Language, Literature, and Critical Practice: Ways of Analysing Text

By David Birch | Go to book overview

4

Reading texts closely: language, style and the 'buried life of words'

Reading a poem is like walking on silence-on volcanic silence. We feel the historical ground; the buried life of words. Like fallen gods, like visions of the night, words are erectile. (Hartman, Beyond Formalism: 341-2)


Language-aware analysis

Though he might not have put it quite this way, William Empson's position in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) and The Complex Structure of Words (1951a), suggests that as readers we are able to engage with choices of meaning in a text, recognition of which comes from our linguistic and literary competences. Such engagement requires a skill with understanding grammatical structures, a skill with words, a skill with literary effects, a skill with meanings, and a skill with language analysis. And whilst such skills may not account for 'total' meaning in a text (a requirement of other critics), for Empson they go a long way towards explaining why a reader reacts in a particular way to a text. More significantly, perhaps, such skills give readers a vocabulary in which to discuss their intuitions about a text-something that became increasingly important for Empson in the wake of his objections to most of the new critical practice examined in the previous chapter.

This approach requires skill and training, a knowledge of linguistic and literary structures, and a recognition, above all, of the crucial importance of language in literary texts.

An illustration of a simple analysis that recognizes this importance might be a useful way of introducing this approach. It is a close reading stripped bare, so to speak, and-as a method of close reading-it is often considered a useful, and gentle initiation into textual analysis. N.F. Blake, Professor of English Language at Sheffield University, offered such an approach to a group of students when he lectured in 1983 in South Korea on the language and style of the British poet Philip Larkin. He was

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Language, Literature, and Critical Practice: Ways of Analysing Text
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Series Editor's Introduction to the Interface Series xi
  • Foreword xv
  • Acknowledgements xvi
  • Text Analyses xvii
  • Preface 1
  • 1 - How Texts Mean: Reading as Critical/Political Practice 5
  • 2 - Language, Literature and Scientific Fictions 45
  • 3 - Reading Literary Texts: Traditions, Assumptions, Practices 57
  • 4 - Reading Texts Closely: Language, Style and the 'Buried Life of Words' 88
  • 5 - The Linguistics of Text: Structures and Strictures 117
  • Afterword 167
  • Notes 170
  • Bibliography 176
  • Index 207
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