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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."
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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) 1949
Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric [with Robert Penn Warren] (nonfiction) 1950
†Literary Criticism: A Short History [with William K. Wimsatt] (criticism) 1957
The Hidden God: Studies in Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and Warren (criticism) 1963
William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (criticism) 1963
A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft (criticism) 1971
William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (criticism) 1978
William Faulkner: First Encounters (criticism) 1983
The Language of the American South (nonfiction) 1985
On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner (criticism) 1987
Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry (criticism) 1991
∗Abridged edition of this work was published as The Scope of Fiction in 1960.
†Part four of this work was published searately as Modern Criticism: A Short History in 1970.
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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 of Pound—a revolution, Brooks maintains, comparable in importance to that which began in 1798 with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads.
The need for a new definition of metaphysical poetry has become apparent in the loose and conflicting usages of the term in much recent criticism, and in the application of it to modern poetry by such critics as John Crowe Ransom. Brooks's description of the metaphysical mode is exhaustive. Taking up one of the stock definitions, "the poetry of wit", he shows how it fits the work of Donne and his fellows on two levels. Wit in its present sense operates not only in the minor poetry of the time but in that of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton—as is shown by their common fondness for puns, playful comparisons, and satirical thrusts. Wit in its older meaning of intellectual power presides over what all these poets wrote, developing and controlling the emotion. It led the metaphysical poet to regard his subject from all points of view, and thus to render an account of experience as complex as life itself. Hence Brooks derives a definition of wit as "a lively awareness of the fact that the obvious attitude toward a given situation is not the only possible attitude." The tone that wit produces in the poem Brooks call irony, meaning by it the total attitude resulting from a combination of the approbative and satirical attitudes—that is, by a mature mind fully commanding the situation and exploiting every aspect of it. Its presence accounts for the frequent occurrence of paradox in this poetry, and its habitual absence from the poetry of the next two centuries is the essential distinction between the two.
Because the intellect and not the emotions was sovereign in the writing of metaphysical verse, it recognized no class of words and objects as inherently "poetical". A thing was poetical only as it was successfully employed in a poem, and the poet was free to choose his subjects and his metaphors from the whole of life. At the same time, the metaphors were employed functionally rather than decoratively, for the figures cannot be removed from a metaphysical poem without demolishing it. "The comparison is the poem in a structural sense."
The different texture of the verse typical of the next two centuries resulted from the new conception of metaphor as an illustrative or decorative accessory, a point upon which both Samuel Johnson and A. E. Housman, writing as critics, are in complete agreement. These timid metaphors, which degenerate so readily into similes, may be removed without destroying the theme of the poem. It simply becomes less clear or less "beautiful". The fluid state in which such a poem exists is its radical difference from a metaphysical poem. From what seems to have been the older view of a poem as an object having a valid existence of its own, poets and critics turned to the notion that a poem was a statement intended to change the reader in some way. "… the test of the statement's value [was] its truth; and the success of the poet, his success as an expositor." The imagery and metrics were to be pleasant in themselves, apart from what was being said, and their only connection with what was being said was to make it more palatable.
The reason for the change was the dominant position that rationalism and the new science assumed at this time under the leadership of Hobbes. Hobbes, who was so suspicious of metaphor that he excluded it entirely from prose, allowed it a place in poetry "only for pleasure or ornament". Poetry was believed to be, like science, a search for demonstrable truth. "For the imaginative act of fusing what in ordinary experience is inharmonious, the Hobbesian poet tended to substitute the rational act of sorting out the discordant and removing it from the context." A spirit of levity and paradox would impede the search for scientific truth, and since metaphor's only function was to make the demonstrated truth more agreeable, naturally the poet was not allowed to employ disagreeable words and images. "The first critical revolution in modern English poetry, then, may be described as a simplification of poetry." The poet sacrificed the totality of his vision: serious poetry had to be exclusively serious in tone, and satire was relegated to a secondary place. Abstractions and generalizations resembling those of science replaced the vivid particularity of Shakespeare and Donne.
The advent of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their followers, Brooks maintains, produced only a demi-revolution; and the halfheartedness of their revolt from the eighteenth-century notions may be seen in a variety of ways. In the highest poetry, they supposed, materials that were technical, sharply realistic, and definite were to be avoided. The notion persisted of a limited class of objects that were intrinsically poetical, though the limits were extended and the objects changed. Simplicity was still preferred to complexity; and wit with its flashing conflict of attitudes was thought to be out of place. Either poets continued to kowtow to science and serve its ends or with "romantic irony" they wholly rejected its view of the world. In either case they failed to recapture the attitude that poetry is not in competition with science but complements it by offering a kind of knowledge that science does not know.
It is evident that on these disputed points the practice of the modernists is that of the metaphysicals. Wit, intellectual activity, and totality of vision, the inclusion of words and images of all kinds, the use of metaphor functionally rather than decoratively, the "reconciliation of warring elements", and the conception of poetry as a form of knowledge—all these characterize the work of Yeats and the rest. The obscurity of the moderns is of the same kind as that of Donne's verse and many of Shakespeare's Sonnets: it results from the poet's being once more a "maker" rather than an expositor, so that the experience his poem creates must inevitably contain something new and individual—that is, at least partially private. Brooks remarks that no-one blames Wordsworth for employing a leech-gatherer as the symbol for resolution and independence; yet it is a symbol at least somewhat private and obscure. Significantly enough, readers find obscurity not only in Donne on the one hand and Yeats on the other but also in the three intervening poets whose work (for example, in its untrammeled use of symbols) most resembles theirs: Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here the affinity between symbolists and metaphysical poetry becomes apparent—an affinity, Brooks shows, that caused the influence of French symbolists like Laforgue and Corbière to lead Eliot and the rest back to the principles underlying the metaphysical lyric.
Brooks's view of English literary history finds its firmest support in the chapter, "A Note on the Death of Elizabethan Tragedy"; and it is here that he shows himself most original and independent. The thesis is that tragedy fell a victim to the process that had changed the course of lyric poetry. The complexity of Shakespeare was replaced by the simplicity of Dryden, or else Shakespeare's plays themselves were simplified when they were revived. Like the Greek protagonist with his tragic flaw, the Elizabethan hero was hero and criminal at once; and from this ambiguity, together with the irony that the subject-matter was potentially comic if differently treated, there resulted the equilibrium, the tension, of great tragedy. After the Restoration, however, the subplot was condemned (though not even the neo-classicists could regard Lear's Fool as "affording comic relief"), and the result was such an abstraction that, as Empson remarks, "one might almost say that the English drama did not outlive the double plot." Tragedy had come to envy science its ability to give answers; in order to do so the characters were simplified and made two-dimensional, that the audience might have a single attitude towards them, and the action became predictable and contrived. Comedy survived for a time because it allows of a single attitude; but it is significant that the most complex of Restoration comedies, The Way of the World, failed on the stage, and that Congreve retired from playwriting when he had scarcely reached his prime.
The novelty of this chapter indicates how the thesis of Modern Poetry and the Tradition has necessitated a revaluation of literary history, and in fact the last chapter is called, "Notes for a Revised History of English Poetry." In it Brooks makes plain his belief that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets wrote more alike than is commonly supposed, and that the work of Yeats and the rest is directly in the tradition of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton. In this way Brooks shifts the burden of the proof from the modern poets to their assailants. The unity of the book results from the fact that the tradition is restated so as to include modern poetry, and thus the author fulfills his twin purposes of revaluating the work of the past and justifying that of the present; but it is to be regretted that he did not push on to particular analyses of non-metaphysical poems, to show how they are different and, as he believes, inferior. Even so, the importance of Modern Poetry and the Tradition in its aim can scarcely be overstated; and in the opinion of this reviewer the fulfillment of its aim is completely successful.
As Brooks himself acknowledges, his debt to such critics as Empson, Eliot, and Ransom is a large one; but by this means his book achieves a drawing-together and clarification of the principles basic to these most unsystematic and often puzzling writers. For example, the title of Allen Tate's book, Reactionary Essays is accounted for by Brooks's contention that Tate and the rest have not uprooted the tradition of English verse but rather have reacted from its perversion to an earlier age when it was in a state of health. Modern Poetry and the Tradition is particularly valuable for its illuminating analyses of The Waste Land, Yeats's mythology, and the verse of Ransom, Warren, Tate, MacLeish, Auden, and Frost (whose inclusion as a modern poet may surprise the dedicatee), so that the general comments on these poets are confirmed by detailed examinations of their achievements.
This book, it has been remarked, is not a manifesto of the kind that appears at the outset of a revolution. It is a work of elucidation the time for which arrives when the revolution is a fait accompli. For this reason readers familiar with Empson and the others will find much in it that is not new. It is, however, the most consistent and intelligible, statement of their position that has been made, and indeed it is not primarily addressed to the friends of modernist poetry.
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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 by such implacable curmudgeons as Marvin Mudrick. Its admirers have had all sorts of reasons for admiring it, one of the most provocative being that it is the first such book to be written by "one who can speak from intimate but dispassionate knowledge of [Faulkner's] milieu": a point to which I must return. The reviews and the sales must be making the publisher look forward to bringing out the companion volume, which will be concerned with Faulkner's style and fictional technique, especially as analysis of his revisions may illuminate these.
It is a pleasure to agree with the praise that William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country has called forth. Brooks has indeed produced a most valuable guide to the meaning of Faulkner's major novels; and, what is more, once it gets really under way it is a joy to read. The analyses are generous with summary and quotation, presenting the substance of the novels with such discerning warmth as to rekindle the excitement one felt on one's first meeting with them. Yet I must at the same time sympathize with some of the reviewers' complaints: that Brooks writes as though Faulkner's characters led lives independent of his fictions; that the encomiums on every one of the fourteen Yoknapatawpha novels get monotonous, hardly discriminating between the worst and the best of them; that Brooks's thesis is vulnerable—viz., that to Faulkner the Southern community is "the field for man's action and the norm by which his action is judged and regulated," as Brooks formulates it on page 69. And the writing is sometimes absent-minded: "These instances of symbol-hunting … are only a little less absurd than much respectable commentary on Faulkner." For "less" read "more," surely.
I must add a few other cavils. Nearly half of the forty-two short stories in Faulkner's Collected Stories are set in the Yoknapatawpha country, and these have supplied some of our most memorable images of it. Yet Brooks mentions only six of the stories—mainly in his notes. (A full analysis of "Dry September," for instance, would have deepened his interpretation of Light in August.) His rather disjointed title seems intended to prepare for the whimsical structure of the book. Discussions of Faulkner's provincialism, his treatment of rustic characters, and the role nature plays in his work introduce the thirteen chapters on the Yoknapatawpha novels, Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun being considered together. But the community with which the book is mainly concerned, as in the chapters on Light in August and Intruder in the Dust, resides in neither the countryside nor the wilderness. It resides in the town of Jefferson, and no introductory chapter treats of it. The discussions of the novels themselves occur neither in the order of their composition nor in that of history or geography. (Cf. the arrangement of the Collected Stories.) Brooks's arrangement, though his preface defends it, obscures the gradual evolution of Faulkner's major attitudes and his style, retards the expression of Brooks's thesis, and most unhappily—for it is an essentially sound thesis—robs it of the clarity that might have safeguarded it from attack.
For instance, it should not be necessary to deny, though it evidently is, that Brooks mistakes the Faulknerian community for a Utopia. He is showing only that it can nourish human relationships which, instead of being destructively competitive, are founded on disinterested kindliness and interdependence. Whoever wrote in a recent New Republic (hardly a reactionary journal) of "Southern California's vast, fragmented non-community, where … the rights of property remain the only constant value" (November 14, p. 6) would understand Faulkner's meaning without difficulty. But Faulkner did not discover this important theme all at once, and a critic can define it best if he traces its slow emergence in the novels. We may see Faulkner groping his way toward it in the Christmas Eve passage of Sartoris; with As I Lay Dying he brings it into sharper focus; and it flourishes even amid the horrors of Light in August—as Brooks finely shows at the conclusion of that chapter.
Although Brooks's stated intention is "to determine and evaluate the meaning of the work in the fullness of its depth and amplitude," his method is very little that of the Formalist. Indeed, it is frequently moralistic, greatly concerned with the validity of Faulkner's judgments on his characters. And when this new development on Brooks's part is combined with his critiques of other approaches to Faulkner, some fine theoretical puzzles result. Brooks makes war on two extremes: "sociologizing" and "symbol-mongering." (These are not counterparts, as he asserts, however, for the first reduces meaning, the second inflates it.) Of sociologizing, he remarks that "anything calculated to shake the reader's confidence in the literal accuracy of Faulkner's 'facts' is probably to be commended." Symbol-mongering is so calculated—and if Faulkner's fictitious situations are not true to life, what critical advantage is there in possessing "knowledge of how life is actually lived (and has been lived) in Mississippi"? Faulkner's European admirers doubtless lacked this knowledge, though they were among the first to appreciate his stature. It may be answered that, while Faulkner's best novels contain all that is needed for their understanding, the Southern critic will be alive to nuances that escape the outlander. Brooks implicitly claims more than this, though; e.g., "Peter Liska shows no knowledge of Southern mores when he assumes that the disclosure that Temple had been raped would be a 'socially acceptable' account." Here Brooks appeals to his own experience of Faulkner's milieu; and I wish he had somewhere addressed himself to the problem of how we can know when a novel is continuous, and when discontinuous, with the reality from which it has sprung.
The indictment of symbol-mongering also raises a problem of knowledge, which Brooks ignores, while effectively deriding various examples: the Compsons' Christmas dinner as a feast of atonement, Joe Christmas as Jesus, Ike Snopes as a Courtly Lover, Sutpen's mountain birthplace as an Eden. Some of these "discoveries" are merely silly; other symbolic readings, however, cannot be summarily rejected, unless they are shown to conflict with what seems the right interpretation of the whole novel. "Shall there be no more innocent consumption of pork chops and spareribs in Yoknapatawpha County," Brooks rightly asks, "because someone has read The Golden Bough?" But because Barbara Crossman has overinterpreted the Compsons' pig, shall there be no more archetypes? Is Neil Isaacs wrong, to take a recent example, in reading the murder of Sutpen as a kind of Götterdämmerung?
Brooks's own alertness to such implications produces one of the most compelling passages in his book: his account of the mythic atmosphere of The Hamlet. Just so does his knowledge of the facts of Southern life make possible many of his other insights—despite his already quoted disclaimer. Two of the best examples are his suggestion that Sutpen's treatment of Clytie shows Sutpen lacking in "the usual Southern feeling" about Negroes, and the even more acute remark that the disintegration of the Compson family contrasts with, rather than represents, the general state of families in the South of 1910.
This knife, however, may cut both ways. A Southern critic may be both sensitive to the nuances of Faulkner's imaginary society and at the same time unduly defensive about the real society that underlies it. Brooks argues persuasively against the notion that Sutpen typifies the antebellum Southerner; and yet for all that, I think, Absalom, Absalom! excoriates the South by the motives it ascribes to Henry Sutpen, who is not the sympathetic character that Brooks would have him be. Henry's part of the story, as Brooks argues, is indeed what most affects Quentin—and it is Henry's actions that introduce ambiguity into Quentin's famous last words, "I dont hate it!"
Brooks presents Henry as "beset by conflicting claims … forced to make intolerably hard choices—between opposed goods or between conflicting evils." But what can "goods" mean in this sentence? Henry chooses to murder Charles Bon, his half-brother, rather than see him marry their sister, and the reason he finds himself in this apparent dilemma is that for six years he has been infatuated with Bon—so much so that during four of these years he has assented to the prospective marriage, knowing that Bon and Judith are half-brother and half-sister. (Much of all this derives from the conjectures of Quentin and Shreve; but, as Brooks shows, their conjectures have the same status as the rest of the novel's action.)
By suggesting that "Sutpen's unwillingness to acknowledge Charles Bon as his son does not spring from any particular racial feeling," Brooks obscures the biting ingenuity of Faulkner's plot. Sutpen's design, of course, has two parts: he wishes to make himself an aristocrat, and he wishes to found an aristocratic dynasty. In the incident of the Confederate camp, the ironist Bon offers himself as the fulfillment of the second wish; but his Negro blood means that if Sutpen acknowledged him he would frustrate the first one—and incidentally bastardize his white children. When Sutpen refuses, however, he removes the only obstacle to the marriage that Bon would recognize. Henry's choice is therefore not a true dilemma; to prevent the marriage he has only to proclaim his brotherhood with Bon. But he cannot entertain that alternative.
Quentin and Steve's conjectures, as Brooks summarizes them on pages 434-435, make it all quite explicit, including Henry's silence at Bon's words, "So it's the miscegenation, not the incest, which you cant bear." And surely the implication is that only when fifteen hundred miles away from Mississippi, and prodded by his Canadian roommate, can Quentin discern the truth about the South. While Sutpen is only a quasi-aristocrat, he has a genuine aristocrat for a son; and Henry, like Faulkner's other genuine aristocrats, is seldom guilty of treating other persons as mere instruments of his will. Yet both father and son are caught in an institution that makes the instrumental use of human beings peculiarly tempting, even to so amiable a character as Henry, who prefers murder to having a brother-in-law with Negro blood. It will not do to answer the question "Does Quentin hate the South?" by asking "Does Stephen Daedalus [sic] hate Dublin?" (Cf. p. 317.) The answer to that is Yes. The answer to the other question may be inferred from Intruder in the Dust.
Excoriates: the verb comes from one of Chick Mallison's reveries about Southerners, of which Brooks quotes several in arguing that Gavin Stevens should not be considered Faulkner's spokesman. Stevens' attitude toward the South is relatively tolerant; but what a re-reading of these passages makes plainer than ever is that Faulkner's deepest feelings are expressed by Chick. Does Chick hate Southerners? He burns with a "fierce desire that they should be perfect because they were his and he was theirs," and exhibits a "furious almost instinctive leap and spring to defend them from anyone anywhere so that he might excoriate them himself without mercy"—passions that he shares with Quentin. Intruder in the Dust does not end unhappily; what calls for excoriation is only an unrealized intention. In Absalom, Absalom!, however, Henry Sutpen carries a like intention into effect, and thereby destroys himself. Its last sentence represents Quentin's "furious almost instinctive leap and spring" of defense.
For Quentin, like Chick, is "theirs," and they are his. So was it also with Faulkner. Other interpreters of his work have inclined to abstract his excoriation of the South from the intricate web of emotions to which it belonged; and it is the abiding virtue of Brooks's study of Yoknapatawpha that it makes the positive values of Faulkner's community palpable to the reader, so that he may understand the rich ambiguity of Faulkner's feelings. Although one may doubt that Faulkner conceived of that community as always a dependable regulator of its members' actions, as Brooks sometimes implies, it is indisputably right to say, as he does in closing, that "Even lack of purpose and value take on special meaning when brought into Faulkner's world, for its very disorders are eloquent of the possibilities of order…. Faulkner's work speaks ultimately of the possibilities and capacities of the human spirit for finding and embodying meaning."
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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,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine,
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries All.
Such a reading no doubt derives much of its force from the modern reader's awareness of the accelerated fragmentation of Western tradition in our own century, and, accordingly, I should like to suggest that there is something of the same sense of apocalyptic gloom and urgency in T.S. Eliot's essay "Religion and Literature." Writing nearly two hundred years after the publication of Pope's dismal prophecy of the demise of genuine humanism, Eliot likewise surveyed the literary scene of his time from an embattled and pessimistic perspective. Indeed, there is, beneath the authoritative urbanity characteristic of Eliot's mature prose style, an undercurrent of defensiveness about "Religion and Literature" that sets it apart from most of his earlier excursions into prose, and this fact suggests that it is, on one level at least, an intensely personal document in the guise of a public call for action.
Eliot is aware of the affective power of literature and of the fact that, though literature like any art is in one sense autotelic, it is impossible to insulate the literary experience from the moral dimension of man's being. Literature affects the whole man; what we read (or, more properly, how we assimilate what we read) manifests itself for better or worse in what we think and do. There is no "harmless" book, Eliot rather waggishly maintains, unless it be totally unreadable. Indeed, the more powerful writer has an almost demonic capacity to possess the weaker, less critical, consciousness of an inexperienced reader, a fact that poses an especially troublesome threat at a time when there is no solid moral center from which literature originates. As Eliot sees it, the state of contemporary literature is a kind of Babel of voices, a world in which each writer presents his private vision. Since few of these figures are blessed with truly Blakean powers, the result is literary confusion in a moral vacuum. The principal villain in this chaotic drama is "Secularism," with its insistence upon the cult of progress and democratic individualism, an unrealizable dream given the sad fact of man's imperfectibility. As a result, Eliot is deeply distrustful of the social consequences of much twentieth-century literature. He admits that certain "individual modern writers of eminence can be improving," but he nevertheless asserts that "contemporary literature as a whole tends to be degrading." Even the "better writers" can have a "pernicious" effect upon a reader who is ill-equipped to understand them in the proper light. Eliot confesses that his own work, improperly assimilated, might have such a negative influence.
