Brooks, Cleanth (Vol. 110)
Cleanth Brooks 1906–1994
American critic and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Brooks's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 24 and 86.
Considered one of the most influential critics of the twentieth century, Brooks, along with John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, was a principal proponent of the "New Criticism," a critical method that stressed analysis of a work based solely on the work itself, without consideration of the author's circumstances or previous writings. The subject of a book by Ransom (The New Criticism, 1941), this method was a radical departure from contemporary schools of criticism, which held that a work could only be properly interpreted in the context of the writer's life and times.
Brooks was born October 16, 1906, in Murray, Kentucky. The son of a Methodist minister, he attended McTyeire School, a small Methodist preparatory school in McKenzie, Tennessee. Brooks continued his education at Vanderbilt University and Tulane University, and attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1934, he married Edith Amy Blanchard. Brooks began his career as an educator in 1932 at Louisiana State University; he moved to Yale University in 1947, from which he retired in 1975. While at Louisiana State, Brooks edited the Louisiana Review with Warren from 1935 to 1941. From 1964 to 1966, Brooks served as the cultural attaché at the United States Embassy in London. He was also a Jefferson Lecturer at the Library of Congress and a member of the Library's council of scholars. Brooks also taught at the University of Texas, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Brooks was widowed in 1986 and died on May 10, 1996, at his home in New Haven, Connecticut.
Many of Brooks's writings were extensions of the critical philosophy he presented to his students. His first book of criticism, a college text co-edited with Warren and titled Understanding Poetry (1938), is considered part of the foundation of the New Criticism. His next book, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), explained his philosophy of evaluating poetry in the context of its place in the larger literary tradition. He expanded on the idea in The Well Wrought Urn (1947) and A Shaping Joy (1971), explaining and demonstrating a poem's "internal unity"—how well it succeeds in a unification of its forms and content as well as how it fits into the larger literary tradition. A controversial aspect of Brooks's critical theory, expounded in The Hidden God (1963), was the idea that the critic also had the responsibility of evaluating the moral aspect of a poem, taking a stand on the spiritual validity of a writer's work. Although Brooks developed his theory of criticism to further the understanding of poetry, he was also able to apply it to prose, principally in the study of William Faulkner. Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963), William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978), William Faulkner: First Encounters (1983), and On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner (1987) are listed among the most thorough and insightful critiques of Faulkner's work. Because Brooks stressed that a close reading and examination of the internal structure of a poem was the best evidence of the author's intent, and that criticism did not require an investigation of the poet's life, he was frequently accused of being oblivious to the historical significance of events which affected the poet. Partly in reply to this charge, Brooks wrote Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry (1991). In this work, Brooks shows how the historical context of a poem can be used to uncover meanings which might be hidden by changes in the usage of words over time.
The critical theory identified as the "New Criticism" was not initially well-received by the academic world. The individuals most closely associated with the "movement"—Brooks, Ransom, Tate, and Warren, did not see themselves as sharing a common theory of criticism. What they did share, according to Roger Kimball, "was a concern with the integrity of the literary object as such." The New Critics, as Allen Tate put it, were against "using social theories to prove something about poetry … trying to make an art respectable by showing that after all it is something else. Just this won them the undying hostility of the academic establishment." Kimball added, "What unites them is an insistence on the irreducibility of the aesthetic object: an insistence that literature, for example, is literature, not a covert species of politics." Other critics, however, saw the exclusion of the analysis of historical and social aspects of the writer's life as reactionary. They argued that keeping the focus within the poem itself, and ignoring the writer external to the work was a subtle means of preventing the examination of the effects of race, class, and gender on the arts. They also suggested that Brooks's focus on how a poem fits into the tradition—into the larger historical body of literature—emphasizes white male Europeans to the exclusion of newer, more diverse voices. Critics such as John N. Duvall said that Brooks's examination of the "inclusiveness" of a poem, the degree to which it participates in the literary and spiritual tradition, is in fact exclusive. "In his effort to discover the hidden unity of works and the tradition, Brooks's literary history omitted texts that were tainted with the secularization of politics. Thus Joyce and Faulkner are prized but not Dos Passos: Eliot and Yeats, but not Zukofsky (to say nothing of the proletarian poets from the 1930s). New Criticism was too ready to excuse the excesses either in a text's rhetoric or in the social system that a text represented, if one could read that text in a way that discovered unity or that celebrated community." Other critics acknowledged the spiritual component of Brooks's criticism, but did not see it as constraining. William Bedford Clark, comparing Brooks and Eliot, wrote, "Like Eliot, Brooks knows that literature inevitably reflects the values and beliefs, however implicit, of the author. Yet, once again in full accord with Eliot, Brooks would not make the reader's adherence to the author's values and beliefs a basis for experiencing or evaluating the work itself." In one area both champions and detractors of the New Criticism concurred: It is considered a foundation for all current forms of criticism. Anthony Tassin wrote, "Although a variety of new philosophies of literary criticism have come forward since the mid-century, the New Criticism is alive and well. For all purposes it has become a standard approach to teaching literature and is currently accepted by professors and students alike. When they speak of criticism, it is substantially the New Criticism to which they refer."
