The Journey Motif: Poetry & Mark Twain, Part Two – Linguistic Exploration

EDITORS NOTE: Dr. Chadwick has, since 2019, been co-director of our Summer Teachers Institute. While the STI was canceled in 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic, Drs. Chadwick and Seybold have continued to distribute resources and corresponding with former (and future!) STI participants. See, for instance, “And That Has Made All The Difference: Scaffolding Mark Twain’s Poetry” and the first installment of “The Journey Motif,” which is a more extensive series of exemplars for teaching Mark Twain’s poetry in association with Common Core texts.


Why is this integration and scaffolding important? Whenever we can illustrate to our students that the past does indeed reflect and inform their present we must do so. Never before have curricula and the rationale for what we teach come under such scrutiny as right now.

We must be prepared to explain calmly and definitely explain “why” and to “what end” we are teaching the fiction and nonfiction that we teach. Parents are demanding it. Parallel to this surveillance is the assertion that texts and writers from the past have no relevance to students today, that they cannot identify with perspectives from the past.

Not accurate.

Not true.

That said, we must be able to illustrate confidently our rationale and process. Mark Twain is one of those “irrelevant” writers. In conjunction with some of the popular and controversial Twain texts, our “tapping” into his other, less familiar works serves several purposes:

  • to make more instructional use of the depth and breadth of his work
  • to expose students to a wider variety of genres
  • to expose GenZ students to a person who was self-consciously using his unique life experiences to speak to future generations

II: The Journey Motif—Linguistic Exploration:

We don’t often associate the idea of the journey motif with language: word choice, syntax, punctuation, repetition, speech patterns, voice, and point of view. But there is actually a connection between the journey motif and language.

The poems in this exemplar illustrate Mark Twain’s awareness and concern with the power of language—both personally and professionally. He was an intense listener and observer of people—their features, actions, dialect, nuances, interactions. He listened to voices and linguistic styles.

His challenge: How to recreate oral, active language on paper so that readers could hear and see it.

He brought his skills to bear in the poetry he wrote as well—poems in his journals, notebooks, letters, and in his fiction/nonfiction. Mark Twain was not the only author to integrate poetry into his fiction and nonfiction: Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, and others have done the same in their novels and short stories.

The point of view in the selected poems are first person and third person. The POV, of course, is so important. With the poems grouped together, students can compare and contrast the effect and impact on audience—on them—as they read each poem. And, as they do so, students can explore how their own writing—from texts, emails, notes, formal documents, as well as other written forms they see (posters, advertisements, billboards, for example)—can impact audience reaction, identification, and response.

As for the journey motif, each poem takes readers on personal and professional journeys with Clemens and Twain, illustrating how the writer crafts to “insinuate each reader” into the moment: culturally, personally, professionally, politically, and socio-politically—verisimilitude.

In this exemplar, the linguistic aspects of the journey motif will focus on:

“Those Annual Bills”

This poem expresses Samuel Clemens’ and Mark Twain’s personal and professional challenges with the economics of daily and extended living. Note, here, the syntax, word choice, and punctuation.

To read this poem, as well as see Twain’s original manuscript and the Thomas Moore lyrics which he is parodying, please visit our previous post.

“Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight”

This private poem represents Samuel Clemens’ love and, yes, passion, for his beloved Olivia.

Good night, sweetheart, good night –

The stars are shining bright,

The snow is turning white,

Dim is the failing light,

Fast falls the glooming night, –

All right!

Sleep tight!


to Olivia L. Clemens (January 6, 1903)

This poem was delivered to Livy during her recovery from a severe, but undiagnosed illness which kept her bedridden for more than five months. For long stretches, Sam was barred from Livy’s bedside, for fear that by exciting her he would worsen her condition. As my colleague, Matt Seybold, describes in his essay about this ordeal (upon which Twain also based a short story, “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?”):

[Sam] could not bear depending solely on second-hard reports which were “like watching a thermometer…a degree up, a degree down – repeat indefinitely.” So he took up residence in an adjoining room, from which he could slip notes under the door at his liberty. After more than three decades of marriage, they became pen pals again. Livy, even when enfeebled, “put her daily message of love in trembling characters upon little scraps of paper.”

“Life, In Purgatory”

This poem was one of the notes which Twain wrote during his “purgatory,” though by this point he was allowed to see his wife for a few minutes each day. The two of them never really separate; profoundly alone without the physical presence of the other – so close, and yet so far away – separated by a door because of their indomitable love and passion and devotion.

The verse is based upon another poem, “Annette,” by Robert Richardson, whose poems the Clemenses discovered while visiting India during their globetrotting lecture tour in 1895. Richardson’s poem left such an impression upon them that a selection from it was chosen as an epitaph on their daughter’s headstone when she died tragically the following year.

