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Cleanth Brooks 1906–
Brooks was one of the most influential 'New Critics' of the World War II era. His practice of closely reading individual works and judging them solely on the basis of their internal components was highly controversial in the 1940s, but few critics doubt Brooks's integrity or his analytical skills.
Brooks was initially recognized as a critic of poetry, and his first major book, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, presents his critical method through detailed analyses of several poets. The Well Wrought Urn solidifies Brooks's premises by stating that poetry can be judged by the same criteria during any era. As John Paul Pritchard has summarized Brooks's theory: "The poet does not analyze actual experience like the historian; he synthesizes out of experience a simulacrum of reality that is in fact a new experience." This belief was a radical departure from the tenets of many historians, who felt that a critic had to understand the social and political motivations of the poet's life in relation to the present to find meaning in a poem. Likewise, the biographers who believed that the poet's intentions were the most important factors in the analysis of poetry were reluctant to see the plausibility of Brooks's point of view. Brooks's books were widely debated: his proponents lauded his penetrating exposition of literature; his opponents found Brooks's emphasis on the text too limited.
In some of Brooks's more recent writing he has incorporated religious and historical elements in his literary analysis. This is especially dominant in William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country and William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, in which Brooks analyzed Faulkner's settings and ideologies.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 17-20, rev. ed.)
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[Brooks's thesis in Modern Poetry and the Tradition] may be summed up as follows:
- The Augustan neo-classicists regarded metaphor only as a decoration of thought. This is false. In poetry, idea and image are one.
- The romantics ranked wit and fancy below imagination, intellect below emotion, and considered irony beneath their dignity. This is false. Wit and irony are essential elements in serious poetry.
- Both regarded poetry as an elevated way of expressing elevated beliefs. This is false. The truth or error of beliefs expressed in poetry is immaterial; indeed great poetry can be written without any beliefs at all.
- In returning to the metaphysical and ironic style of writing common in the seventeenth century, modern poets like Eliot, Yeats and Allen Tate are returning to the true tradition of En-glish poetry, from which the Augustans and romantics were heretical deviators.
Anyone who, like Mr. Brooks or myself, has ever had to teach literature, will agree that it is still necessary to combat romanticism, and this book will provide them with valuable weapons. The general public still thinks of poetry as something vague and uplifting, and that true poets look like Shelley. Wit and irony are suspect to both Right and Left….
If, then, I venture some doubts about the complete soundness of Mr. Brooks's position, I do so only on the assumption that among the readers of The New Republic his battle is already won. They are no longer likely to think that "Trees" is real poetry, and "The Waste Land" horrid nonsense.
One test of a critical theory is its range of enlightenment. Mr. Brooks is illuminating about Eliot and Yeats, but neglects certain poets altogether—D. H. Lawrence, for example, who is certainly witty, or Laura Riding, who is certainly intellectual. He may say that they are not good poets—though I should disagree with him—but it is up to him to show why, and their omission...
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makes me doubt if his theory is equipped with the necessary critical tools.
Further, it makes him too lenient to the atrocities committed by his own side. I cannot share Mr. Brooks's admiration for Hart Crane, who seems to me the "metaphysical" counterpart of a "romantic" like Ella Wheeler Wilcox. A phrase like "adagios of islands" is perfectly explicable intellectually, but corresponds to no sensory or emotional experience. Its synthesis is an act of will.
In his chapters on "Propaganda Art" and Yeats, Mr. Brooks raises an immensely important and difficult question which it is unfortunately impossible to discuss in a short review—the problem of Poetry and Belief.
Admirable as far as it goes, his criticism of the propagandist view of art fails to account for its success not only among hack critics but quite good artists. In my opinion the social-significance heresy is a distortion of a true perception, namely, that the Weltanschauung of a poet is of importance in assessing his work, and that there is, after all, a relation, however obscure and misunderstood, between art and goodness….
I hope that many teachers and others will use this book, but I hope too that in their effort to disabuse their students of the romantic heresy, they will not allow them to fall into an esthetic nihilism which is afraid of admitting that among the many qualities required to create or appreciate art of any style or age, the most necessary of all is an unlimited capacity for reverence and repentance.
W. H. Auden, "Against Romanticism," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1940 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 102, No. 6, February 5, 1940, p. 187.
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The title of ["The Well Wrought Urn"] is taken from Donne's "Canonisation," where "a well wrought urne" is said to become as well "the greatest ashes, as halfe-acre tombes." It is no accident either that Mr. Brooks should take his title from Donne, that the first essay in reading should be on this poem by Donne, or that his last should be on a poem by Yeats. Mr. Brooks' type of criticism is a result of the special kind of reading which went with the establishment of the present high reputation of Donne's poetry and habits of mind; something difficult, closely patterned, arbitrary but consistent, intensely fused, passionately learned, and full of private or concealed symbolism: to which the clues are in the visible ironies, paradoxes, telescoped images, and rapid contrasts in attitude and tone….
[Brooks] applies the methods of the "new criticism" to ten standard poems. The tenor of his work is not judicial but interpretive, not analytic but descriptive. He teaches. To teach, he reads the poems as if their problems were the same as those found in a new quartet by Eliot or a late poem by Yeats; and for his readings he uses the weapons of paradox, irony, ambiguity, attitude, tone and belief. When the reader has learned how to deal with the great weight Mr. Brooks puts upon these words—they equal the whole weight of poetic activity—he will discover that Mr. Brooks gives us intensive and exciting readings of his chosen poems. He will also discover that the readings vary in value. (p. 6)
[On the whole], the "new criticism" works well on old material. It brings to light depths and varieties of meaning not naturally available to readers of the present generation, and which, judging by the history of criticism, were not available or were taken for granted by earlier generations. For we like to think that this generation makes a new use of poetry. We ought also to think that it has forgotten the old unconscious skills in the use of poetry, of which Mr. Brooks is here attempting to give an account. In either case, the task of criticism in each generation is to see older poetry in the light of its own, and its own in all the light it can find….
What Mr. Brooks gives us is a way of seeing that the life of these poems may be accounted for by their symbolic structure, and that the life seems richer than by some other accounts. I myself believe that our own generation has made only a normal shift in the use of poetry and that a good part of that shift has to do with the degree of consciousness with which we use symbols and the kind of symbols that we use. I think we are beginning to recover an unconscious skill; and it is Mr. Brooks' kind of discourse that makes the importance of that skill plain. The painfulness of the criticism is the pain of rebirth….
