps not even the wind.

But he is also aware of the presence of contrasts here—contrasts that, as they always do, contribute an element of agitation or drama to a work.  There are contrasts of texture (rough, hard rock vs. soft clouds, bright whites vs. dark blacks, angular vs. rounded shapes, white clouds vs. dark storm clouds), all of which combine to produce a mild agitation in our visual field and in our minds.  It creates an uneasy friction with the otherwise quiet repose of the scene and produces a subtle tension in us.
And then there is the brief nod to symbolism in that shaft of inspirational light, which elevates the whole picture above the level of an ordinary scenic view into the realm of the inspirational metaphor.  Nor must we ignore the suggestion of mystery evoked by those brilliantly white, wispy clouds as they obscure the details of the distant mountains, hanging wraithlike in the hollows between them.

But most of all there is beauty.  Always in Adams’ work there is beauty; beauty in the form and symmetry, beauty in the subject matter, and beauty in the light.  He did most of his work in black and white, a medium which can sometimes leave the subject rather cold and distant.  But nothing is missing here.  In fact, through doing further technical work in his lab after shooting the picture, he actually subtly enhances the final product so as to bring out some of the aesthetic qualities that spoke to him most clearly in the original scene.  For example, luminosity is a word frequently applied to his work, and rightly so.  In this work you see it in the brilliant white of those distant clouds and on the reflective surfaces of the rocks.  There is an almost electric vivacity to that light which, while not so apparent in any reproduction of an Adams’ photograph, fairly springs from the paper if you’re fortunate enough to view his work firsthand.

As to why Adams stopped and took this picture, the truth is we can never know for sure.  Historians tell us that he was photographing the Owens valley of Eastern California in 1944 because of his concerns about the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II detention camps, one of which was located at Manzanar.  He spent a considerable amount of time in the area photographing the people and the landscape, and interviewing the detainees.  He wrote, “The enormous backdrop of the Sierra Nevada to the west, and the high desert ranges to the east gave the nature-loving Japanese-Americans a certain respite from their mood of isolation and concern for the future.”

But this backstory, though it adds an important dimension to our understanding of Ansel Adams, the man, is not really central to our own engagement with the picture. Putting the backstory aside we must take the image at face value, realizing that he went to the trouble to photograph this particular scene simply because something special about it appealed to his artist’s eye.  What he saw somehow spoke to him in terms of mood and feeling, and he noticed that the feeling was further enhanced by technical elements in the scene.  Such a serendipitous marriage of feeling and technical composition ignited his imagination and convinced him that this was a unique moment— one that he must try and capture on film with its “soul” intact.

Things to remember:
Look for the expression of mood, feeling, emotion, or an idea.
Expression and technique are linked.

Chapter 2

It is well known that Yosemite Valley was one of  Ansel Adams’ favorite subjects.  This particular viewpoint was one that captured his imagination over and over again.  From here he photographed repeatedly in every season, in daylight, at night, and during all kinds of weather.  What do you feel he captured in this particular photo?
Ansel Adams -- Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, 1944
Sadly, at this point in history Adams’ photos are so easily available to us through mass media and as various forms of merchandise that it may be difficult for us to perceive what he might have felt standing on this spot.  Our eyes have become so accustomed to visual imagery in general, that we don’t see freshly anymore.  So let’s take a new run at this picture by exercising our imaginations a little. Let’s set the scene.

It’s a stormy winter’s day.  You’ve been following the narrow path through a densely-wooded forest, tall evergreens obscuring your vision in all directions.  In the deepening gloom brought on by the shadows of the trees and the lowering sky, everything seems chilly, dreary, and claustrophobic.  Suddenly you emerge into a clearing and this vista springs up before you.  What is the impact?

For me the word “awe” immediately comes to mind, not so much as it is used in common speech today where the word “awesome” can refer to any positive experience from the mildly pleasant to the extraordinary, but as it is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “a feeling of reverence, fear, and wonder, caused by something majestic, sublime, sacred, etc.”  The sheer enormity of the scene renders us very small, very humble, and very insignificant. Face to face with the overwhelming power and majesty before us we are momentarily dumbstruck --- truly in awe. As we begin to look more carefully, we begin to notice details.
So here we are, standing right where Ansel Adams wanted us to stand, seeing just what he wanted us to see in just the way he wanted us to see it.  At first we cannot help but be struck by the awesome beauty of the scene.  But as we look a little more deeply, we become aware of details that contribute a variety of subtle nuances to our general overall impression —calmness, dynamism and energy, mystery, appreciation for form and design, sensory chilliness, and drama.  Again, just as in the first photograph, we are encouraged to entertain a response that is complex and layered rather than simple. Is it worth getting excited about? After all, almost everyone takes photos these days. True, but this photo is not like the ones you and I take almost daily with our digital cameras and phones.  Clearly, an artist’s thought, judgment, and craft are at work here. Artistic decisions have been made. While we really don’t know whether capturing all the details we have discovered in this work and those we might find in others was always a conscious concern for the artist, those details are unmistakably there for the taking. Maybe his vision was intuitive rather than explicitly thought out. If we were to ask Adams what he was trying to get at in the picture, perhaps he would be inclined to only a few words of simple explanation. Nevertheless, through the ingenious use of his unique vision and technique, he has brought us a work that goes beyond the surface of the subject matter and given us the essence of a moment and place in time.

Things to remember:
You can often use your imagination to get into a work.
What you see in a work is the result of an artist’s conscious or unconscious decisions and intentions.

Chapter 3

  What do you make of this photo?
Ansel Adams -- Stream, Sea, Clouds – Rodeo Lagoon, Marin County, California, 1962
Are you beginning to notice some patterns being repeated in all three of the pictures we have studied so far?  In this one we initially receive a feeling of freshness and vitality.  The invigorating sounds of the surf and the rippling stream combine with the glitter of the water surfaces as they catch and reflect the sunlight.  The effect is quite striking, and it once again reveals Ansel Adams’ artistry in capturing the essence of a scene.
If you have been noticing similar characteristics among the pictures, you are beginning to perceive something about Ansel Adams’ style.  Style really amounts to nothing more than the kinds of things an artist prefers and therefore repeats over and over in different works.  This is not to say that after viewing a mere handful of Adams’ photos we are ready to sum up his style in its entirety.  His work ranges too far and wide for that.  In fact, some of the exceptions to the kind of thing we have examined so far are some of his most compelling works.  Nevertheless, even in looking at his wider output we will find many of the same preferences being expressed. Adams was a very passionate man upon whom the natural world made a profound impression. It’s clear that he liked to take photos that primarily captured the mood or feeling that emanated from a subject.  That was a hallmark of his genius.

But he was also deeply fascinated by symmetry and balance, patterns and design, textures and lighting.  His artist’s eye was repeatedly “hooked” by scenes that provided a marriage of expressive content and technical detail.  It is by appealing to us on multiple levels (feeling, intellectual, and sensual) that he was able to give us the kind of deep artistic nourishment and enjoyment that is available to us in his work.

Things to remember:
An artist’s style is made up of the kinds of things an artist prefers and therefore repeats over and over in different works.

Chapter 4

Take a look at these photos by the American photographer, Diane Arbus (1923-1971).

Boy with grenade

A child, crying

A family on the lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968

King and Queen of a senior citizen's dance
Clearly, this is a very different vision from that of Ansel Adams.  Instead of inspired views of the magnificence of nature, we see images that stun us with the grotesque, the heart wrenching, and the depressing aspects of human existence.  This is not a view of life that is uplifting or enjoyable.  It is painful and disturbing. We may quite naturally be inclined to look away.  But here we must check ourselves and defy our impulse to retreat.  We must remind ourselves that art does not always aim to be amusing and pleasant.  Its real objective is to reveal and express something about the truth of human experience and, as we all know, sometimes the truth can be terribly unpleasant.  Just as we did with Ansel Adams’ work, we need to ask, “Are these pictures expressive?"  and the affirmative answer comes screaming out at us, penetrating our sensibilities like an icy dagger.

Yet, in spite of their very different ambience, Arbus’  photos embody some of the same photographic devices used by Ansel Adams in his efforts to depict the lofty grandeur of the natural world.  Let’s examine each of these photos in some detail and see how.

If we are to judge from her work, Dianne Arbus’ view of life was a very bleak one indeed. Using the same kind of grittiness as a newspaper photographer, she seems to have felt obliged to point out each and every imperfection in our daily existence. That was her style. She was not drawn to capturing glamour or beauty, but seems to have urged us toward unpleasant truths too often ignored. She aimed her unforgiving camera at the world and showed us its unseemly side with stark clarity. The longer we look, the more uncomfortable we become. But painful as it may be to encounter her work, we can thank her for reminding us to be aware of what sometimes lurks behind the cheery facade of life. Her work forces us not only to feel, but to reflect upon what we see.  Sadly, for Arbus, she had difficulty seeing beyond these harsher realities, and for her they were too much. She ended up taking her own life at the age of 48.

Things to remember:
Art is not always intended to provide a pleasant experience, but it is intended to express something. The main thing to look for is the expression.

Chapter 5

Imogen Cunningham - (1883-1976)

“The reason during the twenties that I photographed plants was that I had three children under the age of four to take care of so I was cooped up. I had a garden available and I photographed them indoors. Later when I was free I did other things.” - Imogen Cunningham

Over a long and productive career, Imogen Cunningham photographed a wide range of subjects, including portraits, anatomical studies, industrial photos, botanical studies, and nudes.  Her quote might seem to suggest that the primary reason she photographed plants at a certain point was because they were the only subjects available to her at the time, given her busy domestic activities. But do you think that was really the only reason she focused on them?

There are not many of us who dislike flowers. We are attracted to their varied shapes, their delicacy, their pleasing scents, and their colors. Yet in 1929, at a time when photography was unable to consistently reproduce color faithfully, why would an artist consider photographing flowers when color figures so prominently in their enjoyment? A black and white photo does not provide the experience of color, nor can it reproduce scent. In the absence of those two essentials, at least as far as flowers are concerned, what remains to be appreciated? Imogene Cunningham and other black and white photographers give eloquent answer to this question in their works if we will look closely enough at them. Let’s begin to approach the question of “what remains to be appreciated” by taking a momentary diversion to look at a related genre of photography that also figured significantly into Cunningham’s work --- the Nude.

Chapter 6

Edward Weston  (1886-1958)

Success in photography, portraiture especially, is dependent on being able to grasp those supreme instants which pass with the ticking of a clock, never to be duplicated – so light, balance – expression must be seen – felt as it were – in a flash, the mechanics and technique being so perfected in one as to be absolutely automatic.  -Edward Weston

A theme we will visit over and over again in this book is the connection between expression and technique in the arts. Edward Weston’s statement is true of photography certainly, but it is also just as true for any of the other arts. In great art, technique is always working in the service of the expressive purpose ---- capturing it and articulating it visually, in print, and/or acoustically.

The American photographer, Edward Weston, like most artists, was continually refining his technical prowess so that his skills could keep pace with his artistic inspirations. He chose a wide variety of subjects over the course of his career, and there is something that speaks strongly in each of them. Perhaps, in light of our previous explorations, you will be able to perceive why he was motivated to photograph the following examples in the way that he did, and also begin to get a sense of his style:
As with his other work, Weston was able to render nude subjects with a variety of fascinating, eloquent, and sometimes contrasting characteristics – gracefulness, starkness, vulnerability, the effects abstract shapes and design have on us, softness, sensuousness, and more.

Chapter 7

Both of these works are by the Italian/American photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942). They come from a period in her life when she had become an activist for the rights of the working-class Mexican people.  At a time when the political climate was becoming increasingly oppressive, she used her photography to remind us of the nobility of the human spirit and the courage of ordinary people who put their lives on the line trying to work for a better way of life. 

Here we see two works that embody these principles.  Both of them use symbolism to convey their messages.  In the first, Hands Resting on Tool, everything in the subject matter tells us about the hard life of the peasant laborer upon whose daily efforts his or her survival (and that of a national economy) depends.  But viewed in close-up, each component assumes an abstract symbolic importance that goes beyond the actual individual who was the subject of the picture.  The rough, dry hands folded in repose, the coarse, homespun fabric streaked with dirt and sweat, and the well-worn tool handle (probably of a shovel or fork) represent the plight of  not just one, but millions of common laborers who are often devalued or taken for granted.

