January 2009 Archives

“In an attempt to set up a more reliable standard of interpretation, one based on the actual linguistic situation of shared meanings, Hirsch proposes the standard of ‘coherence’—the relationship of meaning to the author’s psychological and philosophical stance, to what the author is likely to mean under a particular set of circumstances.  Hirsch’s second criterion is ‘correspondence’—and accounting for all the parts of the work and their relationship to the whole.” 

 

--From Allen C. Austin’s “Toward Resolving Keats’s Grecian Urn Ode” page 48 in  

   Donald Keesey’s Contexts for Criticism

 

            I found these two definitions and approaches very helpful in interpreting the rest of Austin’s evaluation of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but I also felt that they are somewhat confining.  Aside from these methods, there are many other ways to interpret literature that exclude the two, yet still reach a very possible critical evaluation of the text.

  This fact aside, I found it very interesting that Austin quoted Hirsch here as using the “correspondence” of the work.  In my opinion, Hirsch’s definition of correspondence seems very similar to the method that is employed by the Formalist critics that Terry Eagleton discusses in his introduction to Literary Theory: An Introduction.  Eagleton writes that the Formalists focused on the “…particular organization of language…,” on the “…structures of language…,” and on the “…assemblage of ‘devices’…” (2-3).  Because Austin included Hirsch’s method of literary criticism, I can now see how more than one style of criticism can be used at the same time.  I know that some are in favor of the Formalists or of Hirsch’s correspondence method alone; however I think that I learn best by looking at a literary work from many different angles.  After all, no matter how hard we as readers and critics try, we cannot accurately recreate every single occurrence, thought, or motivation that was present when a literary work was first created.  

 

See what others had to say about Austin's essay.    

“There is not ‘literary’ device- metonymy, synecdoche, litotes, chiasmus, and so on- which is not quite intensively used in daily discourse.”

 

-From Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction “Intorduction: What is Literature? page 5

 

            I have heard of the first two literary devices, and I am familiar with their definitions; however, I do not recall ever having learned about the other two, litotes and chiasmus.  I chose to apply these terms to the poem we have been discussing, John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.  But first, here are the definitions according to Sharon Hamilton’s Essential Literary Terms:

“Litotes is a figure of thought in which a point is affirmed by negating its opposite.  It is a special form of understatement, where the surface denial serves, through ironic contrast, to reinforce the underlying assertion” (57-58). 

“Chiasmus is a figure of speech in which two successive phrases or clauses are parallel in syntax, but reverse the order of the analogous words” (65).

             I was unable to find litotes in the poem, but I did find one possible instance of chiasmus in the final stanza.  Keats writes, “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’… ” (Keats qtd. in Keesy 487.   While these devices can be used to effect a stark contrast or even highlight a similarity, Keats obviously did not feel these were very necessary in this poem.  Perhaps in Keats' time these devices were not viewed as literary, maybe because they are simple and were used more often in daily speech than they are now, or perhaps the poem was, in Keats opinion, more effective without them.  

 

See what other literary devices my classmates found. 

Really, Who Is the Unidentified “they?”

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“If they decide that you are literature then it seems that you are, irrespective of what you thought you were.”  -From Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, “Introduction: What is Literature? page 8

 

            Well, if this is at all a definitive way to describe how some sort of writing falls into the esteemed category of literature, please correct me.  And, really, who is the unidentified “they?”  I have always wondered exactly who or how it was that writing was deemed “literature.”  However, Eagleton continues this way throughout the rest of the introduction, never really answering the question he proposes through the introduction’s title. 

           

            I’m not saying that this evaluation of literature was not helpful, however.  I really enjoyed and benefited from the way that the author questioned many different definitions of “literature,” different ways people view literature, different ways people read literature, and different types of literature in a discussion format that was also funny and entertaining at times. 

 

            I also really thought that the terminology that Eagleton used was interesting.  He referred to “value-judgments” and “social ideologies,” both of which affect what is placed into the category of literature.  This suggestion seems very true.  For instance, if Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” had not been written by him long ago, but today, people may not have added it to the category of literature, mainly because it would have been written by someone attempting to model the classics and because many people in this culture do not value this type of poetry.  This idea relates to some of the ideas Eliot mentioned that I have quoted and discussed on another blog.  Therefore, when current trends and interests of society (occurring now or hundreds of years ago) are considered, literature could occur in any form.  I had never really thought of literature being determined as such in this manner, but it seems very true.  Hopefully, the following chapter will prove whether or not Eagleton’s suggestions are valid.

 

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“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.  But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” -From T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” part II, paragraph 17). 

 

Wow, I knew his poetry was difficult and deep, but this is really heavy writing.  I am very intrigued by Eliot’s descriptions of emotion in poetry, especially by the above quote.  Before studying poetry in college, I had always believed that poetry was all about the author’s emotion.  All of the people who had written poetry who I had personally known had written it as a way to express their own emotions.  When we studied poetry in high school, and even in some courses in college, we had always discussed how the author’s personal life and emotions were significant to the piece.  At first I thought, "All of these experiences I had with writers and teachers must have occured with people who had no 'personality and emotions.'  Do I even have a true personality and real emotions?  Eliot, afterall, suggests that when personal emotion is added to poetry, the writing is not nearly as 'good' as when all personal emotion is abandoned." 

 

But, what really is “good” writing?  This is the question, after all, that Eliot (and most likely many of the other critical writers we will read this semester) is trying to answer, at least in terms of poetry.  Eliot suggests, in a nut shell, that good poetry should be new, yet traditional, learned, yet untrained, “sulfurous acid,” yet readable, and emotional, yet lacking emotion.  One more set of antonyms, and I would have given up. 

 

Then, however, Eliot comes to his conclusion.  In his final paragraph, Eliot writes:

“The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.  And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” 

Finally, we the readers see that all of the contradictory descriptions were given because all are necessary for “good” poetry writing, according to Eliot.  I do know people with emotions and personalities, afterall!

 

            In the end, I have to agree wholeheartedly with Eliot.  Often, I myself focus either too much on the learned, historical, passionately “sulfurous”, personally emotional aspects of these antonyms rather than the later half.  I also noticed that many times teachers had focused on a "correct" meaning of writing that encouraged taking a look at the writer and the time period.  Instead, I now see that focusing on both sides of the picture will hopefully help me to be a better writer in the future.  His discussion also helped to show exactly how complex a critic’s job in general is (I know we are going to learn about critics who look at only one side or from an entirely different viewpoint), and how I as a critic of literature (because everyone is to some extent) must look at a work’s many variables in many ways.  And, by realizing exactly how a critic thinks, and exactly what makes “good” writing, I can be a better writer and reader.

 

See what other's think of Eliot's essay.