I do not speak of the real or the true but only of the actual or apparent state of poetry, and I would use Mr. Brooks' intensive readings of symbolic structure to persuade us that our actual situation may conform a little more closely to the possible real situation than we think. Here are three examples of such a use. In his reading of Milton's "L'Allegro-Il Penseroso," Mr. Brooks has to labor to show that the real structure of the poem is in its light-symbolism. The labor shows a loss in our general sensibility which Milton's contemporaries would not have thought possible…. There was for Milton a whole poetics of light. If such a poetics were not still possible for us, we could understand neither Milton nor Mr. Brooks. Light and dark are the most inevitable symbols of our lives. Mr. Brooks reminds us of them by calling them paradoxical and ironical. We have lost only the recognition, not the reality.
So it is that when Mr. Brooks comes to Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," the labor he has already done on Milton makes his labor a little less on the structural importance of the light-symbolism in Wordsworth. Putting the two readings together, which one wonders why Mr. Brooks did not himself do, we see how by the emphasis on the sense of light both poems come a little nearer to the blessed state in which poems, as acts of fresh creation, declare their own meaning.
That is, of course, the state Mr. Brooks wants to reach. That is exactly what he means to do by reading a series of standard English poems with the aid of a technique in criticism developed in reading the poetry of our own time. He wants to liberate—to bring out into the open air of the poems themselves—a way in which the poems grow together and grow into life which we can recognize as related to our own practice. His readings suggest something much more important: that, at least from Shakespeare to Yeats, English poetry has an identity of inner or conceptual forms; and that even more important, we can learn the scope of our own practice, and stretch it, too, better from old models than our own. This would be clearer if Mr. Brooks did not make so many of his meanings cling to his special omnibus senses of paradox and irony, and used instead a less prejudiced vocabulary of more nearly neutral terms….
The dreadful thing is—if Mr. Brooks' readings are right—that most readers will have to do as much work to read the symbols in Milton and Wordsworth as in Yeats. What is dreadful is that the readers don't know it. But that is not a problem for criticism; it belongs to education. (p. 25)
R. P. Blackmur, "The Structure of Poetry," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 8, 1947, pp. 6, 25.
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I have been reading Mr. Cleanth Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn with enjoyment and admiration, and want to write down the points at which I disagree with it. The minds of critics often work in this disagreeable way, and I hope I am right in taking for granted that the book as a whole does not need summarizing or defense. Indeed I agree so fully with his general position that if I were attacking him I should be attacking myself. (p. 691)
The general criticism I want to make of Mr. Brooks's approach is that he is too content to find the intellectual machinery of a fine and full statement in the poem; there is enough irony and paradox and so on, he feels, for the meaning to be made profound; this is true, but you still need to ask whether the machine worked the right way. (p. 692)
The chapter I chiefly want to examine is the one on the Keats "Grecian Urn." I agree with Mr. Brooks (against so many critics) in finding that I can enjoy the "Beauty is Truth" passage, at the end of the poem. But I find his explanation of it rather fuzzy writing, and I suspect the weakness here is due to a certain anti-emotionalism in his own whole mode of approach. He dislikes biography as a means of explaining a poem, since a poem ought to be complete in itself, and he is not very patient with personal expressions of feeling from a writer who is engaged in building one of these complicated structures. The whole of the third stanza of the Ode, he feels, is a falling-off; "there is a tendency to linger over the scene sentimentally." This is the stanza that begins "Ah happy, happy boughs" and ends by saying that human passion leaves "a burning forehead and a parching tongue." If we are to try to defend it, says Mr. Brooks, "we shall come nearest success by emphasizing the paradoxical implications of the repeated items…. Though the poet has developed and extended his metaphors furthest in this third stanza, the ironic counterpoise is developed furthest too." He often uses "irony" in a very extended sense, and this example shows that the practice can be a confusing one; because in the ordinary sense of the term the effect is more like dropping an irony; this stanza is concerned to tell us directly about the feelings of Keats. He is extremely unhappy, we find, especially about his love affair, but also from the tedium of the pursuit of beauty or pleasure and from the expectation of death. I do not get this from "biography" but from taking the opposites of the three things the stanza calls "happy," and it seems to me that this prominent expression of feeling is bound to affect our interpretation of the poem as a whole.
[A more elaborate account than Mr. Brooks's] is I think needed if you are to show that the poem might be a good one. (His account, I think, only makes it seem a rather bad attempt at philosophizing). But of course a critic is still free to say that Keats's good intentions don't come off, that the machine may have been built but still doesn't work. You may well decide that the effect is still "Cockney," like "Oh Attic shape! Fair Attitude! With Brede"; that this brash attempt to end with a smart bit of philosophy had not got enough knowledge behind it to justify its claims. I do not feel that myself, but I do not see how to argue about the matter, and much as I dislike a non possumus theory in general I am tempted to think that there aren't any arguments. Supposing that I had completely explained how the machine is meant to work …, the question whether it does work is surely a matter of "taste"; it can only be left to the reader to try for himself.
All the other examples taken by Mr. Brooks (Shakespeare, Donne, Herrick, Pope and Yeats) seemed to me excellent and full of surprising truths in the detail. If I have been playing Devil's Advocate here it is only because the success seems so great that one begins to fear a new orthodoxy. It would be an athletic creature, and I hope that the new history of literature which Mr. Brooks suggests will be undertaken. But it would have a tendency, like all orthodoxies, to reject what it could not transform. The anti-emotional bias, which is so often obscurely present, could make it very arid. One of the important facts about poetry, after all, is that it can work on you before you know how it is working; and I suspect a tendency in Mr. Brooks to enjoy only the lines in which he feels he does know how it is working. (pp. 696-97)
William Empson, "Thy Darling in an Urn," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1947 by The University of the South), Vol. LV, No. 4, Fall, 1947, pp. 691-97.