In the second photo, Bandolier, Corn, Guitar, we see the poignant intersection of three basic symbols of Mexican culture and political strife.

But beyond the strikingly simple subject matter, provocative as it is, what did Modotti see that sparked her creative imagination? In addition to their obvious subjective content, what makes them interesting as photographs?
Visual artists often have an ability to point out to us the extraordinary within the ordinary.  They can suggest ways of viewing everyday objects with a heightened awareness and appreciation that makes them take on new interest and expressive significance. If we pay close attention, we may learn new ways of seeing and understanding our world.


We haven't travelled very far on this journey yet, but I think we’re already prepared to take an initial tour through a gallery of photographs by various artists and try to make something of them. Spend a little time with each one and see if you can discover what the artist is trying to capture in the work. Also see if you can identify some of the technical devices the artist has chosen to deliver the content. Remember, we're just beginning this exploration, but your skills in feeling and identifying these things are likely to increase with practice. Go ahead and use your bookmark of Master Keys (see above on this page) to remind you of things to look for. You will find links to more resources for exploring photography in the RESOURCES section of this website. Good luck!

Lesson 2 - Painting and Sculpture

Chapter 1 - The Miracle that is Painting

In a society as visually saturated as ours, it is all too easy to take for granted the miraculous art of painting. We are surrounded daily by a nearly constant panorama of visual images in media, so it is no wonder we are inclined to become jaded and inattentive to all that has gone into their creation. But think of it for a moment. An artist applies paint to a plain, flat surface, not entirely unlike the way we paint the walls of our homes --- simply pigments on a blank surface. Yet when we are done we end up with only a freshly-painted wall, while the artist ends up with an image that is often rich in technical, intellectual, and emotional implications. Fortunately for us, the image is static, frozen in time, giving us ample opportunity to discover the many things that may be contained in it. As we begin our introduction to painting, let’s take a moment to concentrate on an artist’s magical ability to capture the surfaces of things as they might appear in real life and through a kind of technical sleight of hand make them seem convincing on a completely flat surface.
Artist Name: Willem Claesz. Heda
Painting Title: Breakfast of Crab
Year: 1648
Museum: The Hermitage - St. Petersburg
There are many of us who have little interest in still life painting, of which this is an example. Still life paintings seem to be made up of groupings of random objects for which the average person has little interest. They have been popular with artists throughout history, but to a lot of us they just seem to sit there, inanimate, without any accompanying story or association, and without much apparent meaning. One sometimes wonders why artists were so fascinated with them.
But think again of that flat, blank canvas and then begin to notice the myriad of illusions that have been conjured up before us here. Shall I name a few?
  • Everything looks real, as if we were actually there – almost photographic.
  • It has depth and contour. Look at the rounded surfaces of the coffee urn, the glasses, the overturned vase, and the bread roll.
  • See how there is a 3-D foreground and background.
  • We can detect the contrasting textures of cool, durable metal; smooth, delicate glass; and the soft, undulating folds of that tablecloth.
  • With the cloth, in particular, we can sense the weight of the fabric, and from its sheen we can even imagine what it might be like to rub it between our fingers.
  • The objects not only reflect light accurately, but the glasswork possesses lifelike transparency, and there is the further illusion of liquid in the goblet.
We have only begun to explore this work, but in a very short time we start to notice that all of these appearances are accomplished by clever tricks of perspective and the ingenious application of diverse paint pigments to suggest the appearances of real things. In reality there is no glass, no reflections at all, and there is certainly nothing that is truly transparent. There is in reality no liquid in the goblet. There is no actual contour to the fabric and other objects. Rather, a dash of white paint becomes a reflection. Whites, grays, blues, and greens become folds in a tablecloth. Grays, browns, yellows, and blacks become glasses, a coffee urn, and an overturned vase. Is all that not rather miraculous?

And what is more, he infuses the image with the implied textures, tastes, and smells of fresh crab, piquant olives, pungent lemon, and fresh bread. Then he goes on to choose a color palette that is rather cool and subdued, suggesting a scene that, in contrast to the sensuous objects displayed, is somehow somber and aloof in mood.

The miracle here is that everything I’ve just described is actually only the result of applying some paint to a flat, blank surface! It is hard not to be impressed when you stop to think about it.

As to why painters have created still life works down through the ages, doubtless there are many reasons. Sometimes it would have been to capture a spirit of celebration and material abundance, sometimes to present symbolic forms* that would remind our ancestors of the important things in life, and at other times it may have been just for the sheer exhilaration of exercising technical virtuosity. On a good day an artist at the top of his form might just be winking and nudging us whispering, “Look what I can do!”

So as we continue with our exploration of painting, let’s keep in mind the blank canvas as a starting point. It is in making that humble surface speak to the full expression of so much in human experience that the painter gives us his great gift.

Chapter 2 - The Cast of "Characters"

When we read an engaging story, go to the theater, or watch a film presentation we are most often brought into the presence of a cast of characters who interact with one another in much the same way as we do in real life.  The individuals are all similar to the extent they are generically human, but they also differ in the particulars of their appearances and personalities.  Each character brings unique dynamics to the gradual unfolding of the story, helping to reveal various aspects of the larger truths being expressed. In the world of art, paintings can also project their own individual personalities.  Even though they may represent similar genres of subject matter like portraits, still lifes, or landscapes, each painting can bring a unique view to the subject matter, giving it a distinctive “character."  Each is cast (or molded) in such a way as to convey something essential about the subject.

 It has been my experience that when it comes to genres of painting like the ones mentioned above, we are sometimes inclined to pass over them without too much attention, preferring to save ourselves for the bigger, more immediately dramatic works.  After all, how many of the abundant images of vases of flowers or portraits of people can really continue to fascinate us?  It doesn’t take long before they all seem to run together.  Yet in a subtle way, each painting, if it is well done, does project its own distinct personality or ambience.  A good portrait, for example, will be much more than the mere likeness of a person; it will also capture something essential of that person’s personality.  A good still life or landscape will communicate a mood or idea goes beyond the superficial illustration of the subject matter.  This expressive content is the primary material we will be looking for in our examination of art.

 Let’s begin by taking a brief tour of a few works from each genre. Examine the paintings that follow and see if you can, in a few words, detect the essence of each. Then go to the PowerPoint presentation where you will be able to view each work on a larger scale and compare your findings with mine. Give yourself enough time to try to get to the heart of each painting. These things can’t be rushed.

Chapter 3 - The Raft of the Medusa

As you walk into a gallery of the Louvre in Paris, you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with this huge (16-foot by 23-foot), stunning work. Dwarfed by its extraordinary size and riveted by its ghastly content, you are challenged to feel and to react. As you look within yourself, what is the nature of your reaction to it?
Theodore Gericault- The Raft of the Medusa – 1818-1819
It is the early part of the 19th century. A French sailing vessel, the Medusa, has met with a terrible accident and we are witnessing a moment of high drama involving some of the poor victims who were cast adrift in the disaster. This makeshift life raft, fashioned hastily out of pieces of the sinking ship, is barely afloat. The wind strongly fills the sail and stirs the turbulent waves, the skies are stormy, and bodies, living and otherwise, are strewn about in all manner of directions and attitudes.

You would not be alone if you reacted with strong feelings to this most disturbing image. When it first appeared, it generated an enormous reaction among the viewing public and continues to do so to this day. The event is a real one from 1816 when the frigate Medusa sank off the coast of Africa on a voyage to the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis. On board were nearly four hundred people, including the new governor of Senegal, his soldiers, and the ship’s crew. Unfortunately, the captain of the ship had never commanded a vessel before, nor had he even been to sea in the twenty-five years preceding this command. In fact, he had obtained his position through political connections. Undaunted by his rather shaky credentials (or perhaps overcompensating for them), he decided to demonstrate his prowess by trying to make exceptionally good time on the voyage, and determined he could best do this by hugging the coastline as closely as possible. Other ships in the convoy, realizing that to follow him in this escapade would be to court calamity, wisely remained farther off the coast in deeper, safer waters. Predictably, the decision proved to be his undoing, as it wasn’t long before the ship ran hopelessly aground, and by that time it had lost communication with the rest of the convoy. In a further unfortunate decision, the captain thwarted efforts to re-float the ship by refusing to take all necessary actions to make it more buoyant. When it was pointed out that it would be necessary to throw some of the heavy cannons overboard so that the tide might lift the vessel to safety, he demurred. Concerned that such a decision would gain him disfavor with his superiors in France, he insisted on giving the order to abandon ship. The insufficient numbers of lifeboats aboard the Medusa were allocated on the basis of rank and prestige, and as a consequence, 149 of the least prominent of the passengers were put on an improvised raft that was attached by rope to the lifeboats. At some point, realizing that the progress of the boats was being severely impeded by the sheer weight and clumsiness of the raft, the ropes were cut and the lifeboats set off for safety, leaving the raft adrift. What ensued was a nearly two-week period of unimaginable suffering and mayhem for those on the drifting raft – including murder, insanity, cannibalism, and other unspeakable horrors. By the time the survivors were rescued, only fifteen of the original one hundred forty-nine people survived, and five of those died shortly afterward. The event became a sensational scandal at the time and captured widespread public attention as a major news story, including that of Gericault.

Galvanized by the story, Gericault was aflame with the desire to memorialize the tragedy in a painting. Before he set to work, however, decisions had to be made with regard to how best to proceed. As is the case with any great artist, he had to wrestle with the perennial problem of how to harness his artistic skills to the expressive task at hand. How could he create this work in such a way that it would have the most potent dramatic impact on the viewer? By carefully examining the painting itself we have the evidence we need to gain access to the workings of his Gericault’s mind. We often tend to forget that everything we see in a painting has been put in a particular position in a particular way for a particular purpose; nothing just appears by accident. If we want to fully appreciate this work, we must learn to generate and try to answer questions that will draw us into the creative world of the artist. In doing so, we will find ourselves traveling back in time to the moment Gericault endeavored to render this painting from an imaginative impulse to a realized project. Questions like:
At the beginning of this chapter we spent a considerable amount of time going over the dramatic, true backstory to this painting; information that gives us a direct link to its appreciation --- or does it? Does knowledge of the real story behind the image significantly enhance our ability to feel its impact?
 Many believe that such information provides an inroad to the mysteries of a work, which is why when you visit most art museums these days you have the option of renting an electronic “guide” or hiring a docent to provide this kind of information. However, knowing information about a work of art is not the same as engaging with it directly. Having explored many audio guides and followed a number of docent-led museum tours, I have come to the conclusion that there is a lot to be recommended in first exploring an art exhibit with only the inherent tools of an open mind, an open heart, and a naked eye. If you learn to ask the right questions and if you allow yourself to react personally and viscerally, rather than purely intellectually, it is very likely that the work will reveal itself to you. You will begin to put the pieces together for yourself and feel its message.

The problem with the audio guides provided by many museums is that they often eliminate the possibility of an unbiased reaction to an art work because they contain someone else’s ideas of what is important about it. Moreover, the sounds of background music, a narrator’s voice, and the task of coordinating the audio recording with the art draw your attention away from your immediate internal experience. This is not to say that the information in the audio guides is not useful or interesting, but it can interfere with your opportunity for a spontaneous experience.

Academic information alone cannot create the kind of appreciation that occurs outside the cerebral realm of understanding.  A full experience of artistic appreciation can only come about by engaging with an art work emotionally and intuitively.  True understanding arises in the intimate experience that enfolds you and the art work as you rest in a mutual, attentive silence….. interacting….. becoming aware of any stirrings in your heart and your imagination.  After that primary experience, any additional information you discover about the work of art can certainly augment your appreciation, but no amount of secondary information can provide you with the exhilaration of the discoveries you make on your own in that initial silence.

Take a moment now to return to the image once again and spend some time just absorbing its impact. With a little imagination, we can almost hear the roar and hiss of the ocean, the creaking and straining of the timbers, and the whine of the wind in the rigging. We almost feel the incessant, sickening rise and fall of the raft on the surging waters as it plunges helplessly about under stormy skies. Struck by the stark drama unfolding before us, we see how successfully Gericault conveyed this tragedy through a carefully considered marriage of content and technique. If we will but let ourselves receive it, the power of this painting speaks forcefully and eloquently all by itself.