Given this state of affairs, the role of the critic becomes crucial. In earlier essays like "Hamlet," Eliot had argued that the literary critic's "first business" was "to study a work of art." And in "The Perfect Critic" he had criticized the tendency of Coleridge to leave off literary criticism in favor of "a metaphysical hare-and-hounds." But in "Religion and Literature," Eliot insists that the critic's role is fraught with significant social responsibility. This seeming discrepancy in his portrayal of the ideal man of letters may well be essentially a matter of emphasis, yet it serves to underscore the extent to which the author moved from aesthetics to broader cultural concerns by the 1930's. The younger Eliot's search for unity, order, and tradition in art carried with it an awareness of the desirability of a similar wholeness in the social realm, a wholeness he saw as woefully absent in the modern world. However, things are not entirely hopeless. The critic, especially if he can ground himself in the firm stance of an integrated world-view like that offered by Christian orthodoxy, can learn to read and evaluate modern literature in a positive way. Eliot sees this as not only desirable, but necessary if traditional values are not to be totally engulfed by the materialism of modernity. Eliot cautions the Christian reader to be forever "conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves and the greater part of contemporary literature" so that he is prepared to "extract from it what good it has to offer." Though he does not draw the analogy explicitly, Eliot is evoking here a modified version of the ancient patristic practice of reading the pagan authors in the light of Christian revelation—"despoiling the Egyptians." As early as 1930, Eliot had demonstrated such an approach in his discussion of Baudelaire, whose apparently godless world nevertheless held a valuable lesson for the discerning reader: "His [Baudelaire's] business was not to practice Christianity, but—what was much more important for his time—to assert its necessity." In short, Baudelaire's malaise, his visions of despair and disgust, argued powerfully for a return to healthy orthodoxy.
There are any number of practicing critics today who might aspire, consciously or otherwise, to Eliot's criteria for the Christian critic, but none, I believe, better realizes that role than Cleanth Brooks, who, as an active conservative layman in the Episcopal Church, shares Eliot's traditional theology, as well as many of his basic literary and social assumptions. Brooks too has felt, at times painfully, the cultural crisis confronting the man of letters in the contemporary world, where scientism and utility seem firmly in the saddle. Restating Eliot's denunciation of "Secularism" in more precise terms, Brooks attacks millennialism—the prevailing assumption that man can achieve perfection, realize the City of God as it were, on earth. Brooks's sense of human limitations, his religious awareness that fallen man cannot save himself, leads him to regard the pursuit of material utopias as folly. Yet, Brooks is aware that his position is a minority opinion; the work of the social engineers goes on.
In Brooks's view, among the inevitable by-products of millennial thinking and planning is the disruption of any genuine sense of community based upon the interaction of socially-responsible individuals. The traditional humanistic ideal of the social organism, the body politic, is thus replaced by a mechanistic surrogate. In a panel session at a conference on Southern literary study held at the University of North Carolina in 1972, Brooks decried the notion of a perfect society in which men and women would operate with the efficiency of IBM machines. Such a society, were it ever to be fully realized, would, he maintained, spell the "end of literature," for Brooks believes that poetic expression is directly related to a culture's grasp of its own humanity. In "The Modern Writer and His Community" (A Shaping Joy), Brooks paraphrases Yeats to the effect that the "plight of the poet" is a reliable "measuring stick for the health of the civilization," and for Brooks the state of poetry and the state of language are intimately interdependent. In "The Uses of Literature" (also a part of A Shaping Joy), he observes that "our generation inherits a language that has lost its hold on concrete reality, that is slack and imprecise, and that reflects a culture that lacks any commonly accepted value-system." A world in which the concreteness of language is eroded constantly by the abstracting tendency of scientism, statistics, and sociology is a world where literature and, presumably, the other arts must lose much of their force. By implication, it is incumbent upon the writer and the critic to fight what Brooks elsewhere calls a "rear guard action," not only in order for literature as we know it to survive, but in order to preserve man's sense of himself as man.
This predisposition on Brooks's part to connect the problematic future of society with that of poetry is nothing new, although recent developments in world history have no doubt served to focus his attention increasingly on the social sphere. Yet the misconception that Brooks is a critical "monist" with an ivory-tower obsession with the poem as a cold artifact existing in a kind of inviolable isolation (a misconception derived from a careless reading of his early books) persists even today in some circles. While it is true that Brooks has always insisted that the poem is a thing-in-itself, defying any biographical and historical reductionism, his criticism has never been limited to close analysis alone. Indeed, like Eliot, he often brings a rather sweeping perspective to bear on the interrelationships between art, the artist, and the age. His first book, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), with its emphasis on metaphysical poetry and the understanding of modern writing within the context of what preceded it, can be read to advantage as an extended study in cultural history. Even The Well Wrought Urn (1947), in which Brooks established himself as the master explicator, is a book that assumes a priori that understanding the "poem as poem" is a matter which bears directly on the future of the humanities as a discipline. In an appendix to that book, "Criticism, History, and Critical Relativism," Brooks makes the case for the relevance of his approach to literature unmistakably clear: "The Humanities have suffered under a variety of attacks which stem perhaps from the very nature of our age and of our civilization. But they have not been better defended, it seems to me—at least more effectively defended—because the teachers of the Humanities have tended to comply with the spirit of the age rather than to resist it." Instead of assimilating the methods and assumptions of the social reductionists under the aegis of critical relativism, the literary critic would do well, in Brooks's view, to insist upon the unique contributions to our intellectual and cultural life that he alone can make: "If the Humanities are to endure, they must be themselves—and that means, among other things, frankly accepting the burden of making normative judgements."
In Literary Criticism: A Short History (written in collaboration with William K. Wimsatt, Jr.), Brooks provides an extreme instance of how aesthetic questions can be confused with scientific concerns and distorted into something else altogether:
… in the 19th century, the decay of metaphysics and the extraordinary growth of the physical sciences gave a special stress to affective theories of criticism. Gustav Fechner, for example, took the problems of aesthetics into the laboratory … The methods of investigation were to be empirical and inductive. There were to be "controlled" experiments to determine what percentage of human beings find the rectangle a more pleasing shape than the square or what percentage prefer rectangles proportioned to the golden section as compared to rectangles of other proportions.
However interesting the results of such tests might be in purely psychological terms, their significance in terms of understanding a given work of art is dubious at best. In stressing that a poem, like any other work of art, be understood on its own terms, Brooks is clearly assuming that literary criticism has a special role to fulfill, a role that cannot be subsumed under the banner of science. This explains his distrust of the more extreme instances of "psychologistic" tendencies in I.A. Richards' criticism, as well as his disapproval of Northrop Frye's efforts to make literary study "for the first time into a true science" so that it can at last take its place "among the other social sciences." Science has its uses, Brooks would admit, but to apply its methods to literature and to accept its insights uncritically is to surrender to the very forces that would render genuine "literature" impossible. Such a course of action represents an abdication of the literary critic's responsibilities as a humanist.
If criticism is not a science (at least not in the modern sense of the word), neither is it the handmaiden of religion. In "Religion and Literature," Eliot stresses the point that writing based upon theological and philosophical premises with which he is in substantial agreement is not, by virtue of that fact alone, literature of the first order. He cites the stories of G.K. Chesterton as an example. While he admits his delight in reading such fiction, Eliot nevertheless is unwilling to make great claims for its ultimate value in artistic terms. Brooks follows Eliot closely in this regard. Both critics are determined to keep the natures and functions of poetry and religion distinct. Thus Brooks, like Eliot, resists the temptation to make a religion of art along the lines envisioned by Matthew Arnold, who felt the need for literature to fill the vacuum created by the supposed death of traditional faith. Religion, like literature, may have a common enemy in the forces of modernism, but they are hardly interchangeable, and for Eliot and Brooks, faith is hardly dead. Yet religion and literature do have an important relationship with one another, which poses two important questions: What is the nature of that relationship? and, What is the proper role of the Christian critic?
Brooks addresses himself to the first of these questions in his own essay entitled "Religion and Literature" (Sewanee Review: Winter, 1974). While insisting that "it is in everybody's interest to maintain the distinctions between logic and ethics, science and religion, poetry and philosophy," he concedes that literature and religion "do overlap at points and they do have much in common." In earlier times, the roles of artist and priest were often merged in a single "spiritual leader of the people." This is natural enough, in Brooks's view, since both religion and literature are "suffused with terms that appeal to the human heart." Since "the literary artist brings together events and observations and moods into a pattern which has its coherence of attitude," the literary work provides the reader with "a value-structured experience" akin to that which is at the basis of religion. Yet, unlike religion, the coherent attitude provided by a poem, novel, or play need not make any "ultimate claim on our belief." One can read and respond to Herbert's poem "Love," Brooks suggests, without being "compelled to believe in Herbert's God of love." 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.
Religion, by its own nature, does however make a very definite claim on our belief. In Brooks's words, "It demands a commitment" on the part of the believer. It requires "something more than a temporary suspension of disbelief." And herein lies the essential difference between the religious and the literary modes of human experience. Brooks thus implies that religion provides the reader with an absolute world-vision that has the power to inform his life, to enable him to translate attitude into action, whereas the literary experience does not necessarily require more than a momentary surrender of the reader's philosophical biases. While maintaining the separateness of religion and poetry, Brooks nevertheless insists upon a vital relationship between the two. Far from possessing the potential to replace religion, poetry, in fact, "needs religion" for "the relationship between religion and poetry is a polar relationship in something of the same sense in which we speak of the poles of an electric battery, one positive and the other negative, poles that mutually attract each other and thus generate a current of energy."
In keeping with his characteristic practice of reinforcing such a generalization with an appeal to concrete specifics, Brooks takes a close look at three poems by Yeats that illustrate to varying degrees the symbiotic interrelationship between religion and poetry, and he concludes that poetry needs religion in much the same way that it needs other concrete modes of human experience, "for poetry is a dramatization of, and thus an indirect commentary upon, characteristic human action." Furthermore, religion can free the poet from the burden of "justifying a particular course of action" rather than exploring, through his imagination, a broader range of alternatives. Throughout his essay, Brooks implicitly assumes that, based upon a hierarchical ranking, religion, with its demand for total commitment, must necessarily supersede poetry, yet he argues that "We need both of them." And this need is not merely personal, it also has important social and cultural dimensions. Literature takes on a special role in reflecting the society out of which it grows, for it reveals that society's relative state of health. It is "diagnostic," not "prescriptive." Religion, however, complements the work of the imaginative writer, for it provides us with "final commitments" and enjoins us to "specific actions."
Although Brooks does not specifically describe the role of the ideal Christian critic in "Religion and Literature," he has consistently assumed that role throughout his career, and a look at his methods reveals the extent to which he, like Eliot, can read literature from a Christian perspective without losing his objectivity or distorting an author's vision into something else in the name of orthodoxy. Indeed, Brooks has been a perennial enemy of propaganda art, whatever its ideological basis, preferring literature that embodies an "earned vision" like that extolled by his friend, colleague, and collaborator Robert Penn Warren—a literature that is metaphysical in the sense of utilizing tensions and ironies rather than excluding them. Thus, Brooks has less interest in a poet like Emerson who, in his view, has little awareness of the dialectical complexities that make great poetry than in a poet like Yeats, whose "saving physicality" acts as a check upon his tendency toward visionary abstraction. As a practicing Christian, Brooks naturally rejects both the romantic neo-Platonism of Emerson and the eccentric theosophy of Yeats. But as a critic, Brooks takes the work of literature on its own terms, evaluating its success or shortcomings on aesthetic, not moral or theological, grounds. This enables him to discuss Christian elements in Faulkner, for example, without making undue claims for the author's orthodoxy. He can resist the temptation many critics have felt to turn Joe Christmas into a full-blown Christ figure and point out the weaknesses of A Fable in spite of its explicit reliance upon the Christian mythos. He can say of the Catholic novelist Walker Percy, "… he takes seriously the metaphysical underpinnings of a society. He thinks dogma is important—and so do I." Yet, he refrains from tying his appreciation of Percy's fiction to their shared vision.
Nevertheless, like the critic Eliot calls for in "Religion and Literature," Brooks is especially skillful when it comes to determining the religious significance at the heart of avowedly secular, even consciously "anti-religious," fiction and poetry. Nowhere is this skill more in evidence than in The Hidden God (1963), a collection of lecture-essays on Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and Warren which bears the telling dedication "In memoriam patris qui cum libros me docuit amare tum librum librorum." Acknowledging once more the shortcomings of modern secular society, Brooks, nevertheless, asserts that "a Christian looking at modern literature ought to find a great deal that is heartening and hopeful," and he proceeds to illustrate what he means by bringing a Christian consciousness to bear on writers who, with the notable exception of Eliot, are hardly Christian in a conventional sense. As we have seen, Eliot read Baudelaire's verse as a desperate dramatization of the need for religious values in a godless modern world. Similarly, Brooks, drawing upon the writings of Paul Tillich, sees Hemingway as reacting violently to the dehumanizing forces underlying our present technological society, and he further suggests that Hemingway demonstrates an essentially Augustinian awareness "that duration of time does not make a satisfactory life but that a satisfactory life is made rather by a complete satisfaction of spirit." In examining Faulkner's peculiar reliance upon certain tenets of Calvinism, especially the notion of Original Sin, Brooks quite significantly evokes the name of T. E. Hulme, whose defense of classicism over romanticism and faith over secularism had such a profound effect on the young T. S. Eliot. Similarly, Brooks places Yeats against the backdrop of intellectual history and views him as a man "robbed" of religious faith by Victorian skepticism. In Brooks's mind, the poet's subsequent interest in mysticism and private revelation represents a compensatory searching after God, a searching that results in an art that "asserts the dignity and power of the human spirit against the spiritual and intellectual corruption of our time." Warren, too, is portrayed as a searcher after the ultimate meanings at the core of human experience. Brooks sees a close analogy between the search for self-knowledge that is Warren's great theme and the Christian quest for redemption. Both represent an attempt to find a way out of the dilemmas confronting modern man.
Brooks's discussion of Eliot is, as might well be expected, especially insightful. Eliot, as a prime example of the Christian artist at work in an intellectually hostile environment, is praised for his "method of indirection." Since he cannot depend upon a receptive audience for his message in its most explicit terms, he is faced with the problem of how "revealed truth" is best "mediated to the gentiles." At a time when the traditional symbols of faith have lost much of their force and effectiveness, Eliot succeeds in evolving new symbols to embody ageless truths. Throughout his discussions of these writers, Brooks exemplifies the role of the Christian critic as Eliot conceived of it. He never seeks to impose an arbitrary set of theological assumptions upon the works in question; rather, he shows how they inevitably generate their own theological dimensions. Yet, free as they are from a restrictive sectarian bias, Brooks's observations are, nevertheless, the clear outgrowths and expressions of an unmistakably Christian sensibility. His criticism is informed by the kind of "final" commitments he describes in "Religion and Literature" and elsewhere.
One overriding aspect of Brooks's critical strategy that makes it peculiarly Christian stems from his temperamental distrust of abstractions, whether they be literary or ideological. In a special sense, the old Imagistic dictum "Go in fear of abstractions" and its poetic corollary "The natural object is always the adequate symbol" might well serve as epigraphs to a compendium of Brooks's thought. As early as Modern Poetry and the Tradition, Brooks had adopted John Crowe Ransom's distinction between the abstracting functions of science and speculative philosophy and the concreteness of religious and poetic modes of knowledge, and he has consistently maintained in his later writings that "poetry—whatever else it is—is incorrigibly concrete." To illustrate the extent to which this emphasis upon the concrete, an emphasis Brooks shares with Eliot and Allen Tate as well as with Ransom, is a manifestation of an essentially religious consciousness, I should like to appeal to the work of the distinguished Jesuit critic William F. Lynch. In Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, Father Lynch shows how many of the greatest writers, instinctively turning away from fantasy and vague symbolism, ground their visions in what he calls the "generative finite." His notion of the "literary process" as a "highly cognitive passage through the finite and definite realities of man and the world" is remarkably akin to Brooks's own. Father Lynch goes on to say that the concréte images born of human limitations "are in themselves the path to whatever the self is seeking," whether it be "insight," "beauty," or, ultimately, God. For Father Lynch, as for Brooks,
This path is both narrow and direct; it leads … straight through our human realities, through our labor, our disappointments, our friends, our game legs, our harvests, our subjection to time. There are no shortcuts to beauty or insight. We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potencies of being-in-the-flesh. This does not mean that we should go through it violently, looking for a means to a breakthrough … The finite is not itself a generality to be encompassed in one fell swoop. Rather, it contains many shapes and byways and cleverness and powers and diversities and persons, and we must not go too fast from the many to the one.
This statement of the proper Christian approach to the world and (to use Ransom's phrase) to the "world's body" has its parallels throughout Brooks's writing, and it sheds light on the remarkable consistencies between Brooks's literary criticism and his social and religious pronouncements. Thus Brooks's disparagement of propaganda art and "pure" poetry is of a piece with his warnings against the abstracting trends at work in the modern world. Thus Brooks's early insistence that the careful study of a poem as "poem" bears upon the very future of humanism seems perfectly logical.
Near the end of The Hidden God, Brooks says that the role of the writer is "to give us an awareness of our world, not as an object viewed in clinical detachment, not as a mere mechanism, but of our world as it involves ourselves—in part a projection of ourselves, in part an impingement upon ourselves. In making us see our world for what it is, the artist also makes us see ourselves for what we are." In this same regard, it should be remembered that Eliot, in "Religion and Literature," suggests that the strength of the Christian critic is dependent upon his capacity to know not only what he is but what he should be. Cleanth Brooks is such a critic. Like Eliot, he is no apostle of "progress" and its attendant millennialism, but rather an orthodox believer who recognizes the necessity of maintaining a traditional set of values in the face of an increasingly relativistic secularism. Yet Brooks's attitude toward modern literature is more sanguine in the final analysis than is Eliot's. The Christian's position in the contemporary scene is an embattled one to be sure, but he can find powerful allies in a group of major writers who, while they may not always share his faith, share his awareness of man's absolute need for spiritual meanings beyond the constrictive limits of contemporary ideology. For Brooks, the best of modern writing is, or at least can be, an invaluable "religious" resource.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3648
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 universities and in the lycées. In England in the 1940's and in the 1950's, formalism was associated with an influential group of critics writing for a significant critical periodical, Scrutiny, the most prominent of whom was F.R. Leavis. There was also a notable formalist movement in the Soviet Union in the 1920's, and, although championed by René Wellek in the United States, its influence at that time was primarily limited to Slavic countries.
The formalist approach in America was popularized by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks, all four Southerners, all graduates of Vanderbilt University, and all, in varying degrees, receptive to the indirections and complexities of the modernism of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and William Butler Yeats, which their critical method—known as the "New Criticism"—was, in part, developed to explicate. A fifth critic, not directly associated with the Vanderbilt group, R. P. Blackmur, made important contributions to the formalist reading of poetry in The Double Agent (1935) and in essays in other books. He did not, however, develop a distinctive formalist method.
Formalism in the History of Literary Criticism
Formalism is clearly a twentieth century critical phenomenon in its emphasis on close reading of the literary text, dissociated from extrinsic references to the author or to his or her society. There had been formalist tendencies 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 the Poetics (written sometime between 370 and 322 B.C.) 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, has been made clear by his twentieth century followers, the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians, Ronald S. Crane and Elder Olson. They have been the harshest critics of what they regard 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 without being able 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 T. S. Eliot's call for impersonality in modern poetry, their stress on the meaning of the total poem rather than finding the meaning centered in a specific part probably owes something to the concept of organic form, assumed by most Romantics and stated explicitly by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his defense of William Shakespeare. This is the concept that a poem grows like a living organism, its parts interrelated, its form and content inseparable; the total work is thus greater than the sum of its parts. This concept was assumed by all the New Critics except Ransom, who viewed "texture" as separate from structure.
The formalist view of creativity is of a "rage" brought to "order" through submission to the discipline of form. A good poem is characterized by tensions that are usually reconciled. The most detailed statement of this view by a New Critic is in Robert Penn Warren's essay "Pure and Impure Poetry," in which Warren gives a long list of resistances or "tensions" in a good poem. The origin of this idea lies in Romantic critical theory. Warren's statements, as well as Allen Tate's discussion of tension in his essay "Tension in Poetry," undoubtedly owe much to Chapter 14 of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817), in which he describes the distinctive quality of the creative imagination of the poet as revealing itself "in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities."
The strongest twentieth century influences on formalism in America and in England were the early essays of T. S. Eliot, especially those in The Sacred Wood (1920), and two books by I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929). Eliot, influenced by the anti-Romanticism of T. E. Hulme in Speculations (1924), called for a theory of the impersonal in the modernist view of poetry to rectify the personality cults of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and he even detailed how to impersonalize personal emotions through the use of "objective correlatives." Eliot's intention was to redirect critical attention from the poet to the work of art, which he declared to be "autotelic," self-contained, a fictive world in itself. It was this pronouncement of Eliot's, more than any statement in his essays in the 1920's, which had the strongest influence on the development of formalist criticism.
Eliot also devised his own version of a Cartesian "split" between logic and untrustworthy feelings, his theory that a dissociation of sensibility took place in English poetry in the late seventeenth century. John Donne had a unified sensibility capable of devouring any kind of experience. In the Metaphysical poets "there is a direct sensuous apprehension of thought": they could think feelings and feel thoughts. The New Critics were to develop a formalist approach to poetry that could show this kind of sensibility at work. To a formalist such as Cleanth Brooks in Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), Metaphysical poetry was the proper tradition in which to fit modern poetry, and critical techniques were needed in order to explicate the complexities of poetry in the tradition. He provided a model for formalist explication in a brilliant analysis of parallelisms and ironic contrasts utilized functionally by Eliot in The Waste Land (1922).
The Formalist Defense of Poetry
Formalism in America and England may have evolved in reaction to nineteenth century literary thought and practice as a method of understanding a modernist literature that was indirect, impersonal, complex, and "autotelic." As far as the New Critics were concerned, their formalism was a defense of poetry in an age of science. Their criticism can quite properly be regarded as an "apology" for poetry in the tradition of Sir Philip Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley. An "apology" is a formal defense of poetry in an age thought to be hostile to the poetry of its own time. Sidney "apologized" for poetry at a time when Puritans were attacking drama and voicing suspicions as to whether poetry could and did advance morality. Shelley defended the value of poetry in an age that was beginning to turn to prose, assuming that the golden age of poetry was over. In this tradition the New Critics "apologized" for poetry in an age of logical positivism, when scientific method was regarded as the sole means to truth and poetry was being limited to mere emotive effects.