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The long analysis of The Waste Land in Modern Poetry and the Tradition is a good example of Brooks' earlier [critical] method. As Brooks himself admits, the greater part of his discussion of The Waste Land deals with the "prose meaning" of the poem. What Brooks does is to summarize the theme, to call attention to important contrasts, to paraphrase difficult passages, to indicate shifts in tone, to trace recurrent symbols and to interpret their meanings in different contexts, and to trace the sources of allusions. The essay concludes with a relatively brief justification of Eliot's method. (p. 186)
Brooks' critical method in analyzing The Waste Land is often in curious contradiction with his theory. Much of the essay consists of paraphrase, in spite of Brooks' derogation of paraphrase as a criticized practice. In spite also of Brooks' oft repeated objection to poetry which points a moral, he praises Eliot for his supposed intention of rehabilitating a now discredited system of beliefs. It is true that the highest praise is devoted to the method of The Waste Land as "concrete," "dramatic," "indirect," "complex," "ironic," etc., but the essay as a whole is a dedicated defense of Eliot's obliquity as a strategy for rendering effective the paraphrasable theme. Brooks claims that Christian material is central in The Waste Land but that Eliot is expressing Christian attitudes by such indirect means as his description of fertility rites and his use of Sanskrit words. If Eliot actually had this aim in mind, Brooks deserves the praise he has received for being one of the first critics to discern Eliot's intention. It seems to me, however, that Brooks avoids his responsibility as a critic in his unqualified approval of Eliot's use of literary confusion to evaluate ideological confusion. In condoning Eliot in the practice, Brooks, like Eliot, has fallen victim to what Yvor Winters calls the fallacy of imitative form. Eliot has surrendered to what he calls the chaos of the age, and Brooks has surrendered to Eliot. What is remarkable about Brooks' surrender is that he has consistently censured the age for being muddled and confused, and yet much of his criticism is devoted to justifying ambiguity and confusion as suitable poetic methods.
To show the wide applicability of his critical method Brooks has written about a variety of poems composed in different periods and exhibiting various poetic styles. The essay on Gray's "Elegy" in The Well Wrought Urn is avowedly devoted to proving how irony may be found in a poem which has often been taken as a classical instance of "simple eloquence." Brooks undertakes to demonstrate that the "Elegy" is actually a complex dramatic utterance replete with irony…. Much of his analysis consists of a very close exegesis of detailed subtleties which to Brooks' way of thinking result in a rich and intricate texture.
What is the final effect of Brooks' search for irony in the "Elegy"? It seems to me that his analysis reveals an ingenuity which is interesting in itself for what it reveals of Brooks' mind but which is not strictly relevant to getting at the tonal quality and the value of Gray's "Elegy." We may be entertained (or exasperated) by Brooks' curious search for allusion and ironical implication, but we lose sight of the "Elegy" as a grave and dignified poetic meditation with a particularly unified emotional tone. Certainly I feel that Brooks' analysis has broken the elegy into a conglomeration of glittering fragments, without giving an adequate account of the poem as a whole. Brooks' method often provides useful information, entertaining dialectical subtlety, and incidentally discerning insights, but even more often it seems irrelevant to the central critical process of determining the particular value of the poem as a contribution to the reader's literary experience.
The basic weakness of Brooks' critical theory is his lack of an adequate theory of value. He does not have the means for evaluating either the subject matter or the technical ordering of a poem. This deficiency is revealed in his recent statement of the criteria which he accepts as most relevant in judging the "truth" of a poetic statement. He advocates applying T. S. Eliot's test: does the mind of the reader accept the poetic statement as coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience? The difficulty of this test lies in the phrase "the mind of the reader." Every reader will have his own definitions of Eliot's terms, and we are left without objective standards by which to measure the value of the poem. An illustration of how a reader will approach Eliot's criteria is found in Brooks' own procedure. Brooks immediately translates Eliot's criteria into the one standard of value he trusts, the concept of irony. (pp. 186-88)
Brooks conceives of irony not only as a rhetorical device but as a determinant of value. Basic to his critical method is the search for irony by applying devices of linguistic analysis to distinguish among the attitudes of which the poem is composed. Poetic value is to be determined by the scope of reconciliation achieved among the constituent attitudes of the poem and by the degree of complexity of the unifying attitude. The critic is not to apply criteria external to the poem itself. Particularly the critic is not to abstract from the poem a rational statement and judge the value of the poem by the value of the statement. According to Brooks, such critics as Yvor Winters and John Crowe Ransom overemphasize the rational element in a poem and thereby deny the true nature of poetic structure, which is attitudinal rather than rational. Actually, it seems to me, Brooks himself fails to realize sufficiently the value relationship between the rational motive of the poem and its emotional texture. This failure deprives him of the most effective means of objective evaluation and is, I believe the chief reason for his deficiencies in critical judgment. His critical method has proven its usefulness as a procedure for exploratory analysis, but it fails to provide an adequate technique for determining value. (p. 188)
Brooks may be classified as a contextualistic, or pragmatic, critic. It is evident, however, that his version of contextualism is deficient, for his method of rhetorical exegesis is so narrowly analytical that it provides him with no adequate technique for defining the "total fused quality" of a poem, which Pepper has indicated as the final step in the contextualist method. Brooks has declared that only an adherence to normative values will save the humanities, yet he provides in his criticism no adequate system of norms by which to judge values. Thus Brooks' "tough-mindedness" is not tough enough to handle the greatest problem of the critic—the problem of evaluation. (p. 189)
Charles V. Hartung, "A 'Tough-Minded' Critic—Cleanth Brooks," in The University of Kansas City Review (copyright University of Kansas City, 1952), Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Spring, 1952, pp. 181-89.
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Certain skeptical doubts which I have long felt concerning "the new criticism" have been considerably sharpened by Mr. Cleanth Brooks's latest volume, The Well Wrought Urn, as well as by his recent essay on "Irony and 'Ironic' Poetry." I am not happy about this, since on a number of points I am in sympathy with the purposes which differentiate Mr. Brooks and the writers commonly associated with him from most of the other critical schools of the day. (p. 83)
I do not question … that "irony," in Brooks's sense of the term, is a constant trait of all good poems, and I should have no quarrel with him had he been content to say so and to offer his analyses of texts as illustrations of one point, among others, in poetic theory. What troubles me is that, for Brooks, there are no other points. Irony, or paradox, is poetry, tout simplement, its form no less than its matter; or rather, in the critical system which he has constructed, there is no principle save that denoted by the words "irony" or "paradox" from which significant propositions concerning poems can be derived. (p. 84)
Brooks prefers to talk about the structure of poetry rather than about the imagination, but the parallelism of his doctrine with that of Coleridge [in the Biographia literaria] is none the less evident, and, what is more to the point, it has been acknowledged by Brooks himself, recently in The Well Wrought Urn and earlier in Modern Poetry and the Tradition. There he was interested in defining metaphysical poetry in such a way as to reveal its community with all poetry, or at least all good poetry; and among the pronouncements of other critics which he finds most to his purpose he singles out particularly [a passage] from Coleridge and, as a "development" from it, I. A. Richards' definition of the "poetry of synthesis," that is to say, the poetry in which impulses are brought ironically—the term is Richards'—into conflict with their opposites and the apparent discords finally resolved. Brooks can hardly object, therefore, if I state my dissatisfaction with his critical method, first of all at least, in terms of its departures from the method of Coleridge. (p. 86)
[Brooks] has retained two of Coleridge's points: the proposition that the "imagination" reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite and discordant qualities; and the proposition that the contrary of poetry is science. But the new scheme in which these doctrines are embraced is a much simpler scheme than Coleridge's, and one capable of generating far fewer distinctions and criteria for the analysis and judgment of poems. The most obvious contrast is that, whereas Coleridge was concerned alike with indicating differences, both as between poems and other forms of composition and as between different sorts of poems …, and with establishing the unifying basis of all these distinctions in the powers and creative operations of the mind, Brooks is concerned solely with constituting poetry—that is, poems considered collectively—as homogeneous by attributing to poetry a "special kind of structure," to be found in all poems—in the Odyssey no less than in The Waste Land, as he says—but distinctive of poems as opposed to works of science. His problem is one of literal differentiation, and he has no need, consequently, for the elaborate "Platonic" dialectic underlying the Biographia. But the result of his decision to look for differences only as between poetry and other things and not within poetry itself is a notable impoverishment of poetic theory.
