5.1 The values represented by the text
As we have seen, you are fully immersed in the text while you try to discover how it works and what it is about. But in order to make some judgements of it you have to shift your stance a bit. You have to ‘stand back’, as it were, and ask yourself: What do I think about these things I have discovered?
Basically, you need to ask two kinds of question about the text's ‘value’:
What values are represented in the text (emotional/social/moral/intellectual…)?
Are they good values (for us, here and now), or not?
Is the text of value; is this text a good one of its kind?
Returning to the poem, we'll look at each of these questions in turn.
The first question here is, what values does the poem stand for? If the poem is about the nature of the romantic–sexual relationship – the state of being in love – what is it ‘saying’ to us about that?
Stop and think about this question of what values the poem ‘stands for’. Jot down a few of the thoughts that occur to you – and also make a note of what their opposites might be.
For instance, the first things that occurred to me were:
|(for) romance||(‘against’) everyday reality|
|(for) risk||(‘against’) safety|
How did you get on? Other things I wrote down are:
|intensity of feeling||quiescence|
|the stolen moment||settled domesticity|
The point of thinking about the opposite of whatever the text seems to stand for is that, whenever we affirm one thing we also (by implication) deny its opposite. So looking at what the text seems to be ‘denying’ can help you get clear what values it does represent.
Take the first pair of terms I thought of, ‘romance’ versus ‘everyday reality’. Thinking about what the reality of Browning's scenario might be, draws attention to the ideal-ness of what he evokes – its make-believe quality. So, the energetic traveller does not disembark in the cove soaked in sweat (have you ever done any hard rowing, even for a few minutes?). Nor does he twist his ankle while ploughing through ruts or mud slicks in the fields, and no farm-yard dog barks to give his presence away. We do not get the sense that he will have to undertake the whole journey in reverse and then set off for work the next day thoroughly knackered. (In fact there is a companion-piece to this poem, entitled ‘Parting at Morning’, which raises some intriguing possibilities of a different kind.)
Seen from this perspective, the poem seems even more concerned with the possibilities of human passion than with the reality of it. Looking further down my list, it is not that the poem ‘says’ anything as crude as ‘whatever you do, don't get “married” and settle down’. But we can see that in evoking and beautifying this state of intense sexual passion (even, perhaps, a forbidden love) – the vigour, risk-taking and heightening of the senses involved – the poem celebrates all these things. And, in doing so, it seems to ‘recommend’ these as values over their opposites.
You might think that, having examined the text carefully and reached some interpretation of its meanings, there should be no difficulty about deciding what values it represents. But this is not always the case – they may not be obvious to you at all. That is because values are often assumed by the text (simply taken to be true), and so hidden from view. It is as if the text speaks to us ‘out of’ certain underlying beliefs. So, at this stage, you may have to dig around the text a bit more to be clear about them (as we are doing here). As readers, we all make certain assumptions too – we are not conscious of everything we ‘take to be true’. And some of the things we know we believe, we possibly haven't given much thought to.
For instance, you may have assumed from the start that the lover who ‘waits’ is a woman. And we saw that it is reasonable to think so, given the time and place the poem was written and read (so it isn't a totally unexamined assumption). However, we are now interpreting this as a poem about the state of being in love, rather than about particular lovers. If it is about human sexual passion in general, shouldn't we think again about this assumption? But, then, what about the ‘ringlets’…?
Texts of all kinds, especially philosophical texts, challenge us to explore our assumptions, and really think about what we believe and why.
So, having identified some of the values the poem seems to stand for, are they ‘good’ values – for us, here and now – or not? What do you think?
You might take one of a number of positions on this. For example, you could argue along something like the following lines:
1 The poem evokes, beautifies and celebrates an ‘ideal’ of the romantic, sexual relationship. In doing so, it draws our attention to the possibilities of intense human passion – the energy, our willingness to risk, the heightening of our senses involved. And so, it espouses values that are positively life enhancing.
At this point there are at least a couple of different directions your argument might take:
(a) At a time when we seem to be obsessed with practical concerns of various kinds (with technology, the economy, material comfort…), it suggests that what we are, and may be in relationship to one another, is at least as valuable as what we achieve. The poem makes us question our modern assumptions; to think again about what it means, as human beings, to be fully alive.
(b) In its unashamed celebration of human passion and absence of moral judgement, the poem takes what seems a surprisingly modern stance. These are not what we normally think of as ‘Victorian values’. Reading the poem makes us think about relationships between then and now – re-examining what we understand by both ‘Victorian’ and ‘modern’ values.
On the other hand, leaving the first two sentences of (1) above pretty much as they are, you might add:
2 …espouses values that at first sight seem life enhancing. However, the poem celebrates a particular view of what that means. The values it represents are, traditionally, masculine values – ‘risk’ and aggressive ‘action’ taken towards the satisfaction of sexual desire. As the poem idealises these values, at the same time it spurns the more passive or ‘nurturing’ values thought to be natural in the female. These differences were no doubt widely believed to be true of men and women at the time the poem was written and first read…
Again, the argument could then take off in different directions:
(a) … even so, the effect of the poem is to glorify the ‘male’ at the expense of the ‘female’. This hardly seems ‘life enhancing’ in our modern-day understanding. Perhaps the poem's greatest value to us is as a measure of how differently we view things now.
(b) … so that the superior value of the ‘masculine’ is simply assumed. Knowing that, we can look beyond this assumption to the poem's central, essentially life-enhancing, message – the joy both lovers feel as their hearts beat ‘each to each’.
Or, you might not take such a positive view of things at all, possibly arguing something like this.
3 The romantic setting of this little ‘story’ and the sensuous beauty of the verse are seductive. What we have here is a slight poem that celebrates what may well be a betrayal of some kind. It is a sort of ‘adolescent fantasy’ – of macho derring-do? or just nonsense? As such, it bears no relationship to reality and tells us nothing of value.
The point to note here is that there is no reason why you should accept the values the text seems to represent. We have seen that you certainly need to try to understand what those values are, and why they might have been held at that time – otherwise you are not in a position to make informed and appropriate judgements at all. But that is not the same thing as ‘accepting’ them.
Sometimes, you may find a text a good example of its kind technically, yet judge its values abhorrent – a painting that seems to ‘celebrate’ a bloody massacre, for instance, through the way the brush strokes are lovingly executed. This is why it is helpful to keep your assessment of the values the text stands for separate in your mind from your critical assessment of that text, as a painting, poem, or whatever. However, notice that all the ‘arguments’ I have just set out about the values the poem stands for depend heavily on critical assessment of it – which we are about to look at. Even argument 3 refers to, and recognises, the ‘sensuous beauty’ of the verse.
This is just another way of saying that the processes of analysing a text and interpreting its meanings are fundamental to making judgements about it. The more thoroughly you analyse a text the better you will understand it and the surer your judgements will be.
When you are assessing the values a text represents, you should:
question those values (whether they are assumed by the text or are more obvious)
try to examine your own values, and the assumptions you may be making
firm up your judgements only when you have analysed and interpreted the meanings of the text as fully as you can.