Approaches to Interpreting Poetry

Investigate the various lenses through which poetry can be analyzed and appreciated, from Historicism and Feminist Theory

Sigmund Freud
Binary oppositions
Jacques Derrida

What is Literary Theory

Literary theory is a set of ideas and methods used to analyze, interpret, and understand literary works. It provides a framework for examining the structure, themes, language, and historical and cultural contexts of a text. Literary theory allows readers and critics to engage with literature on a deeper level and extract various meanings from the works.

This tile will illustrate a range of theoretical approaches that have emerged since the 20th century by applying them to one poem: the epic *Paradise Lost* by John Milton (1667).

The narrative chronicles Satan’s revolt against God, his banishment from Heaven alongside his fellow rebel angels, and the subsequent creation of Hell. The poem then shifts to the Garden of Eden, where Satan tempts Adam and Eve, leading them to disobey God by consuming the forbidden fruit. This act of disobedience results in the loss of their innocence, the introduction of sin and suffering into the world, and their ultimate expulsion from paradise.




Formalism is a literary theory and method of criticism that focuses on the formal elements of a text, such as its structure, language, style, and imagery, rather than its historical, social, or biographical context. Formalists believe that the meaning of a literary work can be found in the text itself, and that a close analysis of its form and structure will reveal its meaning and artistic value.

An example of a formalist interpretation of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” might involve analyzing the poem’s epic structure and conventions. A formalist critic might examine elements such as the invocation of the muse at the beginning of the poem.

This analysis might also explore the poem’s blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) and how it contributes to the poem’s grandeur and solemnity.

Reader-Response Approach

Reader Response theory is a school of criticism that focuses on the role of the reader in the interpretation and meaning-making process of literature. According to this theory, the meaning of a text is not fixed or inherent but is actively constructed by the reader based on their experiences.

A Reader Response interpretation of “Paradise Lost” might involve examining the different ways in which readers may relate to and interpret the poem based on their beliefs, and cultural backgrounds. A reader who is familiar with Christian theology might have a different understanding of the poem’s themes, such as redemption and free will, compared to a reader who has no religious background.

Similarly, a reader who is familiar with classical epic, such as Homer’s “Iliad”, might have a deeper appreciation for Milton’s use of epic conventions to tell the story of humanity’s fall from grace. This reader may connect strongly with the poem’s grand style, and the portrayal of heroic and tragic characters.




Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory and therapeutic approach founded by Sigmund Freud, which focuses on the role of the unconscious mind, repressed desires, and early childhood experiences in shaping human behavior and mental processes. In literary criticism, psychoanalytic theory is used to explore the psychological dimensions of characters, the author, and readers, as well as to uncover hidden meanings and motivations within a text.

An psychoanalytical interpretation of *Paradise Lost* might involve examining the dynamics of desire, repression, and the unconscious in the poem’s characters and narrative.

The forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge may symbolize not only the knowledge of good and evil but also the awakening of Adam and Eve’s sexual desire and self-awareness.

In this interpretation, the fall of humanity can be viewed as a result of the characters’ struggle with their unconscious desires and the consequences of their repression.


Historicism is an approach to literary criticism that emphasizes the importance of historical context in the interpretation of a literary work. Historicists believe that the meaning and significance of a text are influenced by the time and place in which it was written, as well as by the broader cultural, social, political, and intellectual trends of the period.

A historicist interpretation of *Paradise Lost* might involve examining the poem in the context of 17th-century England and the English Civil War: the execution of King Charles I, the establishment of the Commonwealth, and the subsequent Restoration of the monarchy.

Milton’s portrayal of Satan’s rebellion against God, the ensuing war in Heaven, and the consequences of disobedience, could be seen as a commentary on the political turmoil and conflict that characterized 17th-century England.

Milton himself was an ardent supporter of the Republican cause and served in the government during the Commonwealth period. Historicist interpretations have therefore frequently associated th *loss* of Paradise with the loss of the Commonwealth.