Things to remember:
Size can be important for expressive reasons.
Learning information about an artwork can enhance appreciation, but fundamental appreciation comes down to engaging with the work directly, sensing what is trying to be expressed, and figuring out how the expression is being accomplished.

Chapter 4 - Emotional? Intellectual? Sensual?

Works of art make their appeal to us through a combination of three types of expression --- emotional, intellectual, and sensual. The mixture of expression varies from work to work, with one or two of the elements often prevailing over the other. We can begin to engage with a painting by being alert to their presence. Keeping these expressive elements in mind provides us with clues to the general sorts of things to look for so that we may assess and experience works from a broader perspective. Before we go on, however, let’s define what we mean by each mode of expression.

This is our repertoire of feelings, moods, and states of consciousness that we experience spontaneously or impulsively. We do not learn them, nor are they under our conscious control. They are our affective responses, our gut reactions, the mysterious movements of our souls as they respond to the circumstances of our lives. Their “center” of activity is the heart.

This is where our thoughts, ideas, and concepts take shape. The intellect is an aspect of our makeup that is often mistakenly associated with the emotions. People often say, “I feel that…”, and then go on to express a thought like “… we would all be better off if there were no taxes.” But this is not really a feeling. It is an idea, a creation of the intellect that has been misidentified. When we ruminate about something by analyzing it, conceptualizing about it, or consciously interpreting it, we are using our intellect. The center of this mode of perception is the mind.

When works appeal to our faculties of sight, hearing, touch, taste, or smell, they are making a sensuous statement. Remember, sensuous does not necessarily mean delightful to the senses, although that is often the case. It means that the work is achieving its ends by appealing to our senses, even when the appeal is unpleasant. The center of this mode of perception is the body.

When we can use these three different expressive modes to experience a particular work of art, we have a much richer understanding of it. Perceiving how each is used can even be turned into a game of “percentages” in which the actual proportions may vary depending upon the personal reactions of each of us. Comparing findings can be informative and even amusing.
Let’s examine some specific works.

Chapter 5 - What does this painting sound like?

A Bar at the Folies-Bergere; 1882; Edouard Manet
Few of us ever think to bring our other senses to bear in an imaginative way upon a purely visual work such as this. Yet, as we begin to do so the picture immediately starts to spring to life. We are at the Folies-Bergere, the famous music hall of 19th-century Paris, a venue attended by people of all social classes. The atmosphere is made up of the sounds of music mixing with the clinking of drinking glasses and bottles, and there is a background of ongoing conversation and laughter. As we bring our other senses into play we notice that the air is redolent with the fragrances of food and of perfumes and colognes, of alcoholic beverages, and the smoke from cigars and cigarettes. We can almost feel the cool marble surface of the counter, the smooth chill of the bottles, and the soft velveteen coat of the barmaid. We sense the delicacy of the lace around her neck, on her bodice, and on her sleeves, and there is the promise of gustatory refreshment in the ripe mandarin oranges and the contents of those familiar bottles. Do you recognize the label of the English Bass Ale alongside the more elegant French Champagne (a testimony to the diversity of the clientele)?

But none of this is what impacts us when we first see this painting, is it? Instead, our attention is immediately drawn to…

Chapter 6

This painting, housed at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, was long thought to be painted by the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel around 1560, but recent research suggests that it may be another artist’s version of a lost Breugel original. I have seen a number of museum visitors pause briefly at this bucolic-looking landscape and then move on, apparently unimpressed, to the next work in the gallery. They can’t be blamed, really. If you’ve ever visited one of the world’s great art museums, you know that there is often so much available for viewing that after a while one’s attention cannot help but flag somewhat. At that point, a work without some strikingly distinctive qualities can blur into just another in a long line of genre paintings --- still lifes, portraits, or, in this case, landscapes. This particular painting radiates such a benign presence, apparently places so few demands upon us, that it runs a very real risk of being overlooked and underestimated.

What a pleasant scene! The viewer is met with lovely colors, a beautiful day, a nice view of the distant city radiantly (almost translucently) illuminated by the rising sun. It captures the leisurely pace of life in a bygone age. Breugel has painted everything with a slight cartoonish softening of actual reality. The ploughman’s garment drapes just a little too smoothly, and the ribbons of earth, freshly turned over by the plow, more closely resemble thin, wet slices of potter’s clay or layered pieces of felt than they do soil. As a result, the picture takes on a somewhat gentle, welcoming quality that draws us willingly in. We take a relaxed breath and get ready to move on….. and then we notice the little plaque announcing the title of the painting……      

Chapter 7 - Near and Far

I once attended an exhibit of Impressionist paintings that was both thrilling and disappointing. Thrilling because when seen “in the flesh” as it were, many of the paintings I had previously seen only in photos and prints sprang to life in astonishing new ways. Disappointing because the exhibit was arranged in such a way that viewers were never allowed to be more than four feet from the paintings.  Being able to only view them from this short distance meant that many of the works could not be experienced to their full advantage. The artists had intended for many of their works to be viewed from farther away.  The incident reminded me of how important it is for us to find the best spacial relationship to each work of art.

Not all paintings are intended to be viewed from the same vantage point. Some invite us to come close to inspect their detail and craftsmanship, while others ask us to step back to realize their greatest impact. This is a principle for us to keep in mind as part of our repertoire of techniques for appreciating art. Let’s apply it to a few paintings.

Chapter 8

Saturn Devouring His Son 1819-1823
Francisco Goya 1746-1828
Oil mural transferred to canvas
This is one of the most horrible, most brutally insightful, and most honest works ever created. Based on a Roman myth that was itself inspired by an earlier Greek myth, its implications range far beyond the literal interpretation of a story into a picture. In the myth, the god Saturn is told that one of his children will overthrow him, a problem which he resolves in a macabre fashion by consuming each one at birth.  Here we see him doing just that. But Saturn is also known as the Bringer of Old Age, and if we consider the painting in that light, other more profound possibilities come to mind.

Goya created this work late in life, and he did so by painting over other more benign murals he had previously painted on the walls of his house. He never meant it for public display. Can you imagine living with this disturbing image daily? What could possibly have been on his mind? The answer could be as close to you as the nearest mirror.

 It is central to the human condition that as soon as we come into this life we begin the ongoing process of change which we call aging. For the first 25 or so years we are mostly glad to grow into our newfound powers. But as time goes on we experience an increasing uneasiness with the appearance of each new wrinkle and each lost capacity. As the years advance, Old Age does inevitably, inexorably, and mercilessly consume our youth, leaving us feebly facing the great unknown.

Goya, in his advanced years, realized this as only the aged can. He had not long before experienced the onset of deafness as the result of a fever and had survived two near-fatal illnesses. He was so disturbed by the fragility of human life that he felt compelled to express his feelings through his art. And that is how we must consider this painting --- as a testament of feelings; feelings about the artist’s own aging and approaching death, feelings about the sadder aspects of the human condition, or possibly even feelings about the nature of the war and conflict that he saw around him in his time. War has often been characterized as the machinations of older men as they try to realize their ambitions by gambling away the lives of the young.

There is no denying this image’s deliberate ugliness as the hoary god clutches and consumes the youth in his hands, eyes wide and wild with madness. Everything is disproportionate and reels in the ghastly chaos of the moment. The wildness of the paint application speaks of the frenzied passion that underlies the finished product.

Any of us, if we were to be honest with ourselves, can identify with the hyperbolic sentiments of rage, injustice, and horror being expressed here, even if we can only experience our identification in muted form. All it takes is a glance in a mirror and time.

Things to remember:
Sometimes works of art touch on topics and feelings that are unpleasant, but, nevertheless, capture and express something about an aspect of the human experience.

Chapter 9

Imagine yourself spending an afternoon taking in a variety of paintings in an art collection. You come to this 1884 work by the French artist, Jules Breton (1827-1906). Consider it for a moment. What do you think it expresses?
When I was teaching college courses, this painting always generated controversy when it came to interpretation. In fact, I have spoken to numbers of people in and out of the classroom whose initial glance has noted the sickle in the young woman’s hand, her distracted expression, her frozen posture, her apparent poverty, and they sensed danger. Fanciful stories have emerged about a young peasant girl who may have been abused and is contemplating murderous retribution, either already accomplished or soon to be so. I have always found such reactions to be astonishing, as they have no real relation to what the artist’s aim.  I put the painting before you now by way of illustrating two essential points.

The first is so obvious I hesitate to mention it, but it is necessary, nevertheless.  It is simply this: Always read the given title of a work as part of your consideration of it. I only mention this because I have often observed viewers ignoring the title cards next to paintings and forming opinions about them that were quite erroneous. For example, when we consider that the painting shown above is titled The Song of the Lark, how well does the sinister interpretation stand up?
Strangely enough, the subject of this painting is invisible, although that fact just increases our curiosity. As we begin to associate the title with the image, a completely different reading begins to take shape. It is dusk, and this young peasant girl heads home after a long and arduous day of cutting grain with her sickle; backbreaking work, requiring her to be bent over most of the day. As she trudges home in that silent, darkening landscape she suddenly becomes aware of the clear, high-pitched song of a lark, a type of bird known for the loveliness of its song. For an instant, all the weight of her hard life falls away --- the long hours of toil, the rudimentary food, and the rough-hewn nature of her reality. In this moment she is awakening to the rare experience of beauty. Her parted lips, her glazed eyes, her relaxed but attentive posture, and the fact that she is suspended in mid-step all testify to the fact that she is momentarily transfixed and transported to a higher level of experience.

 It is a fleeting moment, for soon she will resume her homeward journey and again take up her everyday life. But she will be forever changed. With the dawning of the perception of beauty, a door has opened in her consciousness which will continue to alleviate some of the mundanity of her days, just as we all feel inspired when we are lucky enough to experience a similar awakening. We feel as though we have become wealthier somehow, in spite of the fact that our worldly net worth has not increased.

The second point is that we must be careful about bringing our 21st century sensibilities to bear upon works that were informed by realities different from our own. As we read the clues in this painting, for example, it is all too easy to become misled in interpreting them when our minds have been steeped in the stories and images of today’s prominent crime and horror genres of entertainment, which did not exist to nearly the same degree in 1884.

We must not underestimate the profound effects on our perceptions of the invention of film and television. Otherwise we may inadvertently find ourselves referencing inappropriate material and drawing mistaken conclusions, as my students did with regard to this painting. Instead we would be well-advised to inform ourselves a little about the actual historical and mental climate of the time in question and adjust our perceptions accordingly.


Once again I think we’re ready to take a sample tour through a picture gallery --- this time of paintings by various artists. Spend a little time with each one. See if you can discover what it is trying to capture, what is unique about it, and what technical means the artist chose to use to deliver the content. Try to draw on all the information and key things you have learned to look for so far. Go ahead and use your bookmark as a reminder. Good luck!

Lesson 3 - Sculpture

We mustn’t leave our look at the visual arts without at least a cursory nod to sculpture, an art that is in some ways even more astounding than painting. In sculpture, we move beyond the painter’s flat canvas and into the arena of 3-dimensional space. We can move around sculpture, viewing it from a variety of angles, and if it is situated in natural daylight, its planes and contoured surfaces will produce changing light and shadow effects throughout the day. It becomes dynamic.

There are essentially two ways of making sculpture. In the first, materials like clay, plastics, or soft metals are built up to create an expressive,
three-dimensional object – an act that is an impressive enough feat in itself. Many wonderful works have been created in just this way. But the other method, the one we will be concentrating on here, begins with an amorphous chunk of a hard material like stone or wood from which material is removed to produce the final product.

I once heard a story about a famous Indian sculptor who was renowned for his stone renditions of elephants. His works were more highly sought after than those of other artists. So lifelike and majestic were they that one had to blink to make sure they were not real elephants. They seemed about to move, and their breathing was almost perceptible. When asked to explain the secret of how he was able to create such magnificent achievements, he candidly replied,
"When the crude block of stone arrives, I place it in the center of my studio. For days I sit with it and walk around it, always searching for the animal that might lie trapped within it. Finally, the day arrives when I can clearly see the elephant in the stone, and then all that is left for me to do is take up my mallet and chisel and simply chip away everything that is not elephant."
 When most of us contemplate the making of art, we often think about an artist taking some raw materials and putting them together to construct the realized project. In sculpture, however, the process of creation is often actually a process not of adding and combining, but a process of subtracting. Incredibly, the artist has such an acute imagination of the size, shape, and proportion of the subject that he is able to chip away and chip away until his creative vision is accurately realized. Consider the near impossibility of this! Chip not enough away, and the work will be wrong. Chip a millimeter too far, and the original concept is forever ruined.

