Saturday, February 24, 2007

Reading Comprehension

So a while ago I was on a Hemingway kick. The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Old Man and the Sea, the usual stuff. One of the books I read was For Whom the Bell Tolls, the massive novel of the Spanish Civil War in the thirties. I found this to be a brilliant novel; though soon after I read it it was mentioned in a video class I was taking through the local homeschool group; and both the teacher on the video and the teacher in the room (a mom 'overseeing' us), referred to this novel as an awful novel. I can't remember what the context was, but I remember thinking how incredibly arrogant they both seemed, it was a great novel, and boy was I mad. But of course, being a timid homeschooler, I said nothing.

I suppose part of the problem was I didn't entirely understand the book. I have started many books, especially when I was a little younger, where I knew I wouldn't "get" everything. But to get back to whatever point might be gleaned here, I didn't know how to defend the book because I didn't quite know what it was all about. At the time, I suppose I would have said it contains excellent writing, and powerful scenes (some of which are in my head even now), and what do you think is great literature, James Patterson?

So the other day I got an e-mail from a site that sends out a poem each day. It was John Donne's "No Man is an Island." I'll paste it below, because it will help illustrate what I'm talking about, and because, well, it's John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, the last two lines are quoted near the end of the novel. The source is not given; I believe it's referred to as an "old poem." But, reading the poem, and thinking about the theme of the poem in the context of the novel, it all makes sense. The scenes I remember vividly make complete sense in this light.

I suppose I should make some vague generalizing conclusion here, but I have to think about it a bit more. I may or may not return to this subject in greater detail later. Ta.


Nat said...

I often have trouble appreciating (well, liking) free verse poetry; the line-breaks come at bizarre moments, and any attempt to read the poem the way it's written, line by line, is so clumsy I feel by the end of the poem as if I've fallen over.

When I read the poem you posted - a poem I've never actually read before - I searched for it online and found another version that was, well, more readable, to my eye. But in the process I thought, I don't see rhyme, alliteration, meter or fancy words (except for "promontory"); I am very tempted to call this more prose than poetry, and all the more so by the fact that it is not my place to do so. ;)

Anonymous said...

you can just read it as prose.... no, really!

Anan said...

I read like 11 chapters of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then Mom said I didn't have to read anymore because it's a little ummm... "R" rated. Esp. chapter 7 and one or two others... I didn't have trouble reading what little I was allowed to though.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Dat One Splatted Mag said...

I like your blog. I can check about once a month and only have two posts to read - at most. It's easy to keep up.

Anonymous said...

Ellen says hi.

Nat said...

I just now realized what the significant bit of your last post! The thing about courtship rituals, how although we (as a society) are so much more modest now, we still HAVE rituals, as it were. So it's different, but the same. I get it. Very interesting.

Ethan said...

Wow. I really should reaply to comments more often. I think I'll reply now, even though nobody will probably read it.

Nat1: When we studied poetry last semester, the study guide suggested reading poems as if there were no line breaks, pausing only for punctuation, which works surprisingly well.

Anon: Yeah. Well... Yeah.

Anan: Yeah, it is, and unfortunately so is most of modern literature, to a certain extent. And yeah, Hemingway isn't exactly hard to read. :D

Anon2: Yes. Ta. Is there a problem with that? :P

Splatted One: <_< Was that mildly sarcastic? Oh well.

Hi Ellen!

Nat2: Aye. Heh. "Modest" in SOME ways, I'm sure you mean. ;-)

Ethan said...

Oh, and I forgot to add to Nat1 that I would be surprised if that poem were actually free verse, because Donne was writing in the fifteen hundreds, and I think free verse was considered a form of heresy.

Anonymous said...

yeah, hi.