The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain (nonfiction) 1935
Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students [editor with Robert Penn Warren] (criticism) 1938; enlarged and revised edition, 1950
Modern Poetry and the Tradition (criticism) 1939
∗Understanding Fiction [editor with Robert Penn Warren] (criticism) 1943
Understanding Drama [editor with Robert B. Heilman] (criticism) 1945; enlarged edition, 1948
The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (criticism) 1947; revised edition, 1968
Modern Rhetoric [with Robert Penn Warren] (nonfiction)...
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SOURCE: A review of Modern Poetry and the Tradition, in Sewanee Review, Vol. 48, 1940, pp. 419-24.
[In the following review, Daniel explains Brooks's theory of the evolution of poetic style.]
In keeping with the critical principles that underlie Understanding Poetry, Cleanth Brooks makes in Modern Poetry and the Tradition a clear statement of the fundamental similarities between modernist verse and the metaphysical verse of the seventeenth century. "Modern poetry" means of course the work of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Tate, and the others who have participated in the revolution that commenced about 1912 with the change in Yeats's style and the emergence...
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SOURCE: "The Southern Community," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 73, No. 1, January/March, 1965, pp. 119-24.
[Below, Daniel favorably reviews Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. Brooks's own southern heritage, Daniel argues, gives added clarity to his interpretations of Faulkner.]
Faulkner's novels and stories have evoked studies the length of books by Campbell and Foster, Howe, O'Connor, Mrs. Vickery, Slatoff, Swiggart, Longley, and now Cleanth Brooks. (I may have overlooked a few, and on various grounds I have omitted Miner, Malin, Cooper, Coughlan, Meriwether, etc.) Despite the competition, Brooks's work has in general been well received—except...
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SOURCE: "Cleanth Brooks: Mr. Eliot's Christian Critic," in Southern Review, 1982, pp. 73-83.
[In the following review, Clark examines several books and essays by Brooks, illustrating Brooks's belief that religion and art are complementary in man's search for truth and meaning.]
An especially persuasive reading of the concluding lines of Pope's The Dunciad stresses the apocalyptic nature of the poet's gloomy account of the collapse of the Republic of Letters, and, by extension, of the imminent extinction of enlightened civilization itself:
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
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SOURCE: "Formalistic Criticism," in Critical Survey of Poetry, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1992, pp. 3973-80.
[In the following essay, Calhoun gives a concise history of the development of Formalistic Criticism, especially the New Criticism of Brooks and others.]
The formalist approach to poetry was the one most influential in American criticism during the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's, and it is still the one most often practiced in literature courses in American colleges and universities. Its popularity was not limited to American literary criticism. In France, formalism has long been employed as a pedagogical exercise in reading literature in the...
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SOURCE: "Well Wrought Facts," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 100, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. xxxviii-xli.
[In the following review, Hall favorably reviews the content and structure of Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry.]
Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry will be especially rewarding, as the title suggests, for readers interested in the good minor poetry of the seventeenth century. Some familiarity with the poets collected by H. J. C. Grierson and Geoffrey Bullough in their once standard Oxford Book of Seventeenth-Century Verse (1934), a book earlier generations of English doctoral students studied in...