In his Principles of Literary Criticism, I. A. Richards sought to find a place for poetry in an age of science by emphasizing the psychological effects of poetry on the personality of the reader. In Practical Criticism he documented the helplessness of his graduate students when confronted with an unidentified poem to explicate, and made a case for a literary criticism that specialized in explicating the text. Richards seemed, however, at least in the earlier book, to be in agreement with the positivistic view that poetry was a purely emotive use of language in contrast to science, which was the language of factual assertion. Although influenced by Richards, the New Critics attempted to counter his apparent denial of a cognitive dimension of poetry. They did this through their formalism, staying inside the poem in their explications and declaring it characteristic of the poet's use of language to direct the reader to meanings back inside the poem rather than to referents outside the poem.
Cleanth Brooks contended that poets actually block too direct a pinpointing to everyday referents outside the poem and that the meanings of a poem cannot be wrenched outside the context of the poem without serious distortions. He was making a case for meaning in the poem and at the same time was keeping poetry out of direct competition with science. In a poem, he asserted, apparently referential statements are qualified by ambiguities, paradoxes, and ironies so that the knowledge offered cannot stand as a direct proposition apart from the poem itself. This is why it does not matter that John Keats in a famous sonnet credits Hernando Cortes, not Vasco de Balboa, with the first sighting by a European of the Pacific Ocean. What Keats writes is true to the poem, not to historical fact, and he does not intend a truth claim to be taken outside the poem and examined for factual accuracy. Murray Krieger has argued quite plausibly in the New Apologists for Poetry (1956) that the New Critics might be called "contextualists" because of their insistence on getting meaning from and in the context.
Each major New Critic was in his own way trying to establish that poetry offers a special kind of knowledge and does not compete with the more referential knowledge that Richards found characteristic of scientific assertions. Their "apology" for poetry committed them to formalism, to directing critical attention intrinsically to the structure of the poem rather than extrinsically to referents outside. Ransom, The World's Body (1938) and The New Criticism (1941), even departed from the concept of organic form to argue that the main difference between scientific and poetic language was that while both had "structure," only the latter had "texture," details that are interesting in themselves. Through his "texture" the poet expresses his revulsion against the inclination of science to abstract and to categorize by giving his reader the particulars of the world, the "sensuous apprehension of thought" that Eliot had admired in the Metaphysical poets. To Ransom, this was knowledge of "the world's body." Ransom's single most important contribution to formalism was his often anthologized essay, "Poetry—A Note on Ontology."
The most philosophically inclined of the New Critics, Allen Tate, also made a specific claim that literature offers a special kind of knowledge, more complete than the knowledge of science; it is experiential knowledge rather than the abstracted, shorthand version of experience given by science. Tate argued that a special characteristic of poetic language is the creation of "tension," a kind of balance between the extremes of too much denotation and literalness and too much connotation and suggestiveness. A good poem possesses both a wealth of suggestiveness and a firm denotative base. In his essay "Tension in Poetry," he provided examples of tension as a kind of touchstone for critical judgments.
In "Pure and Impure Poetry," Robert Penn Warren presented his own version of the concept of "tension," one closer to Coleridge's than Tate's was. He was also influenced by Richards' concept of a "poetry of inclusion" (in turn derived from Coleridge), a poetry that contains its own oppositions. Warren believed that such an "impure" poet writing today must "come to terms with Mercutio," that is, use irony to qualify direct propositions, much as William Shakespeare used the realistic, bawdy jests of Mercutio to counter the sentimental love poetry in Romeo and Juliet (1954–1596). Such irony is accessible only through formalist analysis of the poem itself, a close reading of the text. As a formalist, Warren believed, as the other New Critics did, in a less assessable meaning beyond the usual public meaning.
The Practice of Formalism
Cleanth Brooks was the most consistent practicing formalist and the most influential as well, whether in collaboration with Robert Penn Warren, in their popular textbooks, Understanding Poetry (1946) and Understanding Fiction (1943) or in his own studies in formalism, Modern Poetry and the Tradition and The Well Wrought Urn (1947). In Modern Poetry and the Tradition, Brooks extended Eliot's concept of tradition to a selective history of poetry from seventeenth century Metaphysical poetry to twentieth century modernism. The proper tradition for the modern poet was the Metaphysical tradition because "hard" Metaphysical conceits conveyed both thought and feeling and maintained a proper balance, in contrast to the excessive emotion in much Romantic poetry and the excessive rationalism in much neoclassical poetry. Brooks wrote the book to show the relationship between Metaphysical and modern poetry and to explain modern poetry to readers whose understanding of poetry was primarily based on Romantic poetry.
His next book, The Well Wrought Urn, was slightly revisionist, expanding the tradition to include some of the best works of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and even a major poem of the neoclassical period, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1712). The test for admission to the tradition is again a careful formalist analysis, revealing, in unexpected places, tensions and paradoxes—although the formalist technique has been refined and even expanded. Brooks contended that poetry is "the language of paradox," evident even in a poem such as William Wordworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge." The paradox central to the structure of the poem is that a city, London, is enabled to "wear the beauty of the morning," a privilege that Wordsworth usually reserves for nature. The city is also paradoxically most alive with this surprising beauty when it is asleep, as it is on this occasion. Brooks conceded that Wordsworth's employment of paradox might have been unconscious, something he was driven to by "the nature of his instrument," but paradox can also be conscious technique, as it was in John Donne's "The Canonization."
Brooks's analysis of "The Canonization" is a model of formalist method, as his analysis of Eliot's The Waste Land had been in his previous volume. The poem is complex but unified, an argument dramatically presented but a treatise on the important subject of divine and profane love as well. The tone, an important element of meaning, is complex, scornful, ironic, and yet quite serious. Also central in the poem is the "love metaphor," and basic to its development is the paradox of treating profane love as if it were divine love. Such a treatment permits the culminating paradox in the speaker's argument for his love: "The lovers in rejecting life actually win to the most intense life." In this poem, technique has shaped content: the only way in which the poet could say what the poem says is by means of paradox.
Brooks made another major contribution to formalist practice in The Well Wrought Urn. He demonstrated the importance of the dramatic context as the intrinsic referent for meaning in a poem. Even the simplest lyric has some of the drama of a play. There are within a poem a speaker, an occasion, sometimes an audience, and a conflict—in a lyric usually a conflict of attitudes. Brooks declared in "The Problem of Belief and the Problem of Cognition" that a poem should not be judged by the truth or falsity "of the idea which it incorporates, but rather by its character as drama…." The formalist as New Critic, most fully represented by an explication according to Brooks's formula, is concerned with this drama in the poem, with how the conflict of attitudes is resolved, with paradox and how it is central to argument in poetry, with metaphor and how it may be the only permissible way of developing the thought of the poem. He is concerned with technique in a verbal art, and these techniques make possible the poetic communication of what becomes the content.
Ranking with The Well Wrought Urn as a major formalist document is René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (1949). When it was published, the intention of the book was to argue for the use of intrinsic approaches to literature, drawing on the New Criticism, Russian Formalism, and even phenomenology, in conjunction with literary history and the history of ideas, then the dominant approaches. Its value today is as a source book of formalist theory, just as Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn is a source book of formalist practice. Wellek and Warren make the distinction between the scientific use of language, ideally purely denotative, and the literary use of language, not merely referential but expressive and highly connotative, conveying the tone and attitude of speaker and writer. Form and content are regarded as inseparable: technique determines content. Reference to the Russian Formalists reinforces the New Critics on this point. Meter, alliteration, sounds, imagery, and metaphor are all functional in a poem. Poetry is referential but the references are intrinsic, directed back inside the fictive world that is being created.
The Decline of Formalism
The influence of formalism reached its peak in the 1950's and began to decline in the 1960's. In England, Scrutiny suspended publication; although F. R. Leavis continued to publish, his criticism became less formalistic and more Arnoldian. In America, the New Critics also became less formalistic, and their formalism was taken over by followers who lacked the explicative genius of Ransom, Tate, Brooks, and Warren.
Warren had always published less formal criticism than his colleagues, and in the 1960's he turned his attention even more to fiction and, especially, to writing poetry. Allen Tate, never as fond as the others of critical explications, continued to write essays of social and moral significance, moving in and out of Catholicism and the influence of Jacques Maritain. His best critical explication remained that of his own poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," an exploration of the creative process as well as a formalistic analysis. He died in 1979. Ransom continued to edit the most important new critical journal, The Kenyon Review, until his retirement from Kenyon College; then he returned to something he had put aside for many years—his poetry. In the few essays that he wrote in the years just before his death in 1974, his Kantian interests preoccupied him more and more. Cleanth Brooks wrote one more book that might be called formalistic, A Shaping Joy (1971), but he turned most of his attention to his two major books on William Faulkner, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) and Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978). In these works, Brooks brilliantly discusses Faulkner's novels, but it is clear that his interest is more in the relationship of Faulkner's fiction to his Southern society than in formalist analysis.
Newer critical approaches appeared, none of which was content to remain within the structure of the poem itself—the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye, the phenomenological criticism of Georges Poulet and Hillis Miller, the structuralism of Roland Barthes, and the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida. The latter are influential, but more concerned with the modes of literary discourse than with the explication of texts, and better with fiction than with poetry. During the protest movement of the later 1960's, formalism fell into disrepute because of its lack of concern for the social and political backgrounds of literary works. Ironically, the New Critics were accused of empiricism and scienticism in the analysis of literature.
Nevertheless, twentieth century formalism has had a seemingly permanent influence on the teaching of literature in the United States, just as it has in France. Understanding Poetry has stayed in print, and the only widely used introductions to literature are mostly formalistic in their approaches.
The New Critics taught a generation of students the art of close reading of the text. They warned readers against fallacies and heresies in reading and teaching poetry, and the lessons seem to have been widely learned. Although they used paraphrase masterfully themselves, they warned against "the heresy of paraphase." The prose statement should not be regarded as the equivalent of the meaning of the poem. They attacked and seemingly permanently damaged the positivistic view that would limit poetry to the emotions only—what they called "The affective fallacy." As Brooks declared in The Well Wrought Urn: "Poetry is not merely emotive … but cognitive. It gives us truth …" Formalism did not prevent, but did restrict, practice of the biographical fallacy, studying the man instead of his works.
The most controversial fallacy exposed by the New Critics was the intentional fallacy, against which all the formalists warned. Monroe C. Beardsley and William K. Wimsatt, who stated (in The Verbal Icon, 1954) what was implicit in formalism all along, may have gone too far in seeming to exclude the poet from throwing any light at all on the meaning of his poem; they did, however, warn against finding the meaning of a work in some prose statement by the author before or after he wrote it. Formalism has made the point that the actual intention of a poem can be determined only from an explication of the poem itself. Few literary critics today would regard the poem as a fictive world that is sufficient unto itself. Poems have thematic and psychological contexts as well as verbal and dramatic contexts. Formalist analyses were too innocent of the linguistic structures of the language that poetry used. Nevertheless, no modern critical approach has revealed more of the richness of meaning potentially available within a poem.
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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 preparation for oral qualifying examinations, would be helpful, but is not essential. The more general sort of educated readers will be happy to learn, however, that with Historical Evidence Cleanth Brooks also continues his lifelong project of teaching us how to read, understand, and appreciate literature.
Most obviously Historical Evidence may be approached as the demonstration Brooks claims it is of a method of reading old poems. In his introduction he remarks that his choice of seventeenth-century poetry was somewhat arbitrary, that he might just as well have performed his demonstrations with poems of a different period. He says he was "seriously tempted to choose poems printed between 1840 and 1890." He intends primarily to demonstrate that history is a valuable component of literary criticism: "Sometimes the biographer, the literary historian, and the lexicographer hold the keys necessary for unlocking a poem's full meaning, especially if the poem dates from an earlier time." Those startled to discover that Brooks still believes poems have meaning, full or otherwise, should be forewarned that he also speaks throughout this book of "literary value."
Brooks makes no effort, though, to join in recent critical debates. Nor is Historical Evidence a belated attempt, after more than forty years, to provide a corrective for the New Critical practices of The Well Wrought Urn (1947). In a brief epilogue Brooks notes connections between the two books and draws some obvious conclusions, but he makes no apologies. There remains, nevertheless, a complicated relationship between Historical Evidence and The Well Wrought Urn that should not be passed over lightly. Both books are, after all, demonstrations of interpretive practices that are usually applied to short lyric poems. Both begin with basic critical or theoretical assumptions but move quickly to specific examples. Both reprint the texts of the poems and rely heavily on close readings.
In other respects the two books offer contrasting mirror images. The Well Wrought Urn performs readings of some of the best-known poets of the canon: Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Herrick, Pope, Gray, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, and Yeats. In many ways Brooks intended his earlier book to show that New Critical methods would work in all periods and on all poets. With Historical Evidence he turns to minor poets of a single period and to poems nearly forgotten by everyone, save an older generation of literary scholars and a few specialists in the seventeenth century—poems by Henry King, Richard Corbett, James Shirley, Aurelian Townshend, Sir Richard Fanshawe, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Sir Richard Lovelace, and Andrew Marvell. With the exception of Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," "The Garden," and "Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland," and perhaps not even excepting the last, these poems and poets will not be well known.
The Well Wrought Urn relies on familiarity and takes history and biography for granted, although not entirely. From time to time Brooks may remind us that "legend" "in Donne's time meant 'the life of a saint,'" or recall that Herrick was an Anglican parson to complicate the irony of "Corrina's Going A-Maying," or allude to the allegoric figures "which clutter a great abbey church such as that at Bath or at Westminster" to explain references in Gray's "Elegy." But in Historical Evidence he expects unfamiliarity and performs virtuoso readings by means of detailed historical and biographical references, as well as frequent recourse to the OED and other sources for contemporary seventeenth-century meanings of a poem's words. His learned and sensible account of Marvell's use of the word glew in "To His Coy Mistress" should finally dispatch any lingering notion that the poet thought his young lady was coated in "youthful glue."
Despite these contrasts, however, the two books are finally much more alike than they are different. Both exhibit a range of address now almost absent from literary criticism. Both concentrate attention on literary qualities now more often ignored than illuminated. Both insist on the necessity to let the poem "speak for itself" even after the historical evidence is presented, even against this evidence. After a particularly effective reading of Henry King's "An Exequy To his Matchlesse never to be forgotten Friend," Brooks reminds us that the Anglican Bishop who so lamented the loss of his wife Anne, and who in the final stanzas of his most successful poem looks forward to his reunion with her in death, "I shall at last sitt downe by Thee," not only may have married again but certainly was not reunited with Anne in a common grave, since as bishop of Chichester he was buried in his cathedral. Then Brooks challenges us with a familiar question: "Let us suppose that some scholar should come upon documentary evidence that Bishop King had remarried. Ought we in that case to think less of "The Exequy'?" His answer comes as no surprise to readers of The Well Wrought Urn. After demonstrating that we cannot fully understand the meaning of King's "Exequy" without recourse to history and biography, Brooks reminds us that "this magnificent poem stands above and apart from all the vicissitudes of King's personal life" and "now enjoys a life of its own, not to be affected by what subsequently happened to its author or what he caused to happen."
Brooks's impressive range of address in Historical Evidence results in part from his allusions, often to poems that appeared in The Well Wrought Urn, but also to other poems both of the seventeenth century and afterward. The discussions of Hardy's poetry are a particular bonus, especially the comparison of "The Country Wedding" and John Hall's "On a Gentleman and His Wife," in which Brooks shows us why we may prefer Hardy to Hall, and why this is a poetic judgment on the relative success of the two poems as poems. Similarly his reading of James Shirley's "The glories of our blood and state" compares Shirley's poem to Gray's "Elegy," and then more briefly Gray's to Milton's "Il Penseroso," and finally concludes with a reading of Hardy's "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations.' None of these allusions is incidental. Each helps to demonstrate connections between the specific historical context a poem may have grown out of and its ability to make contact with larger human universals.
Not that Brooks ignores differences. Noting contrasts is an important part of his method of reading, but his point is that the specific historical reading must give into a larger context that includes our knowledge of other periods and other styles of poetry. Brooks intends to demonstrate, finally, that his method of historical reading is not antiquarian but serves a larger purpose, and part of that purpose is to remind us why we would want to read these old poems, or any other works of literature, in the first place: "No one has ever doubted that poems (and novels and plays) are products of the culture out of which they came, and consequently at some level they must reflect that culture. But that fact does not prevent our assessing these literary documents on other levels, including what they can tell us about ourselves and about the universal human condition."
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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. Essays on King's "The Exequy," Corbett's "The Faeryes Farewell," Shirley's lyric beginning "The glories of our blood and state," Townshend's "To the Countess of Salisbury," Fanshawe's "The Fall," Herbert of Cherbury's "Ode upon a Question Moved," Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and "The Garden," Lovelace's "The Grasse-Hopper," and Marvell's "Horatian Ode" make up the body of the book; a brief Introduction and Epilogue tie these together.
Unfortunately there is no preface or acknowledgement page to indicate where and when the essays first appeared, and this is of more importance than it might seem at first. The book treats some familiar lyric poems that respond particularly well to the kind of close study that Brooks and others made the dominant form of analysis in the 1940s and 1950s, and the many essays that these ten poems inspired might comprise an index of the strengths and limitations of close reading. Further, styles in close reading have changed, for Brooks as for others, and knowing the original publication data, one could make comparisons that might illuminate this phase of modern criticism.
In the book at hand, Brooks had made many subtle but significant revisions in his original essays, responding to criticism (or defending himself more closely), and updating some of the readings. Most of the revisions are stylistic, but many go well beyond merely editorial changes, and the way the larger revisions change the rhetorical form of the essays can tell us almost as much about Brooks's attitude toward historical evidence as the argument he advances in the introductory and closing remarks. In other words, one of the chief subjects of this book is actually the evolution of Brooks's thought.
One illustration. One the Horatian Ode, much of what we have in the present volume is recast from Brooks's seminal English Institute lecture of 1946, published in 1947; that essay prompted a spirited exchange with Douglas Bush in the Sewanee Review in 1952 and 1953. The present essay makes a better defense against Bush (while not mentioning him) and deletes most of the paragraphs of throat-clearing that seemed to mark much criticism from that period. But some other more important changes reposition the essay as a study in literary history. The 1946 version of the essay ended with an afterthought: "Since completing this essay, I have come upon a further item which would suggest that the 'Horatian Ode' was circulating among Royalists—not Puritans—in the early 1650's." The evidence then offered (by correspondents to the [Times Literary Supplement]) concerns the stanza form adapted from Fanshawe and Tom May's translation of Lucan. Placed at the end of the essay as it is, with no comments following it, these historical notes convey only the sense that there was quite a curious collocation of minds there, a point well worth musing on. In the essay as revised for the present volume, these paragraphs of historical evidence are moved to the front of the essay and presented as necessary matter for reading the poem, even though the main outlines of the essay remain the same and the conclusion is essentially unchanged. Along the way, Brooks inserts references to Christopher Hill, John Wallace, Antonia Fraser, and others to reinforce the essentially unchanged thesis; a postscript returns to Hill, but with the primary purpose of reaffirming Brooks's familiar emphasis on the role of tension in poetry.
By this rearrangement in rhetorical structure and the more up-to-date citations, Brooks seems to concede more to history than he has before, but again his basic conclusions and above all his primary method of supporting his arguments remain unchanged. His chief source of historical evidence is linguistic—etymologies, derivations, and above all shifts in usage: the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] receives probably as many citations as all other sources together. But there is nothing wrong with that: Brooks was one of the first to insist on the importance of this kind of lexical play, and many of his revisions in these essays tease out still more latent and apt meanings in familiar words and phrases.
As for the other kinds of historical evidence appearing in the collection, most of it has a curious stumbled-over quality that distinguishes Brooks's work from that of the new historicists. In part this is simply a matter of presentation and organization. For example, after he has plugged in the Tom May material in his discussion of Marvell's ode, he signals a big shift we would never expect to see in the modern historicist idiom: "It is now time to turn more directly to the poem itself, and the poetic mode of expressing matters" (p. 137). That sentence does not appear in the first version of the essay, and it shows that Brooks remains unreconstructed in his critical values. Most of the time he will (in so many words) happen upon a curious woodcut, or puzzle over Strafford's burial site, or notice an odd anecdote or fragment. There is a certain accidental or casual quality with which the historical element is introduced into the argument, and this distinguishes the rhetoric of these essays from more recent historicist readings, in which the historical centerpiece—often an incident or artistic representation that is grotesque or outlandish—is presented up front, its significances peeled apart and then applied to the literary work. This is not to say that these critics have not found their evidence the same way Brooks does; they just display it differently. Brooks's diffidence in the way he handles what he calls extrinsic evidence is one element of the voice we hear speaking in these essays, which remains urbane, gracious, and tactful. While he is doubtless aware of new historicist readings of the poems he treats, he does not adopt either their rhetoric or manner of proceeding.
Indeed Brooks's self-conception seems on his mind, and occasionally he alludes to his reputation as a reader interested only in the text, referring to himself as "a literary critic reputed to be careless of, even hostile to, the biographical and historical background of a poem" (p. 122), and asserting "my own regard for the importance of establishing authorship, datings, biographical and historical references, and the specific and sometimes archaic uses of words that make up the poet's text" (p. 157). It is amusing that at a number of points in the book there surfaces that old bugbear of the poet's intention, but as the Epilogue says, "What finally counts are the achieved intentions, not prospective intentions…. The shaping impulses are indeed important, but as manifest in the work" (p. 158; Brooks's emphasis). Clearly this can apply to a critic as well as a poet.