Keeping this one point in mind increases our appreciation for sculpture enormously, and when we are in the presence of works that go beyond mere physical rendering and aspire to be deeply expressive as well, the result is nothing short of miraculous.

Lesson 4 - MUSIC


This is the second in a series of Keys (things to look for) that are intended to open the way to greater understanding of the arts. There is an individual set of Keys for each area of the arts we cover. Please remember that the keys highlighted in red are not necessarily the only ones that may apply to a particular musical experience. Many that are not highlighted will still apply to your listening experiences.
First, try to detect the overall impact of the work – what is it trying to communicate, capture, or express? This usually takes one of three forms, or a combination: 

Something Emotional -- Feelings/Emotions/Moods
Something Intellectual – Idea/Concept
Something Sensual – Essentially making a direct appeal to the five Senses 

Next, try to determine how the expressive content is being accomplished technically – how is the artist using his or her technical skills to deliver the expression? 
Here are some of the primary places to look in your quest:
Subject Matter – the obvious subject content , along with any possible deeper implications.
Form, Composition, and Design - the arrangement or laying out of various components into a specific relationship to one another to create the whole work.
Contrasts – elements that are strikingly different from one another, producing conflict and tension.
Dramatic Tension – the increase and decrease in the flow of action and/or feeling.
Textures – the tactile and visual characteristics of a surface; interwoven strands and layers of elements particular to an art.
Patterns – repeated elements that result in a perceptible arrangement.
Colors/Nuances/Subtleties/Hues – the unique character or shading of an element that makes it expressive.
Sensuality – elements making their appeal to the bodily senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
Movement/Stillness – the implication of action or repose.
Superficiality/Profundity – Is it lightweight, or is it deeply felt, very great, going far deeper than is usually encountered?
Symbols – things that stand for or represent an idea, state of being, or other abstraction.
Skill/Craftsmanship – the ability to expertly handle the technical craft of the art.
Uniqueness/Originality – created in a fresh, independent, or innovative manner.
Stylistic Similarities – characteristics favored by an artist which occur repeatedly in his/her works or among works from a similar historical period.
Elements unique to each specific Art – the tools and devices used by each art to achieve its expressive ends.
Often in actual practice our responses to a work are not as linear as I have set it out here. The overall impact may hit us first, or it may not. We may find ourselves being drawn in by some of the technical aspects of the work first and coming to a greater appreciation as we put the pieces together. The order of things really doesn’t matter as long as we eventually have the experience of the essence of the work being fully revealed.

Chapter 1

Of all the arts, music is, perhaps, the most universally enjoyed and, at the same time, the least understood. We are inclined to assume we know all we need to know about it since it already figures prominently in most of our lives; nearly all of us have our favorite music.  Actually it is a rather elusive art. Having no visual component and having existence only from moment to moment, it is curiously ephemeral. Before the advent of recorded music, listeners had to remain vigilantly attentive during concerts because it might be the only occasion on which the piece was ever performed.   There might be no future opportunity to hear that music again, and one did not have the luxury of repeated listenings on their favorite electronic devices. Even now, with the availability of recorded music, in the midst of our listening we cannot go back and re-listen to a certain passage of music without interrupting the continuity and coherence of the listening experience. It is the nature of music to bloom and pass away each instant. We can only carry the memory of its passage in our minds for reference, unlike the ongoing availability of a painting or a poem.

Yet, music undeniably possesses enormous power in its ability to capture the full spectrum of our emotions, even when it has no accompanying words. How it achieves this remarkable magic is still a mystery. But, as we have seen with the other arts, some minimal knowledge of where to turn our attention while listening to it can prepare us to participate much more deeply in the musical experience and is likely to provide us with greater aesthetic rewards.


There are many possible components of music that we could explore here, but there are four that are indispensable for understanding how to best grasp all that it has to offer, and they apply in some measure not only to the Western Classical Music that we will be using for this exploration, but to nearly all forms of music – including jazz, pop, folk, and world music. Now, you may think your music listening skills are already just fine. If you are accustomed to surrendering to the general wash of musical sound as it envelops you and takes you on an emotional journey, or sets the background ambience for your day, you may be completely satisfied with your current listening habits. Without a doubt, that kind of encounter can be very rewarding. But if you are able to further develop your listening skills by cultivating an alertness to each of the four Listening Points I am about to present, you will find that you achieve much greater involvement in your musical experiences and increased enjoyment.

Before we go any further, however, there is something that must be said. What we are about to explore involves an analysis of some of the technical devices employed by composers to communicate their expressive aims. Like any analysis, this will be largely an intellectual or thought-oriented exercise, and that is why we have to tread a bit carefully at the outset. Whatever else we learn about music (or any of the arts, really), we must keep in mind that at its best music is primarily an expressive medium. Its very raison d’etre is to convey moods, impressions, and feelings that often go far deeper into the heart than any purely intellectual activity can.  As we listen to music, therefore, we should take care not to fall prey to the common misconception that knowledge of the techniques I am about to present will, in and of itself, ensure full appreciation. It will not. The most important portion of appreciation takes place in the imagination and the heart --- not in the analytical capacities of the intellect. The deepest musical experiences depend on one possessing an active imagination that is capable of being stimulated by musical sounds, and a heart that is available to resonate to their expressive content. I am not at all sure that either of those capacities can be taught. While they can be encouraged by a favorable environment, it is much more likely that they are inherent. The emotional and imaginative aspects of appreciation can be enhanced by knowledge of some of the techniques being employed to make the music, but they can never be replaced by technical or historical information alone.

You may already be fortunate enough to feel and experience the expressive power of music intuitively. The information that follows is intended to build on that foundation by giving you insight into some of the craftsmanship that produced the expressive result and to increase your appreciation for it.
Having said that, let’s take a look at each of these four Listening Points in turn, and then we’ll examine how they are at work in some actual pieces of music.

Chapter 2 - Fair Phyllis    A madrigal by John Farmer (1570-c. 1601)

If you were invited to attend a private dinner party in London during the 16th century, you most likely would not have been surprised when, at the end of the meal, your host turned to one of the guests and the following conversation ensued:

‘Roland, shall we have a song?’
Yea Sire: where be your books of music? for they be the best corrected.’
‘They be in my chest: Katherin, take the key of my closet – you shall find them in a little till at the left hand: behold, there be songs at four parts.’
‘Who shall sing with me?’
‘You shall have company enough. David shall take the bass, John the tenor, and James the treble.’
‘Begin! James, take your tune! Go to: for what do you tarry?’
‘I have but a rest.’
‘Roland, drink afore you begin, you will sing with a better courage.’
‘It is well said: give me some white wine – that will cause me to sing better.”

From Claude Hollybande’s The French Schoolmaister, published in 1573
The songbooks would have been gotten out, one book for the sopranos (or trebles), one for the altos, one for the tenors and one for the basses. Each book would contain only the notes for that particular voice part and not the notes for the other parts. Then, at a cue, the entertainment for the evening would begin --- the singing of madrigals in four-part harmony.

Such a pursuit is almost unimaginable to us today. Most of us tend to be shy when it comes to singing in front of others, let alone singing in harmony. In our own time, when nearly all our entertainment is produced and provided by professionals, it is hard to believe amateurs used to make their own amusement by raising their voices in the singing of choral music. But the madrigal was created for just this purpose. Lovers (the actual meaning of the word “amateur” – enthusiastic non-professionals) of music took great delight in learning and singing madrigals as a recreational activity. In fact, in some circles one was considered a bit of a boor if he or she had not developed the skill to participate in this pastime.

Madrigals were created with special attention to the text. The words were primary and the music was composed in such a way as to illustrate their meaning, both emotionally and, in some cases, literally. Pastoral topics concerning love, nature, and the outdoors were favorites among composers of the day. In Fair Phyllis, Phyllis, a shepherdess, has gone missing and Amyntas, her lover, sets out to find her. Here is the complete text with some explanatory paraphrasing:

Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone,
Feeding her flock near to the mountain side.

(The narrator saw Phyllis grazing her flock of sheep near the mountain.)
The shepherds knew not whither she was gone
But after her lover Amyntas hied.

(The [other] shepherds were concerned because they didn’t know where she was, so they hurried to tell her lover, Amyntas, about her disappearance.)
Up and down he wandered whilst she was missing;
When he found her, O, then they fell a-kissing.

(Amyntas looked everywhere for her. When he finally found her, the two of them celebrated with much kissing, etc.)

Chapter 3 - Dido's Lament, by Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Like the madrigal, Opera, that monumental confluence of music and theater that began around 1600 and continues robustly into our own time, also owes a debt to the participation of amateurs. Wealthy noblemen with an avid amateur interest in the arts and excited by the prospect of promoting greater expression in music, provided many of the ideas and resources that encouraged musicians to develop new musical genres, including opera. By the time Henry Purcell wrote and performed his opera, Dido and Aeneas, around 1688, the unique combination of elements that make up opera as we know it today, vocal solos, choral singing, acting, and dancing in a staged spectacle, were well on their way to coalescence.

This aria (song) from Dido and Aeneas demonstrates one of the two types of singing that occur in opera. One type, the Recitative,  is devoted to delivering the ongoing narrative or conversation between the characters in a manner that to some degree imitates the rhythmic freedom of speech and also suggests its vocal inflections. The other, the Aria, is more clearly songlike, usually occurring at a lull in the action when a character is reflecting upon an idea or feeling.
The aria entitled Dido’s Lament is sung at a sad moment near the end of the opera, a work based on the Roman poet Virgil’s (70 B.C.- 19 B.C.) epic poem, The Aeneid. Tragic circumstances have conspired to thwart the union of two noble lovers, Dido, Queen of ancient Carthage, and Aeneas, a Trojan hero. Brokenhearted, Dido is dying of grief as she sings this aria to her devoted sister and attendant, Belinda:

‘When I am laid, am laid in earth,
May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast.
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.’

Imagine for a moment that you are Henry Purcell, trying to decide how best to set this text to music. Can you see how any of the tools we explored earlier in the Listening Points could be useful? Could any of them be employed to help bring out the expressive content of the words?  Think for a moment about what the lyrics express emotionally: unspeakable sadness and longing --- longing for what might have been in Dido’s union with Aeneas, and the longing to be remembered by her sister and her subjects, not for her mistakes and misery, but for her noble qualities and accomplishments. What musical devices could possibly evoke these feelings? Here is how Purcell solved this problem.

Chapter 4 - Nessun dorma, by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

In both Fair Phyllis and Dido’s Lament we explored some of the clever ways composers use musical devices to enhance the content of the text in vocal music. While those techniques are quite often ingenious and interesting for us to try and detect, we must keep in mind that they are there in support of a deeper, more fundamental expressive purpose. To get to that core purpose, we have to direct our attention even more precisely into the heart of the music. We must focus our attention on the line.
In vocal music, the term line is used to describe two things. On the one hand it refers to the actual shape and content of the musical melody --- the melodic line. On the other, the term line refers to the moment-to-moment flow of emotion as it weaves its way through a piece of music --- the dramatic line. This line of dramatic tension resembles the ever-shifting flow of feelings that accompanies the ongoing thread of our daily lives.  Ideally there will be a synchronization between these two aspects of line; the rise and fall in technical elements of the music, like pitch and loudness, will reflect the rise and fall of the dramatic tension, as is the case in the famous tenor aria, Nessun dorma from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Turandot.
Coldhearted Turandot is a legendary princess living in her father’s palace in Peking, China in ancient times. When she comes of age to meet suitors for her hand in marriage she does not welcome the opportunity. Instead, having sworn never to let any man possess her, she has taken an oath which  stipulates that she will only marry a suitor who has successfully answered three perplexing riddles of her own invention. If he fails in this task, the consequence will be a grisly death to the suitor by beheading. Many potential suitors meet this dreadful end until Calaf, Prince of Tartary, who falls in love with Turandot at first sight, decides to take his chances at winning her. All are shocked when he successfully answers the three riddles. Undone, Turandot cries out in despair at the prospect of having to fulfill the conditions of her oath and marry Calaf. But the gallant Calaf stops her, offering her one last chance to escape marriage. Because he has not yet revealed his identity, he tells her that if she can guess his name by dawn of the next day, he will willingly release her from her oath and go to his death. She accepts and charges all of her subjects to remain awake throughout the night in an all-out effort to discover his name. If they fail, or if they fall asleep, they will all be put to death. Confident of his anonymity, Calaf retires by himself to the moonlit gardens of the palace to await the dawn. In the distance he can hear heralds calling out Turandot’s command, “Nessun dorma!” (None shall sleep!).