The nature of this impoverishment will perhaps become clear if we observe the manner in which his two major propositions have been separated from the argumentative context in which their originals were placed in chapter xiv of the Biographia. In that context the antithesis of poetry and science formed a part … of Coleridge's definition of "a poem," and the concept of the balancing and reconciliation of opposites formed a part of his definition of "poetry" in terms of the "poet." And the two definitions were philosophically distinct, the term "poetry" being a much more inclusive term than "poem." Brooks has abolished this difference, and has done so by fusing the two concepts, with a consequent loss of analytical values on both sides. His discourse is uniformly of "poems" in Coleridge's sense, that is to say, compositions in words of a special kind, and these he opposes, as Coleridge did, to works of science and other similar modes of writing. He also follows Coleridge in assigning to poems a peculiar kind of structure, or relationship of parts to whole. But—and this is the crucial shift—he derives his formula for this structure from what had been Coleridge's formula for "poetry" considered as the creative activity of the poet, and in doing so he decisively narrows the scope of the formula by dissociating it from the universal operations of the mind—the same, for Coleridge, wherever the highest excellence is achieved, whether in poetry, philosophy, eloquence, or science—and attaching it as a distinctive predicate to one species of linguistic objects. "Poems" thus become either all "poetry" or not-poems, and it would be an error to look for "poetry" elsewhere than in "poems."
One consequence of this is the disappearance from his treatment of poems in contrast with scientific works of Coleridge's differentiation of ends—truth for works of science, pleasure … for poems. So far as I have noticed, Brooks never treats poems in relation to the kinds of degrees of delight they afford; if the word "pleasure" occurs, it is surely only as a nonfunctional appendage to his system. It is otherwise with "truth"; being intent upon distinguishing poetry from science in terms of their different linguistic "structures," he is obliged to assume some common reference, and this turns out to be the term "truth" employed in a highly analogical sense, as one thing for the "rational" and "abstract" statements of science, and another thing for the "paradoxes" of poetry. Strictly speaking, however, poetry has no final cause, in his system, that is anyway analytically distinct from what poems read as ironic contexts "say"—even his remark that the "task" of the poet is to "unify experience" signifies only that the parts of a poem necessarily have an organic—that is, an "ironic"—relation to each other. (pp. 89-90)
[Brooks] feels no need, as Coleridge did, for an analysis of the "component faculties of the mind and their comparative dignity and importance," or that, in speaking of poetic "structure," he introduces no distinctions that depend on a conception of the poetic process such as Coleridge expressed when he spoke of the "imagination" as being set in motion and kept under the control of the "will and understanding." Any such reference of poems or poetic values to the mental powers of the poet and their operations would be fatal to Brooks's central position, since it would derive the peculiar "structure" of poems from a cause in no way distinct from that which generates works of science, philosophy, theology, and rhetoric.
Some enabling cause of poetic "structure" must, however, be found; and what more natural—since this is the one remaining possibility—than to locate it in the poet's language as an instrument determined to poetry rather than to science or propaganda? That this is indeed Brooks's position is indicated by several passages in The Well Wrought Urn. Thus, after commenting on the quality of the "irony" in one stanza of Gray's Elegy, he remarks that "I am not here interested in enumerating the possible variations; I am interested rather in our seeing that the paradoxes spring from the very nature of the poet's language: it is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations."… The causal efficacy thus runs, not from the poet to the poem, but from "the language of poetry" to the ironical or paradoxical "structure of poetry," which the poet's choice of this kind of language, instead of that of science, makes inevitable. But "the language of poetry is the language of paradox"; in other words, the two terms signify the same thing, or at most different degrees of the same thing; and thus all the multiple principles which Coleridge found it necessary to invoke—in proper subordination—for the adequate criticism of poetry are collapsed into one—the single principle, essentially linguistic in its formulation, which is designated as "irony" or "paradox." Brooks, in short, is a complete monist, and, given his choice of language rather than subject matter or the poet or the ends of poetry as the unique basis of all his explanations, a materialistic monist at that.
