Random Readings 6

Critics love to take apart a text as though it were a piece of machinery, and to examine those discreet pieces and the ways they relate to each other, as a means of cataloguing the approaches one may take to examine a text. For example, writing in the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri laid out four “senses” in which a text could be taken: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogic (self-transcending). After he explains these categories in his essay “Il Convivio,” the 1318 letter to Can Grande Della Scala, attributed to Dante, discusses them further, as well as touching on structural matters (the division of poems into cantiche, cantos, and lines) as well as dealing with the subject of a work in contexts of different scale.

I.A. Richards, in his 1929 work “Practical Criticism,” also comes up with four divisions, though he focuses instead on the writer. Richards outlines four “points of view” that he sees a writer as having toward the text: the sense he wants to communicate, the feeling he has toward what he is communicating, the tone he is taking with his reader, and the intention behind his communication. Richards also seems to be putting a modern spin on the Philosopher/Poet feud that bedeviled Socrates when he sets up a dichotomy between emotional beliefs and intellectual beliefs and discusses how each affects the reader’s judgment of a writer’s sincerity.

However, Cleanth Brooks argues against the idea of breaking up poetry into any sort of smaller units, in the essay “The Heresy of Paraphrase” from his 1947 book The Well-Wrought Urn. Brooks insists that the meaning of a poem is produced by the concurrence of every aspect of the text, and when pieces are extracted and scrutinized in isolation, an essential part of the meaning is lost. He claims there is no reducible “idea” within a poem, but that the poem itself is the “idea.” The same can be said for other forms of expression, particularly the visual arts.



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