Abstract I try to rejuvenate Cleanth Brooks’s old thesis about the ‘heresy of paraphrase.’ This I do by analysing a couple of well-known poems and by performing. which Mr. Cleanth Brooks has called “the heresy of paraphrase.” What Mr. Bowra does, and does very well, is to give us what the poet talks about in so far as it. “the poem, if it be a true poem, is a simulacrum of reality by being an experience rather than any mere statement about experience or any.

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Heresy of paraphrase | philosophy |

For more information, read Michigan Publishing’s access and usage policy. I try to rejuvenate Cleanth Brooks’s old thesis about the ‘heresy of paraphrase. They show that paradigmatic examples of poems are not paraphrasable. A prosaic text can be improved with the aid of a paraphrase, but a typical poem cannot.

The deeper explanation for the non-rephrasability of poetry is that our understanding of it is basically tacit. In this way I hope to give Brooks’s original thesis a more solid foundation. In this article, I want to discuss the question whether or not poems can be paraphrased. The idea of the non-paraphrasability of poetry was one of the central tenets of the New Criticism. The fact that this school of criticism does not exist anymore is perhaps one of the explanations for the fact that the thesis of heresy has not been discussed much in recent years.

In actual fact there has never been much systematic discussion about the thesis. But as I hope to show, it is well worth probing into and decidedly needs rejuvenation. My aim is to show that there is more than a grain of truth in the thesis that paradigmatic examples of poetry cannot be rephrased in any satisfactory manner. Further, I will try to explain the non-paraphrasability of poems by the means of my contention that our knowledge of them is typically tacit.

The darling of the New Critics, T. Eliot, was once asked by a lady what he meant by the line ‘lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree. One of Eliot’s greatest admirers, the New Critic Cleanth Brooks, coined the phrase ‘the heresy of paraphrase. However, they can be meaningful and at the same time impossible to rephrase satisfactorily. It seems intuitively plausible that a poem is typically an ambiguous text.

Its rhythm, style, sound, images, emotional flavour and intellectual aspects, the denotations and connotations of its words, and even its content and graphic aspects, are inseparable. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts; a poem is a holistic phenomenon.

If this is the case, then form and content cannot be separated in any clear-cut manner, so abstracting the content the message from the poem is a risky and none too rewarding business. Further, rhythm often plays an important role for the meaning of a poem and rhythm can hardly be mirrored by propositions.

Add to this the importance of metaphors in a host of poems and the difficulties even impossibilities of paraphrasing metaphors, and the thesis of heresy seems quite plausible.

Actually, we can clarify texts by rephrasing them. In contrast to this, it does not make any sense to say that we improve upon a poem by clarifying it, either by paraphrasing it or in other ways. It is actually an open question as to whether we can make changes to a poem without having created a new one. I think it is high time to take a look at Cleanth Brooks’s way of defending the theory of heresy. He did not deny that poems could be paraphrased up to a point, or that such a paraphrase can be useful in some contexts.

What he did deny is that a paraphrase can replace a poem or capture its essence.

Moreover, attempts at a complete paraphrase of poems tend to need metaphors in order to capture their meaning, but these metaphors in their turn stand in need of a paraphrase. Certainly, herezy poems contain propositions that are easily rephrased, but we must not mistake them for the inner core of these poems.


The Heresy of Paraphrase by Cleanth Brooks

Actually, such propositions are justified in the context of the poem as a whole, not in connection with a general paraphrase. Thus, a proposition like John Keats’s ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth is Beauty’ gets its precise meaning and significance from its relation to the total context of the poem. Brooks was on the right track, and I want to use the remainder of this article to give his thesis a more solid foundation. I will begin by putting forth a stipulative definition of the concept of a non-paraphrasable text on the basis of his analysis: In the lyrics of the Beatles’ song ‘She loves you,’ parqphrase core essential meaning seems to be that A is telling B that B wrongly thinks that his girlfriend does not love him any more, but that is not right, etc.

By ‘paraphrase of a poem’ I mean ‘a prosaic non-poetic rewording of a poem. This seems plausible bdooks when we translate a text we try to say the same thing in other words, which is tantamount to an attempt to paraphrase it. We might even say, conversely, that paraphrase is a kind of translation. And when we explicate a text we try to make it easier to understand by using a different set of words to say the same thing but in a clearer manner.

Sometimes an explication is closer to a summary, which in its turn tries brooms give the essential meaning of a text or an utterance. Based on the discussion above, I define ‘paraphrase’ as ‘rewording of a text, giving the meaning another form, in some cases clarifying the text and capturing its essential meaning.

Paraphrases of the first kind I call ‘reworders,’ the second kind ‘probers’ because they try to probe into the depth of the text as a part of a depth interpretation. Such an interpretation tries to unveil hidden essences of meaning in texts and can in the case of poetry usually be expressed in a few pointed sentences. In order to qualify as a prober, P must be a sort of a translation of the text with the aid of ‘the translation manual’ of a certain depth interpretation.