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SOURCE: A review of Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry, in ANQ, University of Kentucky Press, April-July, 1992, pp. 143-46.
[In the following review, Freer contrasts Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry with earlier writings by Brooks, asserting that "one of the chief subjects of this book is actually the evolution of Brooks's thought."]
A collection of readings of ten poems by eight seventeenth-century poets, this volume [Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry] brings together a number of essays that have appeared in various other collections and journals....
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SOURCE: "Cleanth Brooks and the Endurance of the New Criticism," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 33-43.
[In the following essay, Tassin suggests that the New Criticism endures in its own right and as the bedrock upon which other schools of criticism are constructed.]
The New Deal. The New Frontier. The New Criticism. They are not longer new, but each of these concepts in its day caught the attention of the public under the aegis of newness. In each case it was one man who conferred the name on the concept: Roosevelt, Kennedy, Ransom. And while these men have passed away, each has left his mark. Although a variety of new philosophies of...
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SOURCE: "Faulkner Criticism: Will It Ever End?," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 183-92.
[In the following excerpt, Lyday presents mixed opinions of Brooks's ideas.]
Cleanth Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) and William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978) have recently been reissued in twin paperback editions by Louisiana State University Press. The former volume was a kind of culmination of the literary wars between the Southern New Critics and the New York Intellectuals, who never really buried their differences as much as Schwartz implies. How does The Yoknapatawpha Country...
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SOURCE: "Eliot's Modernism and Brooks's New Criticism: Poetic and Religious Thinking," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1992/93, pp. 23-37.
[In the following essay, Duvall argues that the spiritual values required by Eliot's Modernism and Brooks's New Criticism are fraught with contradiction and lead to a static literature.]
Emerging as the dominant critical methodology in America after World War II during a time of enormous expansion in the American university, New Criticism apparently exemplified a democratic pedagogy: any student could learn the skills to become a close reader of literary works. Today, though, it might seem perverse to investigate a...
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SOURCE: "Apoligia Pro Vita Litteraria," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 27, Nos. 1 & 2, Fall 1994–Spring 1995, p. 375.
[In the following review, Rollin praises Brooks's body of work and its impact on criticism.]
This will be a personal kind of review. The news of Cleanth Brooks's death came while I was reading his book. I was surprised as well as saddened because I had seen him recently at two different professional meetings, looking fit and still wonderfully full of zest for the life of letters. The announcement of his passing reminded me how much my own life of letters owed to him. My undergraduate professors (I later came to understand) were New Critics,...
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SOURCE: "'Stanley Fish Was My Reader': Cleanth Brooks, the New Criticism, and Reader-Response Theory," in The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by William J. Spurlin and Michael Fisher, Garland Publishing, New York City, 1995, pp. 211-26.
[Below, Beck and Rhoades compare Brooks's New Criticism and Stanley Fish's Reader-Response theory.]
The method of literary analysis which became known as the New Criticism began in meetings of the Nashville Fugitives during the 1920s, when John Crowe Ransom dominated the group. Between 1921 and 1925–1926, Ransom's students included Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, who were to codify the "method" for use,...
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Unfortunately, Cleanth Brooks was unable to recall how Stanley Fish developed critical acumen during his graduate student days, when he for a time served as Brooks's assistant. Brooks remembered Fish as "an excellent reader, highly intelligent, [who] worked carefully and thoroughly. I have only commendation for what he did for me. But the little human interest things about him, quirks, special happenings, particular sayings—of these I have no record whatsoever" (letter to Beck, May 1990). Fish's fondest recollection of "Mr. Brooks" is of seeing him walk down the street with William Wimsatt "whom as you probably know was seven feet tall. Mr. Brooks was a low key and gentle instructor who exerted authority through his...
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SOURCE: "Afterword: An Interview with Cleanth Brooks," in The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by William J. Spurlin and Michael Fisher, Garland Publishing, New York City, 1995, pp. 365-83.
[In the following interview, Brooks and Spurlin discuss the response of other writers to the New Criticism.]
The following conversation was conducted in the home of Cleanth Brooks in New Haven, Connecticut in October 1993. Prior to the meeting, Professor Brooks read the essays in Part III of this volume. Professor Brooks, after a distinguished writing and teaching career, died on May 10, 1994 at the age of eighty-seven. I am grateful for his comments and...
