“Literature is language charged with meaning.”
From ABC of Reading
by Ezra Pound
‘Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.’
Dichten = condensare.
I begin with poetry because it is the most concentrated form of verbal expression. Basil Bunting, fumbling about with a German-Italian dictionary, found that this idea of poetry as concentration is as old almost as the German language. ‘Dichten’ is the German verb corresponding to the noun ‘Dichtung’ meaning poetry, and the lexicographer has rendered it by the Italian verb meaning ‘to condense’.
The charging of language is done in three principle ways: You receive the language as your race has left it, the words have meanings which have ‘grown into the race’s skin’; the Germans say ‘wie einem der Schnabel gewachsen ist’, as his beak grows. And the good writer chooses his words for their ‘meaning’, but that meaning is not a set, cut-off thing like the move of knight or pawn on a chess-board. It comes up with roots, with associations, with how and where the word is familiarly used, or where it has been used brilliantly or memorably.
You can hardly say ‘incarnadine’ without one or more of your auditors thinking of a particular line of verse.
Numerals and words referring to human inventions have hard, cut-off meanings. That is, meanings which are more obtrusive than a word’s ‘associations’.
Bicycle now has a cut-off meaning.
But tandem, or ‘bicycle built for two’, will probably throw the image of a past decade upon the reader’s mental screen.
There is no end to the number of qualities which some people can associate with a given word or kind of word, and most of these vary with the individual.
You have to go almost exclusively to Dante’s criticism to find a set of OBJECTIVE categories for words. Dante called words ‘buttered’ and ‘shaggy’ because of the different NOISES the make. Or pexa et hirsuta, combed and unkempt.
He also divided them by their different associations.
NEVERTHELESS you still charge words with meaning mainly in three ways, called phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia. You use a word to throw a visual image on to the reader’s imagination, or you charge it by sound, or you use groups of words to do this.
Thirdly, you take the greater risk of using the word in some special relation to ‘usage’, that is, to the kind of context in which the reader expects, or is accustomed, to find it.
This is the last means to develop, it can only be used by the sophisticated.
(If you want really to understand what I am talking about, you will have to read, ultimately, Propertius and Jules Laforgue.)
IF YOU WERE STUDYING CHEMISTRY you would be told that there are a certain number of elements, a certain number of more usual chemicals, chemicals most in use, or easiest to find. And for the sake of clarity in your experiments you would probably be given these substances ‘pure’ or as pure as you could conveniently get them.
IF YOU WERE A CONTEMPORARY book-keeper you would probably use the loose-leaf system, by which business houses separate archives from facts that are in use, or that are likely to be frequently needed for reference.
Similar conveniences are possible in the study of literature.
Any amateur of painting knows that modern galleries lay great stress on ‘good hanging’, that is, of putting important pictures where they can be well seen, and where the eye will not be confused, or the feet wearied by searching for the masterpiece on a vast expanse of wall cumbered with rubbish.
At this point I can’t very well avoid printing a set of categories that considerably antedate my own How to Read.
When you start searching for ‘pure elements’ in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:
Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.
The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.
The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn’t do the job quite as well.
Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is ‘healthy’. For example, men who wrote sonnets in Dante’s time, men who wrote short lyrics in Shakespeare’s time or for several decades thereafter, or who wrote French novels and stories after Flaubert had shown them how.
Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn’t really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn’t be considered as ‘great men’ or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.
The starters of crazes.
Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able ‘to see the wood for the trees’. He may know what he ‘likes’. He may be a ‘compleat book-lover’, with a large library of beautifully printed books, bound in the most luxurious bindings, but he will never be able to sort out what he knows to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is ‘breaking with convention’ than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.
He will never understand why a specialist is annoyed with him for trotting out a second- or third-hand opinion about the merits of his favourite bad writer.
Until you have made your own survey and your own closer inspection you might at least beware and avoid accepting opinions.
From men who haven’t themselves produced notable work.
From men who have not themselves taken the risk of printing the results of their own personal inspection and survey, even if they are seriously making one.