Stanley Fish – interpreting the Variorum

Stanley Fish’s essay “Interpreting the Variorum” uses various works from Milton to criticize formal (and positivist) analysis of a text and commend experimental analysis.

The focus of “Interpreting the Variorum” is on reader-response analysis. Throughout the essay Fish offers works such as Lycidas, Sonnet 20, and Comus as a platform for the various ways critics (and readers) analyze a text. Repeatedly, Fish uses the last lines of a text to acknowledge a controversy in the theoretical differences brought upon by critics. The structure of the essay presents the case for a reader-response analysis, seeks to “undo” it, and offers interpretive communities in which one can study, or analyze. Fisher offers a dichotomy of interpretive-experience reading, and positivist-formalist reading, stressing the importance of analyzing actively instead of temporally.

Fish’s analysis of formalist and positivist readings as something to dispute gained my interest. It seems he wants readers to go against the traditional sense of reading, or ‘simply just reading’ and become more active in the experience. Before reading this, I’ve never considered how important my role is in the text. According to Fish, “…in the end we settle on the more optimistic reading–it feels better- but even so the other has been a part of our experience, and because it has been a part of our experience, it means“. In my opinion, this suggest that personal experiences and knowledge shape the way a text is read, and in turn, what it means. This particular paragraph analyzes God’s justice in terms of Milton’s sonnet “Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered saints” and Fish argues that expectation also shapes analysis.

Another interesting section of the essay compared the optimal reader [of a text] with the intended one–using Milton’s Comus as a reference point. Relating back to the reader’s experience, Fish accedes that prior knowledge of a given person, place, or idea allows the author to better reach the intended reader. So, experience of a text varies on what is known. This made me curious of the cultural bias towards the reader’s experience. Factors such as education or income impact the probability that one will know what Bacchus means in terms of the text.


About makiabrooks716

ENG 280 Student English Major Junior at MSU
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