The last point can be put in another way by saying that whereas for Coleridge at least three sciences are necessary for criticism—grammar, logic, and psychology—Brooks finds it possible to get along with only one, namely, grammar; and with only one part of that, namely, its doctrine of qualification. His whole effort can be described not unfairly as an attempt to erect a theory of poetry by extending and analogizing from the simple proposition of grammar that the meaning of one word or group of words is modified by its juxtaposition in discourse with another word or group of words…. [He] insists on finding the essence of poetry in its exclusive reliance on properties of speech which in earlier analyses of language were treated between the consideration of individual words and the consideration of linguistic wholes determined differently by the different ends of logic, dialectic, poetic, and rhetoric…. Brooks has retained very little of the complexity and precision of this old "grammatical" teaching, and he presents what remains of it as peculiarly relevant to poetry rather than as applicable generally to discourse, and, indeed, as constitutive by itself of the whole of poetic theory. For all his simplification and distortion of the ancient analyses, however, it is clear that the apparatus of terms and distinctions he brings to the study of poetry is a composite of elements that can be traced historically to the pre-propositional sections of logic and dialectic, the theory of diction, merely qua diction, of poetic, and the stylistic part of rhetoric. (pp. 92-4)
It would be false to say that Brooks's preoccupation with language to the exclusion of the other more controlling causes of poetry deprives his criticism of any basis for judgments of value. He insists repeatedly, in fact, that they must be made…. [He] remarks that his studies of particular poems in The Well Wrought Urn are based on the assumption that "there are general criteria against which the poems may be measured." The criteria as finally stated, however, turn out either to be excessively general or to have little direct applicability to individual poems. He refers to T. S. Eliot's test, which he puts in the form of the question, "Does the statement seem to be that which the mind of the reader can accept as coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience?" We must indeed ask this question about poems, but the test is equally relevant to other kinds of works, as when one says of an argument that the conclusion seems true enough, but the conception of the subject is simple-minded. Elsewhere the standard is formulated in terms of deficiency and excess. On the one hand, poems lacking in irony are vulnerable to it, and hence "sentimental" and hence bad; on the other hand,… the "complexity" may be greater "than is necessary or normal." Between these extremes, a hierarchy of poems, he thinks, may be established by the test of "complexity of attitude," with poems of simple affection at the bottom and probably tragedy at the top. In so far as this reiterates the old doctrine that the excellence of art consists in a mean, there is no difficulty. But relatively to what is the too much or the too little to be determined in any particular case? Relatively to the maximizing, without diminishing returns, of the peculiar emotional effect proper to the object represented in a given poem? Or relatively to some standard of complexity fixed apart from the poet's problems in writing an individual poem of a certain form, and hence, in some sense, absolute? Brooks does not clearly say; but his notion of a hierarchy of poems based on the quantity and "sharpness" of the ironical oppositions they subsume suggests that he means by "normative" judgments the measurement of poems by a predetermined norm assumed to have general validity for all poems no matter what their kind or intended effect. He cannot, in fact, hold anything else but this, lacking any premises that would warrant judgments of individual poems founded on a mean relative to their peculiar ends and forms. And he lacks such premises because he has no concept: of poems as concrete wholes the unity of which requires that the parts should be of a certain quality and magnitude and present in a certain order if the desired poetic effect is to be fully achieved.
But this is equivalent to saying that he has no distinctions for dealing with individual poems otherwise than as instances, to be grammatically construed, of a universal poetic "structure." His many explications de textes are accordingly better described, in his own term, as "readings" than as critical studies proper. Their method is the repeated application of his central paradigm of poetry to particular poems for the sake of uncovering, in the significances which can be attributed to their statements when taken in context, hitherto unnoticed occurrences of ironical "complexity," first on the level of single words and lines, and then on the level of the interrelationships between larger passages, until the end of the poem is reached. (pp. 97-8)
A typical example of the method is the chapter on Gray's Elegy in The Well Wrought Urn…. (p. 98)
Brooks is concerned, in this chapter, to put us on guard against what he fears is the common temptation "to think of the prose-sense as the poetic content, a content which in this poem is transmitted, essentially unqualified, to the reader by means of the poetic form, which, in this case, merely supplies a discreet decoration to the content." This should certainly be discouraged; but Brooks appears to have fallen victim to an equally unfortunate temptation, which his critical principles, in fact, make irresistible, namely, to disregard the "poetic content" altogether. For surely there is a kind of "content," distinctive of poems like Gray's, which cannot be reduced, by paraphrase, to any proposition or idea, and which is not so much "transmitted" as represented: it is that which primarily constitutes the Elegy a complete and ordered serious lyric, productive, of a special emotional pleasure, rather than simply a statement of thought. It is to be discovered by inquiring about the moral character of the speaker (as distinct from his "attitudes") and the particular problem which confronts him; about the relation between what Gray has chosen to present, namely, the calm and aphoristic but solemn deliberation in the churchyard, and the emotions which the speaker's situation and outlook had previously generated; about the sequence of his thoughts and feelings as thus made probable or necessary; and so on. Brooks raises none of these poetic questions. The Elegy as he exhibits it is indeed ironical discourse, in which the "prose-sense" (that is, what is contained in bad paraphrases of the poem) is "qualified" at each step. But it is still merely discourse, with an arrangement dictated solely by the contrast the speaker is supposed to be making between two possibilities of burial and his (at least in Brooks's account) unmotivated choice between them. It has an outline, to be sure, but an outline of the kind that any sermon might have, or any serious familiar essay. The "reading" gives us, in short, not a poem but simply a piece of moderately subtle dialectic: an inferior specimen of the genre represented—to choose an example consonant with the title of Brooks's volume—by Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial. What excitement and dramatic life the poem has, no less than its peculiar ethical quality, accordingly disappear, and we have instead an inconsequential and unmoving "theme" (largely read into the poem) on modes of burial. Why is it, if it is, a great poem? Or is it that "irony," in Brooks's view, is really a final good and not merely, as he indicates at times, a means or device? (pp. 98-100)
[Brooks's] fundamental error, I suggest, is that he has begun to theorize about poetry at the wrong end—starting not with concrete poetic wholes of various kinds. The parts of which, with their possible interrelationships, can be inferred as consequences from inductively established principles, but rather with one only of the several internal causes of poems, and the cause which they have most completely in common with all other literary productions, namely, their linguistic matter: here he begins, and here also he ends. The choice is regrettable, since it prevents him from dealing adequately with poetic works in terms of the sufficient or distinguishing causes of their production and nature; but it would be unfair to blame him unduly for making it, inasmuch as it has been a characteristic methodological choice … in the school of "new critics" to which he belongs. (p. 105)
R. S. Crane, "The Critical Monism of Cleanth Brooks" (originally published in a slightly different form as "Cleanth Brooks: Or, the Bankruptcy of Critical Monism," in Modern Philology, Vol. XLV, No. 4, May, 1948), in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, edited by R. S. Crane (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; copyright 1952 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1952, pp. 83-107.
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[Brooks regards] the use of language in at least his kind of critical writing as something essentially different from the poetic use. It is unlikely that he would be much disturbed by the charges one has heard that he talks about literature, but does not make literature of his talk.
It may be making virtues of natural limitations, but Brooks's style seems a deliberately plain, steady, utilitarian style. The critical commentary does not emulate but only serves the poem, assists it in the performance of its "miracle of communication," like the disciples distributing the bread and fish.
One may weary a little at the limited variety of Brooks's rhetorical and logical devices—the series of leading questions, offering tentative readings of a line, a figure, picking up relevances, discarding plausible irrelevancies, toward the definitive statement; the "if not exactly …, still" or "it may mean …, but it might also" constructions; the suggesting various words that the poet might have used other than the mot juste he did achieve. The repetition of such maneuvers in essay after essay, designed to win acceptance of the interpretation being offered by an elaborate show of anticipation of all possible objections, even if it doesn't bore him, may finally impress the reader not as candour but as a trick, which he naturally resents, to lead him into a logical ambush. The plain, straightforward sentence structure, with few suspensions or inversions, invariably neat subordinations, and much reliance on apposition of independent clauses and the like, becomes perhaps a trifle monotonous and, like the methodical "summing up" at intervals, may seem uncomplimentary to the reader who is vain of his own intellectual subtlety. Brooks himself expressed some concern, in a concluding chapter of The Well-Wrought Urn, about his reader's possible annoyance at the endless repetition of certain terms—irony, paradox, and so on. And it is true that Brooks is as tenacious with his terms, when he is sure he has got hold of a good one, as he is with his famous extended metaphors.
