Conversation with the Classics is a seminar discussion series designed for beginners and open to members and friends of the Portsmouth Institute. Expert teacher Donald Cowan facilitates conversation on the classics of Western Civilization, from ancient philosophy to  classic literature.

Wit, Heart, Supplication: Three English Poets – Donne, Keats, Hopkins
April 7, 14, 20
Registration Cost: $150

See below for details.

Register Below or call 401.643.1255

Conversation #3

Wit, Heart, Supplication: Three English Poets – Donne, Keats, Hopkins
April 7, 14, 20

The three great eras of English poetry were marked by three great poets: John Donne for Metaphysical poetry; John Keats for Romanticism; and Gerard Manley Hopkins for Victorian era poetry. Each poet lived a turbulent life, replete with loss and sacrifice. Donne responds to loss and sacrifice through humble wit; Keats through innocent praise, and Hopkins through refined gratitude.  We will spend three nights discussing the meaning of some selected poems from each poet.

Previous Conversations

Winter/Spring 2016 Series: The Fractured English Soul

The essential Shakespearean question is how to proceed after being betrayed. The English soul began to violently turn against itself soon after King Henry VIII broke away from Rome—some citizens embraced the change while some could never accept it. Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies arise out of the bitterness of civil tensions that had been steadily violent for over 150 years.  We will read Hamlet, The Tempest, and three great English poets contemplating the voice of the fractured soul and its discovery of consolations.

Conversation #1
A Kingdom without Confession: Hamlet by William Shakespeare
February 4, 11, 18

What institutions need to be in place for proper political life? How does the church facilitate those needs? Hamlet is Shakespeare’s exploration of the need to reveal our hidden souls and its deeds. Hamlet famously loses possession of himself but he is not the only one in Denmark losing oneself—the whole kingdom of Elsinore as we are told is “rotten.” Men and women live with the secrets of their dark acts, private and political, without the opportunity to cleanse themselves. We will discuss the extent of the rift experienced by the Danes and in what ways Hamlet comments upon our human needs, in particular, our need for atonement.

Conversation #2
A New Paradigm of Justice: The Tempest by William Shakespeare
March 3, 10, 17

Prospero is Shakespeare’s vision of a great king, but, unfortunately, we do not get to see him actually rule. We only catch glimpses of what he would be like as a ruler. It is made clear that Prospero’s reign would be a negotiation with justice rather than a conspiracy with men. Prospero attempts to mend seemingly unmendable rifts—even forgiving those who betrayed him. The laws that emerge from Prospero’s decisions become a new form of justice that includes mercy—laying out a political plan for restoration after great injustices.

Fall 2015 Series: The Listless American Soul

A simple gloss of Europe, Asia, Africa, or even the Americas, tells us that peoples, even neighboring peoples, can be radically different. Although America spans over 3000 miles from coast to coast, there is something we all share and take pride in that we call American. But what does it mean to be American? We will explore three novels questioning what gave birth to our American character and contemplating how that character will develop.

Conversation #1
Imagining Redemption in America:
 The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Dates: October 8, 15, 22

Hawthorne reimagines the Puritan beginnings of America, and by so doing lays out a major problem of the American civil religion—we are scandalized by sin. Hawthorne brings us in contact with our Greek roots—Hester Prynne assumes the role of a sacrificial lamb for the sake of the community.  Her endurance requires that we ask of the Evangelist American: what is the meaning of the rest of our lives after being saved? Hester Prynne is the first American figure of redemption. She is, perhaps, the proper solution to our Calvinistic fears.

Conversation #2
Encounter with Mystery as the American Religion: Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Dates: November 5, 12, 19

Far more than a story about a man hunting a whale, Moby Dick is the rigorous, thorough, and delightful examination of religion in America. As is to be expected in the New World, religion introduces itself to individuals through small moments of private revelation that suggest or even promise community. It is often then judged by its delivery of that promise. The American culture is a cult of something and the Pequod’s journeys are the beginning of our discovery of it.

Conversation #3
The Emergence of American Mania: The Hamlet by William Faulkner
Dates: December 3, 10, 17

It should not be taken lightly that The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith was published the same year as the American Declaration of Independence. One of our American talents is navigating the economy, but the economy still remains the great mystery that Americans pursue and wish to conquer.  Faulkner’s study of the Snopes family is in one sense the examination of the deteriorating agrarian world of the South and in another sense a field study of our manic economic impulses. Rather than merely accusing us of being consumers, Faulkner reveals the several ways in which Americans encounter the economy in its rudimentary forms.


“Contemporary American life is fast paced and shallowly transactional for much of the day. It is also social, especially in the summer. I really enjoyed bringing up our summer seminar at cocktail parties, with visiting friends, and on the beach! It was an opportunity to speak of God, moral truth, and reverence- all good subjects in the light of our ultimate destinies.”

“It was an absolute pleasure to join you in the Portsmouth institute’s summer seminar on Dante’s Inferno. As I  admittedly never read this text, I am grateful to have had such an entertaining and insightful introduction to this classic tale. Donny Cowan charmingly and wittily led us through Dante’s epic journey while sparking thoughtful discourse. I thoroughly enjoyed all three lovely evenings in the pristine setting of Portsmouth Abbey.”

“Who knew the road to hell really was paved with good intentions?   The  Portsmouth Institute’s outstanding seminar on Dante’s Inferno  began with the hope that area adults would profit from this classic work as much as (more than?) high school students.  After all, Dante’s journey to hell and back was a mid-life crisis:  “Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost,” begins the epic work.  I can’t judge which group of students got more out of this classic, but our cadre of grown-ups (some young, some mid-career professionals, some retired) relished the opportunity to return to the fourteenth century and ponder the human condition under such expert guidance.”