Last week I provided the background necessary for understanding the first word in my recurring blog feature – Lambic Pentameter; now it’s time to cover the literary side of things, but don’t be nervous if you haven’t read a poem since pulling a C- in English 101: I’ll draw all my examples from the world of craft beer.
Close reading is the most fundamental tool in a literary scholar’s repertoire, both when it comes to performing original analysis and, especially, when teaching. While the term “close reading” means exactly what it sounds like it means – i.e., focusing on the details of a text – it has come to be associated with a particular school of literary analysis: New Criticism. New Criticism will always be called that, despite the fact that it’s hardly new any more (its heyday was in middle of the 20th century), and has long since gone out of style as a method for original scholarship in favor of a range of postmodern -isms. The very thing that made New Criticism intellectually limited – its almost religious insistence on the autonomy of the text as an independent aesthetic object entirely unaffected by contextual issues like history, culture, and even authors – was precisely what caused it to spawn the most rigorous and enduring method for analyzing texts as formal units on a micro scale. Nobody publishes as a New Critic anymore, but everyone teaches as one. Close reading is here to stay.
The crucial recognition of close reading is that of the most famous of New Critics, Cleanth Brooks: “the heresy of paraphrase.” Essentially, Brooks argued that poetry cannot be explained “in other words” without losing its ontological essence as a work of art. Content is dependent on and inherent in poetic form; meaning cannot be separated from its vessel. For teachers and students of literature, the classic question of “what does this text mean?” becomes insufficient, requiring the equally crucial query “how does this text mean?”.
To put this in beer terms, close reading a text with an eye on both form and content is much like drinking a beer and attempting to understand not just what it tastes like, but how the flavors are created by the brewer’s recipe and brewing methods. Instead of saying “this tastes fruity and hoppy, but not too bitter,” a close reading of a beer would say something like “the heavy dry-hopping with New Zealand hop varietals provides this beer with a heady aroma of tropical fruits and a juicy lychee flavor, but the moderate hop additions during the boil have left a relatively low level of bitterness on the finish.” It’s the same beer both times, but paying attention to how its flavors came into being grants a fuller and more rewarding understanding of the brew.
So, now that we’re all on the same page about what close reading is and why it’s important, all that remains is to explain how it’s done. Sadly, this isn’t exactly simple. The complicated interplay of form and content inherent in creating meaning cannot be unraveled in a simple formula or step-by-step guide, but having led with that caveat I’ll try to do exactly that.
Content: this is both the simpler and the more difficult side of the form/content coin, in that understanding the words themselves requires no special vocabulary or esoteric knowledge of prosody and rhetoric, but is nonetheless subject to nigh-endless vicissitudes of subjectivity. When analyzing the content of a Shakespearean passage, doing a close reading for content will often necessitate the consultation of reference works like a dictionary (preferably the OED – subscription required, sadly) and a Shakespeare concordance in order to understand all the potential meanings inherent in a word. Once you know what a word meant during Shakespeare’s historical moment and how Shakespeare himself employed that word elsewhere in his writings, you’re ready to begin assessing what meaning(s) it has in the context of a particular passage.
This is roughly analogous to understanding what flavors and aromas can be produced by any given variety of malt or hop – which, as any homebrewer or beer connoisseur knows, is never as simple as it would seem. And even the fullest knowledge of ingredients doesn’t grant psychic foreknowledge of what a beer will taste like.
Form: talking about form is considerably trickier, as it requires an extensive, esoteric vocabulary of metrical and rhetorical terms. The good news for anyone who feels unfamiliar with such things is that you already know what these literary tricks are, even if you don’t know what they’re called.
Meter: English verse is what’s called accentual-syllabic, meaning that its rhythm is determined both by the number of syllables in a line and by the arrangement of stresses. The basic unit of prosody is the foot, and is usually made up of one stressed syllable and one or two unstressed ones. The meter of a poem is described in terms of how many feet each line contains, as well as how the stresses are arranged within each foot. The quantitative aspect is easy: monometer is one foot, dimeter two, trimeter three, and so on: tetra- = 4, penta- = 5, hexa- = 6, septa- = 7. Rarely do lines go on longer than 7 feet. Determining what kinds of feet are in a line is a bit more complicated; here’s a rundown of the four most common ones:
- Iambic: two syllables per foot, stress on the second – e.g. Fantôme Saison
- Trochaic: two syllables per foot, stress on the first – e.g. Heady Topper
- Anapestic: three syllables foot, stress on the third – e.g. the phrase “a Sier/ra Neva/da”
- Dactylic: three syllables per foot, stress on the first – e.g. Isabelle Proximus
Isabelle Proximus, a dactylic delight.
The meter found most often in our tongue (and that in which this sentence is composed, at least until the colon at the end): Iambic Pentameter. Shakespeare and most other English poets have found this to be the most natural and versatile of meters, allowing everything from the conversational blank (i.e., unrhymed) verse of Shakespeare’s late romances to the pounding, heroic, “mighty line” of Marlowe’s tragedies to the mellow, musical rhythm of Robert Frost. Its versatility means that, in terms of close reading, what matters isn’t the fact that a passage is in iambic pentameter but how the author makes the meter fit the meaning – for example, a string of monosyllables can slow down the rhythm, like when the audience of King Lear is forced to face the horror of this line: “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stone” (5.3.237). The repetition of the first four words stretches a mere two feet of verse into a seeming eternity of agony, and the return of recognizable stress variation in the rest of the line accentuates the crucial nouns – “you,” “men,” and especially the fittingly weighty “stone.”
