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Close reading ('new criticism')

A verbal construct

There are two main approaches taken by critics when analysing text. One appoach is to consider the work apart from any context or background, as words on the page, as text:

This approach emphasised paying close attention to the artefact. It is like paying close attention to a painting, looking at technique, skill, perspective, colour, and how representational it is, rather than learning about the painter or when it was painted. Each poem is seen as a timeless artistic product.

What close reading focuses on

In this approach, each text is seen as a timeless artistic product. What particularly interested the first close readers were:

In a sense, everyone has to start here. Understanding specific works and understanding the context in which they were created needs to go hand in hand.  However hard the text might seem, this sort of formal analysis equips you to read texts of any sort.


However, close reading can have its limitations:

Sometimes, knowing the context is a much surer way of establishing a particular meaning.

Use of comparison

Comparison has always been a tool in close reading.  For example, we can see that the religious poetry of various poets may differ from that of another, even when they share the same theology. Even within the output of a single writer, experiences of human love can vary tremendously, with different tones, images, and structures.

A-historical comparison

Focus on individual texts may lead to an interest in the mind which created them, the organising and unifying genius. What sort of mind would produce works like this? In this approach, writers are considered in the light of:

Such comparison tends to be a-historical, that is, with authors from anywhere, any era, like the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, or perhaps French symbolist poets.


Comparisons with literaure immediately preceding that of a particular writer can be helpful, too, to see what the author was reacting against or even imitating. Such comparison is useful in picking up subtexts - those influences from other literature that the writer picks up consciously or unconsciously in their own reading. Sometimes these subtexts are deliberate: a new poem is a response to an older poem, for example. Such deliberate interfacing is often called ‘intertextuality'.

The closer the reading, the more likely you are to pick up the literary allusions, echoes from other texts, parallels with them and so on. We cannot see the originality of a writer if we don't know what was done before. It helps to develop an idea of literary tradition, with breaks and discontinuities in it; we are then aware of new breakthroughs and techniques in language or in ways of seeing reality.

A figure of speech wherein an apparently contradictory set of ideas is presented as being, in fact, part of the same truth.
Figure of speech in which a person or object or happening is described in terms of some other person, object or action, either by saying X is Y (metaphor); or X is like Y (simile). In each case, X is the original, Y is the image.
In literature, something that is chosen to take on a particular meaning by the writer, e.g. clouds as symbols of mutability.
A device similar to alliteration but where the vowel sound in a word is repeated and thus emphasised ' e.g. 'burnt and purged'.
Alliteration is a device frequently used in poetry or rhetoric (speech-making) whereby words starting with the same consonant are used in close proximity- e.g. 'fast in fires', 'stars, start'.
A play on the meaning of words, often for comic effect.
The musical effect of the repetition of stresses or beats, and the speed or tempo at which these may be read.
The tone of voice in which anything is to be read in: e.g. lyrical, dramatic, contemplative.
1. Devout, involved in religious practice 2. Member of a religious order, a monk or nun.
The study of God.
1. Imitation, copy, likeness, statue, picture in literature, art or imagination. 2. A figure of speech in which a person or object or happening is described in terms of some other person, object or action (i.e. as a metaphor or simile)
The Metaphysical Poets were a group of seventeenth century English poets, including John Donne, George Herbert and Richard Crashaw, who used philosophical ideas extensively in their imagery and especially in conceits.
Some other literary text that is present in the mind of writers when creating a new text, and by references, parallels or in some other way, becomes present in the new text also.