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:

  • The close analysis of poetry was first promoted in the 1920s by the so-called ‘New Criticism' in the USA, and by academics like I.A.Richards, William Empson and F.R.Leavis in the English Department of Cambridge University in England
  • Various recent theories have pushed this further, seeing each text as a ‘verbal construct' and any meaning arising out of that construct
  • Much poetry fits in very well with this approach, since the more closely one pays attention to the words, the more meaning and the more skill one can discover.

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:

  • The ambiguities within texts

  • How many layers of meaning or interpretation there were

  • The paradoxes

  • The undercurrents of tone

  • How sincere or honest the writer's voice was, and at what level

  • The imagery used: how central it was to conveying meaning, how subtle its patterns, how symbolic, how original

  • Skills with words, in wordplay, assonance, alliteration, puns

  • Innovations with form, rhythm and other structures

  • Evaluation in terms of the match or consonance of content, tone and expression

  • Evaluating the overall merit of each text, in terms of the above.

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:

  • The stress on evaluation can lead to rather personal judgements if certain agendas are being followed, and many of the new critics did have hidden if not stated agendas

  • The approach is not always successful at making overall judgements about a writer or school of writing, even though individual analyses may be brilliant.

  • It also perhaps relies too heavily on the words on the page to give us all the clues about what they mean, or how the text came to be written in the way it was.

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:

  • How they may differ from other writers

  • How they might be like them.

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.

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