From Dr. Adam Potkay’s “English Majors Handbook” (College of William and Mary)

Interpretation: Close Reading

Close reading is the art of both understanding the words on the page, and appreciating what it is about an author’s words that defies your (at least initial) understanding.

Close reading is the art of attending to the play and paradoxes of literary language. Indeed, the tensions and ironies that inhabit our very best efforts at getting something said are what make them, literarily speaking, our best efforts.

For an example of close reading, let’s take a look at a few lines from the one poem every English major should read, Milton’s Paradise Lost. This is Milton’s first description of Eve:

She as a veil down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d
As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d
Subjection, but require’d with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best receiv’d,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (Bk. 4, 304 ­311)

Close reading of these lines reveals nuances and subtleties that may not be immediately apparent. Why, for example, are Eve’s “golden tresses” described as veil-like? Might this detail suggest that she lacks clear vision or foresight? And to what degree is this blindness balanced by Adam’s superior insight? The poet describes Eve’s hair—and, by extension, her being—in terms of “the Vine,” dependent on objects that are more rooted and sturdy; metaphorically, the poet thus suggests Eve’s dependence on Adam. However, isn’t a good deal of independence suggested by the phrase “coy submission”? The word “coy” here—both for us and, as a perusal of the Oxford English Dictionary will show you, for readers of Milton’s time—has an ambiguous ring to it: it can refer to a shy reserve that’s either genuine or affected. Given the possibility of a calculated reserve, can a person really be “coy” and “submissive” at the same time? A similar question is raised by the phrase “modest pride,” an oxymoron that may make us wonder about the precise relation in Eve’s character between a mode of self-effacement and subtle means of mastering others. Of course, these are all questions that Milton intends us to ponder as he further unfolds the story “Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree” (Bk. 1, 1-2).

Let’s say you come across Milton’s description of Eve in class. If nobody in the class can “close read” the passage—that is, if nobody can simultaneously paraphrase it into plain English, and remark on those elements of Milton’s verse that resist paraphrase—then an hour of class discussion devoted to talk about Good and Evil or Milton’s Attitude Towards Women or the Sexual Politics of the Interregnum is, in a fundamental way, empty. Close reading is the indispensable basis of all higher forms of literary analysis.

If you’d like to see more close reading in action, let me recommend a number of books that you can skim through:

  • Thomas R. Edwards, Imagination and Power: A Study of Poetry on Public Themes;
  • William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity;
  • Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost;
  • Richard Poirier, Robert Frost;
  • Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form;
  • And anything by Helen Vendler (Invisible Listeners, Poets Thinking, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, etc.);

Better still, ask a professor what readings he or she would recommend in a literary period that interests you.

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For other overviews of close reading, see: