Teaching Secondary English for sixteen years, I frequently faced questions from students like the ones listed below…
- Why do we analyse stuff so much in English class?
- Why read all this into a poem? How can we ever really know what the poet actually meant? Does it matter anyway? Why even study poetry in the first place?
- Is [some deep analysis] what Shakespeare really intended? Didn’t he just write his plays to entertain people?
- By over-analysing literature, aren’t we unfairly putting words in someone’s mouth?
Fair questions, all. Indeed, why do we read stuff into literature? English teachers can drive students up the wall with questions like, “What does this poem mean to you?” or “What’s the significance of the theme?”
“AHHHRRRRG!!!!!” replies the student.
Here are some initial thoughts I’ve had on the subject (far from exhaustive!) to address this frustration. For simplicity, I refer to Shakespeare as one primary example, plus a few other writers, but I don’t mean by that to leave out or ignore other artists or creative types of expression as compared to literature alone. Therein the students must transpose for themselves.
- Is our analysis what Shakespeare really intended? Didn’t he just write his plays to entertain people and make a living?
Shakespeare had his own intentions, of course. We will never really know what was on his mind. What’s more, Shakespeare is dead now, gone, kaput. For 400 years, the man himself has not been a factor in the literature – sad but inevitable!
But what he’s left behind, his poems and his plays, is what we have to work with. In his words live ideas and people and memories that he knew and loved and remembered. Shakespeare said as much himself in Sonnet 55:
“Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rime;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, …”
And sure, maybe it’s not one-to-one correspondence to actual living (now dead) people although there is oodles of studied conjecture about many of his characters and plot lines. But, despite the fascinating academic and journalistic exploration regarding possible real-life connections, consider that (a) nobody will ever truly know, since Shakespeare never explained one way or the other, and he’s dead now, and (b) Shakespeare had to have drawn upon his real-life relationships, cultural observations, and historical knowledge to develop any characters and situations because what else could any human being ever do? It’s not like he lived in isolation from all human contact on another planet or suffered from daily bouts of amnesia (although truly, again, who knows…?) But if you’re a human being who writes, especially for a living, I’ll bet you know other people and work from your human experience. Surely, your own life is your best source. Write what you know, isn’t that the advice?
You might also read the poems listed below, which express similar sentiments – the magic and music of poetic words and imagery; the lasting immutability of words and ideas that resist the entropic passing of time; the futility of our human attempts to create enduring institutions and monuments of brick and stone. Read on, and do not despair…
“Scorn Not The Sonnet” by William Wordsworth
“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
“Shakespeare” by Matthew Arnold
- Why read all this detail into a poem or piece of literature? How can we ever really know what the poet / author actually meant? Does it matter anyway? Why even study poetry in the first place?
Not to ignore the human being who created something artistic, but what really matters as far as this question’s concerned is the literature itself – the poem, the song, the novel; the images, the ideas, the sensations that live within the words; the themes and nuances and rhythms that play in our ears or in front of our gaze or within our thoughts.
Shakespeare’s lingual creations are so wonderful if only for their magical, playful, balanced rhythms – it is beautiful poetry. We enjoy music for the same reason. We enjoy a painting on our wall for its palette, or its brushstrokes, or its portrayal. Sometimes we don’t even understand it yet like it all the same. A sculpture, a garden, a finely prepared meal, all these we enjoy and understand as art, for myriad reasons ranging from our senses and our emotions to our beliefs and our memories.
But not only are these art forms musical, or aesthetic, or appealing (or whatever), they’re also deeply human – art is a human response to the world around us, in which we live and share with other people and other living things and other non-living things. That world and all its contents and relationships are there for us to perceive. And if they are not enough, we’re able to look up at the sky, day or night, or down into the ocean, or into a microscope, or a microprocessor, or how about inward to our own imagination? On and on and on they go, our curiosity and creativity, hand in marvellous hand. The perceived world is the artist’s muse, and it’s likewise the artist’s resource. It’s fuel for the imagination.
