Figurative Language

In this page I’m continuing with introductory poetic analysis, although the pages grouped under “Figurative Language” are strictly speaking exclusive to poems. By divorcing author from text (by warning us of the intentional fallacy) and reader from text (by warning us of the affective fallacy), the new critics were speaking about all texts, not just poetry.  Many of my remarks and examples so far have compared novels and plays to poems, if only because I assume more of you have read more novels and seen more dramas than poetry, and we all need a basis of comparison when we’re learning about new things. Figurative language, like personae, does show up in all literary genres. But actually this just means that the new criticism is pretty widely applicable to all sorts of literature, which to me makes it more valuable.

Having isolated the text from both the controlling author and the willful reader, the new critics proceeded to develop a more precise vocabulary for describing ways in which the language of texts produce the responses they wished to study. Their main emphases proved to be irony, metaphor, and ambiguity, all of which can be fruitfully investigated by placing linguistic meaning under the extreme pressure of a scrutinizing reader’s attention. But all of these investigations proceed under the assumption that we wish to avoid what Cleanth Brooks called “the heresy of paraphrase.” Literature is more than the sum of its plot elements, and it is never enough to simply describe what is happening in a novel or a play or a poem; we must also account for why actions, characters, and themes appear as the text represents them. On the microscopic level, irony, metaphor, and ambiguity can account for a great many textual effects, and your ability to describe those effects accurately can be the difference between a convincing argument and one that leaves your reader intrigued but puzzled. A good rule of thumb is that when you quote literary passages in a blog post or an essay, they will always require a “gloss” before they can be considered as evidence. It’s not enough to plop down a few sentences in the middle of a paragraph and assume that your reader understands the passage exactly as you do, since the language comes from a completely different context than the one you are producing, and you have to account for the figurative effects unique to each text.

When you gloss, explain to your audience carefully why you think the language from the text means what you think it means. The reasons you give for your interpretations will allow your reader to follow you, and whether or not we understand your points can be the difference between success and failure for arguments. I recommend at least a one-to-one ratio of the size of a gloss to that of the source material it analyzes (and if you err, err on the side of more gloss rather than less). Consider that the figurative qualities of literary language mean that texts are like machines that are constantly generating the possibility of more and different interpretations. This is a good thing, since it allows the employment of many English professors like myself, as well as the uniqueness of all of your essays and the general interest to be had within literary conversation. Not everybody sees the same film and develops the same take from it, and in general this is also a good thing. But it does mean that everyone will have the opportunity of reading a passage slightly differently, and therefore everybody has an obligation to explain him or herself. So you need to be clear with your glosses of textual material.

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