How do lit students read? An example of close reading

estimated reading time: 4 minutes

I know: the idea of what a literature student does is pretty foggy (sometimes even to us literature students, but I’ve decided that ignoring such issues allows for a more serene life). Undoubtedly, the main task people associate with us is that of reading. But how do we read? Is it always just having our hearts torn out by unsuspectable, innocent-looking dead writers, or allowing living authors to lead us on and then pull the ground from under our feet, leaving us breathless and suspended mid-air? Today I’d like to show you what you can do by reading in a slightly different way, somehow dissecting texts. Since we’re literature students, when we approach a text in a critical way we try to find clues in the text: patterns, symbols, stylistic constants, and the like. This is what we call “close reading“. For instance, if the bloody imagery permeates a play (I’m looking at you, Macbeth), it must mean something, right? And that’s when other scholars’ works come at hand. Nevertheless, you always start from the text and you always return to it.

Trying to prove this point, I will do the close reading of one of my favourite poems, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost (1874-1963). I will try to show that the rhyme scheme cages the flow of the traveller’s thoughts, and that this is similar to the way in which social constraints (the “promises” mentioned in the poem) force individuals to comply with their obligations. This is what you’d call a first draft: there is no comparison with other works by Frost, there are hardly any references, and my considerations are based on the text only. But here’s where you start.

First of all, the text:

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

The poem apparently represents a spontaneous flow of thought. Iambs, linear syntax, simple vocabulary, and enjambments are used to obtain this effect. Iambs, for instance, are usually associated with narrative or discursive poetry (think of John Milton’s grand epic, Paradise Lost), since this meter allows verse to continue forever, potentially. The iambic quatrains in this poem also recall the narrative quality of ballads. At the same time, iambic stress patterns even seem natural to native English-speaking children. In addition to this, the linear syntax and unpolished vocabulary of the poem convey an everyday-speech effect. These discourse-like features are enhanced through enjambments, which produce flows of meaning that overcome line boundaries, especially when the traveller is contemplating the scenery: the whole second stanza, where the landscape is described, is built on enjambment. The flow of thoughts, then, would seem portrayed in its spontaneous development.

And yet, the inversion between main and subordinate sentence in line 1 is actually unnecessary as far as the iambic pattern is concerned. Such inversion, the only contortion in an otherwise linear syntax, would seem aimed at underlining the initial “whose”. The first idea introduced would be that of ownership, then, which is arguably the clearest example of social boundary. Further, the absence of the owner’s name seemingly stresses that the focus here is not on property itself, but rather on the general society associated with and identifiable by property. This element suggests that there is a parallel between poetic form and social boundaries.

On the other hand, this initial inversion also hints at artificiality. The apparently spontaneous flow is enclosed in a constraining rhyme scheme (AABA-BBCB-CCDC-DDDD). In the first three stanzas, this scheme seems to support the flow of thought: each third line introduces the main rhyme of the following quatrain. In the lines 15-16, however, the repetition prevents such introduction and thus creates an inescapable cage for the traveller’s considerations. These internal constraints, however, do not seem to stress artificiality very heavily: after all, they close down only the final stanza. Similarly, we could argue that society binds the individual in an artificial structure of obligations (the traveller’s “promises to keep”), but that these become habits, to the point we hardly perceive them as constraints. Also, social obligations usually allow people to experience a certain degree of freedom within them, in the same way this poetic contemplation achieves spontaneousness despite rhyme constraints. Although “promises” bind the poetic voice to continue their journey, the traveller has stopped to contemplate the woods.

Thus, the formal structure of this poem mirrors how society constrains individuals. Although meter and rhetorical devices convey the traveller’s contemplative spontaneity, the rhyme scheme as well as society allow only a limited degree of freedom, eventually irrevocably interrupting such contemplation.

What do you think? Would you read this differently, and if so, why? Welcome to literary studies!

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