One of my favorite teacher/authors

Books written by, contributed to and edited by, and often taught by Dr. Louise Cowan.

Books written by, contributed to and edited by, and often taught by Dr. Louise Cowan.

We have had a very consequential election this past week.  (And I am still celebrating the results.)  But the nation is only minimally changed by politics and politicians.  Whether good or bad, liberal or conservative, effective or incompetent, political leaders are like canoeing.  You have a paddle, but it can only direct the boat with the currents.  Paddling upstream is a metaphor for being totally ineffective.

The changes in our nation and culture will be effected somewhat by what happens or doesn’t happen in Washington or our state capitals.  The real force for change is the culture.  The classroom, the pulpit, and the keyboard are all more central, more important, more dynamic for cultural change than anything that happens in the halls of Congress.  The role of the family, the congregation, and the community, likewise, are all central to the direction of the nation.

The right books and the classics will not save our civilization.  The brutal Assyrians amassed the greatest library of the ancient world.  The Nazis never lacked cultural refinement as they looted the art museums and collections all over Europe.

The right books and a foundation in the classics will refine, smooth out, enhance, and beautify a good, humane, and Godly culture.  Shakespeare and Faulkner won’t save your soul, but they both can widen the vision, enlarge the heart, and fill the deeper longings within a good and Godly culture.

Dr. Cowan, now in her late nineties, continues to lecture on poetry and literature.

I have recently had the honor–once again–of writing about a great teacher, scholar, and writer, Dr. Louise Cowan.  The article can be found here at the Voice of the South website.

For those who squinch their eyes to read the titles in a picture featuring books, I will make the task easier.  Now, I cannot begin to list all the titles on the shelves back behind the frontpiece.  You will have to visit my heavy-laden bookshelves in my ever-cluttered office to see those.  But here are the titles from left to right, from bottom to top, of the books seen above.

The Fugitive Group by Louise Cowan.  (The brown book lying flat.)  This book grew out of Dr. Cowan’s dissertation on her teachers at Vanderbilt University.  This book is absolutely essential to anyone pursuing studies in Southern literature, the Fugitive poets, and the Agrarians.

The Southern Critics by Louise Cowan.  (Small tan book lying flat.)  This short study is “an introduction to the Criticism of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Andrew Lytle.”  When I start a college–in my imaginary world–the study of these literary men and this introduction will be required of all students.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  (Big colorful book at the bottom of the stack at the back.)  Dr. Cowan has taught Shakespeare and written quite a few essays on Shakespeare’s plays.  As it happens, my Humanities class is currently working through several of Shakespeare’s tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, and now, King Lear).
Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Dr. Cowan has taught classes on Russian literature, including and emphasizing the works of Dostoevsky.  Not only has that Russian impacted her teaching, his faith impacted Dr. Cowan’s commitment to a Christian view of things.
The Odyssey by Homer.  One of the most important essays by Dr. Cowan is “Epic as Cosmopoesis.”  She has heavily emphasized the foundational importance and application of the great epics of the Western tradition, beginning with Homer’s two epics and Virgil’s Aeneid.
The Fugitive Poets by William Pratt.  This is a great collection of the poems by Ransom, Tate, Davidson, Warren, and others of the Fugitive movement.  Dr. Cowan studied under these men and has written about and taught from them throughout her career.
 Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness.  (Colorful standing book with pictures of Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare seen on the bottom of the cover.)  This book first introducted me to Louise Cowan.  This is an absolutely essential collection of short essays about the great literary classics.  The contributors include a number of Dr. Cowan’s former students, along with other literary thinkers, such as Leland Ryken. I have read repeatedly from my autographed copy of this book.  
 The next four books, standing with white covers, are part of a series of literary studies called “Studies in Genre.”  I would not expect everyone to want these books, but certainly every literature teacher and student needs all four of them.  They are as follows:
1.  The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums.  This book contains Dr. Cowan’s essay “Epic as Cosmopoesis.”  I re-read that essay every year or so as I try to grasp and teach epics.
2. The Tragic Abyss, edited by Glen Arbery.  Too often people think tragedy in literature means a story where something bad happens.  That is not the nature of tragedy (as a literary genre).  This is a great book.
3.  The Terrain of Comedy, edited by Dr. Cowan.  Likewise, people think comedy in literature means something funny.  There is much more to it than that. The Bible, for example, is a grand comedy, with particular books like “Ruth” or the Gospels being comedies within the comedy.
4.  The Prospect of Lyric, edited by Dr. Bainard Cowan, the son of Louise and Donald Cowan.  This book on poetry is itself at many points poetry.  The essays by mother and son (the Cowans) are transforming.
What is a Teacher?, edited by Dr. Claudia Allums.  I recently reviewed this wonderful collection.  It is dedicated to the Cowans and includes an essay by Dr. Louise Cowan on Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”  This book is absolutely vital to teachers and teachers of literature.  It includes essays on Greek drama, Dickens’ Hard Times, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, and more.
(Sorry for these Italics.  I cannot get my computer to cooperate.)

