Foregrounding

Noticing and exploring linguistic patterns in literary texts

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:

San Francisco houses

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

  • are larger
  • appear closer to the viewer
  • are colourful, detailed and attract our attention
  • form a pattern by repetition

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:

The phenomenon of linguistic highlighting, whereby some features of the language of a text stand out in some way

and

The parts of a text which the author is signalling as crucial to our understanding of what they have written

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

  • a conscious choice made on the part of the author;
  • related to the way that we perceive, read and understand texts;
  • linguistically real.

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

What patterns do you notice? 

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:

  • The AABB rhyme scheme
  • The use of commands/imperatives in verses 1, 2 and 3
  • The four line verses (quatrains)

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 diagram shows how we might do this:

 

 

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