In his short book, The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye opens by suggesting that we possess three levels of perception, of “language”:
- State of Consciousness or Awareness: we distinguish things in the world around us from ourselves; a kind of “self-expression” prompting thinking and conversation
- Pragmatic Attitude: we project upon this outside world a “human” way of understanding such things; a kind of “social participation” prompting deliberate knowledge and practical action
- Imaginative Attitude: we combine the first two perceptions and imagine a world we would prefer to see as compared to the real one we occupy; a kind of creative exercise, producing art forms, literature among them
Back to the artist: in his literature, Shakespeare created such depth and complexity, so closely mirroring the real world, and our relationships and the human condition, that we simply can’t help but see ourselves in them. Yes, he was that good, and his works resonate so much that we still find ourselves studying, admiring, and marvelling over them four hundred years later. So, for example, the genius of Shakespeare’s plays, for me, is how realistically he captures the essence of people and motives and relationships, all by way of dialogue – we watch his plays, we study his literature, we know ourselves better. More than that, we admire it, we revel in it! In the same way that we listen to our most favourite music to enjoy its melodies, we read and watch and listen to Shakespeare because he stirs us at the core.
Let’s consider one more example, the author, J. R. R. Tolkien. He tenaciously disliked allegory, and he continually denied as invalid, as definitely not his deliberate intention, all comparisons made between The Lord Of The Rings and the two World Wars . Even so, evident in Tolkien’s storytelling, upon closer reading, are his concerns for the environment, polluted and abused by industrial development, his disquiet for the human race, stricken as it is with the potential for hubris and evil, and his belief that hope still exists for us, exemplified best by his beloved characters, the hobbits. Do we attribute such biased concerns as these to something from his life, say his Catholicism? Does it even matter since they’re genuine concerns whether you’re Catholic or not? His books express what they express, that much is evident. What need to pursue Tolkien’s motives or intentions when we’re able to glean something meaningful for ourselves? So far as there’s room for allegorical interpretation, it’s merely an intellectual luxury. Alright, then, Sauron is not a deliberate parallel either to Hitler or to Satan; there is nothing we are meant to spy of either Jesus Christ or an infantryman in Samwise Gamgee. The list goes ever on, but none was Tolkien’s intention for us to correlate in any direct way, according to the man himself. So I will take him at his word.
Yet how could Tolkien have written any of his stories without them somehow reflecting his background and beliefs? The case has been made, apart from any allegory, that his life necessarily had an impact on his storytelling. He remembered the Somme in dreadful detail while parts of The Lord Of The Rings he wrote during the London blitz. The very substance of his creative writing is as clear a reflection of Tolkien, the man, as any allegory we may seek to attribute to him. The Hobbit was borne of bedtime stories for his children, adventures he felt they would enjoy, undertaken by characters he thought they would like. We might even conclude that no other books were possible from Tolkien apart from the ones he produced. Tolkien himself described the entire phenomenon of Middle Earth as arising from his professional passion, philology, and his desire to express and share his passions in a tangible way. Sounds like art to me.
For a superb exposition on why to bother specifically with poetry, check out this article. For a more brief but still informative meditation, check out this one.
- By over-analysing literature, aren’t we unfairly putting words in someone’s mouth?
Not really, no, and what’s more, be careful – asking this question is like giving away the freedom to decide for yourself. Now, I know when my students asked, they just didn’t want to do any thinking or work, and teens will be teens. But anyone seriously considering this question owes it to the rest of us, if not themselves, to reconsider.
As I mentioned above about Tolkien, he had intentions and motives behind his storytelling – who doesn’t? – irrespective of us knowing what they were. After it was published, though, Tolkien was famously bemused and upset by those in the audience who turned The Lord Of The Rings into an LSD experience, and by those who made it a screenplay. But whose problem is that? Copyright laws protect content and intellectual property, but heaven knows we’re unable to stop people from thinking. Attempts might try to control what is available to think about, or how what’s available is presented, or worse, how people think, period. We ignore such detail at our peril because whether we’re for or against a particular interpretation, how and why something is offered is at least as important as what. This is a whole ’nuther topic.
But, as to Tolkien’s problem, the only substantive response in the aftermath of publishing his story was not to have published it at all. That balance between private creativity and public expression is inescapable, unless you’re a hermit, I guess. As creative as you want to be, go crazy, but don’t forget that creativity for an audience means some lost degree of autonomy because everybody has an opinion. I don’t know if it’s a zero-sum equation, but there is a sliding scale from artist to audience, as far as we’re considering any kind of interpretive control. What else is criticism but artistic interpretation, Frye’s third language? The critic is an artist, sometimes a very good one, and there’s something to be said for the decline of public discourse (as compared to debate over the decline of public intellectualism, which is a different topic). But opinions are as numerous as the people who possess them, and sometimes just as popular.