The achievement of the book thus lies first in its often brilliant readings of poems that vary considerably in subject and complexity, and second in its demonstration of a method that remains central to our criticism. It should be instructive for readers who have assumed the primacy of literary theory and have neglected attention to the history of English grammar and the English lexicon: as Brooks shows, only through this attention can we understand the subtleties of a poem's tone. If he wants now to assert a stronger concern for historical fact than was sometimes imputed to him, that is his prerogative, although anyone familiar with his later work, particularly on Faulkner, would never have thought the matter in question.
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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 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.
An inquiry into the literary criticism of every decade of the twentieth century reveals a constant re-examination of theory and methodology, new ways of thinking and talking about literature. In the early decades of our century, from various camps came new outlooks as scholars began seeking a study focused on the art object itself as opposed to the historical and genre approaches then in vogue. Rebels of a sort, the New Critics (broadly understood) rejected a number of criteria formerly espoused by earlier scholars. It was from such turmoil that the New Criticism took its origin. A 1941 book by John Crowe Ransom inadvertently bestowed a name upon the new trend, or at least provided a label whereby certain patterns of thinking might be referred to. As discussion and published essays manifested a certain new—though by no means homogeneous—philosophy, the movement came to be called (after the title of Ransom's book) the New Criticism. Among the pioneers of these new approaches to literature were poets, novelists, journalists, and critics. As time went on, most writers in the early group of Southern New Critics centered their efforts on poetry and fiction rather than criticism; thus, by the late 1940's, one of their number, Cleanth Brooks, came to be regarded as their primary critical spokesman.
The theory and criticism of which we speak has the firm foundation of a history reaching back more than seventy years. Indeed, its roots extend to a yet more distant past, to thinkers such as Coleridge, Hegel, Kant, and Kierkegaard. Therefore, it would seem that the phenomenon we are discussing deserves not only attention but a respect born of a wholesome maturation. Nevertheless, in the 1970's the prominence of the New Criticism waned. How did this come about? Some say the movement had run its course, delivered its message, and needed to retire to the wings. Perhaps a more accurate perception is not so much that the New Criticism had declined but that it had been upstaged by new ideologies, mostly European-born, which caught the fancy of some academic scholars. Upon the scene came structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, semiotics, and reader response—all postmodern developments.
Now we must ask: What indeed is the status of the New Criticism in the decade of the 1990's? Is it altogether a thing of the past or is it alive and well? Anyone aware of the status of literary criticism in the past three decades knows that many scholars share the view cited by Rene Wellek that the New Criticism is "superseded, obsolete and dead" ("Pro and Contra" 87). Already thirty years ago, we were told "on all sides that the New Criticism is dead, that a reaction has set in against it" (Krieger 107). By 1981, the "New Criticism had been dead,… for a decade or more" (Higgins and Parker 27). H. M. Richmond, writing in College English in 1972, chose to title his essay "The Dead Albatross: 'New Criticism' as a Humanist Fallacy." Obviously, these voices strongly suggest a demise. But there are others who are equally strong in their conviction that the New Criticism lives on.
Critics of more recent decades tend to react with a certain skepticism toward the writing of the New Critics. It is interesting that two reviewers of Cleanth Brooks's A Shaping Joy (1971) declared that they experienced a generation gap in reading the essays in that anthology. The reviewer for Choice says, "For someone who attended graduate school and studied English after World War II and into the 1950's, this book of twenty-two essays of recent years will give pause,… a pang of nostalgia. Meaning, significance, form—what did they all amount to?… It all seems so worn out." The author of the Times Literary Supplement review of August 20, 1971, argues that "the shift of a decade … has left these essays high and dry." If Brooks's book gave the reviewer pause, the reviewer himself gives his readers pause. Granted that each age has a style and an ambience of its own, do we throw away the books of poetry and fiction we read twenty or forty years ago? Do we not name the time-tested works "classics" for the very reason that they have endured?
One of the major strengths of the New Criticism, which has ensured its continuation, is that its prominent exponents taught students the methodology in such well-known textbooks as An Approach to Literature, Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction, and Understanding Drama. It should be noted further "that despite pleas from the social, psychological, and historical critics for greater recognition," the calls have gone unanswered in large measure because their proponents have failed to establish some form of practical pedagogy (Ray 1). Structuralism and Deconstruction have yet to produce their Understanding Poetry. Given the nature of their theory, it is hardly likely ever to come out in textbook form, with a specific set of dogmatic principles.
When Claire Hahn wrote her review of A Shaping Joy, she stated that "There are so many new-new critics hacking away at the giant [Cleanth Brooks]. It is a sheer delight to see that [he] still stands, that his principles are just, that they can and do 'expose once more the living fibers of the imagination so that men might once again see who they are and where they were'" (91).
Just ten years ago Louis D. Rubin, Jr., re-affirmed the identity between the prime elements of the New Criticism and "criticism" in general, indicating a strength that many critics take for granted and leave unsaid. Rubin writes:
If the New Criticism as a movement is concluded, it is because its job had been done: it had made us read poems closely and in their own right, so that we could gain access to poetry written in English during the first half of the twentieth century. But I remain convinced that it is not kaput, because I don't see its job as having been done. Certainly its faddishness is over; it is no longer a novelty. But in ceasing to be New it has not thereby become Old Criticism. Instead it has become simply criticism. (204)
It is most striking to note that in 1991, long after a number of American critics pronounced the demise of the New Criticism, an anthology of more than a dozen essays about Cleanth Brooks and his work was published in India. All of these essays are favorable and speak highly of Brooks's achievements. Perhaps a special note of integrity is to be found in the one essay by Bhagwati Singh dealing with Brooks's writings on Faulkner. Unlike many foreigners, or even non-Southerners in the U.S., Professor Singh has captured an accurate picture of the art and craft of Faulkner through Brooks's critical essays.
There is yet another voice to be heard in the current controversy—that of Brooks himself. We find a strong defense of the contemporary relevance of the New Criticism in the three lectures Brooks delivered in April 1982 at the University of Missouri. They are entitled "The Primacy of the Author," "The Primacy of the Reader," and "The Primacy of the Linguistic Medium." Why should these essays be considered relevant to the current status of the New Criticism? For several reasons. First of all, among the more recent writings of Cleanth Brooks, they are probably the most crucial in assessing Brooks's teaching on the nature of literature in our time. Secondly, the tripartite division of this series of essays—focused upon the author, the reader, and the linguistic medium—parallels the focal points of reference adopted by prominent theoreticians in the past three decades. In concentrating upon the author, we think of Harold Bloom. In focusing upon the text, we are reminded of Roman Jakobson. In placing the critical analysis with the reader, we come into the arena of Stanley Fish or perhaps Norman Holland.
In the first of these essays, "The Primacy of the Author," Brooks registers his earnest concern over the "disintegration of the very concept of literature." At this point he recalls that in his earlier days "the attack on literature came particularly from the historian and the biographer, who seemed bent on making literature simply the expression of the author or, more drastically, an expression through the author of a particular culture or a special climate of ideas" (Rich Manifold 29). Brooks's objection to the historian and the biographer usurping the role of literature is that history and biography deal with human actions more directly and factually than does literature, which is much more indirect and has the option of fictional content. Brooks goes on to cite Aristotle's dictum that literature is more philosophical than history because literature provides a more universal knowledge than does history. Brooks underscores the distinction between the factual, literal content of history and the freely organized, fictional, non-factual account rendered by literature. (Because the poet can "better observe the actual laws of human experience" Brooks concludes that literature is guaranteed an important humanistic role.) Next, Brooks recalls Descartes's "distinction between the truth that could be told about the spatio-temporal world in which man lives and that other world inside his own skull" (31). The matter here is one of objective truth and subjective truth.
Early in the second essay of this trilogy, "The Primacy of the Reader," Brooks indicates that even today there is a trend to see the literary work as "primarily the expression of its author" and cites Harold Bloom's last several books as presenting a renewed emphasis on the author in its most striking form. Noting Bloom's "intense interest in the writer as a man struggling to free himself from both literary conventions and the benumbing effects of an established tradition" (42), Brooks cites a statement from Dennis Donoghue: "Bloom's practical criticism is indifferent to the structure, internal relations, of the poem, or to its diction, syntax, meters, rhythm, or tone: it is chiefly concerned to isolate the primal gesture which the critical paradigm has predicted" (42).
Then Brooks turns "to an incursion into literary criticism from the other side—from an exaltation of the reader" by "the most vociferous proponent of this view of the critical process"—Stanley Fish (43-44). Brooks deplores the arbitrary norms that Fish accepts in seeking the most interesting interpretation of a poem over the one that gives a more nearly correct or adequate reading. Equally disconcerting is Fish's concept that "the process of reading is broken up into small units. It is not an unbroken flow—reading proceeds by jerks, in a process of starts and stops" (47). For Fish, reading is an indeterminate process and "the reader normally generates all kinds of out-of-the-way interpretations and meanings" (47). All of this amounts to a system of critical relativism.
Brooks's third essay deals with "The Primacy of the Linguistic Medium." Here he discusses what he considers "the most destructive encroachment of all upon literature"—the tendency of some linguistic theories (e.g. structuralism) to enlarge their scope to examine any kind of structure in all forms of human society, thus becoming entangled with anthropology and myths and all forms of social behaviors. Literature then becomes a secondary factor unto itself. A second defect of this approach is that the literary critic is more interested in his method than in any given literary work. What is beheld is seen as a system; whether literary or not is of little import. Related to the critic's fascination with method is the principle that the "structure" is generic and any linguistic model can be applied to any given text. Here again, the literary text undergoes undue subordination to an overruling frame of reference. Brooks provides the following explanation of deconstruction:
Deconstruction … is an outgrowth of structuralism, but whereas structuralism attempts to reveal the deep structure that underlies the surface meanings of any literary construct, deconstruction, using a more radical analysis, deconstructs that very structure, revealing its lack of any relation to anything beyond itself. But upon one point both structuralism and deconstruction come to the same conclusion: namely, that literature is a self-enclosed system, referring to nothing outside and beyond itself. The consequences of any such conception of literature seem to me to be devastating to any concept of its humanistic value. (55)
William E. Cain shares this concern when he states:
In one form or other, many at the present time are thus advancing one of the most unfortunate traditions of criticism—the belief that criticism cannot finally do what it claims to do, cannot make progress, cannot do more than recapitulate its mistakes and shortcomings. It is a striking fact, seen from the perspective of anti-critical history, that criticism has shunned analytical method or else, particularly since the dawn of the New Critical era, has refined methods while doubting their purposefulness. Criticism has, furthermore, consistently tied itself to social, cultural, and political values that it places in the realm of the unanalyzable. ("Anti-Criticism" 47)
After discussing the crippling if not devastating effects brought about by the relativistic approach of either structuralism or deconstruction, Brooks recalls a principle he enunciated early on regarding the relation of literature to philosophy and to history. He assigns to literature a certain value over philosophy in that the latter deals with abstractions and principles of a predictable nature, whereas literature affords writers a medium that engages human actions in a creative setting of concrete, dramatic narration. Literature enjoys a dynamism that philosophy, in principle, cannot afford. History, of course, deals with human actions, but these are already fixed by the record or chronicle of events. Again, history does not enjoy literature's prerogative of being either dynamic or dramatic; the script is already written and fixed. Brooks continues: "The truth provided by literature is not asserted or stated, but rendered, and the mode, I repeat, is essentially dramatic" (62). The content of the literary piece is in the text; it is not a relative thing nor is it clouded over with skepticism. It is as truly there as Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is "present" in the score "in the form of signs that are to be realized in musical tones" (63). Brooks goes on to note that these comparisons are not so much matters of competition but simply contrasts intended to illustrate the broad scope of literature.
One of the pitfalls of deconstruction is the Pandora's Box it opened upon itself in extending the proper study of literature to other areas of a non-literary nature. "Critical theory today, with its emphasis on textuality, discourse, and rhetoric," says Gregory S. Jay, "has once more forced us to ask what relation if any links literature to the referents of history, politics, psychoanalysis and the other human sciences" (970). Granted that history, psychology, and politics sometimes contribute substantial enrichments to literary productions, one must ask: Is it not incumbent upon the literary critic to be versed as well in the norms and criteria of history, sociology, psychology? And, if the norms of several disciplines are invoked simultaneously, how can an individual cope with such a plethora of standards?
Further, one might ask whether it is necessary for a literary work to conform to all the criteria of history, psychology, politics, etc., in order to qualify for excellence as literature. Allow me to illustrate with a simple example: historical fiction. Traditionally, readers allow the novelist a certain degree of poetic license in creating the scenario. On the other hand, some readers may be more discriminating and may get testy if some dates or sequence of events is altered or if the main characters do not conform to what is factually known about them. For example, the widely acclaimed play and movie Amadeus includes several major discrepancies concerning the character of Salieri and his relationship with Mozart. Suppose one revised the story so that the characters, events and dates were as close to known history as possible; what then? Would the resulting drama be interesting? Perhaps. But it would not be Amadeus. Has the liberty the author taken with the facts produced a defective work of art? Many critics and audiences seem to think not. If Alexander Pope was right that "the proper study of mankind is man," then perhaps the proper study of literary criticism is literature. It is hard to understand why a literary theoretician would want to complicate his task to include a multitude of criteria from other fields. The adjunct sciences instead of being ancillary interpreters have become wayward intruders.
The contemporary critical scene might be described as a literary battlefield. Proponents of various forms of interpretation have not only sought to advance their new methodology. They also insist that what they say is right because some aspect of the New Criticism was wrong. Perhaps one of the most accurate descriptions of the embattled academy is given by David H. Hirsch when he states:
The various strands of contemporary literary criticism and theory (reader responsism, or reception aesthetic; intentionalism, semiotics; deconstruction; interdeterminacy; and poststructuralism) all have in common an implacable enmity toward "the New Criticism." Each movement makes a broad dual claim: on the one hand to be moving inexorably forward into new realms of knowing, and on the other to be effecting this movement forward by means of a frontal assault on some aspect of New Critical error. (25)
The New Criticism speaks for itself through a large body of documents in the form of critical statements such as the "My Credo" series in the Kenyon Review (1950), countless essays explicating particular poems, college English textbooks prepared to guide students to understanding poetry and fiction and to writing clear and cogent rhetoric. The New Criticism stands self justified. However, as Hirsch has well observed:
The fortress New Criticism under attack is actually a convenient house of straw constructed by the new metatheorists themselves. The kind of criticism against which they launch their most furious attacks was, by and large, not practiced by the major New Critics. Certainly such initiators of New Critical practice as T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom were cognizant of author, reader, and historical background. (25)
Some articulate spokesmen who pose as adversaries of the New Criticism betray in their polemics a lack of acquaintance with the writings of the New Critics. Focusing upon, a few cliches, such as "the Intentional Fallacy," "the Affective Fallacy," and "Irony and Paradox," they proceed in true quixotic fashion to attack the windmills. Repeatedly one finds mention of "the autotelic text," described or referred to as some kind of incongruously imprisoned literary preserve of the New Critics. All the while they overlook the careful writings of most New Critics in relation to the role of the author and the reader. How can we make a fair evaluation of this situation? To begin with, we can turn to Cain for a resolution of the dilemma. "The New Criticism leads two lives. Or rather, it is dead in one sense and very much alive in another. It is dead as a movement, as many critiques and attacks demonstrate. But its lessons about literary study lead a vigorous life, setting the norms for effective teaching and marking the boundaries within which nearly all criticism seeks to validate itself" (Crisis 105).
In substance, Cain's essay, "The Institutionalization of the New Criticism," may serve as a manifesto for the New Criticism in the 1990's. This essay may well serve the same function as the several essays composed by New Critics for the Kenyon Review series "My Credo" (1950). But Cain's observation is not a recent discovery. Fifteen years ago Rene Wellek voiced a similar appraisal of the endurance of the New Criticism.
I will not conceal my own conviction that the New Criticism has stated or reaffirmed many basic truths to which future ages will have to return: the specific nature of the aesthetic transaction, the normative presence of a work of art that forms a structure, a unity, coherence, a whole, which cannot be simply battered about and is comparatively independent of its origins and effects. The New Critics have also persuasively described the function of literature in not yielding abstract knowledge or information, message or stated ideology, and they have devised a technique of interpretation that often succeeded in illuminating not so much the form of a poem as the implied attitudes of the author, the resolved and unresolved tensions and contradictions: a technique that yields a standard of judgment that cannot be easily dismissed in favor of the currently popular, sentimental, and simple. ("Critic of Critics" 108)
In 1979 Grant Webster expressed a similar view: "Theoretically, Formalism is dead, but on the practical level, particularly in academic classrooms, it flourishes … One can say, generally, that Formalism lives now in the careers of its practitioners, many of whom have outlived the flowering of the movement, and of their students, and that it is likely to be believed in by, or to have been part of the development of, any literary person who came of age intellectually from 1935 to 1955" (205). Brian Higgins and Herschel Parker note that "although the New Criticism has been dead, folk say, for a decade or more, its legacy is omnipresent." They refer to critics of varying competence and aim their fire at those who are "unwilling or unable to evaluate and employ scholarly evidence" (27).
Another arena where one finds the New Criticism thriving is in the essays of such journals as the Sewanee Review and the Southern Review. Naturally it comes as no surprise that both these magazines should occasionally run reminiscent articles focusing upon the Fugitives and Agrarians and other well known literary figures of the past half century. But there is more than a retrospective monument here. There is also new New Criticism. One also finds new magazines edited by disciples of the New Critics, such as Radcliffe Squires's Michigan Quarterly Review.
Perhaps one of the strangest types of evidence testifying to the endurance of New Criticism is the quest of certain recent writers to clarify the nature of the New Criticism and to rename it in more precise terms. Undaunted by fifty years of usage, Grant Webster maintains that the term "New Criticism" is "both confusing and unenlightening," and insists it's time "to substitute a name which indicates the nature of what is basically a unified movement." And so he proposes "Tory Formalism" "as the term which best characterizes the charter group of men who believe in or wish for a social and intellectual world and a literature that express belief in tradition, order, hierarchy, the fallen nature of man, the war of good and evil, and the ultimate union of warring dualisms in the Word of God and the metaphors of poetry" (205).
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in discussing "Some Aims of Criticism," consents to use the familiar term "New Criticism," but feels compelled to clarify that "the guiding principle of the movement was not formalism, or close analysis, or stylistics, but rather the programmatic idea that literature should be described and estimated in its own intrinsic categories." Hirsch holds that the notion that "literature should be dealt with as literature … still remains the dominant though not the only guiding principle for the teaching and criticism of literature" (124). We should also ponder this statement by Jonathan Culler: "It is important to recognize that what was once the aim of a particular critical movement now defines the general aims of criticism. Close reading of literary texts is the ground that nearly all theories and methods build upon or seek to occupy. And this holds true even for those that are explicitly set up in opposition to the New Criticism" (Pursuit 5).
In his essay "Beyond Interpretation," first published in 1976, Culler argued against the emphasis on "close reading" of texts and referred to it as the "insidious legacy" of the New Criticism. Culler sees the rejection (by the New Critics) "of possible external contexts, whether biographical, historical, psychoanalytic, or sociological," as a literary predestination of sorts to no choice of approach but interpreting the poem. One is taken aback, however, by Culler's rejection of the terminology so well known to those familiar with New Critical approaches: ambivalence, ambiguity, tension, irony, paradox. Surely any reader can readily see each of these terms as aspects of signs, significance, and semiotics. But that was early Culler. In his more recent work he suggests that there does not exist (as some might maintain) a diametrical opposition between inclusive structuralism and the New Criticism.
The distinctiveness of an inclusive "structuralism" does not in fact lie in its cosmopolitan theoretical interests. The New Criticism, with which it is often contrasted, was by no means antitheoretical or provincial, as the discussions in Rene Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature show…. The interpretive projects of the New Criticism were linked to the preservation of aesthetic autonomy and the defense of literary studies against encroachment by various sciences. (On Deconstruction 20)
Culler takes pains to delineate the varieties of structuralism, not so much in terms of different models as in terms of what features are to be included in the "structure" or "structuralism" of a given literary piece: analysis which may include concepts from linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and so on. For some, such varied inclusion is objectionable and untenable. A second objection Culler cites is that structuralism "threatens the very raison d'etre of literary studies by foregoing the attempt to discover the true meaning of a work and by deeming all interpretations equally valid" (On Deconstruction 19).
We can conclude this overview by noting the endurance of the New Criticism on the basis of its insistence, not so much upon close reading or style, but upon the principle that literature should be approached and valued according to its own intrinsic categories. The New Criticism remains valid because it altered the course of teaching literature and brought the focus of literary pedagogy back to the text. Both in method and in theory, the New Criticism endures.
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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 hold up after nearly thirty years? It has probably been the single most influential critical work on Faulkner ever published. It has certainly drawn more vigorous dissent than any other work on Faulkner, but that is largely because it refuses to fade into oblivion, as so many lesser books have done. It seems sentimental and backward-looking to many progressive-minded critics, yet it may provide more insight into the future than those critics would care to recognize. Indeed, some of those critics display more than a little of the "American innocence" that Brooks finds central to the meaning of one of Faulkner's greatest novels. Brooks's central theme in The Yoknapatawpha Country is the need for community. He argues that Faulkner's rural background provided him with a vantage point from which to criticize modern urban and commercial culture. In Faulkner's old-fashioned fictional world, the community is a powerful though virtually invisible force that constantly makes its presence felt. The individual finds his meaning in relation to the community, and the modern breakdown of traditional communal standards is responsible for our present disarray. The prophetic quality of The Yoknapatawpha Country is underlined by the fact that it was published at a time when the belief that eternal progress is America's destiny was at an all-time high.
