A study of Richards's Practical Criticism, A Study of Literary Judgment reveals that Richards is a staunch advocate of a close textual and verbal study and analysis of a work of art. Similar interest in the study of words is revealed in his book, Meaning of Meaning. Total meaning of a poem is combination of several contributory meanings of different types—Sense, Feeling, Tone, and Intention.
Sense means to make reference to something, that is, when the writer says something he wants to direct his hearers' attention upon some state of affairs, to present to them some items for consideration and to excite in them some thoughts about these items.
Feeling refers to the feelings of the writer or speaker about these items, about the state of affairs he is referring to. He has an attitude towards it, some special direction, bias, or accentuation of interest towards it, some personal flavour or colouring of it, and he uses language to express these feelings, this nuance of interest.
Tone means the attitude of the writer towards his readers. The writer or the speaker chooses and arranges the words differently as his audience varies, in automatic or deliberate recognition of his relation to them. We may distinguish between the tone of authority in some persons when speaking to their subordinates or inferiors and the tone of friendship when spraking to their equals. Besides all these things, the speaker's intention or aim, conscious or unconsious, should also be taken into account. Ordinarily the speaker speaks with a purpose and his purpose modifies his speech. The understanding of it is part of the whole business of apprehending his meaning. Unless we know what he is trying to do, we can hardly estimate the measure of his success. We may distinguish here between the inflammatory speeches of the political readers where the aim is to excite the listeners and class-room lectures where the aim is to make certain things intelligible to the students. No one function among these functions differ in different types of writings. Only this much can be said that generally sense predominates in the scientific language and feeling in the poetic language.
Richards says, "Originally language may have been almost purely emotive; that is to say a means of expressing feelings about situations, a means of expressing impersonal attitudes, and a means of bringing about concerted action." In poetry language returns to that primitive condition. Language of poetry affects feelings. "The statements in poetry are there as a means to manipulation and expression of feelings and attitudes. Hence we must avoid an intuitive reading and also an over literal reading of poems." Words in poetry have an emotive value, and figurative language used by poets conveys those emotions effectively and forcefully.
Words also acquire a rich associative value through their use by different poets in different contexts. The context in which a word has been used is all important. "Words have different meanings in different contexts. Words are symbols or signs and they deliver their full meaning only in a particular context. They work in association and within a particular context. He writes : "A context is a set of entities (things or events) related in a certain way; these entities have each a character; such that other sets of entities occur having the same characters and related by the same relation; and these occur nearly uniformly." Meaning is dependent on context, but the context may not always be apparent and easily perceptible. Literary compositions are characterized by rich complexity in which certain links are suppressed for concentration or effective and forceful expression. Frequent mention is therefore made of the 'missing context' and 'ambiguity.' In ordinary blemishes in writing, but in poetry or even in artistic prose they are a source of embellishment and a means of effective communication of meaning. The literary critic is expected to understand and expand the context so that the poem may become intelligible and its full value may be grasped.
Words have different meanings in different contexts. Sense and feeling have a mutual dependence. "The sound of a word has much to do with the feeling it evokes." First, it may arise from the meaning and be governed by it. The feeling is the result of grasping the meaning. Secondly, the meaning arises from the feeling evoked. Thus the word 'gorgeous' first generates a feeling from its sound. Thirdly, sense and feeling may be related because of the context. A complete poem can influence a single word or phrase contained in it either through the feelings or through the sense. The feelings already occupying the mind limit the possibilities of the new words. This is because words are ambiguous in themselves and they acquire new meanings when they are charged with feelings. Hence Richards argues that we need one careful reading to find the meaning and another to grasp the feeling.
The meaning of words is also determined by rhythm and metre. Rhythm results from the repetition of particular sounds and the expectancy this repetition arouses in the mind. Metre is a specialised form of rhythm. It is rhythm made more regular and cast into set and well-formed pattern. Both rhythm and metre are organic and integral parts of a poem, for they both determine the meaning of the words used by the poets. Richards' remarks in this connection are interesting and deserve to be quoted in their entirety :
"Rhythm and its specialised form, metre, depend upon repetition and expectancy. Equally where what is expected recurs and where it fails, all rythmical and metrical effects spring from anticipation. As a rule, this anticipation is unconscious. Sequences of syllables both as sounds and as images of speech-movements leave the mind ready for certain further sequences rather than others. Our momentary organisation is adapted to one range of possible stimulus rather than to another. Just as the eye reading print unconsciously expects the spelling to be as usual, and the fount of type to remain the same, the mind after reading a line or two of verse, or half a sentence of prose, prepares itself ahead for any one of a number of possible sequences, at the same time negatively incapacitating itself for others."
"We may turn now to that more complex and more specialised form of temporal rhythmic sequence which is known as metre. This is the means by which words may by made to influence one another to the greatest possible extent. In metrical reading the narrowness and definiteness of expectancy, as such unconscious as ever in most cases, is very greatly increased, reaching in some cases, if rhyme also used, almost exact precision. Furthermore, what is anticipated becomes through the regularity of the time intervals in metre virtually dated. This is no mere matter of more or less perfect correspondence with the beating of some internal metronome." Rhythm, metre and meaning cannot be separated; they form together a single system. They are not separate entities but organically related. Therefore, a paraphrase or an overliteral reading can never convey the total meaning of a poem.
Successive readings are necessary to understand the poetic meaning. Poetic truth is different from scientific truth. It is a matter of emotional belief rather than intellectual belief. It is not a matter of versification, but of attitude and emotional reaction.
For the purpose of communication, the use of metaphoric language is all important. "A metaphor is a shift, a carrying over of a word from its normal use to a new use". Metaphors may be of two kinds : (I) sense-metaphors, and (2) emotive-metaphors. In a sense-metaphor the shift is
due to a similarity or analogy between the original object and the new one. In an emotive metaphor the shift is due to a similarity between the feelings the new situation and the normal situation arouse. The same word in different contexts may be a sense-metaphor or an emotive one.
"Metaphor," says Richards, "is a semi-surreptious method by which a greater variety of elements can be brought into the fabric of the experience. With the help of a metaphor, the writer can crowd into the poem much more than would be possible otherwise. The metaphorical meaning arises from the inter-relations of sense, tone, feeling and intention."
"A metaphor is a point at which many different influences may cross or unite. Hence its dangers in prose discussions and its treacherousness for careless readers of poetry, but hence, at the same time, its peculiar quasi-magical sway in the hands of a master. Certain conjunctions of metaphors—through their history partly and through the collocation of emotional influence that by their very ambiguity they effect—have a power over our minds that nothing else can exert or perpetuate."