What is interpretation? What is over-interpreting?

I once got into an argument with someone at university about Kate Bush’s song ‘Breathe’. He said it was a song about smoking. I said it was a song about nuclear fallout. Who was right? Is it possible we were both right? Is it possible that it is not possible to be right? Does it matter?

According to some schools of thought, it’s all a matter of what you personally find in the text. In fact, in those schools of thought, there is no ‘text’ until you create it by reading it. But extremist reader-response theories fail to explain why, for example, Macbeth continues to hold audiences to their seats whether performed propless and in the round, as by Ian McKellan and Judi Dench or in a full theatre production, whereas Peter Pan without the flying really doesn’t work. There really are great works of literature, lesser works, and utter rubbish, and, even if someone develops a personal attachment to something, a real literary critic needs to be able to detach themselves from their own response and consider the work as it is.

This is not in any sense to say that our own response is irrelevant. Without an audience, art is dead. Again, though, a real critic who simply does not respond to a particular work that others have found compelling will often take steps to gather enough understanding to make it work for them.

There are essentially three overarching questions — meta-questions, if you like — which I would want to ask in approaching any work of literature, whether fact or fiction.

  1. What did the original author(s) intend?
  2. What did the original audience experience?
  3. What resonances has it gathered with subsequent audiences?

Authorial intention is as easy to grasp as the original author intended it to be grasped, and as the critic is able to put himself into the author’s context. Skirnismàl, in the Poetic Edda, for example, is almost impossible to grasp in terms of authorial intention. We don’t know who the author was, or whether there was  succession of authors each improving the poem. Unless you read fluent Icelandic you will never really get the nuances, because the poem is more or less untranslateable, except in a rudimentary fashion. 1 Further, even if you have a decent knowledge of Icelandic and of Norse mythology, it is very hard to put yourself into the shoes of a Norse pagan writer for whom the very words had magical implications. Finally, there is a very real possibility that, like much occult or ritual writing, the layers of meaning were not meant to be understood by everyone, but only those initiated in a particular way.

On the other hand, for a newspaper article written last week, it’s rather easier — though you could still get it badly wrong.

There’s a range of how well you can grasp the intention, going from correctly identifying the meaning of the words, and what the sentences or paragraphs as a whole mean, through to sharing a common culture and outlook on life. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example, is not a hard book to understand, partly because the culture and history is not very dissimilar from our own, and partly because it’s a long book in which the author tries quite hard to hammer home the points he is making. Of course, we could still be mistaken, and the book might be highly ironic. But we have other books by Defoe, such as Moll Flanders, considerable background on his life, rather more background on the history and culture of the times, and an even greater context of the particular religious position Defoe espoused.

The experience of the original audience is easiest when we have written records of how people found the work. There was a riot at the first performance of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, and Stravinsky subsequently decided that it was really an orchestral work rather than a ballet. For recent books, we can look at reviews and what is talked about online. For older books, there are a number of publications for more important works in the Critical Tradition series, which are simply anthologies of what has been written down through the centuries about the books. Even without this, a sound understanding of the culture and history of the time can help us make intelligent guesses. For Beowulf, for example, the simple fact that someone bothered to copy it out by hand on vellum means that it was regarded as a work of enormous importance in its day. The costs of that kind of reproduction for a secular book were astronomical. Likewise, with Chaucer, the very large number of early copies speaks to its popularity. We can trace imitation or quotation in contemporary authors, and we can also compare with how similar works were treated.

Later resonances are important for two reasons. First, they help us to understand the significance of the work. The Rite of Spring is now regarded as one of the greatest works of music of the 20th century, despite its original poor public reception. Paradise lost has been mined for quotations, and established itself as the central English-language epic for more than three hundred years. Equally, though, they can help us guard against modern cultural assumptions which may cloud our own experience. I’ve heard Robinson Crusoe decried as racist and imperialist. These are probably reasonable accusations. However, they do not actually change the meaning of the book, although they may colour our response to it. Virtually everything written by the ancient Greeks was racist — they regarded all non-Greeks as barbarians — and virtually everything written by the Romans was imperialistic. But this should not detract from our understanding of Virgil’s Aeniad as a work of literature, nor of the Oresteia as drama.

Although background and culture are essential — one reason why I typically recommend the Oxford World Classics series, because they contain useful footnotes even for writers as recent as John Buchan — all that we are ultimately left with are the words. Close knowledge of the text is the mark of the serious critic. Studying for A-level, there ought to be always enough time to get detailed knowledge, although many students seem to want to keep the text at arm’s length and use crib notes instead, but, at university, I don’t think there are many students who can honestly claim that they really gave their fullest attention to all the texts they were allegedly studying.

For texts close to us in time and space, it’s generally enough to read them. As the texts get more distant, they become more confusing. Especially with poetic texts, it can be hard to pin down what is literal, what is metaphorical, and what is symbolic. Consider William Blake’s Tyger Tyger:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Is the tiger a symbol, or is the burning a metaphor? If the tiger is a literal tiger, are the forests of the night an image or symbol for something, or is Blake just using a roundabout (but evocative) phrase for ‘dark forests’. Also, why is he writing about a Tiger, and why is he spelling it Tyger? Was this a common spelling in Blake’s time (1794), or did he deliberately choose an archaic spelling, or an unusual spelling. What does the ‘fearful symmetry’ tell us about his choice of an animal for the poem?

Most readers assume that this poem is about tigers, but this is really a very superficial interpretation. This is actually a poem about God, and Blake goes on to muse about the paradoxes of a God who made both the Tiger and the Lamb:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

The key to the poem is in the first stanza, but it is not “Tyger! Tyger!”, but rather “What immortal hand or eye…?”

An alert reader of the original collection of poems, though — and this is important, because most modern readers will encounter Tyger! Tyger! in an anthology, divorced from its original context — will spot that there is another poem in the collection called The Lamb.

Little Lamb, who made thee
Does thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing woolly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice.
Making all the vales rejoice:
Little Lamb who made thee
Does thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by His name,
Little Lamb God bless thee,
Little Lamb God bless thee.

You can see why this poem has not been as anthologised as often as Tyger! Tyger! It lacks the other’s rhythmic insistence, the powerfully evocative visual imagery, and the more exciting subject matter. For most modern readers — though, again, we need to ask ourselves if this is how the original readers took it, and also if this is how Blake hoped they would take it — the poem is rather twee and sentimental.

However, for our purposes, it’s now clear that this is not simply a poem about something which is coincidentally mentioned in The Tyger. “Little Lamb, who made thee…?” is essentially the same question as “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

Another question which will immediately interest us — though we may not get the answer — is: which one did he write first? Did he edit one after writing the other? Were they written more or less the same time. In other words, in which direction did Blake’s though flow: did he write a poem about a Lamb, and then decide to write a poem that contrasted it, but linked to it, or did he write the Tiger poem, and decide to pick up the Lamb question later? Although it may interest us, the question is not necessarily relevant (though it might be — it’s always worth asking). Likewise, the answer which the author wants us to hear may not be true. The Romantic poets generally gave out that they felt poetry should be written in one flow. Coleridge gives an elaborate (and widely doubted) account of how he wrote Kubla Khan as a result of an opium trance, and was interrupted by the visit of a man from Porlock, which prevented him from finishing it. But reading the poem, it’s hard to come away without the strong impression that it was running out of steam anyway. The first lines

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

are masterful, and widely quoted. However, by the time we get to

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

we could be forgiven for feeling that we have heard it before. More importantly, the last stanza, in which Coleridge discusses how he would respond to such a palace, which end with the lines

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

give a strong impression that they are intended as the concluding lines of the poem, both through their rhythm, and their content. At the very least, no such natural stopping point has occurred earlier in the poem. If Coleridge had really been interrupted by a man from Porlock, then we would imagine that he would have stopped mid-line. But if he felt free enough to continue writing to a convenient stopping point, why not keep the man waiting until the whole thing was complete? That is, if he were writing straight from his dream. On the other hand, if he were composing as he went, this would be a rather more daunting task.

We cannot, of course, know the answer to this. But we do know that other romantics tried to cover up the earlier versions of their poems and their revisions, and explicitly espoused a ‘first draft’ aesthetic.

