Using the double pattern and the sliding scale as an interpretive framework for poems

The double pattern and the sliding scale (see Chapter 1 and Glossary) are terms I have coined to provide a practical focus for the vast and disparate methodologies of linguistics and literary criticism. The following is a brief guide, with examples, to how these concepts can be used in the interpretation of poems. It is effectively a summary of the methods used in the book.

(i) Begin by distinguishing the two elements of the poem's double pattern. The conventional element is the easiest to identify and name (blank verse, free verse, the ode, the couplet, etc.). The cognitive element (syntactic structure, coherence and deviation) should be dealt with in relation to this.

(ii) Consider whether, in the process of understanding (in formal terms naturalising) the poem, the conventional or the cognitive element of the text is its most prominent or problematic feature. For example, in Dylan Thomas's 'When Like a Running Grave' the patterns of metre and rhyme (conventional) are far more regular and prominent than their syntactic or referential counterparts (cognitive), while in Shakespeare's blank verse the cognitive element (syntax and speech pattern) seems to dominate convention (blank verse).

(iii) Examine how the interactions between the two elements of the double pattern affect our broader understanding of the intention of the poet, and our classification of the poem within a particular type or genre. Does the tension between cognitive and conventional elements make it more or less difficult to reconcile our experience of the text with the imagined circumstances of the speech act? In short, is the text easy or difficult to understand? Can we identify a predictable causal relation between the transparent or refractory nature of the text and its classification as Augustan, Romantic, modernist, etc.?

(iv) Draw up a diagram of the sliding scale.

In your consideration of points (i), (ii) and (iii) use this as a means of recording your impressions of how the text works. The following are examples of how to use the diagrams, with texts drawn, respectively, from chapters 2-6. Try out this method with texts from the Exercise sections or poems of your own choice.

Donne's 'The Flea' This poem indicates the immediate circumstances of the speech act but sets up a tension between this imagined situation and the complex internal devices of the text, which are contrived and unspontaneous.

cognitive referential real world

conventional textual poetic world

Conclusions: 'The Flea', like many other metaphysical (early seventeenth-century) poems, exists at the centre of the sliding scale and foregrounds the condition of poetry as caught uneasily between the referential purposes of non-poetic discourse and the enclosed and uncertain functions of the purely poetic.

Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' This poem distances the speaker both from the situation of the narrative and from the means of narration. The heroic couplet allows us to distinguish more clearly between speaker, events narrated and medium.

cognitive referential real world

Sliding Scale -'The Rape of the Lock'

conventional textual poetic world

Conclusions: Pope and most other Augustan poets move poetry toward the discursive, functional purpose of the essay and other non-poetic discourses.

Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' This poem marginalises the referential/ cognitive dimensions of the double pattern by creating an independent system of relations within the complex metrical and sound patterns of the text.

cognitive referential real world

Sliding Scale 'Kubla Khan'

conventional -> textual poetic world

Conclusions: Coleridge and most other Romantic poets focus attention upon poetry as an independent langue, a system of conventions and devices, separate from the structural and functional conditions of non-poetic discourses.

Browning's 'My Last Duchess' This poem foregrounds both the immediate circumstances of the speech act and the status of the text as poetic (enjambed couplets) while not permitting any serious tensions between the two.

cognitive referential real world


----Duchess' poetic world

Conclusions: Browning and most other Victorian poets achieve a balance between the two elements of the double pattern by at once situating the text within the real world of non-poetic discourses while maintaining a persistent but unprovocative concession to the conventional features of the poetic.

Eliot's 'The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock' This poem effectively destabilises the interpretive framework of the double pattern and the sliding scale. We can identify a speaker but we are never certain of his circumstances or the situation of the speech act. We are also uncertain of whether the conventional, textual patterns (line division and rhyme scheme) are a token of immediacy and spontaneity or of the poet's imposition of an, albeit irregular, formal framework upon a chaotic collage of deictic features.

cognitive referential <-

-J. Alfred Prufrock'-

conventional textual poetic world

Conclusions: Eliot's 'Prufrock', like most other modernist texts, draws upon stylistic precedents from the established poetic langue and assembles these in a disorientating and unprecedented manner.

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