Yet for many readers, Faulkner's community doesn't seem such a positive thing. It is dominated by white males, it contains plenty of bigotry, and it often stifles the individual's quest for personal fulfillment. Showing the influence of the Nashville Agrarians, Brooks attributes the positive qualities in Faulkner's world to his Southern background, but the negative qualities are "modern," "American," or simply universal. Brooks takes some Northern critics to task for "sociologizing" by assuming that Faulkner's more bizarre characters are typical Southerners, yet Brooks may be guilty of some sociologizing of his own by painting an overly rosy picture of the South. If Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! is, as Brooks claims, an example of American innocence, why can't Emily Grierson in "A Rose for Emily" (which Brooks discusses in Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond) be an example of Southern decadence? Does Temple Drake's behavior in Sanctuary show that women have a secret rapport with evil, or is Temple's depravity partly rooted in the double standards of Southern society? Does Mrs. Compson deserve all the blame for her children's plight in The Sound and the Fury, and is her husband, the heir of the tradition, just an innocent victim? Is the tradition itself not to blame for many of the ills in Yoknapatawpha? Are the outsiders in Light in August all aliens by choice, or does the community itself decide whom it will and will not admit? Brooks's tendency to defend the South against stereotypical American attitudes is understandable, but Faulkner's South seems considerably more flawed than Brooks's version.
Brooks also criticizes what he calls "symbol-mongering" by critics who allegedly wrench details out of context to impose an abstract pattern on Faulkner's novels, thereby failing to treat them as fiction, and he seals his argument with the rhetorical question, "Shall there be no more innocent consumption of pork chops and spare ribs in Yoknapatawpha County because someone has read The Golden Bough?" Granted that there are bad examples of every type of criticism, but it is now well established that Faulkner did indeed read The Golden Bough and drew on it in his fiction. In his notes to Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, Brooks includes a lengthy list of Faulkner's literary borrowings from writers such as Eliot, Housman, and Swinburne, but in his concluding chapter he argues against any direct influence on Faulkner by Bergson, even though Faulkner said he read Bergson. It is all right, the reader surmises, for Faulkner to draw on the writers of the Western literary tradition, but he must be protected from the newfangled ideas of Frazer, Freud, or Bergson, lest someone suspect that Faulkner was more of a modernist than Brooks believes. What seems most strange is that Brooks would deny Faulkner studies the very kind of exegesis he performed so well on The Waste Land when he showed how Eliot used Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance. Mythic and other patterns are just as prevalent in Faulkner's fiction, in only slightly more disguised form, as they are in Eliot's poetry.
In Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, Brooks examines Faulkner's apprentice writings, the "non-Yoknapatawpha" novels, and selected short stories. As always, his commentaries shed abundant light on their subject, but Brooks clearly doesn't seem comfortable with these novels, and he sometimes engages in circular reasoning by arguing that the non-Yoknapatawpha novels are inferior because they are not set in Yoknapatawpha. Brooks may be vulnerable on these and other matters, but his point of view is also responsible for the tremendous wealth of insights that he brings to bear on Faulkner's work. These insights are nowhere better illustrated than in his comments on Absalom, Absalom!, a novel he analyzed brilliantly in The Yoknapatawpha Country and returns to in the Appendices to Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. Though one may question some of Brooks's assertions about the antebellum South, what is perhaps most significant about his argument is that Absalom, Absalom! may be not merely a parable of the Southern past, but a prophecy of the American future. Always challenging and controversial, Brooks's work on Faulkner, particularly The Yoknapatawpha Country, will stand as a monument long after most of Brooks's critics have been forgotten.
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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 movement that repeatedly has been declared passe for at least twenty-five years. William Cain reminds us, however, that no matter what contemporary theoretical perspective from which one works, few would seriously question the usefulness of close reading as a tool of analysis: "So deeply ingrained in English studies are New Critical attitudes, values and emphases that we do not even perceive them as the legacy of a particular movement." In this regard, although Cleanth Brooks is no longer at the center of debates about theory and pedagogy, there are still things to learn from historical reflection on the role he played in popularizing T. S. Eliot's modernist poetics. Such reflection, for me, points to an intriguing intersection between two differing strains of Christianity—Anglo-Catholicism and fundamentalism. This intersection, which has shaped modern literary and cultural criticism, simultaneously clarifies the telos of New Critical close reading and helps us better understand the history of literary studies from the 1910s through the 1960s as a veiled ecclesiastical history. With this understanding, then, we may experience more directly the anti-democratic undertow of New Critical grounds.
A familiar charge against New Criticism of course is its lack of historical perspective. Yet René Wellek, in his role as apologist for New Criticism, maintains that it is unfair to accuse Cleanth Brooks's literary analyses of being ahistorical. If that is so, then what kind of history does Brooks write? He certainly writes a form of literary history, one that is repeatedly nostalgic for community. This nostalgia cannot be traced to a single source but in part may be teased out of the way the texts of T. S. Eliot pass through Nashville, Tennessee, during the 1920s. In this matrix we discover certain underlying assumptions—some acknowledged and some explicitly denied—regarding not only history but also religion, literature, and community. Taken together, this complex has affected not only what we read but how we read in American Departments of English.
It is hardly surprising to note that Eliot, high priest of modernist poetics, shaped Brooks, high priest of New Criticism. Cleanth Brooks's admiration of Eliot, both as poet and essayist, manifests itself in a myriad of ways. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" echoes loudly in the opening sentences of Brooks's Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939): "Every poet that we read alters to some degree our total conception of poetry. Most poets, of course, modify it in only a minute degree, and we continually talk as if our conception were not modified at all." Speaking in 1975 of the genesis of Modern Poetry and the Tradition, Brooks reflects: "I was particularly stimulated by two paragraphs in one of [Eliot's] essays on the metaphysical poets. In this brief passage, he suggested that the metaphysical poets were not to be regarded as a rather peculiar offshoot of the main course of English poetry, but that they had a deep, hidden connection with its central line of development." Brooks's rewriting of literary history in Modern Poetry and the Tradition by linking modern poetry's use of metaphor to that in metaphysical poetry and his arguments with eighteenth century and Romantic poetics clearly depend on Eliot. But there are religious implications in Brooks's description of "a deep, hidden connection" that he sees in Eliot's essay on the metaphysical poets. This urge toward the hidden connection, which follows from Brooks's reading of Eliot, continually blurs the boundary between poetry and religion in New Critical practice. Both Eliot and Brooks employ religious language to express their overtly aesthetic and social concerns, and the words "unity" and "community" function particularly as God-terms, signs that authorize all other moves within their language-game.
The relationship between Eliot and Brooks, however, is not one-directional: if Brooks in a sense is produced by Eliot, Eliot is as much produced by Brooks, whose textbooks attempt to give the American undergraduate a consumable Eliot. Growing out of both the Fugitive and Agrarian movements, Brooks's reading of Eliot provides significant clues to the status of Brooks's history. Some historical sense of how Eliot enters Brooks's field of vision, therefore, proves a useful context.
The texts of Eliot, prior to his conversion to the Anglican Church in 1928, stand in much the same position to the Fugitives as the post-conversion Eliot's texts stand to the Agrarians, that is as sites of debate and contestation yet confirmation. In the foreword to the first issue of The Fugitive, published in April 1922. John Crowe Ransom announces that "a literary phase known rather euphemistically as Southern Literature has expired …" and that "THE FUGITIVE flees from nothing faster than the high-caste Brahmins of the Old South." A key moment in Fugitive aesthetics was Allea Tate's championing of The Waste Land against the objections of Ransom and Donald Davidson. By the fourth issue of The Fugitive, Tate would write: "I think for all time—so important is The Waste Land—Mr Eliot has demonstrated the necessity, in special cases, of aberrant versification. For doubtless none assails the authenticity of his impersonal and increasingly abstract art…." Eight years after this call to the modern, the introduction to the Southern Agrarian manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, in a voice as hortatory as The Fugitive's preface, takes a reactionary turn, warning that "Younger Southerners, who are being converted frequently to the industrial gospel, must come back to the support of the Southern tradition" or else the South will lose "its moral, social and economic autonomy." Cleanth Brooks attended Vanderbilt between 1921 and 1928 at a time when those literary rebels, the Fugitives, were moving in their separate artistic ways, yet at the same time were reforming in a more politicized avatar as the Southern Agrarians. Although Tate had left Vanderbilt before Brooks arrived, the Fugitive Tate insured that Eliot formed part of Brooks's course of study, even if Brooks's mentor would be Ransom. During his years at Vanderbilt. Brooks moved in circles that led to Southern Agrarianism, and although he did not participate in I'll Take My Stand. Brooks clearly took his stand with the Agrarian cause. Brooks finally met Tate in 1929 in Paris. The meeting proved fortunate for Brooks, who found in Tate a fellow Agrarian and a fellow traveler in Eliot's pessimistic reading of modernity. Tate, in fact, read drafts of material from Brooks's 1939 study, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, a book aptly dedicated to Tate.
In the transition from Fugitive aesthetics to Agrarian politics, Eliot remained a powerful cultural authority. It is not difficult to see why Eliot's essays of the 1930s would be read with care by one with an Agrarian world view. The social and literary criticism of Eliot, especially after his conversion to the Anglo-Catholic faith, richly resonates with the concerns of the Southern Agrarians. Both Eliot and the Agrarians fight a rear-guard action to preserve a community that they see slipping away. For the Agrarians, that community is the Southern community, specially conceived as the last best hope of preserving the European tradition of community life: the evil of modernity is primarily the encroachment of Northern industrial society into the South. Eliot's community is that of Christian believers, and, like the Agrarians, he is staunchly anti-communist. Eliot is also at least as wary of liberalism, which in his view ushered in the secularization of government, subsequently allowing a soulless technology to take the lead in organizing society.
Like his cultural hero Eliot, Brooks finally converts to Anglo-Catholicism, but from a different point of origin. Eliot was the grandson of a Unitarian minister. Brooks, the son of a Methodist minister, attended a small Methodist prep school that emphasized Greek and Latin, McTyeire School, in McKenzie, Tennessee. A question we might ask is "How does the religion of his father impinge on the force of the word 'community' for Cleanth Brooks?" It is precisely where religion informs Brooks's perspective that I see a contradiction arising within New Critical praxis. The locus of the contradiction in Brooks's attachment to Eliot occurs on the very topics—community, education, and the education of the community—where the Agrarian world picture seems to dovetail with Eliot's. The Agrarian nostalgia for the Southern community, however, is not the same as Eliot's nostalgia for those times in history when a writer could take for granted a community of Christian believers. But for Brooks as an Agrarian, the conflation of the two communities—the Agrarian community and Eliot's community of educated believers—is understandable, since both communities are based on exclusion: the Agrarian community's distrust of strangers is not unlike Eliot's disdain for those lacking classical training. However, Brooks's attraction to both Eliot's and the Agrarian exclusive community leads to an even more conflicted position on Brooks's vocation as literary exegete. The contradiction is that, in his New Critical witnessing for a fundamentalist unity of the centered text, Brooks draws on the same exclusionary tradition that Eliot developed to argue the necessity of Anglo-Catholicism to a civilized society. And so a question arises: is Brooks's community finally exclusive or expansionist?. As his work on Faulkner makes clear, Brooks's Southern community makes definite exclusions (it is, after all, the white community), but his sense of Christian community seems less closed. Certain cultural and literary criticism of Cleanth Brooks and T. S. Eliot from the 1930s helps us understand a tension in Brooks's vision of community and suggests that Eliot's modernist poetics and Brooks's New Critical practice intersect through their unacknowledged collapsing of the distinction between poetic and religious thinking.
In "Modern Education and the Classics" (1932). Eliot justifies hierarchical social organization by emphasizing unequal natural abilities among human beings, much as John Gould Fletcher does in his contribution to I'll Take My Stand, "Education Past and Present." Fletcher makes it clear from the outset that "all education can do in any case is to teach us to make good use of what we are if we are nothing to begin with, no amount of education can do us any good" (p. 93). Eliot expresses a similar opinion, though with a more elitist agenda: a "task of anyone who might be imagined as occupying a dictational position in the education of a country should obviously be to see that … no one received too much education, limiting the numbers treated to 'higher education' to a third (let us say) of those receiving the treatment today" (Selected Essays. p. 154). There is, of course, a note of irony in Eliot's use of the word "dictation," yet given the worldwide rise of fascism in the years following the essay's publication, it is difficult not to be alert to the anti-democratic force of his playful suggestion. Eliot's essay, nominally a defense of teaching Greek and Latin, is highly critical of the American university's scale:
America grew very rich, that is to say, it produced a considerable number of millionaires, and the next generation set itself to an equally mad programme of building, erecting within a short time a great variety of imposing, though in some places rather hastily built, halls and dormitories, and even chapels. And when you have sunk so much money in plant and equipment, when you have a large though not always well paid staff of men who are mostly married and have a few children, when you are turning out from your graduate schools more and more men who have been trained to become teachers in other universities, and who will probably want to marry and have children too, when your whole national system of higher education is designed for an age of expansion, for a country which is going to indefinitely increase its population, grow rich, and build more universities, then you will find it very difficult to retract.
Eliot's comments seem at odds with the economic reality of the depression, a time of retrenchment for most American universities: however, during Huey Long's term as governor. Louisiana State, which had recently hired Brooks, fits well the type of institution Eliot criticizes. How could Brooks, as one of these young men of whom Eliot speaks, forgive his cultural hero this attitude? Because quite apart from this strain in the essay there is another argument that resonates with Brooks's New Critical agenda. Eliot argues that if education is not to become technological (and hence without values), "we must derive our theory of education from our philosophy of life. The problem turns out to be a religions problem" (p. 152). The solution Eliot proposes is that "all education must be ultimately religious education" (p. 159): that is all education must be informed by transcendent values. Eliot is decidedly pessimistic about the chances of a Christian civilization grounded on the classics prevailing in the modern world and desires to "see a revival of the monastic life in its variety," since "the first educational task of the communities should be the preservation of education within the cloister, uncontaminated by the deluge of barbarism outside" (p. 160).
If we link Eliot's belief that education must be always religious education with his call in "Religion and Literature" (1935) for a "literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian" (Selected Essays, p. 346), then we arrive, I think, at a better sense of the theological impulse in New Critical close reading as practiced by Cleanth Brooks. Eliot desires an unconscious Christian literature because he believes that an openly Christian one cannot succeed "in a world in which it is assumed that Religion and Literature are not related" (p. 316). Just as Eliot had earlier called for education to be religious education here he calls for literary criticism to "be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint" (p. 343). Eliot's assertion of the inseparability of literary and religious judgment finds its fullest expression in the New Criticism of Cleanth Brooks, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in Brooks's reading of The Waste Land in Modern Poetry and the Tradition, a reading illuminated by Brooks's own Eliotic foray into social criticism.
On his way to rewriting English literary history and revising the way literature was taught in American universities, Brooks participated in the second Agrarian forum. Who Owns America? co-edited by Allen Tate and Herbert Agar, published in 1936. Brooks's contribution, "A Plea to the Protestant Churches," posits an identity between poetic and religious thinking that is central to what I would call Brooks's textual fundamentalism. In this essay, Brooks reluctantly admits that fundamentalism has fallen into disrepute, yet he calls upon the Protestant establishment to renounce its infatuation with worldly schemes and to return—if it is not too late—to its proper mission, a mission that resurrects a key tenet of fundamentalism—a belief in the absolute. The somewhat coy rhetorical structure nearly obscures Brooks's point, for if the beginning of the essay suggests the death of fundamentalism, the end calls for its reexamination. One reason fundamentalism is dying, Brooks claims early on is that the Liberal Protestant (an abstraction Brooks critiques with irony) "has naturally found the cruder aspects of Fundamentalism repugnant." What precisely these aspects are Brooks does not say, but inasmuch as they might block "coveted intercourse with other intellectuals" (p. 323) it seems clear that biblical inerrancy is chief among them. Brooks's final plea for Protestants to reject Marxism echoes the ironic rhetoric of his opening: such a rejection "would not necessitate a return to the crudities of Fundamentalism, unless one believes, in an age of relativities, that belief in an absolute is crude" (p. 332). It is tempting to see an autobiographical element in his eliding the specific crudities of fundamentalism. Eventually moving from the content of his father's Methodist religion, Brooks apparently was no longer able to invest belief in the inerrancy of the biblical word: he nevertheless retained the form of his father's religion, now cathecting to and substituting the poetic word. This shift preserved for Brooks a sophisticated realm of the absolute—the infallible work of literature—in an age he sees as otherwise interested in a fundamentalist Christianity.
Liberal Protestantism, Brooks asserts in the body of his essay, is rapidly selling out to scientism on the one hand and secularism (particularly communism) on the other: these dilutions of Protestantism, he feels, lead to the end "of a Christian civilization" (p. 331). For Brooks, as for Eliot, to be a liberal is to be without values, and though Brooks is disdainful of communism, he sees in it a system of values that make it a religion, albeit "one of the materialistic religions and one of the religions of man, burdened with his infirmities" (p. 332). Also like Eliot, Brooks is wary of science, which he sees as an instrumentalism incapable of inculcating values.
Science is quite properly the technician-in-chief in civilization: it defines the means to be employed by the attainment of various objectives. But it cannot be the pilot. It cannot as science—name the objectives. That is the function of religion, it religion is to have any function at all (p. 325)
At this moment in the essay, the structure appears clear. Science has been identified as the progressive, man-centered, value-free discipline of means, while Christianity, anchored in God's eternal values, is the discipline of ends. Brooks, one assumes, will now oppose religious and scientific knowledge. But instead, Brooks turns to art to exemplify what he means by religious thinking: "I am using art in the sense of a description of an experience which is concrete where that of science is abstract, many-sided where that of science is necessarily one-sided, and which involves the whole personality where science only involves one part, the intellect. These are qualities which are essential to worship, and a religion without worship is an anomaly" (p. 326). Brooks does claim that "religion is obviously more than art." But the only distinction seems to be that religion is based on supreme values while art is based on provisional values. He concludes his distinction between art and religion in a way that draws them back together: "But a religion which lacks the element of art is hardly a religion at all." Significantly, Brooks describes religious thinking entirely in terms of poetic thinking: "If there is to be a search [for God] … it will have to be a search in something of the sense in which the poet explores himself in relation to the truth, ordering it over, relating it to various sets of conditions, but returning to it and working back to it as to a center rather than regarding it as a point on a line along which he continually advances" (p. 327). Just as the Christian is centered in Christ, the poet is centered in the poem. The true Christian, is seems, always will be something of a poet.
Years later in The Hidden God, Brooks's image of the poetic Christian slides into a sense of the Christian poet through a description that has an almost prescriptive force in "T. S. Eliot: Discourse to the Gentiles": "The poet's task is not only to find new symbols for the central experiences but to reconstitute the old symbols, reclaiming them, redeeming them, setting them in contexts which will force us once again to confront their Christian meanings." This assertion leads us back in two directions simultaneously: first, to Eliot's call for an unconscious religious literature: and second, to Brooks's reading of The Waste Land Brooks's close reading of The Waste Land in Modern Poetry and the Tradition is masterful: all paradox and tensions resolve themselves into pure orthodoxy: "Eliot's theme is the rehabilitation of a system of beliefs, known but now discredited" (p. 171). Because Eliot could not depend on a community of believers as Spenser and Dante could. "the only method is to work by indirection. The Christian material is at the center, but the poet never deals with it directly" (p. 174). "In this way," Brooks claims. Eliot's "statement of beliefs emerges through confusion and cynicism—not in spite of them" (p. 172). This is an interpretive tour de force. The student, Brooks, has mastered his cultural hero and in so doing has given back to Eliot precisely what he asked for—an unconscious Christian literature.
And now, having discovered the hidden Christian center in Eliot's great poem, Brooks never relinquishes it, for to do so would be to lose, as it were, a higher truth. The interpretation positing a hidden Christian center recurs whenever Brooks speaks of Eliot. The material I quoted above from Modern Poetry and the Tradition appears again in the commentary on The Waste Land in the 1950 revision of Under-standing Poetry. And in The Hidden God the same spin is imparted to the later texts of Eliot when Brooks speaks of "Eliot's avoiding Christian terms and Christian symbols. One notices also that even in the avowedly Christian works, Eliot shows himself to be consistently aware of this problem of modern incomprehension" (p. 76). Although few readers today would agree with Brooks (Christian terms and symbols, after all, appear regularly in Eliot's "avowedly Christian works"), what is interesting about this assertion is its adherence to Eliot's own sense of modern incomprehension and its consistency within Brooks's larger reading of Eliot. Brooks argues that because modern readers do not belong to a community of believers. Eliot accommodates their lack of faith by presenting his Christian message in a way that does not privilege Christian discourse, a discourse that would doom his readers to refusing his message about human sin. Although Brooks first articulates this arguments in his reading of The Waste Land, we should remember that by 1939 he had available to him a great deal of poetry and criticism written by the post-conversion Eliot (texts that, I have suggested, urged Brooks toward the kind of reading he performs on The Waste Land). We can reconstruct then, the faulty syllogism apparently leads Brooks to his conclusion about The Waste Land: Eliot's openly Christian poetry avoids Christian terms and symbols (again a surprising position): Eliot's pre-conversion poetry also avoids Christian terms and symbols: therefore, Eliot's pre-conversion poetry is an unconscious Christian poetry. One local history, then, that Cleanth Brooks gives us about Eliot is a Christian teleology in which Eliot's conversion is the inevitable end.
