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Saying Simply

Referentiality; Texts


In a well-known passage in his Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1983) Professor Stanley Fish explains how during one of his class meetings in the State University of New York at Buffalo he had written on the blackboard the names of the authors of certain texts, presumably in an anthology, that should be read for the following meeting.

They went, he informs us, as follows:

Ohman (?)

The form in which I have presented them is the form in which he himself does, though in its centred symmetry it doesn’t look to me exactly like how you would normally write such a list.

In any event, he tells us, when his next set of students (for a class in 17th-century English religious poetry) came in, he informed them straightfacedly that this was a religious poem and asked them to explicate it, which they proceeded to do with a gusto and ingenuity worthy of publication, presumably along the lines of what they had previously been doing with poems by Donne, Herbert, Traherne, and so on (particularly Herbert, who wrote some “shaped” poems himself).

Jacob’s ladder, the “tree” of the Cross, the Virgin Mary, Moses, were a few of the elements that came waltzing in. “Finally, I must report that one student took to counting letters and found, to no one’s surprise, that the most prominent letters in the poem were S.O.N.” I trust that the student ended the term with an A.

Since then, Professor Fish says, “I have duplicated this experiment any number of times at nine or ten universities in three countries, and the results are always the same, even when the participants know from the beginning that what they are looking at was originally an assignment.”



In his “Literary Criticism and Philosophy,” which first appeared in Scrutiny in 1937, Leavis was responding to a published letter from René Wellek, who had taken issue with what he saw as Leavis’s indifference to philosophy in his dealings with the English Romantic poets, and outlined what he saw as Leavis’s own critical norms.

Among other things (in the photocopied excerpt that I gave the seminar group), he said,

The critic—the reader of poetry—is indeed concerned with evaluation, but to figure him as measuring with a norm which he brings up to the object and applies from the outside is to misrepresent the process. The critic’s aim is, first, to realize as sensitively and completely as possible this or that which claims his attention; and a certain valuing is implicit in the realizing. As he matures in experience of the new thing he asks, explicitly and implicitly: ‘Where does this come? How does it stand in relation to . . .? How relatively important does it seem? And the organization into which it settles as a constituent in becoming ‘placed’ is an organization of similarly ‘placed’ things, things that have found their bearings with regard to one another, and not a theoretical system or a system determined by abstract considerations....

What, on testing and re-testing and wider experience [he asks himself], turn out to be my more constant preferences, what the relative permanencies in my response, and what structure begins to assert itself in the field of poetry with which I am familiar? What map or chart of English poetry as a whole represents my utmost consistency and most inclusive coherence of response?

The essay is in Leavis’s The Common Pursuit (1952)



Wordsworth’s sonnet “Mutability,” as quoted by Winters on page 169 in his book Forms of Discovery (1967), goes as follows:

From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail;
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whiten’d hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
Her crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.

“Let us examine the poem point by point,” he says, and proceeds to do so in a long paragraph that I gave to the group, and from which I shall quote a few passages.

Dissolution [he points out] does not climb and sink; it is going on everywhere at every moment. Dissolution does not resemble a musical scale; this comparison gives us no aid in hearing, seeing, understanding, or imagining either dissolution or a musical scale. Only the most violent of dissolution is audible; the dissolution proceeding as I write, in my body and in the books on my shelves, is inaudible and bears no resemblance to music.

He asks,

What is “over-anxious” care? Does he mean that all care is “over-anxious” and that we should, in the proper romantic fashion, refrain from bothering out heads about anything? Or does he mean that there are degrees of anxiety and somewhere a proper degree?

Of the statement “Truth fails not,” he enquires,

Does he mean that the truth is always there or that we always know about it? The second meaning would be foolish, the first hardly worth stating in so empty a fashion—some things can be taken for granted.

To which he adds,

His meaning, I imagine, is about the same as that in the best line in XXXIV (After-Thought) of the sonnets to the river Duddon: “The Form remains, the Function never dies.” The universal survives, the particulars vanish . . . But the sentence “Truth fails not” is so general as to be both undefinitive and pompous.

He concludes by saying:

The last two and a half lines are the best in Wordsworth and are among the few great lines to be discussed in this essay. These lines make us realize the true nature of dissolution, or an aspect of the true nature, as that which works continuously and so subtly as to be imperceptible until the indeterminable moment when the object can no longer sustain its own weight. This one perception was the occasion for the poem; the poem has nothing else to offer.


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Saying Simply Verlaine Mallarme Suspiciousness Referentiality Holderlin Yeats Hopkins Hopkins2 Woolf