Blake is a very good example of a writer who was not well understood by his original audience, possibly because the poems give the impression of being naive, but are not. Keats, on the other hand, is a poet of superficial charms. Once you have read To Autumn, and enjoyed it, you have more or less got out of the poem everything there is to get out of it. If you move on to Ode on a Grecian Urn, and thence Ode to a Nightingale, you may find yourself strongly questioning some of the points he is trying to make: is it really better to endless pursue than to achieve? Is truth really beauty? But Blake’s relative opacity has meant that people have continued to misunderstand him, and read into the poems things which are actually the opposite of his intention. Blake’s most famous poem, if not The Tiger, is arguably Jerusalem. Now, Jerusalem has been adopted as the anthem of the Women’s Institute. A careful reading of Blake’s other works, however, would suggest that the comfortable assertion that Jesus Christ came to England at some point, thereby making it special, would have been very far from Blake’s intention. But was it Blake’s intention to conceal his true meaning from the readers who would not enjoy it? The allusiveness of much of his writing, given that his views were unusual and would probably have been unpopular, suggests that he was well aware that his poems would do better if the people most likely to be offended by them did not actually understand them. At the same time, this is a very good example of how we sometimes need to be aware of a modern reading in order to reject it. When I first encountered Jerusalem, long before I read any other Blake, I dismissed it as jingoistic, nationalistic twaddle. One of the main reasons I did not read Blake until much later was that I had little interest in reading a poet who used pseudo-Christian legends to justify the British empire and its destiny to rule the waves. I feel this misreading was not entirely my own fault: I heard it set to Parry’s tune, which had been described to me as ‘morally uplifting’, and it was certainly in the context of praising England and the British way of life. It was only when I could properly put that interpretation to bed that I was able to understand and enjoy Blake as a complex poet who constantly challenged society and its comfortable, easy readings of religion which for him contrasted strongly with his own faith.

If interpretation is essentially understanding what the author meant, informed by what it meant to the original audience and what it has meant to subsequent audiences, what is over-interpreting?

Essentially — in my opinion — we over-interpret when we take an early or poorly informed view of what something is about, and then try to re-interpret the rest of the work in order to fit the theory. To some extent it is inevitable that we do this, because our first reading will not always be the right one, and it is only natural that we read on in the context of what we already read. But, if we are not conscious of this tendency, and willing to go back and re-evaluate what we thought we have read, then we do push ourselves along the path of getting steadily further and further from what the work is about in order to perpetuate the theory we have created. There are, of course, also over eager critics who are determined to see meaning in everything. This may be a particular fault of literature students who, finding that they do not have enough time to read the book properly, try to compensate by focusing on a single passage and interpreting the life out of it. Without the context of the rest of the book, this is doomed to failure, though it can be mildly entertaining, in a rather sour sort of way, for whoever has to listen to the essay or mark the paper.

The ideal critic is judicious in their approach. It is sometimes better to understand a book shallowly, but accurately, than run the risk of misunderstanding it by looking in the wrong places for deeper meaning. Deeper meanings which don’t jump out at you are as often as not figments of the imagination. What is the deeper meaning of the Lord of the Rings? Or Stairway to Heaven? One of them is a rollicking and at times passionate tale set in an imaginary world, the other is an evocative and imagistic song. Both have had screeds written about their hidden meanings (for Stairway to Heaven, even the meaning when the song is played backwards), but, in fact, neither have additional depths: what you understood the first time really is what the book and song were about. Tolkien was at pains to point this out in the introduction to the Lord of the Rings, although many dedicated fans ignored this.

Ultimately, for most of us for most of the literary works we encounter, reading is enough for us to grasp the basic meaning, and to enjoy it for what it is. Sound interpretation is really the extension of that meaning — ensuring that we’ve read it right, observing it more closely so that we get more out of it.

Show 1 footnote

  1. While studying Icelandic, I once spent an entire afternoon with the Old Icelandic Poetic dictionary and the Danish-English dictionary (the Icelandic poetic dictionary is only Icelandic-Danish) trying to make sense of the vocabulary of the first stanza.

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