Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

5.2 The value of the text

We now turn to a critical assessment of the poem as a poem; the question is, is it a ‘good’ poem? To that we should add ‘of its kind’. As we saw, we must judge it as a lyric poem – it would be inappropriate to think of it in the same terms as, say, an epic, because the conventions that govern the epic's form (its subject matter, purposes and formal elements) are very different. It is always important to understand what kind of text you are dealing with not only because that knowledge guides you towards some appropriate interpretation of its meanings, but also because it places limits on the judgements you can make of it.

As we have seen, by convention the lyric poem:

  • takes as its subject matter some aspect of a human world we recognise

  • has the purposes of appealing to our senses and engaging our feelings

  • is in lyric form: short and song-like (rhythmic, rhyming).

These, then, are the criteria against which we make our judgements. I think it is safe to say that we have seen all these things in the poem during the last few sections of the course. The question is, how well does it do them?

As regards the poem's subject matter, we might ask ‘does it “talk” to us about some aspect of the world we recognise, in a meaningful and illuminating way?’ Looking at the series of ‘arguments’ I sketched out in Section 4.3, clearly the world of the poem is recognisable to us, and it is possible to make several different kinds of connection between what the poem ‘says’ and some of our current social, moral and intellectual concerns. These are meaningful connections and, I would say, potentially illuminating (response number 3 notwithstanding). But what do you think?

Turning to the poem's ‘purposes’, how well does it engage our feelings and appeal to our senses? Again, we have discussed the way the poem evokes our memories and feelings of ‘being in love’. It achieves this through: the romantic setting (of moonlight over water…); the generally languorous movement and sounds of the verse, interspersed with the excited agitation of lines 3 and 4; the sexual imagery; the syntax (changing verb tenses and also the sensuousness of the words). In Section 3.2 we saw that the poem appeals directly to our senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and sensation.

Here we have also impinged on our last criterion, the poem's song-like formal elements (especially its movement and rhyming, but also syntax, imagery, and so on). In short, we saw how the whole is ‘knitted’ closely together by interwoven patterns of sound, movement and imagery – that not a word of it is carelessly placed. Indeed, the verse is rich beyond what seems possible at first sight.

What is striking is how a poem so short and apparently simple can carry such a weight of analysis, interpretation and evaluation. But we must remind ourselves that this is, after all, a short lyric poem. We should not expect it to bear too much weight. (Incidentally, what do you think that exclamation mark right at the end means?)

Personal response

Do you think I like this poem? Perhaps it is obvious that I do. If you have ‘picked up’ my enjoyment of it, it must be something about the way I have written because it is the poem we have been concentrating on all the time. In fact I know it off by heart (which is perhaps not too surprising by now). But, anyway, I am only telling you so in this box.

That's because, if I say to you ‘I love this music; it reminds me of lambs in spring-time’, what I am telling you is something about myself. If you find me a fascinating person you will no doubt be interested to know how I feel. But if it's the music you are interested in then you are no closer to understanding it at all. Emotional or imaginative responses to a text are not the same thing as judgement of its values and critical assessment of it – arrived at through processes of analysis and interpretation. And it is the texts we study that are our main focus, not ourselves.

But that doesn't mean your personal responses are unimportant. Far from it. If you are moved by a novel, a passage of music, a sculpture or an idea, it is not only interesting but also a pleasure to work out why: what it is about the text that affects you in that way. Very often the text becomes more interesting and affects you more deeply the more you think and learn about it. Your feelings and intuitions are also very helpful guides to your analysis of it – showing you ‘ways in’, what to look out for. In any case, the very powerful effects art and ideas can have is perhaps why you are keen to study the arts and humanities in the first place. Even so, sometimes what you study may seem dull and uninspiring. Or, in extreme cases, you may find certain ideas and representations totally unacceptable or even shocking. In every case, the point is to understand why – what it is about the text – whether it is something you love or loathe.

However, if it seems to you that analysing texts simply ‘spoils’ your enjoyment of them then perhaps you shouldn't be studying these subjects. Why not just continue to enjoy your experiences?

In making a critical assessment of this poem it helps to be familiar with a range of other lyric poems, so that you have something to compare it with. And this is true generally. You become surer in your judgements as you become more familiar with the kind of poem, painting, piece of music, argument, or historical document you are faced with.

We should note here that the criteria for evaluating historical documents and philosophical arguments are different, both from each other and from the kinds of criteria we have been looking at here. As we have seen, the analytical questions you ask about a document are to do with the type of source it is, who its author was, when and why it was written; and therefore what it is actually telling you and how reliably. These are the criteria against which you judge it. A ‘good’ document is a reliable source that is useful for your purposes.

Philosophical texts argue through ‘problems’: such as an ethical dilemma, the question of free will, of what exists, and so forth. In evaluating this kind of text, you are concerned with the logic and ‘truth’ of that argument. A ‘good’ argument is logically sound and also illuminating.

Key points

When you are making a critical assessment of the values of a text, you should:

  • recognise that the text is your focus; be guided but not bound by your personal responses to it

  • evaluate the text according to the criteria that are appropriate to its form (its subject matter, formal elements and purposes).

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