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To anyone who reads these essays, it will be obvious that the arguments rest on a central principle of judgment and interpretation; I assume that for most literature produced more than a hundred years ago, the aesthetic value is best approached by way of the meaning—i.e., that meaning, implicit, plain, or explicit, which the author invites the reader to share with him.[1] "Es gibt kein Verstehen ohne Wertgefühl," says Dilthey; but the maxim may be reversed.[2]

In this spirit I have tried to survey methods of implying or suggesting meaning in literary works attached to a tradition loosely named Augustan. Critics often talk as if English authors of the period 1660–1820 who are morally didactic and who strive for an air of clarity cannot also imply meanings with the utmost subtlety. Or they talk as if implication and covert meaning, to interest us, have to disagree with the more open pronouncements of an author.


I wish to show that subtlety and indirection do not by their nature work against didacticism or an apparently lucid style. To illustrate generic differences within the common techniques, I have chosen a playwright, an essayist, a poet, and a novelist. I assume throughout that in all genres certain themes (politics, religion, sexual passion) are more likely to call for implication than others. I also assume that authors normally indicate their views on such themes by the moral judgments they implicitly pass on the people (real or fictitious) who figure in their stories or expositions. So the concept of heroism naturally becomes a focus for the elaboration of the themes.

If four such different authors can fit inside the same program, one reason is that they share an acquiescent view of the social order and a distrust of courtiers and of courtly aristocrats. Dryden arrived at this outlook after the Glorious Revolution. But in his earlier, heroic plays, I think one may find him already uneasy with the notions of heroism expected by the court that patronized him. Near the end of his career, in the poem addressed to his cousin, John Driden of Chesterton, he sketched a social and political philosophy which was, I believe, more natural to him, and the lineaments of which can still be traced in the novels of Austen. Swift mouthed a reverence for the crown, the court, and the aristocracy while his friends directed the government of England. But after they fell, his intuitive suspicion of unearned power displayed itself in his greatest works. Although Pope flirted with courtliness in Windsor Forest , his mature poems glisten with political alienation and scorn for the highest social classes.

In dealing with English literature of the period 1660–1820, therefore, a critic can discover general grounds for drawing out the covert or indirect meanings of accomplished authors. The institutions which provide the closest context of high literary functions are social. For artists and audiences of the years I survey, the theory or myth of a social hierarchy which was rational and enduring remained central to a view of the common weal. At first, the reaction against civil war, then the threat of


Jacobitism, then the expansion of industry and trade during a series of imperialist wars, turned intellectual effort away from disruptive speculations about the social organism. The cause of national unity against enemies like Jacobitism, France and Popery, or France and revolution discouraged the promoters of constitutional reform. Men like Mandeville, Wilkes, Fox, and Godwin did not unite behind them the section of the people that supplied the creators and patrons of imaginative literature.

In religious doctrine, during these years, the community of the Established Church softened its challenge to Dissent until specific articles of faith had little bearing on the religious principles of the literary population. "I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals," said Austen.[3] Swift's venom against Presbyterianism, Fielding's distrust of Methodism, Scott's sympathetic critique of both Roman Catholicism and the narrowness of the Covenanters, Coleridge's doubts about the divinity of Christ, represent stages illustrating a gradual expansion of the idea of Christianity for those who delighted in poems, novels, and plays. But attitudes toward coarseness and obscenity remained stable.

In all genres the virtues of the hero of romance—honor, physical courage, the exaltation of personal fame over the common weal—gave way to varieties of Christian morality. Even more important, the ideal of the landed country gentleman as the exemplary social type persisted in the literary imagination.

With such common elements in mind I suggest that the ideological context within which poetic implication[4] does its main work was easy to define from the accession of Charles II to the death of George III. Even after we establish that context, some critics doubt that interpretations can be valid without reference to the individual interpreter. But I believe we can arrive at sound interpretations if we keep inside a proper frame-


work and limit our terms. Instead of seeking to demonstrate my case to all nations in all ages of the world, I wish to persuade listeners who already care about the free aesthetic experience of literature and who have a fair knowledge of works in various genres produced during the centuries from Chaucer to Tennyson.

I also take a narrow view of the terms "imply" and "implication." It is easy but dangerous to assume that polarities in literary terminology refer to mutually exclusive divisions which encompass the whole of a literary realm. If we employ words like "explicit" and "implicit," or "statement" and "suggestion," a reader may suppose that all discourse must belong to one or the other department.