Let’s try and follow the line of music and emotion through this piece from beginning to end.

Chapter 5 - The Art of the Fugue

But what happens when the words disappear?

So far we have been exploring vocal music in an effort to discern the close connection between words and the way music is written to support their meaning. But at this point you may well be asking, “What happens when the words disappear? When there are no words to provide the emotional context and the music keeps shifting and changing as is often the case with classical music, how is one supposed to make sense of the musical flow? What about the vast repertoire of exclusively instrumental music?”

Fortunately, there is an easy answer to this. Even when the words disappear, the continuity of the dramatic line does not. The very same process of maintaining an ongoing dramatic line throughout the music is still proceeding as it did in vocal compositions, but in purely instrumental music the fluctuations of meaning and emotion are no longer tied to words. We have to perceive the expressive content directly from the musical sounds alone.

Doing this is a little like living in an apartment with thin walls and loud neighbors. Whatever the neighbor’s moods may be, we can get the emotional gist of them at any given moment by listening to the sounds of their voices. Though we may not be able to understand exactly what they are saying, the inflection, tone quality, loudness, and rhythm of their speech keep us well informed as to their states of mind. Walls may block the defining consonants of their words from reaching us, but those vowel sounds carry right through.

In singing as in speech, the bulk of the emotional content of words is communicated in the vowels. The difference between singing and speech is that in singing, the vowels are elongated to allow for the establishment of sustained pitches or notes. For example, say the word “HEART” aloud. Now say it again extending the “ah” sound made by the vowels EA for a few seconds – “H-A-H-H-H-H-H-RT”. You will find yourself beginning to cross the line between speaking and singing. By extending the vowel sounds, speech becomes music.

Any good instrumentalist will tell you that in order to play expressively on a musical instrument, a player must learn to “sing” expressively through the instrument. This means that the player must learn to make the expressive thread of the music as apparent in performance on his instrument as a good singer would with the voice. Violinist, pianist, or percussionist, all good instrumentalists sing the music in their imaginations as they play. So in a way, all music comes down to singing in one form or another and maintaining an expressive dramatic line throughout a composition. Purely instrumental music differs from vocal music only in that it establishes its meaning through the musical equivalent of the vowels alone, leaving the consonants behind. Our main job as listeners is to find the expressive line of continuity through a piece and stick with it, using the musical cues we have explored in our Listening Points to illuminate our experience.

When J.S. Bach (1685-1750) began work on a series of compositions which he entitled The Art of the Fugue (pronounced “fyoog”) at the very end of his life, among his objectives was the desire to pay tribute to a musical form that had been evolving for many years and had come to its highest realization largely as a result of his own handiwork. The structure of a fugue is so controlled, so cerebral in its conception, that it is hard for us to believe that music so intellectually planned could also be infused with expression. Yet, such was Bach’s genius that nearly every work in the series exudes a discernible emotional atmosphere.
In order to understand the magnitude of his achievement, we really need to grasp a little about the generic design of a fugue. Doing so will not only increase our appreciation of Bach’s mastery, but it will also prepare us to recognize, and to some extent “understand,” any fugue when we hear it in other music. And hear it we will, for fugues are scattered amply throughout the musical repertoire from Bach’s time to our own.

Earlier, when we were exploring the Listening Points that would assist us in deepening our engagement with music, I mentioned the roles repetition and variety play in making music coherent to us. We saw how they work on an immediate level to maintain our interest and establish musical ideas as significant. Now it is time to see how the same principles apply to the larger design of musical compositions. There is not space here to demonstrate the features of all the main forms used in music, so we will concentrate on just two of the musical design templates most prolifically employed --- the fugue and the sonata.

Let’s begin by listening to the fourth fugue from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Just sit back and listen for the overall dramatic flow of the work.  Afterwards, I will guide you through it with pauses to point out some of the details.

Interlude - Illustrative Music

This lesson on Illustrative Music is presented entirely in PowerPoint.

Chapter 6 - Mozart, the Sonata, and Dvorak

With Mozart there are no pictures. That fact, combined with the relatively restrained emotional content of his compositions, make listening to his music a challenging affair for many people new to classical music. After Mozart’s era the expressive spectrum of all the arts increased exponentially as artists endeavored to probe deeper into the nature of humankind, actually striving to reveal more and more of the human capacity for feeling. But in Mozart’s era, such overt revelation was just not part of the culture. In fact, too much expression, otherwise known as publically “wearing one’s feelings on one’s sleeve”, was considered to be in rather poor taste. His time was characterized, at least on the surface, by order and restraint, by a strong sense of balance and proportion, and by an effort to control excesses in both the natural world and in the arena of human emotions. You only have to look at garden arrangements from the time to get a general idea of how pervasive these attitudes were.
Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire
Orangerie at the Palace of Versailles
Is Mozart’s music, then, bereft of emotion? Is it just decorative? Not at all, but it will generally not (nor was it intended to) project the same affective abandon that characterizes much of the music of his successors. In most of his music Mozart remains within the bounds of what was then considered acceptable taste.
Then if it is neither pictorial suggestion nor forceful and diverse emotional expression that we get with the music of Mozart, what should we be listening for? And why should we bother trying?

 The answer to the last question is that for all of its positive aspects life tends to be an uneven business, filled with too many unpleasant and discomforting moments. But when we enter the world of Mozart, we step into a realm of beauty, purity, and order. Discord is brief, and ugliness is conspicuous by its absence. It is not a world of extremes, but one of understatement, grace, and elegance --- a welcome respite from the difficult moments of life that agitate us. However, having said that, I would not want to suggest that Mozart’s music is somehow frivolous or perfunctory. With all its subtlety, it is far from being merely decorative or superficial. It is filled with spirit, emotion, and depictions of human character in music that are on a par with the works of the great portrait painters. For example…
I will be the first to admit that the little scenario I just cobbled up is silly. In all likelihood Mozart had nothing like it in mind when he composed the music, and I only hope that in using it I have not forever given you a less than favorable impression of his 41st symphony. So before we go on, let’s dispense with my scenario completely.

Having done so, however, we will find that there are some words from the vignette that somehow continue to resonate with the  feeling content of what we heard in the music even after the story has been withdrawn. They are the words that describe the changing affective and psychological character suggested by the music --- terms such as:

These words maintain their relevance because they suggest the states of mind that the music does aim to convey, story or no story. My little scenario may be irrelevant, but the human traits it expresses, or something very close to them, are aptly captured and clearly conveyed by Mozart. The truth is that we may never really know what actual sequence of events, if any, prompted Mozart to write this piece. But the uncanny accuracy with which he was able to capture aspects of personality in sound may be intriguing enough to entice us to follow him through the rest of the music. And if we want to follow him, it will help us do so if we become aware of some of the landmarks we are likely to encounter on the path.

Mozart chose to hang his musical ideas upon a form that was one of several musical structures that had come into use during his time and that continue to be in use today. We call it the Sonata Form, and it is laid out in three large sections with optional smaller sections sometimes spliced onto the beginning and the end. As is typical of the Classical Period, it is a psychologically satisfying design that endeavors to maintain a balance between unity and variety. The music we just listened to was the initial section of a sonata form being used in the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony #41. It was the custom at the time to repeat that first section of music one time after it had  been played in order to cement the musical elements contained in it in the listener’s ear. So let’s listen to that repeat now, and as we do I will point out some of the workings of the sonata form as they apply to this piece. Once you begin to get a bit of a grasp on what to look for in the form, the hope is that you will be able to apply that knowledge to future listening experiences --- a very useful skill, since sonata form is found in many places in the classical music repertoire.

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Now let’s jump ahead 105 years from the time Mozart’s 41st Symphony was composed to the year 1893. The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak had just composed his Symphony #9 in E Minor for orchestra, subtitled “The New World Symphony.” The already well-known composer was living and teaching at a music conservatory in the United States at the time and had been charged by the conservatory’s benefactress to create a work that sounded uniquely American. Dvorak rose to this challenge by incorporating melodies into this symphony that had the flavor of African American and Native American folk music, which he saw as unique influences on the American scene. He didn’t actually quote any particular musical examples directly. Instead, he studied a good deal of the folk music until he had assimilated its style and then permitted the style to inform his own originally-composed melodies.

Sadly, the appearance of this symphony provoked a prolonged and continuing controversy in many quarters about whether the work should really be seen as a solution to the problem of creating a distinctly American musical voice, including a number of negative arguments that were racially motivated. Nevertheless, since its first performance it has been a mainstay of the symphonic repertoire and is probably Dvorak’s most popular symphony. Listening to the first movement of the work now will give us an opportunity to witness the persistence of the Sonata Form in music regardless of the passage of time. As you listen, augment your current understanding of the sonata by beginning to think of it not just as an exercise in musical form, but as the equivalent of a written prose essay in which the themes that are developed are not so much verbal and intellectual, but are melodic and emotional instead.

Do you remember that in our earlier exploration of the Sonata Form I made reference to “optional smaller sections (of music) sometimes spliced on to the beginning and the end” of the standard three-section form? This symphony begins with one of those beginning sections, called the INTRODUCTION. The function of introductions of this sort was to set the stage, so to speak, for the rest of the composition ---- to get us in the right frame of mind for what was to follow. In many cases, the music of these introductions bore no melodic connection at all to what came later. But in this case, such a connection exists.

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Lesson 5 - Poetry

Poetry is the most condensed and concentrated form of literature. It says the most in the least number of words. At its best poetry is, in the words of the great 19th century poet William Wordsworth, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”


First, try to detect the overall impact of the work – what is it trying to communicate, capture, or express? This usually takes one of three forms, or a combination: 

Something Emotional -- Feelings/Emotions/Moods
Something Intellectual – Idea/Concept
Something Sensual – Essentially making a direct appeal to the five Senses 

Next, try to determine how the expressive content is being accomplished technically? 
        Here are some of the primary places to look in your quest:

Subject Matter – the obvious subject  content , along with any possible deeper implications.
Form, Composition, and Design - the arrangement or laying out of various components into a specific relationship to one another to create the whole work.
Contrasts – elements that are strikingly different from one another.
Dramatic Tension – the increase and decrease in the flow of action and/or feeling.
Textures – the arrangement of the surface structure, “fabric,” or density of a work of art.
Patterns – repeated elements that result in a perceptible arrangement.
Colors/Nuances/Subtleties/Hues – the unique character or shading of an element that makes it expressive.
Sensuality – elements making their appeal to the bodily senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
Movement/Stillness – the implication of action or repose.
Superficiality/Profundity – Is it lightweight, or is it deeply felt, very great, going far deeper than is usually encountered?
Symbols – things that stand for or represent an idea, state of being, or other abstraction.
Skill/Craftsmanship – the ability to expertly handle the technical craft of the art.
Uniqueness/Originality – created in a fresh, independent, or innovative manner.
Stylistic Similarities – characteristics favored by an artist which occur repeatedly in his/her works or among works from a similar historical period.

Chapter 1

Inside of one potato there are mountains and rivers.

---Shinkichi Takahashi (Translated by Harold P. Wright)
That’s it!
It looks like it could be just the title, but that’s all there is to this whole poem. It’s over before you know it.
Take a few seconds to consider what it might be trying to convey before reading on.....
Putting aside our focus on the European Arts for a moment, I am taking the liberty of beginning this segment of our exploration with a brief Japanese poem because it illustrates something fundamental about the art of poetry in general. Perhaps more deeply than any of the other arts, poetry is rooted in the art of concentration --- the ability to condense complex thoughts, feelings, and impressions into their most concise, most potent expression. So, just for the fun of it, let’s reconstitute this poem into something that approximates its prose origins. Let’s add “liquid” and watch it puff back up into something like its original shape.

