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How Does A Poem Mean?

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 24, Number 2, October 2000
pp. 280-293 | 10.1353/phl.2000.0044

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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 280-293

Though the enterprise of literary criticism is a vast and infinitely complicated one, it all begins in a very familiar and basic experience. I read a text, perhaps Shakespeare's Sonnet 94 ("They that have power to hurt and will do none"), find a deep pleasure in doing so, and want to explain my experience to others, sometimes enabling one of them to find the same kind of experience. I believe that I understand Shakespeare's poem, and I want to test my understanding against other people's views, perhaps even to enrich it as I deepen my insights in response to theirs.

"But if you claim that you understand Shakespeare's poem," you may well say, "tell me what it means." That is a fair demand, and by a somewhat indirect route this essay will undertake to do so. However, proceeding with that task demands a clear idea of what sort of thing would count as the meaning of Sonnet 94, the content of my understanding and what I should tell you. Let me suggest two models, the first of which is based on a deep-seated and almost universal assumption about the nature of poetic meaning, even among those postmodernists who consider themselves deeply skeptical about the possibility of locating such a meaning. The second is my preferred model, one that I believe will untangle many of the difficulties about the critical enterprise of poetry criticism, because those difficulties grow out of the implications of the first model.

In the first model the meaning of a poem is an entity, specifically a potentially discoverable text, to be thought of as a set of words different from the poem and containing what the poem says. Most baldly it could be seen as a paraphrase or summary of the poem, a restatement of its prose content. Thus Sonnet 94 says, "People who control themselves and in particular their sexual desires avoid hurting others and themselves; even the most beautiful of flowers would become repulsive if it were to be corrupted." But this prose statement is flat and unsatisfying even if it can be taken as more or less accurate: mere paraphrase is never enough to be a plausible candidate for the full meaning of a poem. Everything that makes Shakespeare's sonnet both puzzling and interesting is left out of my paraphrase. A better candidate as a form to capture the meaning is that characteristic device of modern criticism, the critical reading, a structure which can be true to nuance and implication in the poem and even to the countercurrents of ambiguity and ambivalence, all those enrichments that are missing from a paraphrase. For Sonnet 94 a famous example would be William Empson's reading in Some Versions of Pastoral, inspiration of many later essays arguing whether the poem is direct or ironic.

At any rate, to the extent that we assume this model, we are under the influence of a picture of poetic meaning, one analogous to the picture of meaning in general that Ludwig Wittgenstein argues dominates our thought about language. Poetic meaning in this picture is rather like a map of the poem, a map whose features correspond to the salient features of the poem. One characteristic of this picture is that the map consists of a unified set of ideas actually or at least potentially expressed in a set of words. Perhaps Empson's reading constitutes such a set, approximating the meaning of Shakespeare's sonnet. Alternatively many critics consider meaning something ineffable, so that no set of words imaginable could capture it. Thus the attitude of the speaker in Sonnet 94 toward the sort of person described may be too complex for verbal formulation except by the artistic means of the poem itself. The implication in this case is that the meaning is the same sort of thing as meanings that can be expressed, but with the added attribute of inexpressibility. Ideas that cannot be expressed are still ideas.

Such meaning, expressible or not, can plausibly be seen as based on the author's intention, which the reader attempts to reconstruct. Because the poet has purposefully uttered...

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