Actually, however, most discourse is neither explicit nor implicit. The speech of an author cannot belong to either of these categories unless he seems aware of the fact. We do not apply the terms "implicit" and "explicit" to apparently unintentional effects. To be more precise, I suggest that in most speech we do not consciously or deliberately either speak out or veil our meaning. We merely say what we have to say in a context that supports, directs, and limits meaning. Between the two extremes of "implicit" and "explicit" lies a broad zone of speech that does not pretend to be deliberate.

If I seem confident in elucidating the works I examine, one reason is that I conceive of my problem not in terms of a general theory of hermeneutics but as centered on particular acts of literary interpretation. These acts take place between a speaker and a listener preoccupied with meanings controlled by art. One of the skills of literary genius is finding verbal equivalents for the gestures or vocal emphases which frame or focus acts of implication in conversation. Poetry differs from talk, confession, psychoanalytical sessions, etc., in that its meaning cannot be verified by spontaneous self-correction or impromptu cross-questioning in response to immediate evidence of misconstruction.[5]


Here, like most analysts of artful implication, I do not start from an infinite number of possibilities. In normal acts of literary interpretation we select one alternative from among several—often only two. Is Defoe ironical (we ask), in a scene from Moll Flanders , or is he not? The question we ask is seldom which is the perfect and irrefutable interpretation but rather which of two interpretations is the more probable. Now the choice among two, three, or four interpretations can be argued more convincingly than the absolute demonstration of a single one as quite perfect.

So also we do not address all possible listeners. In normal acts of interpretation we select an audience concerned with and prepared for the argument which we produce; and we judge that argument to be adequate if we can bring over this audience. When one claims that Austen implies a distrust of the peerage in Mansfield Park , one does not try to persuade listeners who have read no English novels of the nineteenth century. The chosen audience, to be persuaded of one out of two or three possible interpretations, constitutes a simpler, easier challenge than the human mind under the aspect of eternity searching for the absolutely true, undeniable explication of a crux in the Gospel according to St. John.

In choosing among several interpretations, I work from Dilthey's premise that context is normally the best guide—e.g., when one tries to decide whether or not a sentiment expressed by a character in Dryden's Aureng-Zebe is implicitly recommended by the play.[6] Sometimes, internal or rhetorical analysis can be determinate. Far more often, however, an interpretative critic sways his chosen audience by considering the actual,


shared world to which the literary work refers—perhaps by recalling the occasion which gave rise to the work, perhaps by sketching the circumstances which the work invites the reader to take for granted. It is largely by such means that one decides whether or not Swift was satirizing all "projectors" (i.e., all advocates of schemes for relieving human misery) in A Modest Proposal .

Finally, the drawing out of implications depends on imaginative sympathy. The listener must feel he can put himself in the place of the poet (known or unknown) as the subject of an imaginatively shared experience. He must, as Dilthey says, penetrate the inner creative process itself and then proceed to the outer and inner form of the literary work.[7] For example, when one elucidates a poem by Pope, one starts from a confidence that the author was supremely aware of the implications of his words, that he foresaw what readers might make of his innuendoes; the poet—we therefore feel—must have known that the audience of The Dunciad might associate the goddess Dulness with Queen Caroline herself as the corrupt zenith of a corrupt civilization. In drawing out the implications of Goldsmith's "The Traveller," one lacks such assurance.

Sympathetic penetration is a mystery, and can be an object of skepticism. Yet it is easy enough to defend. As Schleiermacher observed, we perform the act incessantly during routine communications with others, and human life would be impossible if we did not.[8] We verify the act by the consensus of our chosen audience—the person we are talking to, or the listeners whom we try to persuade of an interpretation. There is a mystery in one person's intuitively grasping what another means when he says, "I see something green," or "I am hungry," or in a woman's understanding of a child who complains, "I feel


lonely." These mysteries are no smaller than the leap of imagination demanded of us when Wordsworth or Stevens responds to a woman's song, or when T. S. Eliot responds to Sappho. For the purpose of establishing the context of meaning is, as Eliot says,

not primarily that we should be able to think and feel, when reading the poetry, as a contemporary of the poet might have thought and felt, though such experience has its own value; it is rather to divest ourselves of the limitations of our own age, and the poet, whose work we are reading, of the limitations of his age, in order to get the direct experience, the immediate contact with his poetry.[9]

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