But there is another way to look at all this. If one can avoid thinking of a critical essay as properly either a contest or an amorous exercise between the author and the reader, Brooks is perhaps simply trying very earnestly to be precise about what he is saying, and again, not saying. Further, he makes no pretensions. One perfectly good reason for putting it plainly might be that he thinks it is a plain thing he has to say. And if the terms he works with are few, they are also well-defined.
Or, possibly the best way to make the point is to repeat what I have said before, that the commentary is never allowed to get in the way of the poem. Whatever the other risks involved in the style he has chosen, Brooks avoids the greatest danger that the 'inspired' critic faces, that of having his critique become a rival or substitute poem for the one supposedly being investigated.
There is a remarkable adaptability in Brooks's style, an apparent capacity of his mind for anonymity, indicated in the fact that he has been able to collaborate with several people of vastly different interests and training and bent of thought. Yet in the books of his single authorship, he has his individuality; and, if my remarks here have so far obscured the fact, his is far from the most graceless of contemporary critical manners.
His essays sometimes give the impression that he has never read a book for pleasure. I grant that this makes me uncomfortable—probably it makes Mr. Brooks uncomfortable too. But one must after all remember that literary studies have been embattled in this generation. Both fine impetuosity and gentle refinement in the pursuit of criticism and scholarship require a leisure that our society has seen fit more and more to deny us. And that leisure, if it was ever indulged in all the freedom and beauty that some of our elders pretend to recall, is not to be purchased again simply with deploring the loss of its pleasures and graces. I cannot pretend to know just how it will be restored, if it ever is to be. But it is certain that our ideas must first be a good deal clearer than they have been before on exactly what it is for which we would demand license. Mr. Brooks has been both tireless and exacting in the measure that the task imposes. (pp. 425-26)
John Edward Hardy, "The Achievement of Cleanth Brooks" (originally published in The Hopkins Review, Vol. VI, Nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1953), in Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. and Robert D. Jacobs (copyright 1953, The Johns Hopkins Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953, pp. 413-26.∗
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[The] moralistic emphasis which pervades Mr. Brooks' ["The Hidden God"] may be just as fatal as that "social significance" which he derides in the literary criticism of the 1930's. Over and over again this critic warns us, quite correctly, against finding a "moral," a "lesson," a single meaning in any work of art—even while he himself, in his present criticism, is doing just that.
Thus he praises Hemingway's courage and stoic dignity and sense of individual gallantry in a blind and fatalistic universe, although these obvious traits in Hemingway's work are, strictly speaking, pagan rather than Christian virtues. Indeed what puzzles me most about "The Hidden God" is that I can hardly find in it any true sense of either Christian or religious feeling as a whole.
Mr. Brooks has always been a brilliant critic of literary technique and rhetoric, particularly in modern verse, and he is a leading figure in the formalist school of New Critics. Thus, he is much better and more convincing in the present studies of Yeats and T. S. Eliot, although Yeats was surely a most unorthodox Christian poet, if he was one at all, and Eliot is, to my mind, a completely conventional one. The best work of these two modern figures lies quite outside of Mr. Brooks' critical orbit—in what is again Yeats' almost pagan vitality, wrath and physical passion, and in Eliot's rather un-Christian elucidations of despair always hovering just beneath his professed religious orthodoxy.
Mr. Brooks is quite right in asserting that all these writers are defending the individual soul against the values of a civilization which considers human beings as "things." But the soul they are affirming is much more complex than that which is described here.
Maxwell Geismar, "Five Titans Under Scrutiny," in Books (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), July 28, 1963, p. 5.∗
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[William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country is at once] the most courteous, modest, sensible and helpful of existing guides. For a guide is most nearly what it is, a handbook for strangers….
In many ways … [this is] the book one might have expected from Brooks as Southerner and distinguished teacher but curiously not the book expected of Brooks as New Critic, author of The Well-Wrought Urn, the relentless verbal inquisitor. (p. 110)
Brooks has cast a broad loose net and landed, not the inert mass of symbols, parallels, archetypes which are the usual Faulknerian catch (which Brooks himself denounces as "symbol-mongering") but any number of separate attentions, insights and understandings. His method—if not infallible, surely the safest for dealing with an apparent genius—is to assume from the start that Faulkner knew what he meant, that the finished book is that meaning, that the form is the meaning, and that the central question to ask of form, characters, accidents is "Why are you built as you are?" It is a method which now seems almost shockingly naive …; but it leads Brooks into fresh, relevant and—most valuable—unifying discoveries, apparently modest perceptions around which a whole work suddenly arranges its baffling elements. (p. 111)
Perhaps, to employ his own terms, it is the innocence of Brooks' own method (however richly yielding) which has restrained him from the kind of final simple revelations of Faulkner which, say, Coleridge and Bradley gave us of Shakespeare—revelations of the use, the good, of reading Faulkner. The virtue of his method is also its vice—its almost undoubting confidence that all Faulkner's plans worked out, that to have uncovered his intentions is to have confirmed his achievement of those intentions and the worth of all those intentions (even in Sanctuary, of which Brooks thinks a good deal more highly than Faulkner did). Such innocence leads him to argue for instance that Absalom, Absalom! is "the greatest of Faulkner's novels." He supports the claim with a stunning apparatus of clarification, with elaborate ratiocinative tables for the weighing of evidence in the separate accounts of Sutpen's folly and fall; but he does not face Faulkner's nearly total refusal to handle the story (and so many other stories) in the way it begs to be handled, in the way Faulkner worked most revealingly—scenically, pictorially.