For artists like Shakespeare and Tolkien, who have since died, this question of putting words in their mouths is moot anyway. And, as I mentioned above, once the creative process ends, once the artist decides it’s time to stop creating and start exhibiting, they rather exit the equation of their own accord. Even an explicit interpretive explanation from the artist during an interview or in a press release or on the back of a napkin is itself subject to interpretation. Bias is inescapable (and makes life worth living, so long as it’s checked by responsible morality). An artist is a catalyst, in this respect, nothing more. There are bound to be audience members who defend an artist’s interpretation of X-Y-Z, just as there are bound to be members who dispute it. But aside from any intended message, artist inevitably accedes interpretation to audience. There is no other way.
What of the creation, itself, the artefact or text, that contains the message – or should we say, by which the message is conveyed? As the medium, it enables us to experience a relationship with the artist by proxy – this avenue has lead to some fascinating cultural restoration that far exceeds in scope and import anything I offer here. It has also yielded some curious responses on behalf of artists by other artists. Still, for some others, an object of art somehow literally has its own “words in its mouth,” as people imbue an artefact with life all its own. To me, that’s the same as putting words in the artist’s mouth because, again, the kinds of artefacts I’ve had in mind here are not living, breathing things but more conventional creations such as books, paintings, songs, and sculptures.
I suppose someone out there will know a living, breathing artefact or text in this more conventional sense of art – fair enough although we now fall into discussion over a definition of “art,” which I’d argue has as its basis intentionality, which necessarily implicates the artist, not the artefact. Any conversation that might occur between an audience and an artefact or text would still depend on the frame of mind and experience of the audience after depending on the creative will of the artist. And with no two relationships ever being the same, every person unique, an art experience by its very nature is an intimate, personal phenomenon. Even when someone experiences the same art piece over and over, the interpretation will vary: a movie is different depending on your mood each time you watch it, say, or your age. In that sense, you’re putting words in your own mouth from the last time you watched it!
The same idea put a different way: I once heard from a Jimi Hendrix fan that he liked listening to songs over and over because he heard new things each time, stuff that he missed those other times. Then, after taking up guitar ten years later, he listened to the same songs with yet another new appreciation since his understanding of guitar playing had grown more sophisticated. It’s an easy example to grasp, and it respects both sides of the medium – in this instance, guitar players and guitar listeners.
So yes, then, we can respect this question being asked on behalf of an artist, that of putting words in their mouth, but it risks the cost of silencing your own words, which these days, especially, is anathema. When an audience gets involved, a published or exhibited creation of any kind takes on a new, unpredictable existence – many, in fact, each one personally derived by those who partake. As I briefly acknowledged above, this discussion can encompass not just objects or texts or songs but, more broadly, ideas, beliefs, and cultural practice. But leave the details of any such area for others to discuss who have the appropriate nuance and expertise.
Finally, an anonymous quotation – if anybody knows the source, please say so! – on the topic of literary interpretation and criticism in general…
“One way students learn to interpret fiction, poetry, and drama is through an understanding of the conventional elements of literature. Another way to deepen our appreciation and enhance our understanding of literature is to learn how readers have interpreted it over the years since it was written. Therefore, reading and discussing the ideas of scholars who have studied particular authors, periods, or genres provide us with knowledge that enriches all our reading experiences. Likewise, reading literature with an awareness of specific critical views of the major schools of literary theory – such as mythological, historical, psychological, reader-response, feminist, or deconstructive perspectives – further expands our reading experiences. Through knowledge of the historical impact of literature and the major literary theories, students of literature learn to appreciate a work of literature for its social, moral, or spiritual worth – in other words, its cultural value.”
It’s nothing so ground-breaking or, as I mentioned, music to the ears of students who just don’t want to study. Yet this response underscores a most fundamental precept of academics, across every discipline, just as it pleads for culture – the sincere stewardship of our stores of knowledge, inherited, refined, and passed on over time to future generations, is an artistic task of creativity, that is to say a shared process, and we all therefore bear a measure of responsibility. If that’s not a compelling “motive for metaphor,” then I don’t know what else to say!
I hope this helps to address some of the more common issues and questions that people raise regarding the analysis of literature, specifically, and of art in general.
 Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien. George Allen and Unwin, London, 1981.