[ilds] Tree of Idleness -- how to read (& why?)

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Sun Jul 22 09:26:26 PDT 2007

On 7/22/2007 12:13 AM, Bruce Redwine wrote:
> Bill, thanks for the confession.  Well, I'm a New Critic, of sorts, and one certainly old in years, with a decidedly biographical bent and who knows what else, but without any of the "newfangleness," as Wyatt might say.
My own testimony:

I try to read via a range of several approaches, emphases, lenses, 
techniques.  When I imagine what I do when I read, I like to imagine 
that this reader works through the poem like a trained musician, 
transposing the composer's score into different signatures, playing it 
back by means of different instruments, each of which may bring out 
unexpected and unforeseen aspects and undertones.  These transpositions 
may emphasize formal aesthetics, a juxtaposition of the author's other 
works (early and late), literary tradition and genre, biography, 
history, &c. 

I might also use the analogy of the actor studying the script and then 
interpreting the role on the stage.  Neither of these analogies is my 
own.  Oscar Wilde offers them up in "The Critic as Artist," and knowing 
Wilde I am certain that he is miming any number of sources.  (From their 
reports here about "The Tree of Idleness," I think that Bruce and Bill 
and Michael make their own variations upon this also, as do Jamie and 

First I try to be as open and Edenic as possible--taking the poem as it 
comes--which is in the end impossible.  We are all post-lapsarian.  We 
all meet ourselves at some point or another while reading.  And maybe 
that act of unexpected recognition is something that brings us back to 
Durrell.   Durrell is brilliant enough to remind us of aspects of 
ourselves and our world that we had yet to meet or to discover.  His 
words help us to conceive anew

>         'There are sides of the self
>         One can seldom show. They live on and on
>         In an emergency of anguish always,
>         Waiting for parents in another.'
>         Would you say that later, reading
>         Such simple propositions, the historian
>         Might be found to say: 'The critic
>         In him made a humour of this passion.
>         The equations of a mind too conscious of ideas,
>         Fictions, not kisses, crossed the water between them'? 

                -- CONON IN ALEXANDRIA (1946/1945)

Then I like to insist on "old fashioned" New Critical approaches.  I 
stick to the score as a starting point (in order to chart out the basic 
ground of the work) and then afterward at regular points in between 
subsequent approaches (in order to test and to tune the validity of 
those various supplemental approaches).  Then I remind myself of Pater's 

>         In æsthetic criticism the first step
>         towards seeing one's object as it really is, is to know
>         one's own impression as it really is, to discriminate
>         it, to realise it distinctly. The objects with which
>         æsthetic criticism deals, music, poetry, artistic and
>         accomplished forms of human life, are indeed receptacles
>         of so many powers or forces; they possess,
>         like natural elements, so many virtues or qualities.
>         *What is this song or picture, this engaging personality
>         presented in life or in a book, to me? What
>         effect does it really produce on me? Does it give
>         me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure?
>         How is my nature modified by its presence
>         and under its influence? *The answers to these
>         questions are the original facts with which the
>         æsthetic critic has to do; and, as in the study of
>         light, of morals, of number, one must realise such
>         primary data for oneself or not at all. And he who
>         experiences these impressions strongly, and drives
>         directly at the analysis and discrimination of them,
>         need not trouble himself with the abstract question
>         what beauty is in itself, or its exact relation to
>         truth or experience,---metaphysical questions, as unprofitable
>         as metaphysical questions elsewhere. He
>         may pass them all by as being, answerable or not,
>         of no interest to him.
        -- "Preface," /Studies in the History of The Renaissance/ (1873)

Pater's question helps to bridge between the Formal emphases of the New 
Critics (peace be upon them) and the other approaches which emphasize 
history, context, and subjectivity (the various "powers" and "forces" 
invoked by Pater).  Get as particular as possible--both about the poem 
itself and about your responses.  Then you can start to learn and to 

But I learn most when I take my conclusions and test them against 
others.  Thus my enjoyment of this poem on this list.

This email is long, and I am hungry to get to the particular in my next 


Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://lists.uvic.ca/pipermail/ilds/attachments/20070722/23e28a74/attachment.html 

More information about the ILDS mailing list