In short, Brooks finally makes common cause with most other Faulknerian critics by dangerously underestimating the extent to which Faulkner was not so much the great undisciplined novelist of our time as the most willful, playful great novelist since Fielding. (p. 112)
The imagined memory of that small beautiful head bowed alone in a room in Oxford, Mississippi, stroking down volume after volume … because finally it amused him to do so, unchecked, unconcerned for the negligent present world or the solemn hierophants-to-be, unconcerned to be universal, to tell more than private truths about what he had seen and thought he knew (one has only to talk with any literate French- or Englishman to discover that half of Faulkner is as exotic to them as any Byzantine gold-enameled bird; by refusing to compare Faulkner's aims and achievements with those of other great novelists, Brooks has obscured this vital fact)—that image surely, nailed-up in our minds, would be the safest rudder through the perilous sea he poured us…. [But Brooks] has given us more than sufficient gifts for gratitude—the Baedeker of Faulkner guides, all that reason can give and money buy. (p. 113)
Reynolds Price, "Clearer Road Signs in His Country," in Book Week—New York Herald Tribune (© 1964, The Washington Post), January 12, 1964 (and reprinted as "A Reasonable Guide through Perilous Seas," in his Things Themselves: Essays and Scenes, Atheneum, 1972, pp. 109-13).
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Professor Cleanth Brooks of Yale has written a long, handsome, and unfailingly sensible book about all of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha novels [William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country]. He is obsessed by no thesis, driven by no design: he simply wants to help us to read the novels as sympathetically and thoroughly as he has, and as they deserve to be read. To those who would shrink the novels into histories of the South or tracts on the Negro Problem, or bloat them into symbol-lands, to those who would wrench out his characters' speeches and call them Faulkner's, to all of the many non-readers and misreaders and pushy, perverse interpreters he counters his own brand of humble and illuminating common sense. "The book has its own rights, as it were, and in proportion as we admire it, we shall want to see not merely what we can make of it, but what it makes of itself." (p. 131)
To each [novel Brooks] gives a chapter of its own, the tone, direction, the critical intensity and shape of each directly stemming from the novel out of which it grew. Some (Intruder in the Dust) are primarily corrective, some (Sanctuary) designed to solve particular problems. Some (The Sound and the Fury) enter their novel through the coils of narrative technique, in the untangling of which—Faulkner's maddening and extraordinary gift—Brooks has no peer. Others start with thematic considerations—love, honor, the Community, the pathetic grandeur of Faulkner's "plain people"; or ease their way in character by character. Every essay, whatever its peculiar approach, brings us back to the novel, clearly if not completely, with directness, wisdom, and justice.
It is especially interesting to see what Brooks has done for the "major works," the works so tiresomely overdiscussed one would think they had by now been drained dry of useful comment. For each his presentation is clear, respectful, unshrill; aware of others' work, he can still be of help…. The best single chapter, to my mind—perhaps because it was most needed—is that on Intruder in the Dust. All of Professor Brooks' peculiar characteristics and abilities—his intelligent Southernness; his keen common sense for the obvious; his respect for the book-as-it-is, unfogged by current social problems or critical modes; his feeling for Faulkner's sense of the community, for his keen comic touch—all of these are employed in the crafting of this sure and brilliant chapter.
No reader of Faulkner will agree with everything Brooks has to say; but in each chapter he will find something he needs: at very least he will find the novel, offered frankly and unstained. [Brooks'] presentation of The Hamlet, for example, is clumsily overschematized, chopped up into overlapping abstract "themes" with a heavy hand. But there is Ratliff, there are Eula and Flem, there is Ike's idiot-poetry; there, in three pages, is "Spotted Horses." Brooks can, on occasion, become hung up on his own themes, force out strange things that aren't the novel. But as long as he can recreate the experience of Faulkner so vividly, so completely, it is pointless to quibble.
For this, after all, is his gift. He takes the novels as they are, sees them, feels them, tries to explain them, brings them back to us—the novels we have read (and those we have not)—richer than before. These are not "interpretations" but presentations, re-presentations, every word rooted in the novels themselves. The value of his work, ultimately, is to strengthen our own hold on the novels, to enrich our remembrance and affirm, justify our possession. This may seem a modest achievement; but no honest critic dares try to do very much more.
Not all of Faulkner is open to him: as hugely human as the novelist is, each of us may take to himself his own share, his own Faulkner. Brooks finds, and offers us, primarily the wise, Man-affirming tragi-comedian, the creator of Uncle Ike and the Reivers, the voice behind the voice of V. K. Ratliff…. What he most admires are the ancient, smiling eyes behind the triumphs, the clumsy, boorish, inarticulate triumphs of Lena Grove, the Bundrens, the Mink Snopes of The Mansion. This Faulkner, conscious, loving, community-rooted Faulkner, the Faulkner who "leaves us not knowing whether to laugh or cry," he understands like a brother. (pp. 132-33)
[But Brooks'] clear and sympathetic vision of Faulkner's "middle range" maintains itself very nearly to the exclusion of any real sense of the depths, the Underground, the irrational blood-currents of passion and horror. It is all, for Brooks, too much in the sun. He is not blind to Faulkner's sense of the spiritual, the non-rational—religion, honor, love, the superhuman endurance of subhuman beings; but to the powerful wellings-up of the creative unconscious, to the inner darkness that one feels in the very roll, the resistless, repetitive roll of the prose, the compulsively sinuous, off-putting plots—to this he is closed. Faulkner is all that he says he is, and it is rare and fine of him to see it. But he is more. To balance off Light in August, as he does, by celebrating the victory of the enduring Community over the poor "Outsider" is somehow to make the novel a bit too safe, too homey, to mute the felt effect of inner horror. The ocean-floor pressure at which Faulkner's packed, desperate imaginative life was led, the ocean-slow inexorable pace, the drunken roll of words, the more-than-sexual sex; all the mad driven fury against which Brooks' humane and affirming Faulkner was so obviously fighting—none of this is here. In making "The Yoknapatawpha Country" too solidly a human "Community," he neglects to remind us that it was also a Region of the Mind.
But this is perhaps simply to substitute my Faulkner for Professor Brooks'. One cannot dwell simultaneously in the clear realms of critical common sense and the subterranean depths. Let me qualify my earlier claim only so far as to say that it is almost all here: despite its limitations, its occasionally murky prose, this is the most sensible, most valuable book about Faulkner ever written. (p. 134)
David Littlejohn, "Cleanth Brooks' Faulkner" (1964), in his Interruptions (copyright © 1970 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Grossman, 1970, pp. 131-34.
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Little is wrong with The Hidden God that a new title would not remedy, for actually Cleanth Brooks' book is less about God than about the contemporary search for human dignity. Prof. Brooks' initial premise is that Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and R. P. Warren are concerned with the position of man in a hostile or an indifferent universe. (p. 366)
None of this departs much from what seems to be general critical opinion; in fact, The Hidden God is most successful when Brooks says clearly and well what lesser critics have said obscurely and badly. The difficulty occurs when he tries to realize the implications of his title by placing his authors within the Christian tradition. (In all fairness, Brooks does not try very hard, but he does try.) He seems forced to the rather parochial assumption that whoever looks at truth courageously and honestly, whoever refuses to submit to the grinding mechanism of our century, whoever sees glory in unspiritualized manhood is automatically writing about a hidden god. Little is gained by adulterating religion to humanism, or by stating humanism in religious terms. (p. 367)
Lee T. Lemon, "The Well Hidden God," in Prairie Schooner (reprinted from Prairie Schooner by permission of University of Nebraska Press; © 1964 by University of Nebraska Press), Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1964–65, pp. 366-67.