Overdue Book Reviews, #2 Heaven and Hell

“Teacher, I didn’t exactly finish the book.”  I have endured that excuse from miserable underlings for years.  The unbending rule of my classroom, borrowed from some scholastic environment of yesteryear, is “Learn or depart.  A third alternative is to be flogged.”  Floggings and canings are regular occurences in my classroom.  Many are the times when a student has to stand because sitting is uncomfortable due to the recent administration of violent instruction upon the hinder parts.

Actually, none of the above is true, except the part of hearing excuses from students for not getting assignments done.  They don’t always realize it, but I truly understand.  With the necessity of checking everyone’s FaceBook status, upgrading their own status, listening to and downloading music, watching movies, texting endlessly, tweeting and eating, shopping and bopping, who has time to plod through a tome.  Besides, reading makes you sleepy.  Or what if, horror of horrors, an assigned reading bores the student.  Quick, administer the Detergent novel series—the students are bored.

All of that paragraph is true except for using the Detergent series to cure an outbreak of literary boredom.

“Of the making of many books, there is no end,” said Solomon on the occasion of perusing his Wish List on Amazon.  I read books; I reread books; I study books; but I also scan books, survey books, and glance at books.  I review books as a part-time job.  It pays well, if you think of pay as something other than money.  It is a free service to the blog reading community.  It is a sharing of a gift and experience.

All of this is to say that I am going to comment upon a book I have not read.  About a year ago, I received a review copy of Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetric Tradition by Louis Markos.   I have scanned the book, read portions, and eagerly thumbed through it.  But since it did not directly fit into last year’s teaching schedule, it did not get the needed cover to cover read.  But I highly treasure and recommend the book.  There were two reasons for my endorsement–the title and the author.

First the title:  Heaven and Hell…Visions of the Afterlife…the Western Poetic Tradition.  Point blank, we must say, there is no understanding of literature without an understanding of theology, primarily Christian theology.  Agrarian poet, novelist, literary critic Robert Penn Warren told his students, “Read the Bibles and mark them well. I mean the King James Version.”  To start naming the literary works that borrow from, build upon, allude to, use and misuse the Bible is synonomous with listing the books in the canon of literature.

Markos includes chapters on Dante (actually 9 chapters), John Milton (2 chapters), John Bunyan and John Donne (who share a chapter), William Blake and C. S. Lewis (one chapter each).  He also has seven chapters on pre-Christian Greeks and Romans.  But they too “borrowed from” Christian theology.

This theological bent is not just toward old and ancient epics.  William Faulkner’s books are suffused with Biblical imagery and Christian references, as well as Christian characters.  John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath builds it theme upon Biblical motifs.  Hemingway’s title The Sun Also Rises is from Ecclesiastes.

Every work of fiction is a commentary upon some book, passage, or teaching of the Bible.

Continuing with the title, every piece of literature deals with some vision of Heaven and/or Hell and some sense of the afterlife.  Even the most cynical, skeptical, Nihilistic, atheistic piece of fiction opens up a discussion of the afterlife.  Maybe the door is one that closes and the theme is that all is meaningless.  Maybe there is No Exit (to borrow from Satre) or maybe we are Waiting for Godot (to borrow from Beckett).  To say that “this is all there is” is to posit a view of the afterlife and how we should view such.  The fact that the novel ends, but is expected to still be living in the mind of the reader is the testimony to an afterlife.  The book, any piece of fiction, roadmaps to somewhere, even if that somewhere is nowhere.

