Literature of the English Country House: Using the OED in Close Reading

In a special guest post Dr Jim Fitzmaurice (Co-Lead Educator on Literature of the English Country House) offers some helpful tips on using the Oxford English Dictionary when close reading literary texts. 

How can we even begin to close read literature form a time very different from our own?

How can we even begin to close read literature form a time very different from our own?

Professor Susan Fitzmaurice uses William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to offer a close reading tutorial during the first week of our course (click here to watch the free tutorial). However, this also brings us to a tricky problem: If we look closely at sentences and focus on particular words, how can we be sure that the words mean what we think they mean?

A case in point is the word “fond” from John Milton’s 17th-century poem on his blindness.

‘Doth God exact day labour, light denied?’
I fondly ask.

We might think that Milton is feeling close to God, that Milton is fond of God in the modern sense of being fond of a friend. This is not the case. Milton is “fond” in the 17th century sense of being “foolish”. Milton says that he is being a fool to question God.

So how do we find out meanings that fit with centuries? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a valuable resource here. It uses quotations to back up assertions about meaning and those quotations are given dates. So, when Susan talks about a “comedian” being an actor, not a comic in the modern sense, she can point to this definition in the OED.

Professor Susan Fitzmaurice offers guidance on close reading during the course.

Professor Susan Fitzmaurice offers guidance on close reading during the course.

She also can give quotations to back up her decision to read the word in the way that she does. Another good example is from a comment in the on the course posted by Sharon Wells, who brings up the word “neweters” in Step 1.9 (view the step here). What does “newters” mean? You can find the answer by consulting the OED.

If you have a user account at your local public library then you should be able to access the OED, for free. Procedures at different libraries will vary, so please consult your library’s website for guidance or ask your local librarian. Also, many university libraries offer external borrower accounts for users who are not affiliated with a university (there may be a fee!) – it is certainly worth checking your university’s policy on this!

Please try out the OED when doing your own close readings in this class. And remember that if you can’t find a meaning that fits, it may be that the OED has not listed the meaning you want. Indeed, the OED has many but not all definitions of words. Still, wonderful to say, you can search the full text of the quotations in the OED and maybe find an undiscovered meaning. You tease the meaning out of the quotation.

Sheffield City Library.

Sheffield City Library.

What you do to discover a meaning not listed in the OED is to employ an Advanced Search. Find the link for Advanced Search under the place in the OED where you enter words for definition. When you get to the Advanced Search page, leave the drop-down window on “full text”.

Good hunting. And happy close reading.

Join us again later this week when we’ll be hearing from Kate Gath about what it is like to write a PhD on 17th-century literature. 

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