This is a powerful example of how poetry circulates in the Clemens household and in the culture of their time. Sam reappropriates lines from a remembered verse which evoke both the pleasant first encounter during their travels together and the painful redeployment upon their child’s death, and thus also capture his mixed emotions on the present occasion – enduring love, hope for her recovery, but also the fear and grief associated with her long illness and the associated estrangement.

“A Sweltering Day in Australia”

This poem represented Mark Twain’s impressions and reactions to Australia during his lecture tour. Arriving in Sydney, 17 December 1895, Mark Twain notes the following:

December 20. Back to Sydney. Blazing hot again. From the newspaper, and from the map, I have made a collection of curious names of Australasian towns, with the idea of making a poem out of them:

from Following The Equator, Chapter 36

The extensive list includes the the nouns that would appear in the poem. After constructing his extensive list, Twain writes: “It may be the best to build the poem now and make the weather help.”

Authors often rely on cultural and ethnic language and dialects to provide the realism and authenticity of a place and time and culture. In this poem each unique Australian term is the name of a city/town. What is interesting, however, is how Mark Twain uses these names to denote not only cities/towns but also names of insects and people, as well as proper and common nouns. All in all, readers experience the uniqueness of Australia, its people, its fauna, and its climate through Twain’s deft crafting of language.

“O Lord, Our Father”

Most profound in this poem is the narrator’s sense of verbal and situational irony he creates through his use of language.

This prayer, part of the posthumously published parable, “The War Prayer,” reflects Mark Twain’s past, the Civil War, his present, the Phillippine-American war, and projects into the future the unrest, angst, and fear of wars that 20th and 21st century individuals would feel, including our students. The story would be published during the tumultuous period between the first and second World Wars, and by capturing the zeitgeist of the time, rapidly become among Twain’s most-anthologized and celebrated short works, including in antiwar poetry collections like Scott Bates’s Poems of War Resistance (1969)

Curricular Connections:

From elementary through high school, our students read poetry and narratives about people of different cultures:


  • The Boy Who Loved Words
  • Exploring Countries Around the World
  • Poison Dart Frogs Up Close and Deadly Poison Dart Frogs
  • Exploring Countries series
  • The Iroquois: The Six Nations Confederacy

High School:

  • “A Daily Joy to be Alive”
  • “I’m Offering a Poem to You”
  • “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain”
  • Song of Solomon
  • A Streetcar Named Desire

These titles represent a very small portion of the texts teachers use with students, grades 4-12, across the country. The idea here is to illustrate how we can scaffold and integrate Mark Twain’s poetry into the texts throughout the academic year. The lists here represent multiple genres. What connects the the poems by Mark Twain listed above, is the writing: word choice, punctuation, sentence structure [fragments, simple, compound, compound-complex], tense, italics, spacing, capitalization (or lack of it), and audience, occasion, purpose. In addition, note comparison/contrast, example, description, exposition, argument, and definition, for example. All traits on which we focus when teaching writing.

  • Interactive Activities: The following interactive strategies can be used by middle, and high school educators and students. Each poem represents a suggested grade band, but as we know, everything is adaptable.

A: Looking Closely: Sentence Structure: Our students write all the time. Leveraging this predilection is becoming more and more important to us as the ELA teachers. Pairing one of Twain’s poems with a curriculum poem can be fun and informative for students. For example, allowing students to explore and “break apart” an excerpt from a curriculum text and then comparing and contrasting an excerpt for a Twain poem would help students see for themselves just how authors bend, mold, even turn inside out language, grammar rules, and punctuation—all to build and create their message.

Even further, students can individually or in groups share their findings and their additional questions and observations.

Finally, ask students to reflect on and think about how this activity could possibly affect their own writing.

B: “Those Annual Bills” and “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” provide an insight into how Mark Twain relied on his writing style and, in this case, genre, to communicate frustration, helplessness, and fear. One’s poem allows readers to identify with the economics of his time, while the other allows readers to identify and empathize with impending loss, separation, and fear of the love of one’s life.

Using Words and Style for Illustrating Sensitivity: Again, using excerpts from an assigned, curriculum text and one of Mark Twain’s two poems listed above, allow students to work individually or in groups to explore and note how authors use words and style to convey emotional feelings and reactions.

Further, allow students to explore how they use words and style in their own writing to convey feelings, emotions (texts, emails, emojis, for example). Allow students to share with class and discuss.


The Autobiography of Mark Twain (Vols.1-3–The Complete and Authoritative Edition)

Mark Twain’s Speeches

Mark Twain’s Letters

Following the Equator

Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews. Ed. Gary Scharnhorst

On the Poetry of Mark Twain: With Selections from His Verse. Arthur L. Smith

Australian Broadcasting Corp (Australia Image)

NY and CCSS Curricular Standards