When most of us think of mountains, we tend to think simply of high, rocky, pyramid-like structures that are static, majestic, unchanging, and in many cases awe-inspiring. But, as any geologist will tell us, their status is far from inert, for they are actually in a dynamic process of disintegration, called erosion.

Far below the tops of those inspiring peaks move the great watercourses of the world. Springs, rivulets, streams, and rivers flow into lakes and, ultimately, to the mighty seas. In the process, evaporation lifts water vapors high into the skies where they travel, mingle, and coalesce into clouds. The clouds travel over the land and, when conditions are right, release rain and snow down upon the mountains. The flow of water down the mountainsides, along with the action of wind, snow, and ice, cause the stone of the mountains to crack, break apart, and wash or blow away. Carried by the watershed and broken into bits by collision with the surfaces of other particles, the stones grind their way down the mountain, gradually diminishing in size until they reach the valleys below in the form of pebbles and sand. These, along with the decaying remains of flora and fauna, combine to produce the fertile topsoil that covers the lowlands, making it possible for agriculture to occur --- including the cultivation of the potato in this poem.

So, in a moment of reflection, a farmer (or a poet) picks up a humble potato, a lowly spud, and ruminates for a moment on the vast forces that went into its production. The striking contrast between the processes I have just indicated and the simplicity of the object in his hand evokes a profound realization, and he is moved. And because he is a poet, he articulates, perhaps only for himself, the essence of his experience. In the process, he also provides us all with an opportunity to share and perhaps even experience his epiphany.

Phew! That was an exhausting load of words (321).  But as we reread the poem now (7 words), allowing ourselves to reflect slowly upon its implications, we can see that the breadth and complexity of its roots are well-captured in this single, carefully-crafted line.

Inside of one potato there are mountains and rivers.

Chapter 2

So much depends
a  red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

William Carlos Williams / 1883-1963
This poem, only about twice as long as the previous one, may seem puzzling at first. What does the author mean by the phrase, “So much depends,” when it is followed by those two very ordinary items, a wheelbarrow and a flock of chickens? How could “so much” depend on such mundane objects? So much what? I have known people to spend quite some time pondering over these words trying to assemble all of the parts into a meaningful whole – a task a lot like trying to fit the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together. But the secret to entering into this poem is somewhat different from the technique we used to decipher our first poem. That poem…

                                                                                                           Inside of one potato there are mountains and rivers.

…made its primary appeal to our intellect; it conveyed an idea, rather than a sensation or an emotion. We were able to detect its concentrated meaning by figuring out how and in what way there could possibly be mountains and rivers inside a mere potato. This business of figuring out is primarily an intellectual exercise. The idea of the poem is a striking one and having understood its message, one feels impressed, but our appreciation is occurring mostly in our thoughts, rather than in our feelings and senses.

This poem about a wheelbarrow and chickens is slightly, but significantly, different. There is still an intellectual element there as we try to put the pieces together, but here we have the addition of a handful of descriptive adjectives. These colorful words bring a sensory vitality to this piece which is absent in the previous one. Did they make an impression on you as you first read the poem? Instantly it becomes more of a visual experience than an intellectual one. Before rereading it, let’s use our sensory imagination to put ourselves at the place and moment in which Williams observed the scene. Try to fully see it in your mind’s eye.

You are walking along the street on a blustery, stormy day. Everything you see is rendered muted and lackluster by the grey skies. Suddenly the scene is transformed as the clouds part, allowing the sun to shine down upon the landscape, brilliantly highlighting the scene described in our poem. Not far away rests a wheelbarrow (a red one, lit by the sunlight, glazed with rainwater that not only glistens but deepens the red color) surrounded by a small flock of chickens (white ones, also brightly lit by the sun). The effect of the dynamic contrasts, from blustery skies to bright sunlight, from dull colors to intense ones, from the juxtaposition of a hard wheelbarrow and fluffy chickens, the red against the white (perhaps framed by a bit of blue sky and green foliage), is momentarily stunning. You, too, might pause for a moment to savor the impact of the picture before you --- fresh, dazzling!

Clearly, this work makes its appeal not so much to the intellect as to the eye. If we allow ourselves to fully experience it by getting our senses involved, as we are called upon to do by those colorful adjectives, allowing our sensory imagination to vividly recreate the scene rather than simply reading and understanding the words, we will begin to understand what it means. In a way, the message is the same here as was contained in the painting, The Song of the Lark, which we examined earlier. Both that painting and this poem are addressing the rare experience of beauty as something that sometimes surprises us when we least expect it. That experience, as you will know if you have ever experienced it in your own life, is the very thing upon which “So much depends.” Such moments add immeasurably to the quality and enjoyment of our lives.

We all know that life can be difficult and sometimes downright unpleasant. Williams was a physician by profession, and in the course of his days he witnessed his share of misery and suffering --- his own and that of others. Moments of beauty like the one captured in this poem brightened and refreshed his spirits, as he knew they could for all of us. Here he presents us with a few picturesque lines to remind us of just how precious those moments are. Try reading the poem again now and see if you can make it come alive.

Chapter 3

Before reading the next poem, find a quiet corner and settle yourself into a comfortable chair. As you start to read, don’t be in too much of a hurry. This is a narrative poem; a poem that tells a story. Try to hear it in your mind’s inner voice. Give your imagination ample time and space to respond to the full, evocative power of the words as the tale unfolds.
Alfred Noyes (1880-1958)
The Highwayman
THE wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
    The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
    The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
    And the highwayman came riding—
    The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He'd a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
    A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
    They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
    And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
                      His pistol butts a-twinkle,
    His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
    And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
    He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
    But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
                      Bess, the landlord's daughter,
    Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
    Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
    His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
    But he loved the landlord's daughter,
                      The landlord's red-lipped daughter,
    Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—
"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize to-night,
    But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
    Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
    Then look for me by moonlight,
                      Watch for me by moonlight,
    I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way."
He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
    But she loosened her hair i' the casement! His face burnt like a brand
    As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
    And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
                      (Oh, sweet, black waves in the moonlight!)
    Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.
He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
    And out o' the tawny sunset, before the rise o' the moon,
    When the road was a gypsy's ribbon, looping the purple moor,
    A red-coat troop came marching—
    King George's men came matching, up to the old inn-door.
They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
    But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
    Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
    There was death at every window;
                      And hell at one dark window;
    For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.
They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
    They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
    "Now, keep good watch!" and they kissed her.
                      She heard the dead man say—
    Look for me by moonlight;
                      Watch for me by moonlight;
    I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!
She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
    She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
    They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
    Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
                      Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
    The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!
The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
    Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
    She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
    For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
                      Blank and bare in the moonlight;
    And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love's refrain .
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs ringing clear;
    Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
    Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
    The highwayman came riding,
                      Riding, riding!
    The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still!
Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
    Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
    Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
    Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
                      Her musket shattered the moonlight,
    Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.
He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
    Bowed, with her head o'er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
    Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew grey to hear
    How Bess, the landlord's daughter,
                      The landlord's black-eyed daughter,
    Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.
Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
    With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
    Blood-red were his spurs i' the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
    When they shot him down on the highway,
                      Down like a dog on the highway,
    And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.
*           *           *           *           *           *
And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
    When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
    When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
    A highwayman comes riding—
    A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.
Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
    He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
    He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
    But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
                      Bess, the landlord's daughter,
    Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Drama, romance, adventure, treachery, tragedy, and the supernatural --- what more could we ask? It’s a great tale, and about as close to a movie as it’s possible to get without a camera. In fact, in his effort to be vivid, Noyes has created a poem that in its way is as much of a feast for the senses as one of those Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century, like this one…
Festoon of fruit and flowers
Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1683/4)
Let’s examine the poem in some detail so that we can deepen our appreciation of the poet’s craftsmanship.
But The Highwayman is more than simply picturesque. It also illustrates poetic devices that it holds in common with many other poems --- rhyme, rhythm, and structure.

Since the beginning of poetry, poets have amused themselves, delighted their audiences, and challenged their skills by delivering their poetic ideas within structural constraints ---- conventions which evolved over time that many felt enhanced communication and elevated the medium of poetry above common speech. The first of these, rhyme (similar sounding words), we can see at the ends of the lines. This one element is the one most people associate with poetry. It reminds us of the first nursery rhymes we enjoyed as children, like
The second device most of us link with poetry is meter, an aspect of rhythm. This involves the use of strongly and weakly stressed syllables or words, often falling into grouped patterns that repeat themselves. For example:
If you speak this rhyme aloud, pronouncing the syllables evenly with a steady beat, you can hear the metric pattern clearly. Try it.

In The Highwayman, there is a meter that falls into groups of threes – 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 -  again counted evenly and with no pauses.
As it turns out, Noyes is not blithely subscribing to poetic convention here. He is using meter in a very clever way to enhance the expressive value of the poem. Think again of the dramatic and urgent character of the text. What better way to emphasize these qualities than rhythmically suggesting (if not literally imitating) the incessant galloping of the highwayman’s horse by using a repeating triple meter in the words? Those of us who have ever heard the sound of a cantering or galloping horse will not miss the implication of that rhythm. Triple meter is also a good choice for this text because it possesses an inherent rolling, driving energy when moving along fairly quickly, as it does here. Add to this the fact that the poem begins on a weak beat (the last of a group of three beats), propelling us into the first strong beat of the work and in effect jumpstarting the rolling triple rhythm – initiating the action. Try reading the first two lines above again in rhythm.

Now in practice, few poets would actually recite a poem in the wooden, mechanical fashion I have outlined in the illustration above --- conspicuously emphasizing the rhyme scheme and the meter. Many, including William Shakespeare, have worked within such rhythmic devices because they were the conventions of the day, or in order to test their technical mettle as wordsmiths. But when such a poem is read aloud, the narrator, although aware of both rhyme and rhythm, usually makes it less obvious than we might be inclined to do with a children’s nursery rhyme. Instead, he is more inclined to soften them both, allowing them to make their presence felt only subtly in the background, and concentrate mainly on emphasizing the expressive value of the words. We might endeavor to do the same as we read a poem silently, hearing it only with our inner voice.
We are going to listen to a recitation of this poem, for poems like this one almost demand to be read aloud. But before we do, let’s look at one more way Noyes builds drama into it --- through its structure.  Did you notice that the beginning and ending of the poem are quite similar? The last two verses are largely made of material from the beginning, although now cast in a supernatural tone. This return at the end creates a nice three-part form that imparts a pleasant sense of overall order and design to the poem:
And taking a closer look at the design and structure, did you notice that while the first and second and the third and final lines of each verse provide a nice rhyming symmetry…..
This attention to the relationship between content and structure in a work of art is a factor that we saw in our explorations of the visual arts and music. Here it is again in the service of poetry. We will see the same relationship in action in the other arts as we explore each of them in turn because it is one of the key devices artists use to create not only meaning, but organic coherence in their works.
Let’s listen to the poem now in its entirety, allowing ourselves to be swept along by the story but at the same time retaining just the tiniest trace of awareness of how each of the components we have explored plays a part in the final product.

Chapter 4

God's World
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
   Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag
To crush!   To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
         But never knew I this;   
         Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

I have known people who have found this poem to be sad --- perhaps even to be an expression of grief or misery. I am not convinced. Thus the question is raised, when it comes to interpreting the meaning of the arts, is there such a thing as a correct answer? If you discuss this issue with people, the prevailing consensus of opinion seems to be that all art is relative and that everyone’s interpretation is correct, each person being entitled to his or her own view. We appear to be living in a time that generally accepts the idea that all opinions are relative and equal in value. According to this paradigm, each of us has a right to interpret art as he sees fit, and no one’s conclusions about it are necessarily right or wrong as long as they are “right for him.”But while we may all agree that everyone has a right to his own opinion, that right alone provides no guarantee that everyone’s opinion will be equally accurate or correct. The great artists did not aspire to satisfy the wide ranging points of view of all their audience members. They endeavored mainly to articulate their own feelings and ideas, expecting the rest of us to try to trace our way back through what we find in their works and get as close to their original inspiration as possible. Our tools in this quest are our feelings and impressions, our imagination, our intuition, and not least, our rational ability to assemble a logical, convincing case. Each of these plays a part in reaching what is likely to be the most accurate conclusion about what a work is trying to express.