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Drake, Robert. "Cleanth Brooks." Modern Age, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Winter 1995): 166-68.
Drake recounts a meeting and Brooks's comments on the state of criticism.
Gollin, James. "Cleanth Brooks Remembered." The American Scholar, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 257-63.
Personal recollections of Brooks are combined with a history of his writing.
McSween, Harold. "Cleanth Brooks, LSU, and the Southern Review." Sewanee Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 274-86.
A concise history of Brooks's...
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Brooks, Cleanth (Vol. 24)
Cleanth Brooks 1906–
Brooks was one of the most influential 'New Critics' of the World War II era. His practice of closely reading individual works and judging them solely on the basis of their internal components was highly controversial in the 1940s, but few critics doubt Brooks's integrity or his analytical skills.
Brooks was initially recognized as a critic of poetry, and his first major book, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, presents his critical method through detailed analyses of several poets. The Well Wrought Urn solidifies Brooks's premises by stating that poetry can be judged by the same criteria during any era. As John Paul Pritchard has summarized Brooks's theory: "The poet does not analyze actual experience like the historian; he synthesizes out of experience a simulacrum of reality that is in fact a new experience." This belief was a radical departure from the tenets of many historians, who felt that a critic had to understand the social and political motivations of the poet's life in relation to the present to find meaning in a poem. Likewise, the biographers who believed that the poet's intentions were the most important factors in the analysis of poetry were reluctant to see the plausibility of Brooks's point of view. Brooks's books were widely debated: his proponents lauded his penetrating exposition of literature; his opponents found Brooks's emphasis on the text too limited.
In some of Brooks's more recent writing he has incorporated religious and historical elements in his literary analysis. This is especially dominant in William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country and William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, in which Brooks analyzed Faulkner's settings and ideologies.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 17-20, rev. ed.)
[Brooks's thesis in Modern Poetry and the Tradition] may be summed up as follows:
- The Augustan neo-classicists regarded metaphor only as a decoration of thought. This is false. In poetry, idea and image are one.
- The romantics ranked wit and fancy below imagination, intellect below emotion, and considered irony beneath their dignity. This is false. Wit and irony are essential elements in serious poetry.
- Both regarded poetry as an elevated way of expressing elevated beliefs. This is false. The truth or error of beliefs expressed in poetry is immaterial; indeed great poetry can be written without any beliefs at all.
- In returning to the metaphysical and ironic style of writing common in the seventeenth century, modern poets like Eliot, Yeats and Allen Tate are returning to the true tradition of En-glish poetry, from which the Augustans and romantics were heretical deviators.
Anyone who, like Mr. Brooks or myself, has ever had to teach literature, will agree that it is still necessary to combat romanticism, and this book will provide them with valuable weapons. The general public still thinks of poetry as something vague and uplifting, and that true poets look like Shelley. Wit and irony are suspect to both Right and Left….
If, then, I venture some doubts about the complete soundness of Mr. Brooks's position, I do so only on the...
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The title of ["The Well Wrought Urn"] is taken from Donne's "Canonisation," where "a well wrought urne" is said to become as well "the greatest ashes, as halfe-acre tombes." It is no accident either that Mr. Brooks should take his title from Donne, that the first essay in reading should be on this poem by Donne, or that his last should be on a poem by Yeats. Mr. Brooks' type of criticism is a result of the special kind of reading which went with the establishment of the present high reputation of Donne's poetry and habits of mind; something difficult, closely patterned, arbitrary but consistent, intensely fused, passionately learned, and full of private or concealed symbolism: to which the clues are in the visible ironies, paradoxes, telescoped images, and rapid contrasts in attitude and tone….
