Foregrounding

Foregrounding is a widely-used term in text analysis, literary linguistics and stylistics, referring to patterns of language that stand out in a text. The term itself is derived from art and film criticism, and is best understood by a visual analogy.

Here is a picture of San Francisco:

In this image, the houses are foregrounded against the background of the city. They are foregrounded because they:

Objects can draw our attention to them in various ways: by moving, making noises, being more sharply defined against backgrounds, or by simply being constant and not going away. In written texts too, these kinds of distinctions can be made. Put simply, writers can manipulate what they want us to focus our attention on, and what they want to remain in the background.

Let's build on our initial understanding of foregrounding by exploring two definitions:

and

These definitions are useful in developing your understanding of foregrounding. They underline the fact that foregrounding is:

Now, let's look at foregrounding in a poem. We can do this by asking a very simple question:

Try and answer that question by looking at this poem by W.H. Auden:

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Chances are you noticed a few patterns that really captured your attention. These might have been things like:

Whilst these are fully acceptable patterns that warrant discussion about how the poem produces certain meanings and effects, we can be a little more precise and go into much more depth in the way we talk about these patterns.

The following Activity shows how we might do this.

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Foregrounding - activity

In pairs or small groups, explore instances of grammatical foregrounding in Funeral Blues. This could be done by producing an analysis grid, where students examine how a grammatical feature of the text is foregrounded, and most importantly, discuss the potential meaning of the foregrounded feature. How do the instances of foregrounding add to our understanding and enjoyment of the poem?

To get you started, here are a couple of ideas:

Grammatical feature

Type of foregrounding

Potential meaning

Verses 1, 2 and 4 are composed of imperative/command structures. Foregrounding is achieved through parallelism, where the imperative structure is repeated. To me, this suggests that the speaker of the poem is expressing a strong desire for silence, for things to stop, for the world to leave them alone. The foregrounding here is important because it makes these feelings stand out and be prominent in the text. All of the things the poet talks about are external things in the world: clocks, telephones, aeroplanes, policemen, etc.
Verse 3 is composed of declaratives/statements. Foregrounding is achieved through deviation, because the pattern that is established in the first two verses is broken. At this point in the poem, there is a shift towards more metaphorical language use. At this point in the poem, the speaker stops and reflects on his/her inner thoughts: my North, my working week, my song. It feels as if the speaker has given up on asking the world to be quiet, and is now completely immersed in their own grief and sense of loss.

Of course, there are lots of other patterns that students might explore. These include:

Adverbial

Verb

Object

Adverbial

stop all the clocks
cut off the telephone
prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone
silence the pianos
with muffled drum bring out the coffin
let the mourners

Subject

Verb

Complement

He was my North
my South
my East
my West
my working week
my Sunday rest
my noon
my midnight
my talk
my song

There are lots of other patterns in the poem that you and your students might find, and discuss the potential meaning of.

Foregrounding is a powerful tool for analysing all kinds of texts, because it rests on the very simple idea of 'noticing' and 'attention'.

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