Reading poetry can often be a rather remote intellectual exercise. We read the words of a poem as though from a distance, trying to figure out what ideas it is trying to convey. And while this approach is appropriate for understanding some poems, it is insufficient when it comes to interpreting poems that make deeper emotional demands upon us, as this poem does. Sometimes to get to the root of a poem it is not enough to simply say the words over to ourselves and try to grasp their ideas. There are times when a poem requires us to push beyond the intellect and through the words into its center --- into its heart. There, standing within the poem, so to speak, we are in a better position to feel the full impact of its evocations and implications.

Let’s do that now with this poem. Let’s wade boldly into the middle of it, imagining that it is a dynamic, three-dimensional creation. As we stand at its center we can begin to make out bits of words and phrases as they swirl about us. But now we don’t just see them. We begin to feel their innate power as they pass by us closer and closer, gently bumping against us, like curious fish nudging an undersea diver. Release your imagination and your feelings now, allowing them to respond to the words and phrases. Feel their impact. Allow yourself to respond.
Peter Millar 2014
Clearly, these are the outpourings of a soul in an extreme state. The words and imagery are desperate, intense, and grand. We can almost imagine the poet making broad, sweeping gestures to the surrounding skies as she cries out into the wind. The very first word of the poem, “O”, is an impassioned cry to the universe, as is the word “World” in line seven. But do those cries suggest a soul in misery? The people I mentioned at the beginning of this section considered some of the dark imagery in this poem, like “grey skies”, “mists”, “ache and sag”, “gaunt”, “black bluff”, put them together with the extremity of the feelings, and concluded that the poem was a declaration of intense suffering about something tragic that may have happened in the poet’s life.

But although that may or may not be the case, logic demands that we must not stop there. Other words and images in the poem are not consistent with an entirely dismal view of things. This work is set in autumn, the season that embodies the decay and disintegration of the natural world --- the ebbing away of the lush exuberance of spring and the abundance of summer. And there is no denying that for human beings, autumn has come to represent the gradual closing down of life and the loss of many things. That much is consistent with a dark view of the poem. But autumn, even amidst the decay and passing away of things, is simultaneously a season of vivid colors and stark contrasts, many of which are quite pleasing to us. How shall we account for the bright words in the poem --- those woods that “all but cry with color”, those burning leaves, and above all, the word “glory?” They all seem to be inconsistent with a purely cheerless meaning for the work, and they cannot be ignored.

Again try to imagine yourself within the poem. Feel the poet’s powerful declarations, imagine the sound of the rushing wind, visualize the splashes of autumnal color attributed to the fall foliage (those “burning” leaves are only burning with bright colors --- reds, oranges, and yellows --- not flames). Millay tells us that the intensity of the color nearly “cries” out with beauty, lifting the morbidly heavy implications of the “gaunt crag” and “black bluff”, both of which only serve to throw the colorful parts of the scene into greater relief. Try to picture it. Is there a “glory in it all?”

Even the structure of the poem speaks to a state of extremity. Embedded amidst the regular couplet rhyme scheme that characterizes most of the writing (as when the last word of every pair of lines rhymes --- skies/rise, sag/crag, etc.), there are two impulsive exceptions. The first is the initial line of the poem, “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!”, a line which encapsulates the first raw exclamation of the poet’s explosive response to this moment. The second is in the middle of the poem, “Long have I known a glory in it all, But never knew I this; Here such a passion is as stretcheth me apart.” Momentarily overwhelmed by the intensity of her feelings she abandons reason momentarily, apparently forgetting the organized rhyme scheme she has established, only to resume it once again as she struggles back in the direction of self control. Both of these moments seem to exist outside of the otherwise formal structure of the rhyming lines and actually add to the unsettled nature of this moment of sudden epiphany.

In the end, if you put all of the pieces that we have examined together, you will come to see that this poem is not a statement of hopelessness, but one of exquisite helplessness --- of being held in the thrall of the natural beauty of melancholy autumn. So sweet and yet, a bit sad. It is a very complex constellation of feelings. So intense is the ecstasy of this moment that the poet cannot possibly imagine bearing any more. Add one more beautiful thing (“burning leaf”, birdsong) and she feels as though she will burst from an excess of bittersweet joy. Reading the poem again, can you begin to identify with her experience?

Chapter 5

SONNET 29, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

There is a world of feeling to be discovered in poetry. Through mere words, the common currency of our everyday interactions, it can convey the whole catalog of our emotions and states of mind – love, hate, jealousy, melancholy, sadness, ecstasy, horror --- even humor:

 "The Slithergadee"
Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)

The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.
He may catch all the others, but he won’t catch me.
No you won’t catch me, old Slithergadee,
You may catch all the others, but you wo–

Poetry ranges from the most superficial, lighthearted wordplay, to profound utterances that plumb the depths of the human spirit. But in order for it to confer its greatest riches, it must not be rushed… and neither must our appreciation of it.

William Shakespeare begins one of his sonnets with the words, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…” Whenever I read it, I wonder if such periods even exist for most of us any more, living as we do in a time during which the pace of life is becoming increasingly breathless. How many of us can find “sweet silent” opportunities in our busy schedules to reflect upon the experiences of our lives and allow ourselves to fully feel and absorb their impact? Yet these moments are crucial if we are to make any sense of our personal histories ----- and if we wish to fully appreciate the nearly boundless musings of poetry. For the deepest poetry has its origin in that remote region within us that is silent and still, and to experience it, we, too, must be able to travel within ourselves to that place. Then, with our feelings at the ready, we rest…. alert to the sound of the words as they begin:
Of course, in order to hear the text most effectively it may be necessary to leave some of our more prosaic habits behind. For example, just because a poem is written in a series of lines of text, it does not mean that it is always appropriate to stop or pause at the end of each line. The key to how to proceed often seems to be contained in the punctuation.

. = full stop
, = short pause (often accompanied by a short breath)
; = slightly longer pause

So if we were to rearrange the poem to follow the indications of the punctuation, it would flow more like this:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state  And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries  And look upon myself and curse my fate, 
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, 
Featured like him,
 like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope, 
With what I most enjoy contented least; 

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee,
and then my state, 
Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth,
sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

And it is also helpful in making sense of poetry like this if we can abandon our prosaic expectation that words should express thoughts in a purely linear way, as we are inclined to do in our everyday speech. For example, where we might say,

Discontented with what I enjoy most,

by rearranging the word order, Shakespeare presents the same thought in the artfully arranged phrase,

With what I most enjoy contented least; 

The same is the case in the words, “myself almost despising,” which we would be inclined to express as “almost despising myself.”

Why does Shakespeare do this? To most of us it’s just confusing. Why can’t he just talk like we do? Part of the answer to this has to do with the conventions of speech that were common in his time. But the most important answer lies more in Shakespeare’s search for a poetic language that could communicate not only ideas, but feelings. If you really “get” this poem, you will have noticed that it has rather lofty sentiments contained in it. I have recently discovered the “inflation valve” to the poem, and as much as it pains me to do so, I am going to deflate its loftiness down to the level of everyday prose so that we can compare that version with the real thing. Here goes, (and may Shakespeare forgive me!):

When I’m down on my luck and held in low esteem by others,
I get bummed out
and cry out in vain for God’s help
and get really fed up by my miserable situation.
It makes me wish I were more like the guy who has more promising prospects,
who is better looking than me, who has more friends than I do.
I spend most of my time wishing I had this guy’s talent and that guy’s range of abilities and opportunities,
and even the things I enjoy most seem pointless.
And when I think about all this stuff and am feeling really, really terrible about myself because it seems like my life sucks,
I think about you, and then my mood improves so much that I wouldn’t change places with anybody.

A nice sentiment is still there, but it’s pretty obvious that the inspiration, the buoyancy of the poem has been dissipated, only to be replaced by a leaden ordinariness. This is because much of the lift of the poem is being communicated  in the pungent vocabulary and inventive turns of phrase that are contained in the original. Look again at some of the words Shakespeare chooses:

disgrace (rather than disfavor)
beweep (rather than complain)
deaf heaven (rather than unresponsive heaven)
bootless (rather than ineffective)
curse (rather than complain about)
despising (rather than disliking)
sullen (rather than dark, silent)
sweet (rather than fulfilling)
scorn (rather than have no desire)

These are not tepid words. They impact us not just with their objective descriptiveness, but with strong feelings, vividly coloring our affective responses. Shakespeare is a master of such evocative vocabulary, using words that are infused with just the right amount of expressive power like a painter using hues of color to suggest subtle nuances of mood. If we remove them, the work begins to deflate.

Then he weaves such colorful words into phrases that create mental images, each of which carry an emotional charge. Try picturing these examples:

I all alone beweep my outcast state 
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate, 


Like to the lark at break of day arising 
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;

And as for the seemingly uncommon word arrangements that sometimes seem devilishly difficult to follow, like,

For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
which some of us might prefer to have been written, at the very least, as
For remembering thy sweet love brings such wealth

don’t you find that Shakespeare’s artful rearranging of the words creates an atmosphere of freshness, a  sense of discovery in the moment? Doesn’t the more poetic version somehow seem to possess greater inspiration? Doesn’t it elevate us to regions that enjoy a more rarified air? In those phrases we are on uncertain ground momentarily. But just as when we travel unexplored trails we may be uncertain as to where they are leading us until we have arrived at the destination, so we must follow the unorthodox path of Shakespeare’s words to their poetic end before we can fully ascertain their meaning. Our conventional expectations have to be temporarily suspended and we have no choice but to wait until the whole journey reveals itself. The situation is at once discombobulating and exciting as words and phrases give up their meaning gradually, releasing their secrets in their own time. The technique brings new life, eloquence, and immediacy to the text --- actually increasing its effect. Think of the mental leaps you have to make with this line from Sonnet 116, the subject of which is true love. You just have to ride it out to the end, gathering in the meaning as you go.

Love’s not Times fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

A little unsettling at first as you begin to read along, but by the time you have reached the end and the complete text has bloomed in your mind, you are left with a compelling collection of images that congeal into a very complex impression; Love+the Fool+Youth+Death, all thrown into the same pot. What a novel and inventive way to express the thought that although the body ages, true love persists!

Even the structure of Sonnet 29 is designed for expressive effect, again underlining the frequent marriage of feeling and form in the arts. The poem is a gradual evolution from the depths of despair to the heights of joy. Shakespeare begins by setting the stage with the unhappy problem:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state 
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate, 

He then goes on to make this already miserable situation more intensely immediate for us by detailing some of the particulars:

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, 
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope, 
With what I most enjoy contented least; 

But then the word Yet signals a turning point:

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

And that turning point results in a complete reversal of affect which continues as the poem continues on to its happy end:

Haply I think on thee, and then my state, 
Like to the lark at break of day arising 
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

None of this structural arrangement is accidental, for Shakespeare is writing a sonnet, a work that has a more or less preordained form. What is amazing is Shakespeare’s ability to use such a strict form without letting its conventions stifle his expressive aims. In fact, like the musical composer, J.S. Bach, who harnessed the tightly-structured fugue form masterfully without sacrificing emotion, Shakespeare was actually able to press sonnet form into the service of expression.

Return to PPT now to conclude this lesson.

Chapter 6 - Poetry and Civilization

In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, there is a famous moment in which Shylock, a wealthy, Jewish moneylender, voices the lament of most European Jews living not only in that time but also in the ages before and after Shakespeare’s era. Oppressed and vilified by Christian society, Jews have been discriminated against throughout the history of western civilization. Feeling this discrimination acutely in his own life, Shylock, who admittedly is not a very pleasant person in the play, nevertheless brings to our attention a legitimate and compelling argument. Why, he asks with a combination of bitterness and righteous indignation, should people in general and I in particular be reviled just because we are Jews?

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means,
warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

In other words, he is asking, “Are we not the same as you? Should we not all be able to enjoy mutual respect for one another based upon our common humanity alone?” It is an unsettling moment in the play because although we are not led to have much sympathy for Shylock, for this brief monolog we may find ourselves responding positively to the legitimacy of his argument. During the course of those few words we are compelled to think about the tragic consequences of man’s inhumanity to man, and to reflect upon the need for greater compassion and understanding between people. For an instant we glimpse the world of pain that exists deep in Shylock’s heart, motivating his unpleasantness and perhaps even provoking momentary stirrings of sympathy for his character.