Brooks's own position as a Christian critic may best be summarized by the now-familiar point he makes about Eliot in A Shaping Joy. Brooks's words become a kind of unacknowledged autobiography, if one substitutes the word criticism for poetry both times it occurs: "His community is the remnant of the Christian community in a post-Christian world. His [criticism]—including his specifically religious [criticism]—consistently addresses itself to the 'gentiles'—takes into account the reader's agnosticism." In light of this self-reflexive rhetoric, Brooks's quest for the organic unity in texts marked as poetic can be read as the displaced expression of his nostalgia for community and at the same time, as a manifestation of the hidden God. Again we see how Brooks's social and literary criticism employs a matrix of terms—unity, community, tradition—that each serve, at various moments, as tropes for God, or God-terms.
Brooks, professing his faith in the unitary meaning of texts in the context of the American university, deploys Eliot's words in a way that constantly pulls in directions antithetical to Eliot's. Eliot's tradition caters to an elitist, High-Church community. Because Eliot assumes that only a limited number of individuals can be educated, his Christian community, not surprisingly, is based on an exclusion—a fit few for the kingdom of God. His view implies pessimism and retreat (into a monastic community, if necessary). Brooks's community, however, oscillates in the space between his belief in exclusive community—whether Eliot's or the Agrarians—and his sense that all students are potentially worthy of poetical mysteries and thus, by extension, of God's grace. What Brooks's involvement in the various editions of Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction, Understanding Drama, and An Approach to Literature makes clear is that he is not afraid of an evangelical mission, even though that evangelism contradicts the very exclusivity of the tradition for which he proselytizes. So that although Brooks's discourse appears to duplicate the pessimism in Eliot's reading of modernity, Brooks's theological convictions cause him to speak, in a clear and common sense voice, what he sees as the difficult truths of poetry and belief.
Brooks's appropriation of Eliot, always filtered through a lens that is both Fugitive and Agrarian, most nearly unravels when he attempts to save Eliot from the charge of elitism. Speaking of instances of shifting and double meaning in the fourth section of the Quartets. Brooks writes: "They make the poetry more difficult to read, to be sure: but that difficulty has not been sought by Eliot. The truth of the matter is that it could not be avoided—it could not be avoided, that is if the poet were to be true to his vision and true to the circumstances under which that vision was vouchsafed" (Hidden God. p. 81, emphasis added). This vision, of course, is Eliot's Christian vision. Brooks asserts that the mysteries of the Christian vision cannot be articulated in plain language, which seems to validate Eliot's High Church view. Brooks's reading, however, articulates his own more liberal Christian vision, thus affirming—through his own writing practice—what the content of his discourse denies, namely, that Christian faith can be spoken of without indirection and paradox. Clearly, Four Quartets embodies, through its complexity, Eliot's sense of truth. The Christian apparatus is of course, only one of the approaches (another being the artist and the word). Given the high level of generality in Four Quartets' Christianity, the differences between Eliot's and Brooks's specific varieties of Christianity perhaps are not identifiable in the poem. What is significant, however, is that Brooks's reading of the Quartets professes his faith through the New Critical God-term, unity. This theological impulse goes a long way toward explaining why critical judgment is so important to the New Critical project. Canon formation is crucial because one must judge what the good word is. Bad poetry isn't just bad: it's a form of heresy.
What, then, can we make of history in the Brooks-Eliot connection? The progressive narrowing of the canon of modernist poetry through the 1960s, based on a "disciplinary inclination to view the fragmented modernist text as a purely aesthetic object, its linguistic fragmentation purified of social influence and critique" (p. 211) has created large gaps in our cultural memory, as Cary Nelson's recent Repression and Recovery has so forcefully pointed out. In creating for Eliot the unconscious Christian literature that he called for, Brooks at that same time developed an unconscious Christian criticism even though certainly for Brooks himself it is quite conscious) that spawned a pedagogy with unmistakable theological undercurrents. To assume the organic unity of great poetry, drama, and fiction that one teaches and interprets is to practice a form of textual fundamentalism. This textual fundamentalism, as I argued earlier, already is implicit in Brooks's understated call for a return to a fundamentalism without crudity in "A Plea to the Protestant Churches." The critic who could not construct a reading that discovered the unity of an acknowledged masterpiece (no matter how conflicted and ambivalent that text might be) was at fault, never the text. If "all education is religious education," as Eliot claimed, we need always to ask what form of belief we may be promulgating when we turn to close reading in the classroom, even if today our historical and political awareness causes us to display to our students urns that are less well-wrought.
In another sense of the history of our discipline, New Criticism, in its theological urge, unconsciously writes itself as its own anti-history, emerging as its anathema, ideological criticism. (Complaints from New Critics that Marxist criticism has a political agenda assumed that New Criticism did not.) 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. This devaluation of the secular leads to a quietism that we hear at the end of Eliot's "Literature and the Modern World" (1935), an essay included, we might note, in the 1939 edition of An Approach to Literature, edited by Brooks, Warren, and Purser. With the world poised on the brink of the second major war of our century, this essay, which argues that authors should not propagate social ideas in their writing, locates the threat in the present not with the rise of fascism but with the "secular revolution" of communism and urges a return to a Christian community:
I think … that the passion for social righteousness will prove in the end not enough in itself…. An age of change, and a period of incessant apprehension of war do not form a favorable environment. There is a temptation to welcome change for its own sake, to sink our minds in some desperate philosophy of action…. We cannot effect intelligent change, unless we hold fast to the permanent essentials; and a clear understanding of what we should hold fast to and what abandon, should make us all the better prepared to carry out the changes that are needed. Thus we can look back upon the past without regret, and to the future without fear.
But if we look back only at the great tradition and ahead to the life to come, then the "action" primarily available in the present is a religio-poetical contemplation. At best, we can hope to become perfect critics reading perfects texts as solace in an all to imperfect world. Brooks's New Critical practice, as the ideological double of Eliot's modernism, only repeats a demand for politically disengaged reading. Brooks's history, thus, is problematic qua history because, as Christian telos of salvation, it operates in a timeless space, not unlike Eliot's tradition. A larger irony, the history lesson of the Brooks-Eliot matrix remains: the democratic method of reading that served us through much of the Cold War was founded on assumptions that were only marginally hospitable to democracy.
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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, and their focus on the text not only taught me how to read but fired me with renewed enthusiasm for literature itself. (Years later, as a brand new assistant prof, and anxious to learn the trade, I asked a veteran English Ed professor how he would teach "L'Allegro/Il Penseroso"; when he replied, "First, I'd draw a map of Asia Minor on the blackboard," my heart sank, and I realized what had been wrong with my English education—and English education generally—prior to Cleanth Brooks.) In graduate school, I had the opportunity to take a seminar in Romantic Poetry with Professor Brooks, and on the first day he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, I really don't know anything about Romantic Poetry, but we're going to learn together." That was modesty, of course, but a mark of the man, as were the courtesy and consideration he extended even to graduate students. One of the local sights was William K. Wimsatt, a hulking and rumpled six-foot five-inches looming over the dapper five-foot six-inch Brooks, as they ambled across campus, talking away about (we knew) momentous matters—perhaps their collaborative Literary Criticism: A Short History, which would become my bible. In the course of writing my dissertation, I discovered that one of the few articles on Robert Herrick that showed much understanding of that poet's special genius was "What Does Poetry Communicate?"—from The Well-Wrought Urn, of course. In my first teaching position I was assigned a course in reading poetry required of all English majors, and naturally I used Brooks and Warren's Understanding Poetry. And so it went, and so it still goes: Cleanth Brooks has been teaching me for over forty years and, while critical fashions come and go, he will continue to teach well into the next century through his students and his books.
Thus, I trust I will be understood to be praising Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry when I say it has all the virtues of a series of superb undergraduate lectures. Each chapter is a graceful and lucid study of poems as familiar as Henry King's "An Exequy," Lovelace's "The Grasse-hopper," and Marvell's "The Garden" (how interesting and useful to study these very different poems together!) as well as "An Horatian Ode." Other chapters are bound to spark new interest in less well known poets, such as Richard Corbett ("The Faerys Farewell"), James Shirley ("The glories of our blood and state"), Aurelian Townshend (several poems), Sir Richard Fanshaw ("The Fall"), and Lord Herbert of Cherbury (also several poems). Some of Brooks's readings are controversial; all illuminate.
In essence, however, this book is an apologia pro vita litteraria. "I trust," says Brooks in his "Epilogue," "that the preceding chapters constitute solid testimony to my own regard for the importance of establishing authorship, datings, biographical and historical references, and the specific and sometimes archaic uses that make up the poet's text." And indeed, each chapter does show him bringing information "extrinsic to the text"—biographical documents, definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary, historical records, etc.—to bear upon his careful analyses of all that is intrinsic to the text.
That the New Critics religiously ignored biography and history was always, of course, a bum rap, a consequence of their efforts to unearth what had for so long been buried beneath layer upon stultifying layer of half-baked biographical criticism and misapplied historical criticism—the text itself and the possibilities of the literary experience. To do so did require deliberate downplaying of "the relevance of extrinsic evidence," as Brooks admits he did in The Well-Wrought Urn. But some readers may be as surprised as I was to learn that while he was completing that pioneering book of criticism he published a scholarly edition of The Correspondence of Thomas Percy and Richard Farmer. "The Republic of Letters," he notes, "needs both kinds of activity."
That may, of course, be regarded today as a non-issue. So too is Brooks's concern with the writer's "sincerity," which Northrop Frye settled long ago when he noted that all we can really mean by sincerity in literature is the effective communication of emotion. For all the formalists' efforts at a kind of rational criticism, they often began or concluded with the irrational—a work's "greatness" or lack thereof—and such personal aesthetic judgments elevated to absolutes are not absent from this book. So too is the tendency to rate poems and poets like baseball players, into "major" and "minor."
Nevertheless, whether read as an example of that all too rare phenomenon today, accessible literary criticism, or as a fascinating document in the history of twentieth-century criticism Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry transcends its limitations. It instructs. It delights. It is an appropriate valediction from one who changed literary criticism and literary education for the better, forever.
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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, first in their classes at LSU, and then in their critical essays and textbooks. Brooks, never a Fugitive and connected only briefly with Agrarianism, began to work out his own approaches to reading. He credits not only Ransom but also I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot with having influenced him in the formulation of his critical theories (Interview). Like Ransom and Richards, Brooks used the classroom as a laboratory before codifying his methods in two collections of essays, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) and The Well Wrought Urn (1947). Along with Warren, Brooks also combined theory with classroom experience in the structuring of textbooks which were to dominate literary pedagogy in the United States for the greater part of the twentieth century.
In 1947, Brooks moved to Yale University, where one of his graduate assistants was Stanley Fish, father-to-be of reader-response criticism. Although in recent letters to these authors, neither man professes to "remember" much about the other, that relationship of teacher and student, possibly problematic to both, may have played an indirect role in the evolution of Fish's approach, especially as a reaction to what Fish saw as the New Critical doctrine of the closed and autonomous literary text. Correspondingly, Brooks's dismissal of reader-response theory as an "anything goes" approach has served to over-dramatize the tension between the New Criticism and reader-response theories. In fact, the evolution of literature in general and criticism in particular may be viewed, after Harold Bloom, as a history of misreading, which has emerged in the two Bloomian modes of clinamen and kenosis; that is to say, the younger critic (Fish) both misreads and breaks away from his precursor. And although Bloom's terminology refers specifically to poets (14-15), he finds it possible, with but a slight adjustment, to make room for anxieties of influence between critics:
Poets' misinterpretations of poems are more drastic than critics' misinterpretations of criticism, but this is only a difference in degree and not at all in kind. There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry…. For just as a poet must be found by the opening in a precursor poet, so must the critic. The difference is that a critic has more parents … poets and critics. (94-95)
Without presenting a detailed Bloomian analysis of the Brooks-Fish relationship (and who but Bloom himself could do that?), there are strong suggestions to be found in a parallel examination of the critical praxes of Cleanth Brooks and Stanley Fish that they are a case in point.
I. Cleanth Brooks and the New Criticism
Between 1922 and 1925, the group which called itself "The Fugitives" met in homes near the Vanderbilt campus, first for social and cultural interaction but later, under the leadership of John Crowe Ransom, as one of the first "workshops" in creative writing. These sessions became a laboratory in the close reading of the members' original poems, as well as a focus for the methods which Ransom used for a time in his Vanderbilt classes. When, in 1929, Ransom and his circle became Agrarians, turning their attention to other matters, he ceased even to demonstrate it in his classes. But before that change could occur, Ransom's students had included Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.
Brooks, like Ransom, the son of a Methodist preacher, came to Vanderbilt in 1925 when the Fugitive movement was at its apex. In his freshman year, Brooks was too impressed to take advantage of Ransom's classes. He attributed this failure to "awe" brought on by "ignorance and innocence and my confused romanticism" (Young 3). He dropped Ransom's class as being too advanced for him, although, as T. D. Young remarks, "ironically, Ransom was merely submitting the literary texts to the kind of close, analytical, interpretive readings that Brooks would become justly acclaimed for later" (3). As Ransom later shrewdly commented, Brooks and he were "about as like as two peas from the same pod in respect to our native regions, our stock (we were sons of ministers of the same faith, and equally had theology in our blood), the kind of homes we lived in, the kind of small towns; and perhaps we were most like in the unusual parallel of our formal educations." In particular, both he and Ransom had heard a lot of Methodist Sunday sermons, during which "the preacher unpacked the whole burden of his theology from a single figurative phrase of Scripture taken out of context" (334). Ransom was, therefore, tailor-made to be Brooks's strong precursor in the evolution of Brooks's textual criticism. He decided to major in English, rather than become "a really shifty halfback," after hearing Donald Davidson's essay on a Kipling story read by his graduate assistant English teacher. Brooks recalled:
This opened a new world for me. It revealed that you could look inside a story and see how it was put together, and could make sensible observations about it…. It showed me that the inner workings of a poem or a story were important. I'm sure that my prep school discipline in reading Latin and Greek—discussing the meaning of passages and parsing them—had prepared me rather directly for this new discipline of literary exploration. (Young 2)
During his senior year, Brooks read and became impressed with Ransom's poetry as well as with the "approach" to literature used in class by Ransom and Davidson. He seized on the concepts that "the sense of technique, the structure of a thing … [is] related to the life of the poem and then the life behind the poem" (Young 4).
After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1928, Brooks became connected briefly with Agrarianism by publishing one essay in Who Owns America? (1936), but criticism, not socio-politics, was to be his lifework. He began to work out his own approaches to reading apart from Ransom. The results were parallel and complementary production of his critical essays, soon collected in books, and a succession of textbooks beginning with a "Poetry Manual" (1935) (Brooks papers, Yale) for LSU students and An Approach to Literature, the four-genre predecessor to the vastly influential volumes Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction, and Understanding Drama (the latter with Heilman instead of Warren). These textbooks, themselves extensions of the analytical dialogue that Warren first encountered in the Fugitive group meetings, began as mimeographed exercises handed out to LSU students (interview).
Brooks remained at LSU for five years after Warren departed—and their involvement with The Southern Review ended—in 1942. Diverse teaching assignments intervened, such as Ransom's Kenyon summer schools of criticism (1948 to 1950), and the University of Michigan summer class (English 300k) in 1942, with whom Brooks, according to an acknowledgment to The Well Wrought Urn, worked out some of the analyses that were included in that collection of essays. Yale was to be Brooks's ultimate academic connection, where he taught for many years and, in his words, "overlapped" twice more with his old colleague Robert Penn Warren (interview). Brooks, Warren, and others (including the young Americanist R.W.B. Lewis) were to continue their careers of textbook and anthology production as they taught and also pursued active careers as practicing critics through another four decades.
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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 person and academic stature" (letter to Beck, May 1990). No doubt Fish was quietly formulating his own attitudes toward—or perhaps more accurately, against—what Brooks had theorized, since, like most post-structuralists, he defines his critical stance in large part as a reaction against the New Critics.
No subsequent interaction between Brooks and Fish appears to have been documented, except, in 1979, when they met at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This encounter occurred, significantly, just before the 1980 publication of Is There a Text in This Class?. The occasion was a symposium entitled "Three Critics/Three Poems," featuring Brooks, speaking on Thomas Hardy's "Channel Firing"; Hugh Kenner, on Charles Tomlinson's "The Way of a World"; and Stanley Fish, on two short poems, Ben Jonson's "To the Reader" and (according to Richard Kelly's report) "a found poem comprised of a random list of names of linguists" (UT Newsletter n.p.). This, obviously, was the classroom experience which Fish recounts in Is There a Text in This Class?, the seminal essay and core of Text. Brooks's and Kenner's presentations were extremely competent and by then orthodox examples of New Critical analysis. Fish's performance, which Kelly describes as follows, was something quite other:
The first two speaker-magicians dazzled the audience by pulling unexpected rabbits out of old hats. The third magician, Stanley Fish, also extracted rabbits from his hat but with this difference: his hat was posted with a notice—"This hat contains rabbits; it is a trick hat with a concealed compartment; anyone can do this trick if he has the right hat." (Kelly n.p.)
According to Kelly, the University's English department, where Brooks was then visiting professor, was afterward buzzing with talk of "Brooks's and Kenner's incisive readings" and "Fish's challenge that all interpretations are accidents of history and personal subjectivity: the critic conditioned by his time and his background, creates his own structure, his own meaning." In recent correspondence, Fish did not profess to recall the incident, while Brooks remembered Fish's performance on that evening as "curious, even absurd." Brooks left this, his last recollected collaboration with his former student, astonished with Fish's apparent notion that "a charismatic teacher could make a class under his dominion believe anything that he told them about a text that he put up for them to discuss" (letter to Beck, April 1990). Clearly, the incident solidified Brooks's suspicion that his former pupil was and is a critical relativist, a philosophical position that Brooks had, throughout his career, consistently opposed.
III. Brooks and Fish: A Comparison
Because Cleanth Brooks and Stanley Fish, each having become exemplar for an important school of criticism, did interact as teacher and pupil for a time, it is useful to locate the apex of their division into apparently antipodal approaches to literature. As to their development, one "missing link" is surely to be found in I.A. Richards's "practical criticism." That both Brooks and Fish admit to having derived some primary elements of their theories from Richards's affective theory makes of their divergences a continuum.
René Wellek describes the New Critics as a group which rejects "the kind of metaphorical, evocative criticism practiced by the impressionists" and also as a group who "were united in their opposition to the prevailing methods, doctrines, and views of academic English literary scholarship" (146). C.E. Pulos, in The New Critics and the Language of Poetry, states that "I.A. Richards is commonly regarded as the founder of the new criticism," a claim Pulos admits "though not strictly true … is comprehensible" (49). Richards's book The Principles of Literary Criticism outlines his method of critical theory. Richards envisioned a system of criticism built on the twin pillars of "account of value" and an "account of communication" (25). Finally, Richards believed that criticism has to address two questions: "what gives the experience of reading a certain poem its value?" and "how is this experience better than another?" (5). Richards's contribution to the New Criticism was two-fold: his departure from interpreting literature through history—he believed that "the permanence of some art has often been an excuse for fantastic hypothesis"—and his emphasis on the organic nature of the poem. Richards believed that "every poem … is a strictly limited piece of experience, a piece which breaks up more or less easily if alien elements intrude" (78).
Despite his espousal of what were to be New Critical principles, Richards can be seen more properly as the founder of reader-response theory. Indeed, a 1980 compilation of post-structuralist writings states that "reader-response criticism could be said to have started with I.A. Richards's discussion of emotional response in the 1920s" (Tompkins x). Richards's critical theory places primary emphasis on the reader's experience, that "the reader must be required to wear no blinkers, to overlook nothing which is relevant, to shut off no part of himself from participation" (80). Richards views the genesis of experience as being communication: "an experience has to be formed … before it is communicated, but it takes the form it does largely because it may have to be communicated" (25). Richards later posits that the experiences one has in reading are "exactly the same kinds as those that come to us in other ways" (78). In "Literature in the Reader," the second chapter of Text, Stanley Fish admits that Richards's "principle article of faith," his "talk of readers and responses … sounds very much like mine" (52). In the final analysis, however, Richards supports New Critical positions by stating that "within racial boundaries, and perhaps within the limits of certain very general types, many impulses are common to all men" (190). Richards believes that common experiences are important to understanding poetry because they lead to similar readings of a poem. This difference between him and most of the post-structuralists, including Fish, may have influenced Brooks's belief in the integrity of the literary text. Through his dual emphases—on the text and on the reader—Richards was important to the development, first, of Cleanth Brooks's unitary theory of interpretation and, second, of Stanley Fish's reader-response hermeneutics.
We are left, then, with separate critical performances from Brooks and Fish as avenues to some understanding of the complementarity of their positions and practices. Both have described and demonstrated their critical strategies in The Well Wrought Urn and Is There a Text in This Class?, with such parallel components as complementary prefaces in Brooks's "The Problem of Belief and the Problem of Cognition" and Fish's "Demonstration and Persuasion." Both situate themselves in relationship, often defensive in tone, to precursor critics; and both make the reader, whether Brooks's scholarly one or Fish's common reader, a powerful medium between the literary text and the world.
Brooks's preface to The Well Wrought Urn presents as the plan of the book to examine, in terms of a common approach, a number of celebrated English poems, taken in chronological order from the Elizabethan period to the present, to which he adds the following defensive caveat: "Whether or not the approach is really a common approach, and whether or not the examination reveals that the poems possess some common structural properties, are matters for the reader to determine" (ix, italics added). These poems are to be "the concrete examples on which generalizations are to be based."