Rhetoric: while the word rhetoric has come to mean primarily the hollow pronouncements of vainglorious politicians, in Shakespeare’s time it referred to the serious and well-respected practice of creating eloquence through the use of tried-and-true verbal devices. Renaissance rhetoricians identified hundreds of distinct figures of speech, all of which could be used to delight and persuade. Shakespeare was educated in this rhetorical tradition, derived directly from the oratorical traditions of ancient Rome, and made constant use of what he had learned. While the full assortment of figurative devices at Shakespeare’s disposal is certainly too long (not to mention boring) to list here, here are several of the most important ones, along with examples drawn from the beer world:
Alliteration: the repetition of initial sounds, especially consonants in stressed syllables. Example: Nugget Nectar.
Assonance: the repetition of a vowel sound within words. Example: Black & Tan.
Note the chiastic structure of the words on the label, and how the colors emphasize the inversion.
Chiasmus: a symmetrical structure of items in a series – xyyx. So called because if you stack the first half of the list on top of the second and connect the similar items, the resultant shape is that of an x, or the Greek letter chi. The logic behind the inversion can vary, from grammatical (e.g., noun-adjective-adjective-noun) to thematic (e.g., good-bad-bad-good) to simply verbal repetition. This last case of chiasmus – the direct repetition of words in an opposite order, like the famous “Fair is foul and foul is fair” from Macbeth – is known specifically as antimetabole. Example: Cigar City Warmer Winter Winter Warmer.
Consonance: the repetition of a consonant sound within words. Example: Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout.
Hyperbole: overstatement. Example: just about every beer name out there, especially those that mention hops.
Irony: saying the opposite of what is meant. Example: New England Brewing Company Fancy Pants. The irony in this case is one of tone, where a silly name is given to an extremely serious, esoteric beer (a sour beer aged for 2 years in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, to be precise). The irony is deepened by the visual of the label, which mimics the clean, classy look of a wine label but fills the fine print with ironically self-deprecating humor. An additional use of this term, but one that sadly cannot really be exemplified by a beer, is dramatic irony, which happens when the audience knows something that a character does not. For example, much of the humor of Twelfth Night comes from knowing that the character befriended homosocially by Orsino and wooed heterosexually by Olivia is not, as they think, the male page Cesario, but actually the disguised gentlewoman Viola.
Great doesn't even come close...
Meiosis: understatement. This can take various forms, including litotes (understatement by negation, such as “I am not unwilling to drink Millenium Geuze”) and paradiastole (the rhetorical softening of an extreme state, such as describing a horridly skunked beer as having a “distinct” aroma). For a general example, I can think of nothing more fitting than Alpine Great.
Metonymy: much like a metaphor, but uses a closely related item of comparison instead of an imaginatively different one. Example: Aecht Schlenkerla Oak Smoke. The bottle contains not smoke, but beer, but as its malt was smoked over oak wood the comparison is too close to be a metaphor.
Metaphor: referring to one thing by calling it something different. The thing actually meant is the tenor of the metaphor, while the thing explicitly said is called the vehicle. Example: The Abyss. A bottle of this imperial stout does not contain an actual abyss, but simply a beer that is black enough to resemble one.
Oxymoron: the juxtaposition of a noun with a contradictory modifier, creating a paradoxical effect. A common feature of Petrarchan love poetry (which was a strong influence on the Elizabethan sonnet tradition), images of burning ice and living death were de rigeur. While Shakespeare often mocked this trend (with great comic effect), he also saw the figure’s potential for more serious meaning. My favorite beer oxymoron is Jackie O’s Kentucky Monk, a beer that ages a Tripel (a beer traditionally brewed by pious, decorous Trappist monks) in a barrel that previously held Bourbon (a drink that is more likely to be consumed at a NASCAR race than a monastery; no offense to either). This cross-cultural recipe gets reflected humorously in the beer’s name and, especially, its label.
Great can, mediocre beer.
Personification: assigning human attributes to a non-human thing. Example: Porkslap Pale Ale. Pigs don’t actually give high fives.
Pun: use of a word with multiple potential meanings, or that closely suggests another word. Used almost exclusively for humorous effect today, Shakespeare often employed puns in more serious ways. Example: Hoppy Birthday, and a million other hop-named beers.
Rhyme: the repetition of a final vowel + consonant sound, but with the preceding consonant sound having been changed. Example: Portsmouth Kate the Great. While rhyme is often thought of simply as a pleasing sonic effect with little bearing on meaning, Shakespeare and most other good poets seek to rhyme only words that yield profitable meaning when brought into conversation by rhyme. For example, when Hamlet says “I’ve that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.85-6), the juxtaposition of “show” and “woe” reinforces the pathos of both the prince’s enforced display of obedience to his mother and stepfather and the performance we are observing (what is a tragedy, after all, but a show of woe?). Rhymes are particularly important in cases like this, where Shakespeare ends a long passage of blank verse with a single, emphatic couplet.
Possibly the best beer I've ever tasted. The angel tears were delicious.
Simile: like a metaphor, but with the comparison foregrounded through the use of “like” or “as.” Example: Sipping that 1999 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze was like bathing in the joyous tears of a million angels.
Synecdoche: using a part to represent the whole. Example: Alpine Nelson. Not only does the word Nelson stand in for the entire name of the hop, Nelson Sauvin, but for all the other ingredients that go into that beer.
Zeugma: the yoking together of two different nouns (usually one concrete, one figurative) with a single verb. Example: “This fresh can of Heady Topper contains hops and happiness.”
That seems like plenty for now. Thanks for reading, and don’t hesitate to leave a comment with any questions or observations you may have.