The African-American author, Richard Wright, puts forth a similar argument in a different guise in his poem, Between the World and Me. Drawing on the experiences of his own race, he, too, addresses the issues of prejudice and brutality. It is a poem with vivid images and it has strong sensory appeal, but not of the romantically colorful variety we saw demonstrated in The Highwayman. It is set in free verse, a style of writing that often uses the conventional line structure of traditional poetry, but is comparatively free of rhythm and rhyme and tends to follow the flow of ordinary speech.

Between the World and Me
Richard Wright (1908-1960)

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
    suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
    oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
    themselves between the world and me....
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
    upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
    finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
    a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
    and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
    butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
    drained gin-flask, and a whore's lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
    lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
    surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull....
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
    for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
    icy walls of fear--
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
    grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
    poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
    darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
    into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
    my flesh.
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
    cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
    upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
    my life be burned....
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
    into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
    black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
    they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
    me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
    my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
    baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
    sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
    yellow surprise at the sun....

If you allow yourself to be open to the full force of this poem, you may agree with me that the subject is ugly beyond imagining and the presentation is searing in its intensity. In fact, it is so potent that we may involuntarily feel the reflex to look away. It is certainly not the kind of thing one would want to read just for fun. Yet we must once again recall that it is not always the intention of an artist to create something fun or amusing, or even pleasant. That is more the province of entertainment. An artist’s main aim is to faithfully capture some aspect of human experience in his art, whether the result be agreeable or disagreeable. Clearly, something very powerful is captured in this poem. Let’s explore what and how.

Chapter 7

by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

Rupert Brooke was one of a handful of poets who will remain forever young to us, for he never had an opportunity to experience the latter two thirds of life. Whenever an artist is taken from us at an early age as he was (28), we are left pondering to what heights his work might have reached had he lived longer. Like many of his generation, Brooke was a casualty of the Great War (1914-1918). His poem, Dust, was written when he was just 23 or so years of age, and it is part of that prolific genre of poetry that has been a revered branch of the art throughout history --- the love poem.

When William Shakespeare penned his famous Sonnet # 116 which begins, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” he accomplished two things beyond creating a well-crafted, eloquent poem. He was able to consolidate his own keen observations about the nature of true love, and at the same time he created a yardstick for the measurement of our own proficiency at loving. After its well-known first line, the sonnet goes on with a checklist of criteria that are the hallmarks of true love in its most ideal form, making a case, so to speak, to the reader. It is an inspired appeal mainly to our intellect, and it possesses the ring of truth and wisdom. In his poem, Dust, Rupert Brooke is also speaking of ideal love, but he is making a very different kind of appeal ---- one that may perhaps seem less intellectual, but which captivates our senses, imagination, and emotions. As you read it now, listen to the words, proceeding slowly enough that they have time to impart their full meaning. Permit the images to come to life in your imagination, and try to discern the inner flow of emotion as it progresses through the work.

by Rupert Brooke 

When the white flame in us is gone,
   And we that lost the world's delight
Stiffen in darkness, left alone
   To crumble in our separate night;

When your swift hair is quiet in death,
   And through the lips corruption thrust
Has stilled the labour of my breath---
   When we are dust, when we are dust!---

Not dead, not undesirous yet,
   Still sentient, still unsatisfied,
We'll ride the air, and shine, and flit,
   Around the places where we died,

And dance as dust before the sun,
   And light of foot, and unconfined,
Hurry from road to road, and run
   About the errands of the wind.

And every mote, on earth or air,
   Will speed and gleam, down later days,
And like a secret pilgrim fare
   By eager and invisible ways,

Nor ever rest, nor ever lie,
   Till, beyond thinking, out of view,
One mote of all the dust that's I
   Shall meet one atom that was you.

Then in some garden hushed from wind,
   Warm in a sunset's afterglow,
The lovers in the flowers will find
   A sweet and strange unquiet grow

Upon the peace; and, past desiring,
   So high a beauty in the air,
And such a light, and such a quiring,
   And such a radiant ecstasy there,

They'll know not if it's fire, or dew,
   Or out of earth, or in the height,
Singing, or flame, or scent, or hue,
   Or two that pass, in light, to light,

Out of the garden, higher, higher. . . .
   But in that instant they shall learn
The shattering ecstasy of our fire,
   And the weak passionless hearts will burn

And faint in that amazing glow,
   Until the darkness close above;
And they will know---poor fools, they'll know!---
   One moment, what it is to love.

Even when we are lucky enough to grasp the general message and the mood of a poem like this, sometimes a work doesn’t render up all it has to give at first sight. There may be times when it falls to us to go over the poem again, deconstructing and exploring some of its elements in order to see how they fit into the larger picture. Then, when we go back and reread it, we often find that our understanding of it has grown and our experience of it is deeper. Let’s do that now with this poem.

Chapter 8

Piano, and A Child’s Christmas in Wales

One of the great themes that is woven deeply into the fabric of the human experience is that of loss. For most of us it is an aspect of life we would rather avoid, but it is in the nature of life that none of us can remain forever untouched by its influence. For loss is the dark other side of gain, and together these two experiences accompany us inexorably on our earthly journey, alternating in their influence from moment to moment. Gain and loss are actually two parts of a duality that forms a single concept ---- Gain/Loss.  Although the two parts contrast with one another, they also define and complement each other. Neither one can stand alone. The losses we incur in life range from the mundane to the momentous ---- from the loss of our car keys to loss of honor, from the loss of youth to the ultimate loss of life itself. Loss is part of the subtext of life that unites us all in common experience if we will but take a moment to realize its universality.

 Most of the time the experience of loss produces misery. But there are occasions, especially when we fondly recall pleasant memories, when our sense of privation becomes more bittersweet than unpleasant. For example, many of us are inclined to look back on our vanished childhoods with a certain wistful affection, assuming that time in our lives was a pleasant one. We gratefully remember the freedom and fun of that period, and the comfort we felt in being loved, nurtured, and protected by our parents. Sometimes we may find ourselves longing for the people who were in our lives then, and for the feelings of simplicity, spontaneity and security we enjoyed in the years before the responsibilities and concerns of adult life were thrust upon us.

Artists in every genre of the arts have tried to express some of these feelings in their works. For instance, there is a wonderful moment in the 1986 documentary film, Horowitz in Moscow, during which the 83-year old pianist gives a devoted audience an encore performance of the piece, Traumerei  (Daydreams), from  Robert Schumann’s nostalgic  set of miniatures called Scenes from Childhood, written in 1838. Throughout the performance the cameras provide alternating views of the pianist and the audience, and for one brief moment a camera pauses on a silver-haired gentleman perhaps in his sixties, listening with rapt concentration to the music. As he listens, tears are slowly running down his cheeks as he immerses himself fully in whatever memories and emotions the music is evoking in him. We will never know for sure exactly what he was thinking about at that moment, but one suspects that he is reliving a poignant memory of something or someone associated with his own childhood ---- now lost and forever consigned to the past. Here is that performance:
Whenever I watch the film I am reminded of the poem Piano, by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930). Interestingly enough, this poem is also set during a musical recital during which the poet reflects upon experiences in his own life.


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see 
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide. 

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamor 
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast 
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past. 


It is an unpretentious, touching poem, and it is relatively simple in terms of structure. The obvious rhyme scheme (me/see, strings/sings, etc.), the formal stanzas, and the general suggestion of a triple-metered rhythm,
all let us know that we are in the presence of conventional poetry. Yet this poetry seems almost to be dissolving into prose before our eyes as the controlled, rhythmic flow of the words and syllables succumbs to the rather liberal dictates of the feeling and punctuation. If we read the poem with the punctuation as our guide, we may find ourselves losing all notion of rhyme and rhythm, and as we release our grip on them we become aware that we have begun drifting freely in an atmosphere of poignant remembrance. And just as the poet is undone by his musical reverie, so is the structure of the poem cleverly overwhelmed by its emotional content. The metered rhythm breaks down, the rhyme becomes imperceptible, and even the number of syllables per line loses any pattern of consistency as the poem progresses. Listening to it, we cannot be at all sure if we are hearing a poem or a prose account of the event. The construction of the poem demonstrates the experience contained in it, subtly enhancing its expressive effect.

A further blurring of the borders between poetry and prose can be found in Dylan Thomas’ charming work,  A Child’s Christmas in Wales, an essay that conjures up fond memories of his childhood Christmases in Wales on the west coast of Great Britain. Like Lawrence’s poem, Piano, this work is motivated by the loss of a time and place now consigned to history. But rather than trying to express his personal feelings of loss directly in the essay, Thomas presents us with a series of vivid reminiscences that bring his remembered world to life so fully that we almost feel his nostalgia as though it were our own. Here is how it begins:

 "One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen."
The word lyrical is often applied to writing. It has its roots in the Greek word lyrikos, or singing to the accompaniment of a lyre (an ancient harp-like instrument). With regard to literature it means a writing style in which the words seem to take on a soaring quality, flowing naturally into one another with the melodious continuity of music while taking on heightened expressive qualities. This work is nothing if not lyrical. The very first paragraph has a supple, meandering quality to it that gently nudges us away from the linearity of conventional prose and pleasantly draws us into a world of dreamlike remembrance. In that world, reality alternates between hazy impressions and vivid recollection. Time swings freely between the present and the past as the poet’s voice switches nimbly from the recounting of impressions, to the narration of events, to the voices of characters. A lyrical passage of impressionistic description will suddenly solidify into a crisp rendering of dialogue and childish exploits.

"Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."

“Were there postmen then, too?”

Stylistically, a child’s imaginative and sometimes magical viewpoint informs most of the work. Thomas takes care to create dialog that imitates the fanciful speaking style of children:

"I bet people will think there's been hippos."
"What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?"
"I'd go like this, bang! I'd throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I'd tickle him under the ear and he'd wag his tail."
"What would you do if you saw two hippos?"

He employs hyperbolic figures of speech to convey a child’s imaginary, pretend world,

"We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows…"

"Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii…"

"Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house."

From time to time he introduces moments of subtle, humorous tension by including a touch of adult cynicism, as when he is describing some of the Christmas presents and pauses momentarily over a construction set for boys,

"And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo!"

In fact, an affectionate humor lies at the very heart of the work, both in the choice and content of the events and in the tone of Thomas’ overall recounting of them.

But there are two techniques that are especially effective in turning A Child’s Christmas in Wales into a living, breathing creation. The first is that by appealing to every one of our senses, Thomas draws us into experiencing the events as though we ourselves are accompanying him in his recollections. By taking us with him, he arranges for his words to stimulate our own sensory memories of sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile experiences, establishing a bridge between his rich impressions and our own. Even if we cannot relate the particulars he is describing to actual events we have experienced in our own lives, nearly all of us have enough sensory experiences in common, especially around holiday reminiscences, to at least strongly imagine what he is talking about.

The other reason for the vitality of the writing is Thomas’ background as a poet. He was a connoisseur of words, always searching for just the right one to most accurately and succinctly convey his meaning. And when one word was inadequate to the task, he simply put two together with a hyphen. Dylan Thomas is a master of novel, hyphenated word pairings, and they appear liberally throughout this work acting like spices in a meal, freshening and illuminating its picturesque qualities. Here are just a few:

duchess-faced horse
wind-cherried noses
cats in their fur-abouts

At this point I might have included the entire text of the essay for you to read silently to yourself. I have not done so because there exists a reading of it performed by the author himself, and this is a work that is really at its best when read aloud. Oftentimes it is a trying experience to listen to authors read aloud, since many of them have unfortunate voices that do not do justice to the expressive content of their work. That is not the case with Dylan Thomas, who has a rich baritone voice the gods might envy. Besides, hearing the text read aloud will provide a graceful transition from our current investigation of poetry to the introduction of our next topic, Drama and Film. So settle back now with a nice cup of tea and listen to A Child’s Christmas in Wales in its nearly twenty-minute-long entirety. It is like witnessing a short play. Allow yourself to be fully immersed in the nostalgic spell Thomas invokes with his words and with his voice.

Interlude - The Three "A"s of the Arts