[Brooks] applies the methods of the "new criticism" to ten standard poems. The tenor of his work is not judicial but interpretive, not analytic but descriptive. He teaches. To teach, he reads the poems as if their problems were the same as those found in a new quartet by Eliot or a late poem by Yeats; and for his readings he uses the weapons of paradox, irony, ambiguity, attitude, tone and belief. When the reader has learned how to deal with the great weight Mr. Brooks puts upon these words—they equal the whole weight of poetic activity—he will discover that Mr. Brooks gives us intensive and exciting readings of his chosen poems. He will also discover that the readings vary in value. (p. 6)
[On the whole], the "new criticism" works well on old material. It brings to light depths and varieties of meaning not naturally available to readers of the present generation, and which, judging by the history of criticism, were not available or were taken for granted by earlier generations. For we like to think that this generation makes a new use of poetry. We ought also to think that it has forgotten the old unconscious skills in the use of poetry, of which Mr. Brooks is here attempting to give an account. In either case, the task of criticism in each generation is to see older poetry in the light of its own, and its own in all the light it can find….
What Mr. Brooks gives us is a way of seeing that the life of these poems may be accounted for by their symbolic structure, and that the life seems richer than by some other accounts. I myself believe that our own generation...
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I have been reading Mr. Cleanth Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn with enjoyment and admiration, and want to write down the points at which I disagree with it. The minds of critics often work in this disagreeable way, and I hope I am right in taking for granted that the book as a whole does not need summarizing or defense. Indeed I agree so fully with his general position that if I were attacking him I should be attacking myself. (p. 691)
The general criticism I want to make of Mr. Brooks's approach is that he is too content to find the intellectual machinery of a fine and full statement in the poem; there is enough irony and paradox and so on, he feels, for the meaning to be made profound; this is true, but you still need to ask whether the machine worked the right way. (p. 692)
The chapter I chiefly want to examine is the one on the Keats "Grecian Urn." I agree with Mr. Brooks (against so many critics) in finding that I can enjoy the "Beauty is Truth" passage, at the end of the poem. But I find his explanation of it rather fuzzy writing, and I suspect the weakness here is due to a certain anti-emotionalism in his own whole mode of approach. He dislikes biography as a means of explaining a poem, since a poem ought to be complete in itself, and he is not very patient with personal expressions of feeling from a writer who is engaged in building one of these complicated structures. The whole of the third stanza of the Ode, he feels, is a falling-off; "there is a tendency to linger over the scene sentimentally." This is the stanza that begins "Ah happy, happy boughs" and ends by saying that human passion leaves "a burning forehead and a parching tongue." If we are to try to defend it, says Mr. Brooks, "we shall come nearest success by emphasizing the paradoxical implications of the repeated items…. Though the poet has developed and extended his metaphors furthest in this third stanza, the ironic counterpoise is developed furthest too." He often uses "irony" in a very extended sense, and this example...
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The long analysis of The Waste Land in Modern Poetry and the Tradition is a good example of Brooks' earlier [critical] method. As Brooks himself admits, the greater part of his discussion of The Waste Land deals with the "prose meaning" of the poem. What Brooks does is to summarize the theme, to call attention to important contrasts, to paraphrase difficult passages, to indicate shifts in tone, to trace recurrent symbols and to interpret their meanings in different contexts, and to trace the sources of allusions. The essay concludes with a relatively brief justification of Eliot's method. (p. 186)
Brooks' critical method in analyzing The Waste Land is often in curious contradiction with his theory. Much of the essay consists of paraphrase, in spite of Brooks' derogation of paraphrase as a criticized practice. In spite also of Brooks' oft repeated objection to poetry which points a moral, he praises Eliot for his supposed intention of rehabilitating a now discredited system of beliefs. It is true that the highest praise is devoted to the method of The Waste Land as "concrete," "dramatic," "indirect," "complex," "ironic," etc., but the essay as a whole is a dedicated defense of Eliot's obliquity as a strategy for rendering effective the paraphrasable theme. Brooks claims that Christian material is central in The Waste Land but that Eliot is expressing Christian attitudes by such indirect means as his description of fertility rites and his use of Sanskrit words. If Eliot actually had this aim in mind, Brooks deserves the praise he has received for being one of the first critics to discern Eliot's intention. It seems to me, however, that Brooks avoids his responsibility as a critic in his unqualified approval of Eliot's use of literary confusion to evaluate ideological confusion. In condoning Eliot in the practice, Brooks, like Eliot, has fallen victim to what Yvor Winters calls the fallacy of imitative form. Eliot has surrendered to what he calls the chaos of the age, and Brooks has surrendered to Eliot. What is remarkable about Brooks' surrender is that he has consistently censured the age for being muddled and confused, and yet much of his criticism is devoted to justifying ambiguity and confusion as suitable poetic methods.