Technical explanations are relegated to the appendix. Brooks's method opposes two extremes, the reading of the poem "in terms of its historical context" and the "relativistic" "temper of our times" (x). He intends to ask whether or not a poem can be read sub specie aeternitatis and whether or not a critic "can make normative judgments" (xi). As with almost all of Brooks's criticism, his tone is defensive in reaction to earlier critics; indeed the New Criticism, like its successor schools of critical theory and praxis, came into being to counter the prevailing notions of how to read literary texts. For Brooks, those strong precursors are historical-biographical critics who attribute the poem to events in the life of the poet.
Brooks then presents essays on Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Gray, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, and Yeats, followed by three theoretical treatises: "The Heresy of Paraphrase" and his two appendixes, "Criticism, History, and Critical Relativism" and "The Problem of Belief." In the first appendix, Brooks chiefly reacts to the "old historicists" who would assert that since the critic is "plainly the product of his own day and time," he or she cannot judge the poems in universal terms. Brooks interestingly admits that "the foregoing discussions of poetry may, indeed, be hopelessly subjective" but that "for better or worse, the judgments are rendered … as if they were universal judgments" (217); Indeed, the notion of universal norms and criteria is at the center of Brooks's theory then and now. I. A. Richards is left out of this chapter because Brooks's objective is not consciously to attack affective criticism. It is principally in the chapter on "Wordsworth and the Paradox of the Imagination" that Brooks really addresses Richards, but always in reference to specific readings of particular poems rather than to debate on any theoretical level (140-49). Suffice to say that by Brooks's own admission, Richards played, along with Ransom, an important role in the formulation of his (Brooks's) critical position and, in individual acts of reading, was always to be taken into consideration in regard to a unitary interpretation of any text.
Fish's debt to his important precursors is set forth in his critical Bildungsroman, Is There A Text in This Class?. Fish very methodically outlines the evolution of his critical philosophy, beginning with the introductory chapter, "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Interpretation" (the allusion to Dr. Strangelove a clue to the playfully satiric tone of the volume). Herein Fish relates how he first jousted with the theories of Wimsatt and Beardsley (to which Brooks also adhered), stating that "in order to dislodge the affective fallacy, for example, one would have to show first that the text was not the self-sufficient repository of meaning and, second, that something else was, at the very least, contributory" (2). For Fish, that "something else" is the reader. He recounts how he "substituted the structure of the reader's experience for the formal structures of the text on the grounds that while the latter were the more visible, they acquired significance only in the context of the former" (2). A crisis that arose when he realized that he was arguing for a literary theory which was an amalgam of New Criticism and post-structuralism was resolved in the end by stating:
Whereas I had once agreed with my predecessors on the need to control interpretation lest it overwhelm and obscure texts, facts, authors, and intentions, I now believe that interpretation is the source of texts, facts, authors, and intentions. (16)
Because Text is admittedly subjective and autobiographical, it is not surprising that Fish somewhat defensively recollects his departure from the New Criticism. If "How I Stopped Worrying" is a Bildungsroman, the final two chapters, "What Makes an Interpretation Possible" and "Demonstration versus Persuasion…." are Fish's apologia for his anti-New Critical, anti-formalist, and anti-post-structuralist beliefs. He states that "the first thing one must do is not assume that he is preaching to the converted. That means that whatever the point of view you wish to establish, you will have to establish it in the face of anticipated objections" (368).
Ultimately Fish resembles Cleanth Brooks in his desire not to be labeled as a particular type of critic; but whereas Brooks was resisting only one label (that of being typed a New Critic), Fish tries to resist being thrice-branded, as New Critic, formalist, and post-structuralist. The first threat is repelled by his confession of faith in everything antithetical to New Criticism. Fish believes he successfully avoids the formalist label "by displacing attention from the text, in its spatial configurations, to the reader and his temporal experience" (4). Finally, in "Normal Circumstances and Other Special Cases," he attempts to dissociate himself "from a certain characterization (actually a caricature) of the post-structuralist or Derridian position," which holds that "the denial of objective texts and determinate meanings leads to a universe of absolute free play in which everything is indeterminate and undecidable" (268). By positioning himself in opposition to most major schools of critical theory, Fish demonstrates, though quite genially, that his own theories depend on distancing strategies, born in anxieties of influence, though in full awareness of their antithetical conception. In "How I Stopped Worrying …", Fish admits that in the development of his reader-response hermeneutic, insofar as he and the New Critics agreed on the "integrity of the text," he was "more dependent on new critical principles than I was ready to admit" (7). Although Fish does not mention Brooks by name, he does position himself in opposition to his former teacher elsewhere in Text, in his reading of Milton's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" (about which more later) and in "What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable." In the latter essay, Fish differentiates between "a classroom whose authority figures include David Bleich and Norman Holland, [where] a student might very well relate a text to her memories of a favorite aunt" and "classrooms, dominated by the spirit of Brooks and Warren [where] any such activity would immediately be dismissed as nonliterary, as something that isn't done"; in other words, Fish ends by agreeing with most of his contemporary theoreticians, that Brooks stands for the "monolithic or stable," forever opposed to any situation wherein the "unwritten rules of the literary game" are multifarious and (playfully) fluid (343).
If, however, there is any convergence in the ways that Brooks and Fish pursue the task of critical praxis, it must be demonstrated in comparable critical performances. To that purpose, one may usefully place Is There a Text in this Class? alongside The Well Wrought Urn, both of which combine in a collection of loosely related, separate essays a demonstration and collaboration of their authors' approaches. The two volumes are similarly structured, with both authors beginning most essays by aggressively confronting previous commentators on the texts under consideration. Moreover, Brooks and Fish have, to a considerable degree, centered their commentary on seventeenth-century English poetry, with Milton coming in for significant attention from both critics. Their essays on Milton's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" form, in fact, an interesting bond between the two volumes of criticism. The fact that these are paired meditation poems makes them a suitable ground for encountering the anxiety that may exist between Fish and Brooks. "Il Penseroso," in that it demonstrates the thoughtful, or critical mind at work, might be regarded as a trope on the critical act; therefore, when Fish opens "What it's Like to Read …" (which he calls "the purest example" of reader-response criticism ) with "I have only one point to make and everything else follows from it: L'Allegro is easier to read than Il Penseroso" (112), he indirectly reflects that challenging dis-ease. Moreover, Fish's choice of the two poems not only indicates that he, like Brooks, needs a conveniently delimiting poem (if he is to engage Milton within the boundaries of Text), but also that he (Fish) wants at the same time to confront Cleanth Brooks.
Brooks's essay, "The Light Symbolism in 'L'Allegro-Il Penseroso," begins in conventional fashion by placing his own reading in the context of earlier efforts by Samuel Johnson, who is said to be "about the critic's proper job": to "inspect the poems" but "not emote over them" (50), and in contrast to those after Johnson who merely express appreciation without calling for "careful reading" (51). His real point of departure is E.M.W. Tillyard, who, in Brooks's opinion, comes "close to the main matter" in "pointing our close connections" between Milton's companion poems. His own reading defends a unitary thesis, positing that "the light-shade imagery amounts to a symbolism" and that this symbolism is related ultimately to the "meaning of the poem, including its tone" (52-53). For Brooks, Milton has produced one poem in which there is a "tension between two choices … which can appeal to the same mind" (rather than a contrast between two different minds) (53). The remainder of the essay develops in detail what Brooks sees as balancing qualities (positive-negative, involved-detached, etc.), by which "Milton's oppositions tend to come together" (56), as well as "cross over" tendencies, whereby antithetical elements bring the two poems together in less obvious ways (57-59). For Brooks, revealing Milton's overweening principle of unifying "patterns of opposites" undercuts critics' charges that Milton has thrown "materials into the double poem 'every which way'" and thereby undercut the "total effect" of one poem (57). The essay climaxes on an assertion that the light symbolism to be found in both poems in turn unifies the contrasting patterns of opposites, that one, not two, perceiving but detached individual undergoes an aesthetic experience both as happy and as pensive man:
If both poems are characterized by a leisurely flowing movement as the spectator in each case drifts from pleasure to pleasure, and if in both poems he is the detached spectator—not the participant in the world he wanders through—… the spectator moves through what are [in both poems] predominantly half lights. It is as if the half-lights were being used in both poems as a sort of symbol of the aesthetic distance which the cheerful man, no less than the pensive man, consistently maintains. (59)
The essay ends by positing intertexual relationships between the paradoxical light-dark symbolism of "L'Allegro-Il Penseroso" and Paradise Lost in the establishment of the central paradox in Milton's poetic vision (66). By the end of this masterful essay, not only the two companion poems but Milton's entire opus has become in effect a single "poem."
Brooks provides further insight into his method, or rather betrays its central vulnerability, when he observes in "What Does Poetry Communicate?" that the reader of convoluted poetry, the one capable of "untangling" Milton's complex imagery, or that of any paradoxical poet, is likely to be, not the common reader, but a highly erudite one, a professor of English like himself (75).
For Fish, the ground of his confrontation with Brooks resides, obviously, in his assumption that, in contrast to Brooks, he is dealing with two very different poems, one ("L'Allegro") which cannot be the object of critical analysis and another ("Il Penseroso") which must be. In the introduction to Text, he takes on all those precursor critics who have "mistakenly" attempted critical reading of "L'Allegro":
… that as a poem whose parts are arranged in such a way as to exert no interpretive pressures it is unavailable to criticism insofar as interpretation is its only mode. It follows then that since others who have written on the poem have to a man sought to interpret it, they are necessarily wrong. (6)
Brooks is, of course, among such critics; but interestingly enough, Fish is united with Brooks in his desire to protect the poems from the adverse comments of "the critics [who] are moved to fault the poem for a lack of unity," but Fish would—and here he means Brooks—also guard it from those who "supply the unity by supplying connections more firm and delimiting than the connections available in the text." They do this, not because they read differently, but because of "their critical preconceptions" (6). Looking back upon the time he wrote his essay on "L'Allegro," Fish is prepared to admit that at the time he had wanted to "posit an object in relation to which readers' activities could be declared uniform, and that object was the text;… but this meant that the integrity of the text was as basic to my position as it was to the position of the New Critics." He found that he could not both declare his "opposition to new critical principles and … the integrity of the text." Fish goes on to describe how he escaped this cul de sac, his primary enterprise being to distance himself from Brooks and his theories, thereby freeing the reader "from the tyranny of the text" (7).
In "What It's Like to Read L'Allegro," Fish does not overtly make Brooks his point of departure; rather he goes farther back to an exchange in the TLS of Oct-Nov 1934 (about line 46, concerning who comes to the window) in order to maintain that all the readings concede to alternate readings, provide supporting details from the poem, then try to make sense of the ambiguity by rewriting the poem so as to "arrange the images and events into a sequence of logical action" (116). When he does mention Brooks by name, it is to declare, respectfully, that "Cleanth Brooks is not quite right when he declares that the unreproved pleasures of L'Allegro 'can be had for the asking'; they can be had without the asking" (118-119). Through this mild assertion, Fish denies overtly the text's dominance over the reader while covertly deflecting any dominance which Brooks, through his reading, might have over his (Fish's) critical enterprise. Fish agrees, however, that one task of the reader-critic is to deal with ambiguity, that his approach does not point to one "meaning" or "belief" (117); but he does not deny that the text has meaning (117). He does posit "a unity not of form but of experience" and a subject, "freedom" (124). These two admissions, that a unitary response is possible and that ambiguity exists, complement the most important principles in Brooks's theories.
In "Il Penseroso," Fish sees a [calculated?] "pressure" on the reader to interpret the poem which is absent from "L'Allegro" (128). "L'Allegro" is therefore easier to read than "Il Penseroso" (112-113) because, although they are companion poems,
- their light-shadow imagery is an "opposing" pattern (Brooks calls it a shared pattern);
- the poems proceed from two different mindsets, with "L'Allegro's" being careless and constant shifting, in an associated "series of discrete parts" (nobody's home), while "Il Penseroso's" is a melancholy "fixed mind" (Brooks's "observer" appears in both poems).
Fish concludes by stating that "'L'Allegro' and 'Il Penseroso' are the reader; that is, they stand for modes of being which the reader realizes in his response to the poems bearing their names," and that the formal and thematic features of each poem are intimately related to their meanings (132). At no other point in the essay is Fish closer to Cleanth Brooks, whose idea of an ideal reader likewise posits a unitary response when the poems are, as Brooks insists must be, read as one poem. Brooks's "spectator" thereby becomes Fish's reader! Fish remains adamant, however, in his belief that each reader can and will formulate a different reading of this or any literary text.
Close examination of these two essays—Brooks's "The Light Symbolism in 'L'Allegro-Il Penseroso" and Fish's "What It's Like to Read L'Allegro and Il Penseroso" suggests some similarities in method: close reading, often lifting discrete words and phrases out of context; stressing functional ambiguities in contexts; (with differing emphases) considering reading as an ongoing process; and insisting (again with differing emphasis) on the authenticity and primacy of the text. Not surprisingly, although Fish firmly asserts against Brooks and others that it is the reader who produces the text, the two critics come to some similar conclusions about what is occurring in the poems. We would agree with Ralph Rader, whom Fish answers in "A Reply to Ralph Rader," that Fish is very much a formalist and that his method is indebted to the New Criticism (142-43).
As key essays within their respective larger collections, the two essays on Miltonic texts underscore the underlying bond between Cleanth Brooks and Stanley Fish. Although neither Brooks nor Fish ceased to develop and practice his theories after (respectively) The Well Wrought Urn and Is There A Text in This Class?, these books occupy comparable positions in their development as critics. Both grew out of teaching situations; both demonstrate and defend basic hermeneutical strategies; both carry titles (the "Urn" and a "Text") which metaphorically signify the desired results of their critical enterprises.
At this point it is fitting to avoid closure by enlarging the scope of this study. We have attempted to demonstrate linkages between the allegedly antipodal positions of Cleanth Brooks and his former "reader" Stanley Fish. If Bloomian anxieties form only ephemeral linkages, surely similarities in style, graphic organization of their research, and similar fields of expertise create startlingly tangible connections. We have attempted to demonstrate that Fish's reader-response theory may be seen as an outgrowth of Brooks's New Criticism, with I.A. Richards forming an unlikely bond between the two. This continuum rubs against the thinking of those contemporary theorists who disavow any debt to the New Criticism by reasserting its continuing vitality. In common with Brooks's New Critical praxis, Fish's reader-response hermeneutic positions in the first act of reading an attempt to grasp the organicity of the text. That subsequent readings may discover flaws or fragments only reinforces the assumption that, for both critics, a self-supporting textual structure can exist, one upon which an informed or experienced reader may agree. In this context, the New Criticism clearly stands as the fountainhead of, if not all post-modern critical theory, certainly, through the unconscious bonds uniting Cleanth Brooks and Stanley Fish, the school of reader-response.
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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 suggestions on the final draft of this interview.
[Spurlin:] Professor Brooks, your work and the work of your fellow New Critics has not only influenced other literary critics, theorists, and scholars, but generations of literature students and teachers; indeed, the close reading of texts is a method that many of us have grown up with. But at the same time, you, René Wellek, and others have expressed concern about the difficulty of grouping together the New Critics as a monolithic group. For instance, you have pointed out that Allen Tate was interested in literary history and biography and I. A. Richards paid a great deal of attention to the reader. How did the New Criticism get its name? Could you talk about how it got started as a movement and what you specifically contributed to it? Did it, as far as you remember, have a common pursuit or agenda?
[Brooks:] I can tell you that quite easily. John Ransom in 1941 published a book called The New Criticism. Its principal chapters deal with Yvor Winters, I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, and the rest of us. If one reads with any care, one immediately sees that Ransom has several disagreements with these critics which he states in that book. His final chapter is called "Wanted: An Ontological Critic." I don't think he ever really gives a very clear definition of what he means by an ontological critic. "Ontological" here has to do with essence, the very being of literature. He thought that none of the critics with whom he was dealing in the book had really done that; one was too psychological, another was too historical, still another was too moralistic, and so on. The title of the essay implies that he has not found an ontological critic. What is it exactly that a New Critic does? Ransom never says.
Well, that book came out and the literary world was just aching for a name to attach to those names I just mentioned and to lesser folk like myself. We were all somehow out of line with how most graduate students had been trained. There was this funny thing going around and people asked, "What do you call this damn thing?" And they needed a term; no one at the time really knew what it meant, except that they didn't like what we were doing! Actually, had people been more careful about it, they would have noticed that these so-called New Critics differed among themselves.
As far as some sort of common pursuit is concerned, I think it is safe to say that these people generally took the text very seriously. One way to jump off of this is to assume that because of their primary interest in the text, the New Critics despised history. I don't despise history at all; I've written a hell of a lot of material on history as in my last book Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry [University of Missouri Press, 1991]. When one looks at the last edition of Understanding Poetry, it is clear that Warren and I knew a lot of history and pointed out places where we thought it might be significant in relation to the text under study.
Ransom told me, not once but several times, that when he wrote The New Criticism he meant the kind of criticism that was being written by current critics of the time—Warren, Richards, Winters, Eliot, myself, and others. But the damage was done; I'm not blaming him for it, you understand. Anyway, he wrote a book called The New Criticism, and that's how the title got attached. It was not a name we used to describe ourselves. If one wants to attach a name to this group at all, then one must decide what are the things that bind it together; it's difficult because they're different in a lot of ways. I myself have felt for a long time, and still feel, that the term has done damage. It seems that none of us have ever claimed much about the newness or novelty of the New Criticism. What was so new about it? A lot of the things that we talked about are as old as Aristotle; for example, the worth of Oedipus Rex, or any play, is not in the artistic intentions of Sophocles or in the historical influences on him; the worth of the play is based on its cohesion, its complexity, its tightness, and so on. Now I don't say that everybody ought to agree with that. But my point is that this is not decidedly new if Aristotle also said these things, too. Also, it isn't fair to say that because the so-called New Critics didn't centrally address such factors as history, the socio-political influences on the author, and the effect of the work on the reader, it means that they were not at all interested in those things.
Wasn't Ransom your teacher at Vanderbilt?
Yes, though I had only one course with him. Actually, I took a previous course with him and I found it was over my head; I wasn't ready for it, so I dropped out! The course I took with him later was a course in creative writing; I hope it improved my writing … I don't know … I wrote some poems for him…. He was not a flamboyant teacher. But it was not until I had long left Vanderbilt and was teaching myself that I at last got to know John and we then became very good friends. Actually, I would say that I didn't get to know John Ransom until well after I had published my first critical book. When I was at Oxford, he was in England for a year. He came to visit me at Oxford. But my critical position is much different from his. In reading John, one notices that he is constantly talking about the difference between meaning (or sense) and other rhetorical qualities in poetry. I think this is dualism and I reject it. In poetry, I think form and content become pretty thoroughly merged and I prefer not to split them apart; they define each other. A good poem is an object in which form and content can be distinguished but cannot really be separated. For example, a good metaphor is not really "decorating" the sense of the poem, it is conveying the sense in a special way. Anyway, this is a major difference between the critical positions of John Ransom and my own.
The New Criticism was mainly concerned with the detail of the text which was very different from the kind of literary work that was going on before it. In one sense, perhaps, this is what made it so "new," but that needs to be further explored. The tone, rhythm, and the ways in which things are said convey meaning, too. Take Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn. I have much respect for T. S. Eliot as a critic, but I don't agree with his interpretation of this poem. At the end of the poem, we get the lines "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." To Eliot, Keats is becoming a philosopher and saying "Beauty is truth and truth is beauty," and in that sense that is all you're going to know about philosophy. And that's enough. But I think it is altogether different; that's too easy. The urn is the poem itself, from the beginning it is speaking to us. These last lines are not being spoken by Keats, but by the urn. What is a Greek urn, beautifully shaped, equipped to teach you? It will give you some perception of Greek culture and life, and perhaps of our own culture and life through its beautiful and accurate representation. This raises broader philosophical questions, such as what is the relationship between humankind and art. What can one expect to gain from art?
So as you have just illustrated with your reading of Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn and Eliot's reading, it is possible to have more than one reading of a text. One reaction against the New Criticism is that it proliferated monolithic, unitary, singular readings of texts….
Of course, there may be multiple readings. But of those multiple readings, you may find that some are much more satisfactory than others.
So, the notion of multiple readings doesn't imply that all readings are equally valid?
Oh, no. But as great a critic as Eliot was, I think my reading of the urn poem is better than his reading. It makes more sense in the poem, it sees it as a whole. I prefer to see it that way. I can make a good argument for that reading. I taught poems like this for many years starting at Louisiana State University. We were teaching LSU sophomores how to read poetry. But I couldn't claim as their teacher that I knew all the answers. I believe that as I went along I kept discovering things that I had earlier missed.
I think the decentering of the teacher's authority that you just mentioned is something that one doesn't normally associate with the New Criticism. This leads to my next question. Although the New Criticism has been under attack, which we will talk about shortly (and to which I am sure you have your own response!), the New Criticism began as a critique against the positivism of historical literary scholarship and the vagueness of impressionistic criticism. I think it is interesting that while many forms of current politically-oriented criticism, such as feṁinist criticism, lesbian and gay studies, African-American criticism, and the work of other minorities, hope to democratize the study of literature, the New Criticism in its own time attempted to make literary study available to a broader range of students. There was, I think, a democratic impulse although now that impulse has come to be understood and represented as a hegemonic one. I was wondering, assuming that my assumptions, both historical and philosophical, are accurate, if you think the New Criticism achieved its democratic aim?
Well, we still have historical criticism today, don't we, although with perhaps more of a political focus. Some people cast Shakespeare as an imperialist, asking why he gave us a Caliban, for instance. To be sure, literary works can have political influences or effects and/or be read through specific political or sociological frameworks. This is very different from the way that I have spoken of literature because I am concerned not with the political effect, but with the literary effect of the work concerned.
