“House by the Railroad”: A Painting and a Poem for the Classroom

The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design.

—Edward Hopper

When we look at visual art, we can readily see the interplay of form and content, but it may be less easy to see that interplay in literature. We learn to identify poetic devices and listen for rhyme, but we don’t always explore how those elements shape meaning. This lesson begins by encouraging students to observe how certain basic formal elements in the visual arts help a painter to represent a complex emotional response to the subject. The lesson then parallels this artistic analysis with literary analysis, foregrounding for students that writers also use form to shape their content with devices such as diction, metaphor, repetition, and imagery that magnify certain moments, for example, by framing them in a jarring metaphor or echoing them in a rhyme.

This lesson invites a comparative close reading of Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad and Edward Hirsch’s ekphrastic poem “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad” to explore how form affects content. (An ekphrastic poem comments or reflects upon paintings or other pieces of visual art.) Throughout the lesson, students learn to use formal description to provide textual support for their analyses. The summative assessment asks them to demonstrate their comprehension in a final pastiche in which they analyze and imitate Hirsch’s poetic technique in their own creative writing.

Guiding Questions

How does form affect meaning in Hopper’s painting and Hirsch’s poem?

Learning Objectives

Use textual evidence to support artistic and literary analysis.

Use technical language to analyze both artistic and literary mediums.

Synthesize new knowledge and skills in creative writing.