Interpretation

Poetic foregrounding presupposes some motivation on the part of the writer and some explanation on the part of the reader. A question-mark accompanies each foregrounded feature; consciously or unconsciously, we ask: ' What is the point?' Of course, there may be no point at all; but the appreciative reader, by act of faith, assumes that there is one, or at least tends to give the poet the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, we must not forget the Mr Wellers of this world, who shrug their shoulders at each question-mark, and take poetry to be a kind of outlandish nonsense. The problem we now have to consider is the problem which stands astride the gap between linguistic analysis and literary appreciation: When is a linguistic deviation (artistically) significant?

4.2.1 The Subjectivity of Interpretation

To the foregoing question I wish to consider three answers.

answer 1: When it (i.e. the deviation) communicates something. According to this definition of significance, practically all deviation is significant. Consider the following three cases:

[а] My aunt suffers from terrible authoritis.

The linguistic abnormalities in these examples are most likely to be taken as errors, as trivial hindrances to communication. But unintentionally, they may convey quite a bit of information. The first, if we take it to be an example of malapropism (authoritis for arthritis), at least tells us something about the education, character, etc., of its perpetrator. In the second example, the ungrammaticality probably suggests that its author is a foreigner with an imperfect command of English. The third example, occurring in a printed text, informs us that the printer has made a mistake, that the author is a careless proof-reader, etc. Such mistakes may, of course, be deliberately imitated for artistic or comic effect, as in the case of Mrs Mala-prop herself:

An aspersion upon my parts of speech! Was ever such a brute! Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue and a nice derangement of epitaphs.

[Sheridan, The Rivals, Ill.iii]

However, it is clear that even the most trivial and unmotivated deviation may communicate information of a kind.

answer 2: When it communicates what was intended by its author. This definition of'significant' narrows the first one to exclude solecisms, malapro-pisms, and other sorts of linguistic blunder. It insists that a deviation is sig nificant only when deliberate. But the one main difficulty about this answer is that the intention of the author is in practice inaccessible. If he is dead, his intention must remain for ever unknown, unless he happens to have recorded it; and even a living poet is usually shy of explaining 'what he meant' when he wrote a given poem. There is, moreover, a widely held view that what a poem signifies lies within itself and cannot be added to by extraneous commentary.7 In any case, must a poet's own explanation be treated as oracular? An interesting case of conflicting interpretations is reported in Tindall's A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas.8 In Thomas's A Grief Ago there occurs a puzzling compound country-handed:

The country-handed grave boxed into love.

Edith Sitwell discerned in the compound a 'rural picture of a farmer growing flowers and corn', whereas Thomas himself said that this was quite contrary to his intention, and that he had envisaged the grave in the likeness of a boxer with fists as big as countries. Should we accept Thomas's ' correction' as the last word on the subject ? Or should we not rather accept Edith Sitwell's interpretation as being valid and artistically significant in its own right?

answer 3: When it is judged orfelt by the reader to be significant. This answer, anticipated above, is on the face of it the most unsatisfactory of all: it merely says that the significance of a poem lies ultimately in the mind of the reader, just as beauty is said to lie in the eye of the beholder. Yet I think we are forced back on this definition by the failure of the other two to circumscribe what people in practice take to be significant in a poem. We may go further, and say that not only whether a deviation has a sensible interpretation, but what interpretation it is to be given, is a subjective matter. Not that I am advocating the critical anarchy of every man's opinion being as good as his neighbour's-.there is such a thing as a consensus of interpretative judgment, in which certain experts (critics) have a bigger voice than laymen, and in which the voice of the poet, if heard, is probably the most authoritative of all.

This conclusion, however much of an anticlimax it may seem, is salutary if it teaches us the difference between the objectivity (at least in spirit) of linguistic analysis, and the subjectivity (in the last resort) of critical interpretation.9 It should also teach us that linguistics and literary criticism, in so far as they both deal with poetic language, are complementary not competing activities. Where the two meet is above all in the study of foregrounding.

4.2.2 The ' Warranty' for a Deviation

Assuming that a deviation can be given a sensible and constructive interpretation, let us now examine more precisely how a particular interpretation is arrived at. In detail, this is a matter of critical theory rather than stylistics, and I can do 110 more here than sketch, in a general way, the processes involved.

A linguistic deviation is a disruption of the normal processes of communication: it leaves a gap, as it were, in one's comprehension of the text. The gap can be filled, and the deviation rendered significant, but only if by an effort of his imagination the reader perceives some deeper connection which compensates for the superficial oddity. In the case of metaphor, this compensation is in the form of analogy. Donne's line (from The Apparition)

Then thy sick taper will begin to wink contains two violations of literal meaningfulness: the idea of a taper being 'sick', and the idea of a taper being capable of winking. The warranty for these deviations lies in a figurative interpretation of'sick' and 'wink', whereby we appreciate analogies between someone who is ill and a candle which is burning out, and between the flickering of a candle and the batting of an eyelid. The search for a warranty can go further than this. We can ask how these comparisons contribute to the total effectiveness of the poem; but for the moment we shall only investigate what can be called the immediate warranty for a deviation.

Another kind of deviation is illustrated in the bizarre word-blends and neologisms of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, e.g. ntuseyroom, wholeborrow, Gracehoper. In these cases the immediate warranty can be divided into two parts. The first is the apprehension of a linguistic connection - actually a phonological resemblance - between the invented word and one or more well-established items of vocabulary: museum, wheelbarrow, grasshopper. The second is the attempt to match this linguistic connection with some connection outside language, perhaps some referential connection between the invented words and the 'proper' words we map on to diem. Thus ntuseyroom suggests, appropriately enough, that a museum is a room in which one muses, just as in [a] of §4.2.1, authoritis might suggest a writing-bug which afflicts my aunt as cripplingly as arthritis.

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