Concerning the historicists and philologists, we never intended to displace historical literary study. This notion that some group, some conspiracy, some clan, some elite club is trying to over-run the academy is nonsense; we were a bunch of people trying to make a living! We weren't demanding power. I got my first job at LSU in 1932 and [Robert Penn] Warren joined me there in 1934. He said he was fired from Vanderbilt. It was difficult during the Depression to get any kind of work. My friends and I, there were maybe a dozen of us in all, enjoyed reading literature, especially poetry, and we were discovering new ways of reading it freshly, and perhaps more powerfully, and sharing this with other people.
But maybe the intention of the New Critics was not to displace historical literary scholarship or to change the course of literary study. But can't we look back and study its effects, how it shaped and influenced literary studies?
Sure, and you're quite right to raise that. I do know that Warren and I reached a lot of people through our books, especially through Understanding Poetry. Perhaps these were the vehicles of dissemination. The approaches taken by many of the teachers who had been influenced by the books may have opened up new doors and windows to the study of literature. It's hard to say for sure….
But did the New Criticism, because it wasn't specifically geared to the literary specialist, enable people to read texts beyond the classroom so that perhaps the reading of literature became something more than just an academic exercise confined to the classroom, to the library, or to the university?
Yes, I think you're right. We didn't demand as much library or technical or historical work as other teachers might have at the time.
And closely related to this, the New Criticism theorized a close relation to pedagogy and teaching …
Yes, of course it did.
William Cain remarks in the essay he has written for this volume that both your and your colleague, Robert Penn Warren, originally prepared Understanding Poetry for your students at Louisiana State University, and that for Warren criticism was "an extension of teaching." But you have also written that the New Criticism has often been reduced or simplified to a classroom strategy. What are your thoughts on the relation between the critical disciplines of criticism and pedagogy?
I would say this. All of us have strategies for teaching. I have always enjoyed teaching, I've done it for more than fifty years; I don't think it should be a drudging art. I admit that sometimes the way it is done, it is a drudging art! While the New Criticism has often been ridiculed as being elitist, I think the worst kind of elitism is to scorn careful reading. The teacher needs to be able to have an understanding of literature in its many and diverse forms in order to be able to teach it. While it is important to listen to how students respond to texts, it is not sufficient to simply toss a text to a class and ask students what they think of it and stop there. The teacher, too, has to struggle with careful reading him/herself. It is an oversimplification to assume, on the other hand, that just because the text is important, other things, such as context, social issues, history, the reader, the biography and intentions of the author, and so on, are not. It doesn't follow that we can simply ignore these things in order to make the point that the text is important. At the time we were writing, the text was not getting the attention we thought it should be receiving.
In my own training at Vanderbilt, my course work in English was mostly what we then called the old-fashioned criticism. We learned about the author, the historical background, and the ideas of the time. When I did the B.A. (Hons.) degree at Oxford, we had the same kinds of courses. Things were starting to change at Cambridge with Richards and Empson there, but not at Oxford. Empson was an interesting person; he was one of Richards's students initially. Empson was also different; earlier I pointed out that there were differences among us. He was much more radical. He once shared with Richards a book he had read written in America by Laura Riding and Robert Graves entitled A Pamphlet Against Anthologies [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1928]. Riding and Graves had taken one of Shakespeare's sonnets to pieces and rebuilt it again to show how deep and how rich it was—in other words, they did what we might call a "New Critical" reading. But they didn't call it that, of course. Empson told Richards that he could do what Riding and Graves had done with one poem with any poem in the English language. Richards challenged him to go and do it, and three weeks later Empson had the groundwork for Seven Types of Ambiguity done!
Anyway, to get back to the point; I had a solid academic literary background, but something was missing. At Tulane, I was in a very good graduate class in eighteenth-century British literature. Once in a while, we had to write a paper on a particular author and off to the library we went to look up information about that author and his (or her, but, unfortunately, the authors we studied in this particular period were all men) work. At one point, I became friends with a very bright woman in the class. Sometimes she would ask me if I thought a particular author was a good author, if the works this particular person wrote were good or not. I suddenly realized that, as students, we were assuming that the only way to get to know if a work was a good one or not was to look up what other people had said about it or to depend on what the teacher told us about it in class. The classes we were attending were not providing us the opportunity to learn this for ourselves, to make judgments. I began to continually ask the question "What makes a good poem?" And if I liked it, I would then ask "Why do I like it?" "Why does it capture my attention?"
Perhaps the earlier way of teaching literature did not provide the opportunity, then, to ask these kinds of questions?
Well, you could, but no one was asking them then! And the books I was reading didn't address these questions.
Well, as you know, the topic for this volume is the connections and continuities between the New Criticism and contemporary theory. One connection that seems obvious to me, perhaps because of my own work in reader-oriented theories of literature, is the role of the reader in shaping, contributing to, or possibly configuring meaning. Do you, as you and your colleagues are often accused, consider the text to be autonomous in and of itself; is it an artifact to be contemplated with its own self-contained meaning, or is this an institutional simplification of the New Criticism (and, by implication, the affective fallacy)?
I think it is very interesting to ask how readings change over time and to try to account for the change. For example, the interpretations of a text, say, in the 1930s, may be dramatically different in the 1960s because of the influence of the social context in which the work is received. I can also imagine a situation where the writer comments on what he or she intended to convey through the work but the reader comes up with different readings. It is interesting to try to account for this gap. But this does not, and should not, replace close and careful reading.
So, there does seem to be some space for the reader to freely imagine, then, in transacting with the text at least in the way that you are theorizing reading. Often people cite the affective fallacy as proof that the New Critics believed that the reader's role is very minimal—to extract a pre-existing meaning.
As with the intentional fallacy, I think that Bill Wimsatt's [and Monroe C. Beardsley's] essays ["The Intentional Fallacy" and "The Affective Fallacy"] aim to guard us from moving too far away from the text. They are not saying that authors don't have intentions and that we cannot try to study them, and they are certainly not implying that we are not affected by what we read. The reader's role is a very important one; it is to realize the work, to find a meaning, an experience, a judgment. And I would say that all three of these are interrelated, they don't exist separately. The text isn't realized as long as the words are just lying there on the page. The moment one looks at and tries to put it together, the moment when that transaction takes place, the process of realization begins.
I think a lot of the trouble and misunderstandings, like the one I just mentioned regarding the essays "The Intentional Fallacy" and "The Affective Fallacy," arise because people assumed that the New Criticism was a well-oiled machine that could crank out unproblematic meanings. I think many people still assume this about the New Criticism. But New Critical writing is more of a set of suggestions for reading.
Yes, and closely related to this point about the role of the reader, Patricia Clark Smith has identified her pedagogical space in the oscillation between teaching her students the tools of close reading and paying attention to detail, which she learned from the New Critics, and listening to the ideas and details students bring to the text, paying equal attention to what texts evoke in them. What do you think of her approach?
That's perfectly legitimate. As I've said, the reader's role is to realize the work. Often my own students would come to me and ask me what I thought of their interpretations and often I was surprised by the astuteness of their readings, of their seeing things that I had not seen before. But we have got to get out of the machine-age mentality. The New Criticism was not foolproof; there were plenty of opportunities for mistakes, errors, and omissions, which some of the work going on now has pointed out. The multicultural debates going on now are important, but I worry that they may run the risk of setting people apart rather than bringing them together. I would hate to think that we would get to the point where can no longer understand each other. We do see the world differently from our various perspectives, but we mustn't forget about how various groups may also be capable of more or less similar understandings.
Do you think that there is any risk of solipsism or an "anything goes" approach to literary study which is often the critique given to reader-oriented theories of literature and to classroom practices that attempt to create spaces for a more productive role on the part of the reader/student?
There is a risk to "anything goes" if we believe we can abandon altogether the text, history, and so on. Our technocratic world emphasizes means and how to get things done. We tend to think that we know what we want and it is just a matter of getting there; hence, the well-oiled machine of which I used to speak of the reception and use of the New Criticism earlier. But with this said, and getting back to this critique of reader-oriented theory as running the risk of an "anything goes" approach to reading and to literature, I believe that while we cannot discount the role of the text in reading, the text, at the same time, is not some kind of sanctified object outside of any relation to the world. That would be silly. What I'm trying to say is that we need to take the text seriously to avoid this "anything goes" you mention and then ask what responses are possible. We need to work hard and read hard.
This brings to mind an experience from my own teaching. For a while, after I had finished my undergraduate work, I taught Sixth Form English in Singapore. We were reading King Lear and one of my students theorized that Cordelia was the villain of the play. The student's defense was based on the high value given to filial piety in Eastern cultures, which she felt Cordelia should have observed. Her interpretation was also a critique of the high value we place on the individual over the social in the West. Not yet having the critical discourse of theory, I was somewhat jarred by this interpretation, mostly because it was so eloquently argued, because it made sense in the context of an Eastern culture, and because it made me realize the role culture plays in reading. More importantly, it brought my pedagogical authority to crisis; I began to question my position as a teacher from a Western culture approaching the play from a humanist perspective whereby Cordelia is thought to be virtuous and the means and source of Lear's deterioration and regeneration. Are issues such as these important to consider?
I've never heard that particular interpretation either. Culture does play a role and this is a point well worth making. If a culture places a high value on something such as piety to the parent, then this needs to be taken into account in terms of how people from that culture interpret the text.
Despite popular assumptions that deconstruction and the New Criticism are antithetical, some contemporary critics, such as Frank Lentricchia in After the New Criticism, Gerald Graff in Professing Literature, and in their essays in this volume, Paul Bové and William Cain, have commented on how deconstruction is not remarkably different from the New Criticism. In fact, Professor Cain has indicated in his essay that Robert Penn Warren accounted for the indeterminacy of language and the instabilities of poetic structures, and that these views would be used by later post-structuralists to contest New Critical authority. And a deconstructionist himself, J. Hillis Miller, in The Ethics of Reading and elsewhere, has argued that even though language is unstable and indeterminate, we are not exonerated from reading carefully, persistently, and patiently, which seems very similar to what you have said about reading a little while ago. How are the deconstructionists different from or similar to what you and your colleagues believed about language?
Yes, in saying that one cannot find a perfect meaning of a poem, or to say that language is unstable and indeterminate, does not mean that one cannot perform an adequate or careful reading. I don't think any and all readings are valid as I've said before. The text may set limits, but that still leaves the reader plenty of room. We can say "I think this poem has this meaning," but in this very utterance, we are not saying what a text means absolutely. Give yourself twenty-five years, and you may discover, as I have, that you see the poem in an entirely different way. We need to be open to other readings but not accept them wholeheartedly and uncritically. People need to come together with their divergent readings and discuss them and argue them out. Actually, someone is interested in publishing some of my correspondence with Robert Penn Warren. In one of his letters, Warren told me that criticism for him was a social act; what he said he liked best was to get together with someone in a room who was different from him and read a play, novel, poem, or whatever, and talk about it, and argue over it, and fight over it, and see where they agree and disagree. That, for him, was criticism.
Yes, well, earlier you mentioned that one reaction to the New Criticism was one of suspicion and disturbance. A lot of people have also reacted to post-modern theory that way as well …
Yes, I'm disturbed by the deconstructionists. And that's exactly what I call it—disturbance. I've tried to read them, it's impossible to understand them, and therefore I'm disturbed!
I see. So, history may be repeating itself then? The audiences that first received you as the New Criticism was gaining influence were very much "disturbed" and perhaps a bit intimidated by you and what you were up to….
But I'm such a mild little creature, really. A little white mouse …
But it wasn't you physically; what was frightening, perhaps, was the newness of your ideas which had tremendous in-fluence…. Well, I did say we would get to some of the critiques! Reginald Martin, in his essay "New Criticism and New Black Aesthetic Criticism: Debts and Disagreements," has criticized the New Criticism as self-reifying in practice, that is, that the "universality" of literature in general or a text or set of texts in particular was appropriated by the New Critics themselves which simultaneously, though perhaps unintentionally, excluded alternative forms of expression such as texts by black writers, as well as the experiences of blacks and meanings evoked in texts by black readers. How do you respond to the notion that what is posited as "universal" or "common" may be culturally loaded, subject to the biases of, let us say, Anglo-Americans in the case of literatures by ethnic minorities?
Yes, I see the point. But I've never considered myself to be in a position of power. In fact, Warren and I challenged a lot of old-fashioned powerful figures. If I could live longer, I would like to be able to contribute to a broader idea of the universal. I understand the difficulty; we need more voices represented. I think it is coming about however. I'm pleased that Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature last week. On the other hand, when I look over the list of English [course] offerings at Yale I am sometimes shocked. There is a lot in there that looks more like politics and sociology to me than literature.
But Virginia Woolf, for instance, in discussing Jane Austen in A Room of One's Own, describes how difficult it was for women to write in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and how Austen herself was confined to writing in the sitting-room, hiding her manuscripts from others, as if there was something discreditable in writing. Perhaps she internalized a social attitude toward women writing; we don't know for sure. Yet, despite this, and given her domestic duties and her overseeing of the household and the servants, which were obligatory for women of her social class, she still found time to write. While Austen has obviously left her mark on the English canon, Woolf hints, I think, that Austen could perhaps have been even a better writer had she been able to overcome the narrow life imposed upon her. Or, to give a better example, Woolf mentions how difficult, how impossible, it would have been for a woman in Shakespeare's time who had Shakespeare's literary ability to write; the social conditions of the sixteenth century did not provide that kind of artistic space for women. Does the "literary" have some relation to the political then? Mightn't literary study be part of a socialization into the dominant culture? Is that what it should do?
I'm not sure. We cannot dispute that mistakes have been made in the past. Two of my best friends were Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. They were both fine women writers. We tried to print as much of their work as we could in The Southern Review to help start their careers. I'm not taking credit for their success, you understand. But they were good writers and we were honored to have their work. We were not part of any conspiracy against women….
Yes, but I'd like to come back to this notion of the universal so that you have the opportunity to address some of the critiques of the New Criticism, which I don't think are meant to be malicious attacks, but ways to get us to consider the limits of formalism, and how race and gender, for example, may become critical questions in the study of literature without necessarily becoming exclusively political and having no relevance to literary study. Can culture or cultural works be conceived of in the absence of the social and political? Annette Kolodny, in the essay we have reprinted in this volume, as well as other feminist work, has mentioned how students are being taught to read texts from points of view that are put across as "universal," but are often very particular in that they may be masculinist, Western, white, and/or heterosexist.
Well, at the time we were writing, to be honest, it didn't occur to us to write about race and gender. This does not mean, however, that we were racist or sexist. Warren was especially involved in many of the political movements in the South. We tried to get as many female authors as possible published in The Southern Review. In my classes and seminars at Yale, I generally found my female students to be much more articulate, much more savvy than my male students. But you are right, I think, that the term "universal" might be loaded culturally, socially, and so on, and we have to use these terms loosely. Regarding your point about certain ideas being put across to students as universal, I think we need to get back to the idea of critical pedagogy. Once again, I think teachers tend to simplify in the classroom because they are in search of that elusive well-oiled machine that the New Criticism or any other method of reading simply cannot provide. We have to help students get really close to a text, to help them find something over which to ponder.
I think the last point you made is an important one and I would like to come back to it. Coming back to some of these social and political issues, which are very much at the fore-front of contemporary theory and literary and cultural studies, Michael Fischer, in his essay "The New Criticism in the New Historicism," speaks of Jerome McGann's implicit criticism of the New Criticism by arguing that if one pays attention primarily to the text, to its complexity, detail, and metaphorical richness, this could potentially mask certain other issues such as anti-Semitism, racism, fascism, and so on. Similarly, Patricia Clark Smith admits that as a student in 1959, she didn't have to think about Amy Lowell's lesbianism if texts existed independent of their authors; her New Critical training kind of got her "off the hook" in this regard. What are your thoughts on the idea that some texts may call for political rather than pure aesthetic responses?
That's a rather impossible thing to hand on anyone. Yes, in focusing on certain things, such as the complexity of a text, or the role of the reader, or the role of the author, and so on, we may neglect or not pay as close attention to other things. But the question is whether the masking that you mention is conscious or deliberate on the part of the critic. I think there is too much of an attempt to find as many things as possible wrong with this loose band of people we call the New Critics.
I don't think the issue is that the New Critics themselves consciously tried to mask political issues by arguing for close, careful readings of texts. But I think some people assume that if they focus, say, on the lesbianism of a poet, the New Critic will admonish them for committing the intentional fallacy. Mightn't this appeal to the intentional fallacy serve to effectively keep issues of race, gender, and sexuality safely out of discussion?
Of course the claim of lesbianism can be made. But one must argue, I think, how it operates in and relates to the text in question. We may learn much more about the author; we need to ask what more we learn about the poetry. It is too easy to slap labels on to things. Critical debates are not necessarily resolved by consulting the author. Years ago, in 1937, I wrote an account of Eliot's Waste Land. I wrote a letter to Eliot asking him to read it and to comment on it if he had the time. He wrote back and said that he thought my account was very good and that it was a good way to handle the poem. I decided not to print that letter because I did not want to bolster my interpretation by having the approval of the author. I also, quite honestly, didn't want to appear to be a young man riding on the coat-tails of this great poet. Many people still disagree with my reading of The Waste Land, and, for what it's worth, I've got the approval of the author. Do we necessarily resolve critical argument and debate by appealing to the author, his or her biography, and so on? It's an important question to ask.
Yes, I see your point. Throughout our discussion, you have mentioned that you do not undervalue the role of history in literary study. In their arguments over historicism in this book, Michael Fischer claims that you have minimized the importance of historical facts in poetry, and Jerome McGann has critiqued the historical determinacy of "facts" as "a function of the conceptual (ideological) frame in which they are viewed and manipulated." I was wondering if your views have in any way changed regarding the influence of the historical period in which the work was produced in the positivist sense, and whether you think the act of criticism can transcend the historical (and therefore political, ideological, material, and cultural) contingencies of reading, which is a question a New Historicist might ask.
I'll be brief. History means a story, it is a narrative, a text; it isn't necessarily claiming to be the truth. Some people may think history is true in an absolutist sense, but I don't think this is what history has ever tried to claim. I agree that we can only see the past through our own biases and perspectives in the present. But this should not exonerate us from the attempt to try and understand past events.
I'd like to come back to a point you made a little earlier about helping students get close to a text and find something over which to ponder because it brings us once again back to pedagogy, to the classroom, which is where I'd like to end. Patricia Clark Smith pays tribute to her teacher, W.K. Wimsatt, for teaching her to pay attention to detail. Her essay is also about her transition from being a graduate student at Yale to a young faculty member at the University of New Mexico where she also taught Native American students on a Navajo reservation. She acknowledges that her training in the New Criticism at Yale, while valuable, was not sufficient for her to teach literature in a multicultural context. Smith says she had to abandon her "prissiness about various heresies and fallacies" (perhaps invoking your essay "The Heresy of Paraphrase" and the Wimsatt and Beardsley essays "The Intentional Fallacy" and "The Affective Fallacy"). What are your thoughts on the New Criticism with regard to the teaching of literature to culturally diverse student populations?
The teacher would have to decide for him or herself what may be valuable from the New Criticism. The New Criticism is not asking the teacher to make the sign of the cross every time he or she comes to that word. It is very much interested in you as the teacher finding out not just what the words in the text may mean to you as a person, but what they may potentially mean for audiences to whom they are addressed, in this case students. We need to tell students honestly that what is said in class about the text is not necessarily the poem, the realization of the work. That's what I was trying to say about the heresy of paraphrase, because for a long time no distinction was made between the realization of the work and a paraphrase of the text. We mustn't forget the reader's role in the process just because we're concerned with looking closely at the text. There is a difference between looking closely at the text and looking at it exclusively and seeing nothing else.
So, once again, New Critical work was not exclusively concerned with the text itself. Since this book is about how the New Criticism has influenced contemporary theory, what are your final thoughts on theory; do you as a New Critic feel that you have been influenced in any way by theory as it is practiced today or in general?
Oh, yes. But, remember theory is by no means a recent phenomenon. Actually, we could say that everything one does in the field of literary studies is based on some sort of theoretical orientation. Now, I did not intend to write theory per se, but certainly a theory of literature, as well as a theory of reading, history, authorship, and so on, is implied in my work as we have been discussing this afternoon. Others, such as René Wellek and Austin Warren, in their book Theory of Literature [New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1942], dealt more directly with philosophical and theoretical issues pertaining to the nature and function of literature and the relation of literary study to sociology, psychology, aesthetics, stylistics, etc. But, speaking for myself, the books I wrote derived a theory of literature from careful readings of texts, as well as from the work of the people who most influenced me—I.A. Richards, Robert Penn Warren, and René Wellek. So, in this sense, the New Criticism was not devoid of "theory." I hope this is helpful.
Yes, and it has been a pleasure. Thank you.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226
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 time at Louisiana State University and the political climate affecting the rise and fall of the Southern Review.
Rawson, Claude. "Cleanth Brooks: Some Personal Recollections." Southern Review (Spring 1995): 251-55.
Rawson fondly remembers Brooks as a soft-spoken, consummate gentleman.
Simpson, Lewis P. "Cleanth Brooks: The Long Conversation," Southern Review (Spring 1995): 224-38.
Simpson provides a record of some of the pivotal points in Brooks's life and career.
Bush, Douglas. "Marvell's 'Horatian Ode.'" Sewanee Review, Vol. 60, No. 3 (July/September, 1952): 363-76.
Bush disagrees with Brooks's criticism of Marvell's poem. He cites several historical inaccuracies with Brooks's conclusions.
Kimball, Roger. "Cleanth Brooks and the New Criticism." New Criterion, Vol. 10, No. 2 (October 1991): 21-26.
Kimball defends the New Criticism against the claims of "historical amnesia."
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