How To Read

The subject of English Literature is no longer dominated by Eliot's, Hulme's and Pound's critical values. In place of a theory of impersonality, we have the rise of life writing; political engagement is valued over critical disinterestedness; originality is once again a term of praise. Their influence over the literary canon has lessened: Milton, Shelley and Swinburne can now be studied without shame. But in one area our study of literature is still directed by these poets: in the priority given to close reading.

By 'close reading', I mean the detailed analysis of a short work or extract from a work, where the focus is primarily on the interrelation of the text's linguistic elements, rather than its authorial or historical context. It is often an exercise set in examinations, and it is a fundamental building block of most other (more contextual) kinds of criticism taught in school and university English departments. It may seem so normal, so natural, a practice that it is hard to imagine how one would study literature without it. Yet, there was criticism before close reading. It usually took the form of 'gossipy, and often highly metaphorical, description and unspecific praise', as one early twentieth-century critic remembered (Tillyard 1958: 84). Close reading was effectively invented in the mid-1920s by a young Cambridge lecturer called I.A. Richards, who had been deeply impressed by Eliot's, Hulme's and Pound's work. Richards's Practical Criticism (1929) aimed to provide a new technique of poetic analysis: it isolated a series of 'reading malfunctions' Richards had observed in his students' analyses of poems when contextual material (such as author and date) was removed. Like Eliot's, Richards's educational background was in philosophy, and like Eliot's, his criticism drew on its analytical procedures. And although Eliot criticized aspects of Richards's approach, it was his criticism, especially in The Sacred Wood and Homage to John Dryden, which provided the basis of Practical Criticism, particularly its tools of 'comparison and analysis', as opposed to interpretation from context, and its aim of discerning (in poets) and developing (in readers) 'the unification of sensibility' (Eliot 1980: 33, 286; Richards 1929: 9-12, 304). More generally, Richards's method also drew on Hulme's and Pound's criticism, in particular their aversion to rhetoric, their emphasis on visual imagery and precise statement, and, above all, their very close attention to language.

Practical Criticism institutionalized Eliot's, Hulme's and Pound's early theories of poetry and criticism and disseminated them to universities and schools across Britain and the United States. It is no longer the only way we approach literature, and we are now well schooled in the intellectual dangers of reading literature out of context. But, nevertheless, close reading is a modernist approach to criticism: Eliot, Hulme and Pound taught us to read, and they continue to do so.

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