Formalism is clearly a twentieth century critical phenomenon in its emphasis on close readings of literary texts, dissociated from extrinsic references to authors or to their society. There had been a formalist tendency before in the history of literary criticism, but it did not, as in twentieth century formalism, approach exclusivity in its emphasis on the structure of the work itself. Aristotle’s analysis in De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) of the complex tragic plot as having a tripartite division of reversal, recognition, and catastrophe is one of the most valuable formalist analyses of the structure of tragedy ever made.
That Aristotle’s approach to poetics was not intrinsic but extrinsic, however, was made clear by his twentieth century followers, the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians Ronald S. Crane and Elder Olson. They were the harshest critics of what they regarded as the limited critical perspective of modern formalists, pointing out that an Aristotelian analysis was characteristically in terms of four causes. These were the formal cause (the form that the work imitates), the material cause (the materials out of which the work is made), the efficient cause (the maker), and the final cause (the effect on the reader or audience). Crane charged in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern (1952) that the New Criticism is concerned with only one of these causes, language, in order to distinguish poetic from scientific and everyday uses of language, but was unable to distinguish among the various kinds of poetry. It is true that formalism is largely concerned with literature as a verbal art. This single-mindedness has been its strength in explication as well as its weakness as a critical theory.
Two key concepts in the literary theory of the English Romantic period may have been influential on twentieth century formalism. Although the New Critics were professedly anti-Romantic, following Eliot’s call for impersonality in modern poetry, their stress on the...
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