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Poetry Analysis 101: Forming Associations and Textual Evidence
I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark.
Evil air, a frost-making stillness,
Not a leaf, not a bird—
A world cast in frost. I came out above the wood
Where my breath left tortuous statues in the iron light.
But the valleys were draining the darkness
Till the mooring—blackening dregs of the brightening grey—
Halved the sky ahead. And I saw the horses:
Huge in the dense grey—ten together—
Megalith-still. They breathed, making no move,
with draped manes and tilted hind-hooves,
Making no sound.
I passed: not one snorted or jerked its head.
Grey silent fragments
Of a grey silent world.
I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge.
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.
Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted
Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,
And the big planets hanging—
Stumbling in the fever of a dream, down towards
The dark woods, from the kindling tops,
And came to the horses.
There, still they stood,
But now steaming and glistening under the flow of light,
Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves
Stirring under a thaw while all around them
The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound.
Not one snorted or stamped,
Their hung heads patient as the horizons,
High over valleys in the red levelling rays—
In din of crowded streets, going among the years, the faces,
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place
Between the streams and red clouds, hearing the curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of literary analysis is freedom of interpretation.
The author's intention at the time of writing can never (truly) be known. Accurate knowledge of the internal workings of a mind external to our own (particularly when the mind in question is located in an alternative socio-historical context) is impossible. Whilst to presume firm knowledge of the artistic intent of another is academically indefensible, educated speculation is both possible and enjoyable.
The relationship between author and reader can be viewed as a communication of ideas/expressions. Many schools of philosophy (and indeed, those of other disciplines, including psychology) reference transmitter-receiver models of dialogue. In the context of the arts, this model could suggest that the author (the designer of a text) produces an incomplete message (the text), whilst the reader (the consumer of the text) completes the message (by its interpretation).
This allows a single poem to have innumerable potential meanings, each ascribed their shape and value by virtue of the subjective biases, perceptions and experiences of each respective reader; further still, one reader is capable of innumerable readings: e.g., Faulkner suggested that objective truth is intangible (whereas multiple, subjective truths are evident in abundance), a concept explored in depth in novels such as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.
The apparent incompatibility between the subjectivity of artistic expression/interpretation, and the perceived inflexibility of assessment criteria/academic examination often confounds students, to no surprise. The trick with literary analysis lies in illustrating the process used; and remaining mindful of the manner in which it is expressed.
'educated speculation is both possible and enjoyable': The examiner is keen to award marks for interpretations that are founded in textual evidence.
Consider these two responses to a line from Hughes' The Horses:
1) In this poem, Hughes draws a parallel between the silence and stillness of the horses, and the silence and stillness of the world.
- It is not clear in this response what the student means. The horses are described as silent and still, and a parallel between the horses and the world is evident in the text, but the response lacks a direct quotation, and further exploration of what the silence and the stillness of the world could mean, and crucially for whom; further, does Hughes speak of the world in the context of the planet, or of the moorland (as a world unto itself)?
2) In this poem, Hughes draws a parallel between the silence and stillness of the horses, and what would appear to be his perception of the world in which he finds himself: 'Grey silent fragments/Of a grey silent world.' For Hughes, the horses are of the world, as he describes them as 'fragments of (the world)'. Although Hughes is not clear on what has led him to consider the world 'grey', and 'silent', the imagery communicates a sense of melancholy; therefore, for Hughes, the remoteness of the environment, and indeed the seemingly transient behaviour of the animals that populate it, appear to raise sobering questions of mortality, social identity, memory, isolation and disconnection: It is equally possible that Hughes does not share the perspective of the poem's narrator, and that this is a character poem; in either case, the intention appears focused on themes of belonging, isolation, remoteness, serenity, and dislocation. The presence of imagery tied to notions of isolation are furthermore suggestive of the view that for Hughes, the moorland is a 'world' in its own right—an alien space, ungoverned by wider contexts of temporal modernity.
- It is not important as to whether this interpretation is 'correct', either in the eyes of other academics or those of Hughes himself as the author. All that is important is that the interpretation is plausible—and thus defensible. Plausibility is determined by commonly understood themes, such as symbolism (grey symbolises an absence of colour, colour symbolises energy, life, etc.). It is easy to suggest that the presence of 'grey' speaks to questions of death, or formality. You could use 'grey', and the connection to a 'grey, silent world' to argue that Hughes is drawing on funeral imagery, which informs the reading that an allusion to mortality is present.
The task for the student of literature, therefore, is to navigate subjectivity and ambiguity with an awareness of the division that exists between controlled, abstract association, and anarchic abstract association. Ask yourself, "can I defend my reading?" If yes, "have I included my evidence?" If yes, "have I explained why I consider it evidence? Have I referred to common associations, thematic conventions?" If yes, "have I looked into the texture of the language? Does my thematic interpretation marry with the prosody of the line in question?" If yes, "Do I believe that my reading is something that the author could have intended?" etc.