To show the wide applicability of his critical method Brooks has written about a variety of poems composed in different periods and exhibiting various poetic styles. The essay on Gray's "Elegy" in The Well Wrought Urn is avowedly devoted to proving how irony may be found in a poem which has often been taken as a classical instance of "simple eloquence." Brooks undertakes to demonstrate that the "Elegy" is actually a complex dramatic utterance replete with irony…. Much of his analysis...
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Certain skeptical doubts which I have long felt concerning "the new criticism" have been considerably sharpened by Mr. Cleanth Brooks's latest volume, The Well Wrought Urn, as well as by his recent essay on "Irony and 'Ironic' Poetry." I am not happy about this, since on a number of points I am in sympathy with the purposes which differentiate Mr. Brooks and the writers commonly associated with him from most of the other critical schools of the day. (p. 83)
I do not question … that "irony," in Brooks's sense of the term, is a constant trait of all good poems, and I should have no quarrel with him had he been content to say so and to offer his analyses of texts as illustrations of one point,...
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[Brooks regards] the use of language in at least his kind of critical writing as something essentially different from the poetic use. It is unlikely that he would be much disturbed by the charges one has heard that he talks about literature, but does not make literature of his talk.
It may be making virtues of natural limitations, but Brooks's style seems a deliberately plain, steady, utilitarian style. The critical commentary does not emulate but only serves the poem, assists it in the performance of its "miracle of communication," like the disciples distributing the bread and fish.
One may weary a little at the limited variety of Brooks's rhetorical and logical...
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[The] moralistic emphasis which pervades Mr. Brooks' ["The Hidden God"] may be just as fatal as that "social significance" which he derides in the literary criticism of the 1930's. Over and over again this critic warns us, quite correctly, against finding a "moral," a "lesson," a single meaning in any work of art—even while he himself, in his present criticism, is doing just that.
Thus he praises Hemingway's courage and stoic dignity and sense of individual gallantry in a blind and fatalistic universe, although these obvious traits in Hemingway's work are, strictly speaking, pagan rather than Christian virtues. Indeed what puzzles me most about "The Hidden God" is that I can hardly find in it any...
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[William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country is at once] the most courteous, modest, sensible and helpful of existing guides. For a guide is most nearly what it is, a handbook for strangers….
In many ways … [this is] the book one might have expected from Brooks as Southerner and distinguished teacher but curiously not the book expected of Brooks as New Critic, author of The Well-Wrought Urn, the relentless verbal inquisitor. (p. 110)
Brooks has cast a broad loose net and landed, not the inert mass of symbols, parallels, archetypes which are the usual Faulknerian catch (which Brooks himself denounces as "symbol-mongering") but any number of separate attentions,...
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Professor Cleanth Brooks of Yale has written a long, handsome, and unfailingly sensible book about all of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha novels [William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country]. He is obsessed by no thesis, driven by no design: he simply wants to help us to read the novels as sympathetically and thoroughly as he has, and as they deserve to be read. To those who would shrink the novels into histories of the South or tracts on the Negro Problem, or bloat them into symbol-lands, to those who would wrench out his characters' speeches and call them Faulkner's, to all of the many non-readers and misreaders and pushy, perverse interpreters he counters his own brand of humble and illuminating common sense. "The...
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Little is wrong with The Hidden God that a new title would not remedy, for actually Cleanth Brooks' book is less about God than about the contemporary search for human dignity. Prof. Brooks' initial premise is that Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and R. P. Warren are concerned with the position of man in a hostile or an indifferent universe. (p. 366)
None of this departs much from what seems to be general critical opinion; in fact, The Hidden God is most successful when Brooks says clearly and well what lesser critics have said obscurely and badly. The difficulty occurs when he tries to realize the implications of his title by placing his authors within the Christian tradition. (In...