Along with that, Heaven and Hell imply justice, rewards, a reckoning, hope, fear, triumph, defeat, and meaning.  The author may believe that the only heaven we can find is here on earth.  Maybe heaven in some literary experiences is “I and Thou, here and now, Wow.”  Maybe they think, like the speaker in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” who consoled his lover in a time when faith had receded.  That momentary love experience was the only solace:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain….
From this, you can surmise, I hope, that this book is on target.  To again recap what is covered, the topics, works, and authors include the following:
Hebrew and Greek Visions of the Underworld
Homer’s Odyssey
Virgil’s Aeneid
Dante’s Divine Comedy, which consists of three parts–Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso
John Milton’s Paradise Lost
John Bunyan  (author of Pilgrim’s Progress)
John Donne (poet)
William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (and I confess to finding William Blake an enigma)
C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce
What a great college course that would be.  What a good list of books and authors to plunge into.  Certainly, literature students should be grounded on these works.  But what about pastors and theologians?  I am convinced that pastors, theologians, doctors, lawyers, accountants, politicians, moms at home, scientists, and zoo keepers all need to be grounded in literature.
But the Ancient Tome of Wisdom asks, “How shall they learn without a teacher?”  Enter the author Louis Markos.  (You can find his blog here.) Dr. Markos is a professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University.   He is a Christian and a scholar, a literary teacher and a theological guide.  He has written several books on literature.  My favorite is From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics.  That is a book I often use when teaching ancient literature.  I have also enjoyed listening to Dr. Markos lecturing on C. S. Lewis from the Great Courses lecture series.  He has also written several books on C. S. Lewis, along with books on Tolkien, literature in general, Romantic poets, Tennyson, and Christian apologetics.   (I admit poverty in lacking several of his books.)
There are both elements of renaissance and reformation going on in our world.    Certainly, one can look at the news and world events and conclude that these are “the worst of times.”  (Historical ignorance reinforces that hasty conclusion.)  But it is the world of pagan thought, rebellion against God, immorality, governmental overreach, materialism and poverty, and more than engulfs us.  But we can rejoice in the collapse of those kingdoms in the sand.  God is building His kingdom.  Certainly and centrally, He raises up churches, pastors, Christian men and women, and Christian families.  But Christ died for, redeemed, and rose from the dead for all of creation.  Salvation is not just personal and otherworldly.  It is cultural and cosmic.
There is notable progress among Christians in the field of philosophy.  There are plenty of names in other academic areas, but literature is a vast field of opportunity for both Christian scholars and students.
So, God is teaching us literature.  In the not so distant past, it was the Fugitive Poets, the cultural Agrarians, the literary New Critics who opened the door to rediscovering the world of fictive and imaginative thought.  In more recent times, it was such literary giants as Mel Bradford, Cleanth Brooks, Louise Cowan (retired, but still teaching), and Leland Ryken (also retired, but still instructing).  Currently, it is teachers like Louis Markos.

Dr. Markos, surrounded by a books and Raphael’s classic painting The School of Athens.

Man With a Bull Tongue Plow

More sonnets that most people ever read.

I received a copy of Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow by Jesse Stuart a few years back from the Jesse Stuart Foundation (  Originally published in 1934, the book brought attention to the young writer, who would go on to write many novels, short stories, poems, and other works.  In 2011, the book was reprinted by the Jesse Stuart Foundation in an attractive hardback edition.  

Once or twice I started the book, and many times I shuffled it from one shelf or stack to another, but always kept it close by.

This summer, I am reading it in earnest.  This book is a collection of 700 sonnets that Stuart wrote when he was a young man.  His ability to turn a rhyme was incredible.  Stuart was a farmer in eastern Kentucky, who imbibed the native beauty of the land, the invigoration of the cycles of plowing, planting, tending, and harvesting, and the music of the hills.  He was something of a transplanted Robert Burns.

Stuart’s teacher and mentor Donald Davidson of Vanderbilt University called Stuart, “the first real poet…ever to come out of the southern mountains.”  When Stuart submitted these 703 sonnets to a publisher, he received a contract and a letter saying, “This is a great book of poems.  It is like a big river with tributaries of life entering in. It is like a symphony of wind.”

At first, I thought that this collection would be a number of random poems. But there is a story line to the collection of poems.  They give a picture of rural, agrarian life.  Yes, it is romantic, idealistic, and heart-warming.  But Stuart also notes the hardships, the fears, and the failures of farm life. He describes himself and the energy of youth, but he writes a part of a community, a participant in a way of life, a sharer of the struggles and dangers, as well as joys of life. 

In some of the recent poems I have read, he described the different people who lived and died in his community.  Their hopes, fears, dreams, and struggles are powerfully captured in these sonnets.

Just a sample:  Here is the first sonnet:

I am a farmer singing at the plow

And as I take my time to plow along

A steep Kentucky hill, I sing my song—

A one-horse farmer singing at the plow!

I do not sing the songs you love to hear;

My basket songs are woven from the words

Of corn and crickets, trees and men and birds,

I sing the strains I know and love to sing.

And I can sing my lays like singing corn,

And flute them like a fluting gray corn-bird;

And I can pipe them like a hunter’s horn–

All of my life these are the songs I’ve heard.

And these crude strains no critic can call art,

Yours very respectively, Jesse Stuart.


A young Jesse Stuart, a native of Kentucky

In that opening poem, I sense the impulse of both independence (as fitting a Scot) and connection. These are the songs he has heard.  This is what fellow Kentuckian and Bluegrass music creator Bill Monroe called “ancient tones.”  This is a man growing food, not shopping for it, but actually connected to the process.  It is a poem about hearing:  crickets, men working, birds, and the corn itself.  

There is a connection to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, especially as Stuart identifies himself and disclaims that his work is art.  (And that is without Whitman’s weirdness and perversity.)  There is a connection to Robert Frost, who so aptly sensed the connection between the land and the human inhabitants.  Then there is a connection to the Agrarians, the Fugitive Poets, who moved toward the modern, but kept looking back at what was left behind.

Jesse Stuart’s farm as pictured in Life magazine in 1943.