Two ways to read a poem
Life goes on within you and without you
You can read a poem “from without,” or you can read it “from within,” says R. K. Elliott, in a paper he titled “Aesthetic Theory and the Experience of Art,” and published in 1967. (That was the year of Sgt Pepper and of Are You Experienced?; Elliott was 43.) If you read a poem from without, you experience it “as if it were the speech or thought of another person.” That’s how we’re taught to read a poem in high school: the words of the poem are the words of the “speaker,” and the speaker is not you. For some poems, this is the only way to read. Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess for example; few of us are apt to confuse ourselves with the speaker of that poem.
When one reads “from within,” on the other hand, one experiences the poem “as if one were the poet or artist”—or, really, the speaker: “the reader place[s] himself, in imagination, at the point from which the poet is related to the situation given in the poem.”
Well, do we every really read like that? We may focus, as Elliott does, on verses that express some mood or feeling. When you read that kind of poetry from without, you experience it as the expression of someone else’s mood or feeling. When you read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and come to the lines,
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