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[The Hidden God, a] casual discussion of the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and Warren, is an attempt to indicate the religious relevance that these works may possess for the contemporary Christian reader. At times Brooks seems to be apologizing for the success of these writers and for his own interest in them. His cursory investigations are surely more sharply focused on the potential uses that they may be put to by one uneasy in his Christian faith than on a reading of the texts within a more stringent aesthetic frame. Brooks's style is admirable, his sincerity is warmly apparent without being zealous, but the value of his excursions is sharply limited by the narrowness of his aims. In our age,...
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We may enumerate several distinct senses in which, for Brooks, poetry is "dramatic" rather than propositional. (1) Poems communicate to the reader not directly but through the agency of a dramatic persona engaged in responding to a situation, whose speeches are arranged so as to be "in character" rather than objectively true. (2) Poetry is not organized according to the model of logical exposition but seeks to dramatize prelogical, associative states of consciousness…. (3) "Any 'statement' made in the poem bears the pressure of the context and has its meaning modified by the context." Therefore, "poems never contain abstract statements." Just as any single character in a drama interacts with other characters and the...
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[Cleanth Brooks] comes close in many minds to being the New Critic. Having, unlike most of his peers, published little poetry and fiction, he is wholly a critic and an academic. And he is an editorial half of that famous dreadnought, Understanding Poetry, which was as responsible as any work for disseminating the New Criticism. [A Shaping Joy] is much concerned with the label as it represents both condemnation and legitimacy. Brooks sets out in his first two essays (their titles are revealing: "The Uses of Literature" and "The Modern Writer and his Community") to gainsay the accusation that the New Criticism is insular, impervious to anything beyond its own involvements. At the same time he...
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[In "A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Winter Craft"] Brooks remains a reader's reader. In a sense he is not a writer at all, for he is a writer without style. Style, he quotes Yeats as saying is "'a still unexpended energy, after all that the argument … needs, a still unbroken pleasure after the immediate end has been accomplished—a most personal and wilful fire."… Style by Yeats's definition we have in Eliot, in Tate, in Ransom—other formalist critics who are certainly far from impressionistic. But no critic, not even Eliot, is less personal or wilful than Brooks. His relation to his subjects, which are uncompromisingly literary, is that of a fine lens. When his subject is an individual work, he performs a kind...
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Cleanth Brooks is usually identified with one method, "close reading," and with a search for such devices as paradox and irony in English poetry from Shakespeare to Yeats. He has been accused of "critical monism" by R. S. Crane [see excerpt above]. (p. 196)
[I want] to make a plea for Cleanth Brooks as a historian of criticism, as a critic of critics. His comments on criticism constitute an extensive part of his work that has not received the attention it deserves. (p. 197)
Much of Brooks's comment on other critics is, no doubt, self-defense, apologia pro domo sua. He knows that criticism is, as Benedetto Croce knew and so said repeatedly,...
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If Brooks as critic may be said to have a characteristic method, it is that of demonstrating that a formula or generalization is inadequate because it will not fit all the complex facts of the individual case. Applying this method to Brooks's own work, we observe immediately that his last three books, at least, are not limited to close reading, since one, The Hidden God, deals explicitly with the religious implications of literature and the other two, William Faulkner and A Shaping Joy, are, in their different ways, richly historical. In the latter volume, he protests against being typed "as the rather myopic 'close reader', the indefatigable exegete," and affirms mildly, "In fact I am interested...
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[William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond] as a whole is less impressive than The Yoknapatawpha Country because its topics are more diverse and because most of it is concerned with less impressive works. Faulkner's poetry and early prose would not be worth discussing at such length were it not for the light they cast on his literary sources and on qualities he was to develop further in his later writing…. For me, however, the principal value of the book is that it completed Brooks's magisterial study of Faulkner's work as a whole. The two volumes taken together, as they should be taken, are the best-rounded exposition not only of Faulkner but of almost any American author.
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Fifteen years ago Cleanth Brooks published William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. It was then and remains now the best single critical work on the novels of Faulkner's fictional saga. In the years that followed, many of Brooks's readers looked forward to the promised companion volume that would deal with the works Faulkner set beyond the boundaries of his apocryphal county. From time to time essays appeared which gave previews, essays ranging from Faulkner's poetry to his view of history. Now at last he has gathered most of them together, revised them, and added new chapters, appendices, and notes to form William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. It was worth waiting for. (p. 145)...
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