If the interpretation were, for instance, of the deconstructivist kind, the manual would include some deconstructive rules or anti-rules. As for the word ‘meaning,’ I use it in this article in the sense! The type of meaning I am discussing can both be utterer’s meaning and textual meaning. In contrast to the question of the truth conditions, I will briefly discuss possible answers to the question whether it holds for all utterances, texts and suchlike, that they are somehow not fully paraphrasable.

Let us look at some arguments against the thesis that no utterance can ever be paraphrased: In the th place, it seems intuitively strange to maintain that utterances like ‘John and Mary went home’ as uttered in workaday circumstances are not really paraphrasable or that they are as difficult to paraphrase as poems by T.

Secondly, there are cases where the ability to rephrase utterances is a necessary condition for understanding them. But we still lack evidence for his understanding. That evidence we can only get if he can rephrase it. Thirdly, I think that the possibility of paraphrasability is built into the very concept of a linguistic expression of broks empirical theory.

Can we test the theory if we cannot paraphrase it, for instance ,if we think that its original formulation is not clear enough for testing? So some paraphrasability seems possible, which of course does not prove that there are fully paraphrasable utterances.

Consider again the case of John and Mary. In more male chauvinist times than ours, paraphrasing ‘John and Hrooks went home’ as ‘Mary and John went home’ would perhaps not tge have captured the original. The reason paarphrase that there could have been a convention saying that a man’s name must be mentioned first because males are more important than females.

If that were the case, ‘Mary and John went home’ would have had important connotations different from the original. Now, it is high time that we illustrate the thesis of heresy with an example.

Consider the following lines from Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto I’ [10]which incidentally consists to a large extent of a translation of Homer’s Ulysses:. Rephrasing these lines, and for that matter the whole poem, while not easy, does not seem impossible. Let us try our hand at it: We carried our black sheep here the expression is to be understood in a literal fashion aboard at the same time as we boarded the vessel, while in tears.


The wind was blowing our way, so the ship sailed rather quickly. This was due to the magical powers of Circe, who is a goddess.

Heresy of paraphrase

Let us assume that we show this paraphrase to a stranger, who neither knows Pound’s poem nor Homer’s epic and ask him what kind of a text this is. Is it a paraphrase of a novel, everyday discourse in a pre-modern civilisation, a fairy-tale, an epic or a modern poem? Would it not require quite a leap of imagination on his part to determine that this is actually from the ghe last categories? Contrast this to a paraphrase of a scientific paper or book. In most cases, we would have no problem identifying the nature of the object of the paraphrase.

A paraphrase of Einstein’s book on the theory of relativity could hardly be mistaken for the paraphrase of a novel or a book about politics. So rephrasing a scientific text is probably more rewarding than paraphrasing a poem, a neresy that ought to count in favour of the thesis of heresy.

The attempted paraphrase of ‘Canto I’ also counts in favour of the thesis. The paraphrase seems like an empty shell, far removed from the complex organicity cleangh Pound’s poem. It cannot capture the particular rhythm of the poem, which suggests among other things the movements of the ship. Further, Pound’s use of Homer creates a set of associations, which are hardly paraphrasable in any fruitful manner.

And just the very Verfremdungseffekt the effect of estrangement of taking this part of Homer and wedding it to a completely different type of discourse, as Pound does at the end of the poem [12]is also not easily captured by a paraphrase.

Pound’s poem can therefore be subsumed under my definition of a non-paraphrasable text. To be sure, I do not doubt that there are cases where poems could be paraphrased in a similar fashion as non-poetic texts. Take a paraphrwse at the following example, a poem by William Carlos Williams:.

We can try to paraphrase the poem make a rewording of it in the following fashion: In all probability you kept them in order to eat them at breakfast.

I am sorry, the plums were tasty, they were very sweet and cold. Therefore, this is an adequate reworder, given my stipulation.

Admittedly, the task at hand is a bit more difficult if we od to make a prober out of it. Such a prober could be parahrase on a depth interpretation of the poem as conveying the message that we human beings are easily led into temptation, but in most cases that is something we have to live with it.

The problem is the obvious one that the number of possible depth interpretations is infinite and, mutatis mutandisthe same holds for the number of probers. But who says that there is no such thing as the correct depth interpretation?

The Heresy of Paraphrase – Wikipedia

And who says that such depth interpretations are always useful? Brooks certainly would have contested their usefulness. In our case the result of such a contesting is something Brooks would not have liked; namely that if a poem can only be reworded, not given any fruitful depth interpretation, then it is paraphrasable for all intents and purposes.

So if there is such a thing as paraphrasable text, Williams’s poem is, unless its soft rhythm plays a decisive role in its meaning.

Now, does this mean that the thesis of heresy is wrong?

No, not at all. In the first place, by just looking at a paraphrase of the poem we would not have the slightest clue that it was a paraphrase of a poem, unless told so.