Deconstruction and Criticism
Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust
For the past forty or fifty years, teachers of literature in American colleges and universities have acted upon a few simple assumptions, mainly derived from I.A. Richards’s early books Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929). The first assumption is that in reading a poem you think of the words on the page as a transcription of a voice speaking; not necessarily the poet speaking in his own person, but a hypothetical person, speaking in imagined circumstances sufficiently indicated by what he says. The second assumption is that you are interpreting the poem, trying to understand the context, the speaker’s sense of it, and the cogency of that sense. The meaning of the poem is what the speaker means to say. The third assumption is that you read poems to imagine experiences you have not had, to exercise sympathy and judgment upon them, and to take part in richer communications. It follows that it is essential, in reading a poem as in taking part in a conversation, to judge the speaker’s tone correctly, because tone indicates his relation both to his own feeling and to the person or persons he is addressing. These assumptions, suitably elaborated, prescribe an orthodoxy of reading.
Take, for instance, Robert Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night,” which begins
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
In an orthodox reading, you follow the speaker’s feeling from first word to last. In the first line, for instance, you think of the degree of assertiveness in “I,” the precise degree of knowledge claimed in “acquainted,” the relation between the apparent precision of “acquainted” and the vagueness of its object, “the night.” You gauge the tone of those repeated “I have” phrases. And so on. Reading a poem is like meeting its speaker.
These assumptions are defined and proposed in most of the textbooks that have established themselves in American courses in literature, whether survey-courses or more advanced classes in the criticism of literature. The most influential textbook is still Understanding Poetry (1938) by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, a book that begins with these sentences: “Wordsworth called the poet a man speaking to men,” and “Poetry is a form of speech, written or spoken.” The best motto for the orthodoxy of reading is “hearing with eyes,” as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23:
O learn to read what silent love hath writ,
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.
The orthodoxy has been challenged from time to time, mostly by people who feel that Richards, Brooks, Warren, and the New Critics generally have ignored the historical understanding of literature and encouraged students to raise only the questions that can be answered by pointing to…
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