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I didn't get what "mistook for simple-mindedness the surface of artlessness" means.

Usually, we'd say that you mistook the brown candy for the blue one. Meaning that you actually wanted (or expected) the blue candy but instead (may be mistakenly) picked the brown (wrong) one.

Applying the same analogy here, does it mean that the critics (wrongly) interpreted artlessness as simple-mindedness?

Here is the complete sentence as it appeared in a reference material for an exam prep:

"Early critics of Emily Dickinson's poetry mistook for simple-mindedness the surface of artlessness that in fact she constructed with such ___."

Now depending on the (correct) interpretation of the sentence, I would construe a positive or negative word for the blank. Example, the poet's work was good or naive.

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    Look up the definition of artlessness. Look up the definition of "mistook". I don't think you understand what they mean. We're not here to look up words for you. – Peter Shor Mar 7 '15 at 11:56
  • I did, it means 'being naive'. Did I misquote something? Please excuse me if I wasn't able to make my doubt clear. Will appreciate any suggestion to improve if something is wrong. – Vaibhav Mar 7 '15 at 11:58
  • artlessness does not mean 'being naive' here, and neither does mistook. – Peter Shor Mar 7 '15 at 12:00
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    Actually, I see that the proper definition of 'artlessness' here is really not found in that many dictionaries, so maybe this is a reasonable question. Oxford Dictionaries says artless: "Without effort or pretentiousness; natural and simple: an artless literary masterpiece". Although I'd say "the appearance of effort" and not "effort". – Peter Shor Mar 7 '15 at 12:02
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    "does it mean that the critics (wrongly) interpreted artlessness as simple-mindedness?" Almost. The original said "surface of artlessness", not "artlessness" per se, meaning that the first impression of her poetry apt to be is one of artless simplicity (while beneath that "surface" lies considerable depth and complexity). – Hot Licks Mar 7 '15 at 13:00
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does it mean that the critics (wrongly) interpreted artlessness as simple-mindedness?

Almost. The original said "surface of artlessness", not "artlessness" per se, meaning that the first impression of her poetry is apt to be is one of artless simplicity (while beneath that "surface" lies considerable depth and complexity).

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Now depending on the (correct) interpretation of the sentence, I would construe a positive or negative word for the blank. Example, the poet's work was good or naive.

They are clearly looking for a positive response there, something like care or craft or skill–anything that shows Dickinson as someone with great artistic power.

Even if you didn't understand the comparison with its inversion of word order, you would have to notice the "in fact" in the exam prep sentence, which is a "turnaround" expression that is a counter to what has previously been stated. Let's break it down into a simpler expression:

X says Y is Z when in fact _________.

Without knowing the first thing about What X, Y and Z mean, you should still be able to infer something about the desired answer simply by noticing that "contrary" flag. You could at least with confidence fill in the blank with a statement like "Y is a value other than Z."

Be careful, though, that the "in fact" is itself set up by some other contrary indicator like but or although or when. If it's set off by and or another reinforcing word it could be construed as an affirimation:

X says Y is Z and in fact ____________.

Here you would have to answer to the effect that Y is indeed Z.

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  • Thank you for the clear and insightful response. Also appreciate the contrast and suggestions. Actually, I did have a little issue initially in understanding what the critics mistook however, was quickly able to figure that one out, as mentioned in the analogy in the post. What actually got me confounded was the connotation of the word 'artlessness'. Even the dictionary read: "The quality of innocent naiveté". Synonyms: ingenuousness, innocent. – Vaibhav Mar 7 '15 at 14:34
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I think I understand what you're asking, and I agree. The statement should be inverted:

"Early critics of Emily Dickinson's poetry mistook the surface of artlessness for simple-mindedness..."

In this way, the meaning is clearer. However, the for in "mistook for simple-mindedness," does convey the intended meaning - despite being a bit awkward.

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    If it were just surface of artlessness on its own, I would have advised inverting the order, too; but there's an embedded clause in that constituent, too, which actually makes the order given less awkward to me. “[They] mistook the surface of artlessness that in fact she constructed with such [carefully crafted uses of … vel sim] for simple-mindedness” is far clunkier to read. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 7 '15 at 13:56
  • quite right, Janus – Fattie Mar 7 '15 at 14:07
  • @JanusBahsJacquet You'd split it up with 2 hyphens, or into 2 sentences. I agree with oldbag the sentence from the exam prep is not a very good one. – public wireless Mar 13 '15 at 21:46
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It couldn't be simpler:

a "surface of artlessness" ...

you know what "artlessness" means right. it means "achieved without effort"... "natural" .. "simple"

so the poetry has an "artless" surface: ie, it appears to have been made without effort.

However! In fact, ED achieved that "effortless" feel, with tremendous effort and skill.

As it says: "the surface of artlessness that in fact she constructed with such [effort]"

She "makes it look easy" but in fact it was "a huge effort, carefully constructed".

So the sentence is simply saying: early critics foolishly thought she was just naive, silly, because the poems have an "effortless" feel. But in fact, she put a huge effort in to creating that "effortless" feel.

It's an extremely straightforward sentence: nothing should be inverted, there are no typos etc.

As long as you know that "artless" means "effortless-looking", it's very straightforward.

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Original sentence from exam: Early critics of Emily Dickinson’s poetry mistook for simple-mindedness the surface of artlessness that in fact she constructed with such BLANK. Possible answers: B. craft, C. cunning

According to several sources and common conventional meaning we can agree upon, "simple-minded" means "having or showing very little intelligence or judgment".

According to Dictionary.com, and to a direct root analysis of the adjective "artless" as compound word, artless (art - less (less: without, lacking of)) means lacking art, knowledge, or skill.

Hence, my understanding is that the sentence being scrutinized states that those "... early critics mistook" Emily Dickinson's poetry as "something of very little intelligence", due to the cover of "lacking of art, knowledge or skill" she tarnished her poems with, whereas in fact they were constructed with such craft...

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I would prefer "apparent simplicity" or "simplicity at first glance" to "surface of artlessness". Sometimes simplicity is on a higher artistic level than aristry. We have a lot of artistic poems and no-one knows what the poet is talking about.

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