A few years ago, I became uneasy about several approaches used by scholars and critics in dealing with literature of the period 1660–1760. So I tried to expose and analyze the errors which the practices led to.[*] What these interpreters shared, I thought, was an evasion of the explicit meanings of the works they examined.
But my own arguments were sometimes taken as suggesting that once a reader apprehended the explicit meaning of a poem, he knew all the poem had to offer. This of course was never my view. I decided therefore to articulate my true position by giving examples of justifiable or legitimate approaches to the evocative power of the literature sometimes called "Augustan."
One obstacle to the plan was the position occupied by the authors themselves. In expounding or defending their own works, they could sound as if they considered their meaning to be always simple and as if lucidity were their sole principle of style. One finds them recommending easy intelligibility as an overriding virtue, and objecting to ingenious (or not so ingenious) misinterpretations of their work. I have confronted this
obstacle in my introduction. In the rest of the book I have produced and analyzed many examples of the methods employed by lucid moralists to convey their meaning subtly and indirectly as well as explicitly.
Originally, I assumed that theories of implication, irony, allegory, etc., would be of central value in such an enterprise. Gradually, I learned that the historical context of the works contributed far more to one's understanding of them than any system of analysis. Reading the works over and over again, studying other works by their authors, comparing the primary texts with works by other authors, giving some consideration to sources, and—above all—striving to sympathize with the poet's individual processes of imagination and creation—such methods proved the most helpful. They transcend even the distinctions I expected to find among genres.
The dangers to be avoided were two: the substitution of information about the works for the direct experience of them, and a failure to keep in mind the need to judge the works, to consider their literary value at the same time as their meaning. I have tried to indicate why Dryden's serious plays hold and fascinate me, why The Drapier's Letters , though rougher in texture, seem a greater achievement than The Examiner , why Pope is always worth minute study, and why Austen remains a supreme literary artist at the same time as she is an obtrusive moralist. In all these projects I have taken the explicit meaning into account although normally going beyond it.