Feminist Approaches

Feminist criticism examines and challenges the representation of gender and power dynamics within literary works. It seeks to explore and deconstruct the ways in which literature reinforces or subverts patriarchal norms, stereotypes, and marginalization, often through the portrayal of female characters.

A feminist reading of *Paradise Lost* could focus on the description of Eve’s creation in Book IV, in which she is said to be “inferior” to Adam and created “for softness she and sweet attractive grace,” which portrays Eve as submissive, dependent on Adam, and primarily valued for her beauty and charm.

Additionally, a feminist interpretation might examine the events leading up to the fall of humanity, with particular attention to the role of Eve and the depiction of her actions. In the poem, Eve is the one who is tempted by Satan and ultimately convinces Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. A feminist critic might analyze the implications of placing the responsibility for the fall on Eve.


Postcolonial Approaches

Postcolonial theory examines the effects of colonialism, imperialism, and the relationship between colonizer and colonized within literary works. It seeks to analyze and deconstruct the power dynamics, representation, and identity in texts, taking into account the historical context of colonialism and its aftermath. Postcolonial theory often aims to challenge and question Eurocentric perspectives and assumptions within literature and criticism.

A postcolonial interpretation of *Paradise Lost* might involve examining the poem’s representation of hierarchy, power dynamics, and Satan attempt to establish his own dominion, in the context of the colonisation of the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries.


The notion of “Paradise Lost” could serve as a metaphor for the loss of innocence and the imposition of colonial rule, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden as an allegory for the forced displacement and dispossession experienced by colonized peoples.


Ecocritical theory, or ecocriticism, is an approach to literary criticism that focuses on the representation of nature, environmental issues, and human interactions with the environment within literary works. Ecocritics often explore how literature reflects or engages with ecological concerns, human attitudes towards nature, and the consequences of human actions on the environment.

In an ecocritical examination of *Paradise Lost*, one could focus on the following lines, which illustrate the pivotal moment when Adam and Eve transgress by consuming the forbidden fruit:

*Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat*

*Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe*

In this passage, the earth and nature emerge as more than mere passive settings for human events; they are active entities impacted by human actions. This representation of the earth’s sentience underscores the intricate interconnectedness between humans and the natural world, as well as the significant consequences human actions can have on the environment—both central concepts in ecocritical thought.


Structuralist theory is an approach to literary criticism that focuses on the underlying structures and systems that govern the organization and meaning of a text.

Structuralists argue that texts can be understood through the analysis of their formal elements, such as plot, characters, and themes, which form a set of interconnected patterns and relationships. Structuralism is influenced by the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who proposed that language operates as a system of signs, with meaning being derived from the relationships between these signs.

A structuralist interpretation of *Paradise Lost* might focus on the binary oppositions present within the text, such as Heaven and Hell, good and evil, or light and darkness. A structuralist critic might explore how these oppositions function to create meaning and structure within the poem, both in terms of the narrative and the themes.

For instance, the opposition between Heaven and Hell can be seen as a reflection of the broader opposition between order and chaos, which underlies the poem’s exploration of the fall of humanity and the consequences of disobedience.


Deconstruction and Post-Structuralism

Deconstruction is a form of post-structuralist literary criticism developed by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction challenges traditional assumptions about meaning, language, and the stability of texts. It seeks to expose the contradictions, ambiguities, and tensions within a text, highlighting the ways in which texts undermine their own apparent structures and assumptions.

A deconstructionist interpretation of *Paradise Lost* might involve examining the poem’s central oppositions and hierarchies, such as good and evil, Heaven and Hell, or God and Satan, exploring how these oppositions are not as clear-cut or stable as they may initially appear.

For instance, by analyzing the complexity of Satan’s motivations, speeches, and actions, the deconstructionist interpretation might reveal that the poem presents a more nuanced and ambiguous portrayal of good and evil. In this reading, Satan’s character can be seen as both a tragic, sympathetic figure and a malevolent force, challenging the binary opposition between good and evil and revealing the instability of meaning within the text.


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