People will engage a text or a passage and ask should we read this literally or figuratively?
The answer is of course, "yes."
Not to be cheeky, but story is rarely the mere recitation of facts. We are intended to see shapes in the fluffy clouds of narrative and to pull meaning from the plotted series of events. The danger is that we often make the jump too quickly to a sense of meaning, or to the message behind the image, without fully understanding the literal implications of the images themselves.
Be patient. Stay and engage the literal until you are confident you have all the "facts" as it were. Then make the jump. Let's consider a lesser known poem by Robert Frost:
by Robert Frost
When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.
And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words
A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.
I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.
That wasn't just you, Frost has skills. You can recognize a world class poet by their ability to overwhelm you even when you don't quite understand why. He turns the melancholy and sense of "wistful" up to 11 on this one.
I could write the rest of my life and not quite get to the bottom of this one, but to highlight the reading key here... let's make a handful of observations of the literal and let a series of questions open up the figurative.
1. This is a rural area. It's a field of hay, with a garden and one last wildflower, so rural New England or similar, probably not downtown Detroit.
2. It's late fall. That's one of the times hay is "harvested" and the garden has run it's course as even the weeds are "withered." Also, the tree he sees is bare, so most of the leaves have already fallen.
3. This isn't his first rodeo. "To carry again to you" seems to say that this sequence is one that he's experienced before. Also, it's first person, so we are in the shoes of the speaker as we go.
4. Hay has a purpose in rural life. It feeds farm animals through the winter. This part of reading isn't rocket science, but it's still helpful.
5. While wildly descriptive, the only colors here are the brown of the leaf and the "faded blue" of the aster.
Certainly not an exhaustive list, there are lots of things clamoring for notice here. My sense is that Frost is moving us to the figurative when he ties the images of the physical world to his internal thoughts. The musing of his thinking disturbing the last leaf invites the comparison of the actual physical, literal world of late fall to the internal figurative application of these images to the soul of human experience. That idea is playful and carries the idea that not only does nature act on us, but we act on it as well.
When we consciously make that jump, it's perhaps easier to notice that in every stanza our walker is intersecting with nature and it's that intersection that drives home the literal TO the figurative application to ourselves. So it isn't just aspects of the mowing field, it's the writer (and us) going up through the mowing field.
1. What do the mowing field, the garden, the tree / leaf and the picking of the flower have in common?
2. Why use the picture of a walk through farmland here? Why not a stroll through Times Square? Or a busy market bustling with a crowd?
3. How does the idea of "half closes the garden path" and "carry again to you" impact the application of imagery to us as people?
Perhaps the biggest notion behind this tool in the reading toolbox is that we'll catch more nuance if we dig into the literal implications than if we don't.
In this case, my knee jerk would have been to jump to the idea of death. The "headless aftermath", the bare tree, the birds taking flight and slipping away, "sadder than any words" are all laden with a sense of finality and loss.
And that's not quite wrong, there is a strong element of ending here which ties to consideration of our own mortality.
But what Frost is doing is much more complicated, when you take into consideration the idea of hay. While being mown down in the imagery of battle or disaster, the hay harvest is actually a sustaining force for the community in the next season. So this isn't just about ending. The path is only half closed after all.
Further, the gathering of the aster flower and the relationship acknowledged there takes the whole encounter to a sense of ritual, tinged with hope. You get the sense that even in the midst of wistfulness and the powerful sadness at season's end, the faded blue is still blue. It's still beautiful.
There is the idea, sown into the images that things go on and even in moments of melancholy and recognition of mortality, there is hope and and there is something to look forward to.
The affirmation of life and generosity behind giving your girl a flower is a moment filled with contentment, filled with simple pleasure, and hopefully it is a moment that we will carry again and again.