A Few Thoughts on Close Reading
There are still some literary critics who have New Critical notions of close reading, imagining that we are somehow isolating the “words on the page” as an autonomous verbal structure and identifying strategies of irony, ambiguity, and paradox etc. However, literary theory has long moved beyond this model – or the corresponding French model of explication de texte. Many theories – Marxist, feminist, reader-response, post-colonial – have taught us that the act of close reading consists not in isolating a passage but reading it in relation to broader ideological issues and intellectual traditions. In other words, there is no “neutral” reading of Blake’s “The Tyger” which is somehow extricated from all historical and ideological contexts, from the movements and political contexts of Romanticism or from notions of sense-experience, reason and Imagination. By the same token, one cannot situate a literary text within any broader current without close reading.
Also, it is a myth – exploded by Translation Studies and studies in World Literature – that we cannot read closely a text in translation. Most of the texts we teach in World Masterpieces I and II are in translation. And of course we do read these closely: we must pay attention to the details of Plato’s arguments in the Symposium or to the certain passages in the Odyssey or Antigone. Of course, the exercise here is not exactly the same as reading a text in its original language – but it can still be a valuable exercise in close reading. I often teach translated texts – such as Urdu poetry – and the reading can be even closer, given that we might look at, say, three different translations of the same poem. There are certain stylistic features that one cannot talk about but there are many that one can talk about. A few of us have read Homer in Greek and Vergil and Horace in Latin; I admit that my knowledge of these languages is now very rusty but we don’t have to be experts to talk about basic features such as the use of narrative voice, formulae, repetition, parallelism, and epithets in oral epic poetry. The old cliché from Frost that poetry is what gets lost in translation is only partly true, and based on an outmoded model of the text as something pristine and autonomous that somehow precedes the act of reading; many theorists have argued that much is gained in translation. Think of the reviews of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf which praised it largely because it succeeded as a poem in its own right.