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[The Hidden God, a] casual discussion of the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and Warren, is an attempt to indicate the religious relevance that these works may possess for the contemporary Christian reader. At times Brooks seems to be apologizing for the success of these writers and for his own interest in them. His cursory investigations are surely more sharply focused on the potential uses that they may be put to by one uneasy in his Christian faith than on a reading of the texts within a more stringent aesthetic frame. Brooks's style is admirable, his sincerity is warmly apparent without being zealous, but the value of his excursions is sharply limited by the narrowness of his aims. In our age, at least, one would suppose that all serious writing is "religious" in some sense, but to go beyond that is either to claim too much or platitudinously too little.
Earl Rovit, "Books in English: 'The Hidden God'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1965 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 39, No. 1, Winter, 1965, p. 80.
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We may enumerate several distinct senses in which, for Brooks, poetry is "dramatic" rather than propositional. (1) Poems communicate to the reader not directly but through the agency of a dramatic persona engaged in responding to a situation, whose speeches are arranged so as to be "in character" rather than objectively true. (2) Poetry is not organized according to the model of logical exposition but seeks to dramatize prelogical, associative states of consciousness…. (3) "Any 'statement' made in the poem bears the pressure of the context and has its meaning modified by the context." Therefore, "poems never contain abstract statements." Just as any single character in a drama interacts with other characters and the setting and is influenced by them, so any statement in a lyric interacts with its verbal context and its modified accordingly. Philosophical generalizations must be read "as if they were speeches in a drama," expressing a partial viewpoint which is not to be identified with the assertion of the poem as a whole. The poem as a whole is a "little drama," whose structure of ironically counterpoised and conflicting attitudes resembles the conflict-filled structure of drama. (pp. 88-9)
If Brooks were merely arguing that poetry characteristically implies its meanings through the play of dramatic juxtapositions rather than relying on overt generalizations, it would not be difficult to follow his point. It might be objected that such a view is more applicable to a certain kind of poetry than to all poetry, but his theory would nevertheless be clear: poetry asserts ideas, but it does so through implication and indirection rather than explicitly. Although Brooks at times appears to be saying only this, he often goes much farther by suggesting that it is improper to talk of poetry as asserting or implying any statement whatsoever. The ambiguities in his theory become particularly evident in his treatment of the so-called "heresy of paraphrase." (p. 89)
Brooks presumably means to say that … paraphrased ideas are in the poem in some sense, but that when we paraphrase them we reduce to a set of abstractions what are actually, in the poem itself, complex dramatic actions—experience embodied rather than ideas about experience…. In such formulations, Brooks seeks to credit poetry with an intellectual substance while averting the reductive implications of equating poetic meaning wholly with a set of stated ideas. But instead of solving the problem by seeing poetry as both a means of "testing" and "stating" ideas, Brooks indulges in the characteristic either/or of antipropositional theory, counterposing assertion and dramatization as irreconcilables. No one would deny that poetry "tests" ideas or that it deals with the way human beings "may come to terms with" ideas. But the rhetorical strategy in which "testing" and "coming to terms with" line up in opposition to "stating" and "generalizing'" introduces a specious and unneccessary antithesis. Ideas, unlike physical substances, are not inert; to "test" an idea is to become committed to some intellectual point of view which emerges from the test. Of course, Brooks has in mind the dialectical qualification and ironic counterthrusts typical of the poetry he most admires, but he forgets that qualifications and revisions do not negate ideas but rather make them more subtle and complex.
Because he assigns "statement" to the nonpoetic pole of his antithesis, Brooks cannot finally make clear the connection between a critical paraphrase of a poem and the poem's meaning. In fact, it is unclear how there can be any connection if Brooks's assumptions are granted. The dramatic essence of the poem would seem to elude rational formulation entirely, so that no paraphrase could be anything but arbitrary and imposed. One paraphrase would then be as good as any other. (pp. 91-2)
I admit to uneasiness in making these criticisms, since Brooks is manifestly not an advocate of impressionism, and the view that one critical formulation is as good as any other would be repugnant to him. Often he appears to be objecting only to the schoolmarmish reduction of poetry to prettified prose statement, surely a legitimate objection. But there are tendencies in his thinking which force him toward a position which he himself would regard as untenable. As in Richards, the uncertain and ambiguous status of the paraphrasable "scaffolding" is symptomatic of a deeper problem, an inability to determine the function of intellectual content in poetry. Brooks does not wish to banish ideas from poetry and on the contrary often speaks as if the problem of poetic meaning derives from the fact that poetry asserts so many ideas rather than none at all. But having denied that poetry asserts anything, and having argued that the paraphrase takes us outside the poem, Brooks is left with no means of accounting for poetry's intellectual substance. It is as if the reader were left standing on a scaffolding with the building nowhere in sight.
This inability to account for the place of ideas in poetry seriously compromises Brooks's well-intentioned advocacy of the cognitive claims of poetry…. Evidently Brooks is reluctant to dismiss considerations of intellectual and cognitive belief, but his conviction of the fallacy of assuming a propositional content in poetry makes it difficult for him to justify claiming for himself the kind of cognitive theory which he recognizes to be a needed corrective to emotivism.
The consequence of Brooks's denial that poetry makes assertions is that he is forced to seek an intrinsic or contextual criterion by which poetry can be judged, a criterion which will not force the critic to go "outside the poem." His most notable approach to such a criterion is represented in his "principle of dramatic propriety," according to which the statements made in a poem, "including those which appear to be philosophical generalizations—are to be read as if they were speeches in a drama. Their relevance, their propriety, their rhetorical force, even their meaning, cannot be divorced from the context in which they are embedded…. Brooks adds that the principle of dramatic propriety "is the only one legitimately to be invoked in any case." By adopting this principle rather than one which holds the poem responsible for the empirical truth or falsity of its statements, we "insure our dealing with the problem of truth at the level on which it is really relevant to literature, for we have "waived the question of the scientific or philosophic truth of the lines." (pp. 92-5)
Brooks vacillates over the question of coherence and correspondence, and in fact such vacillation reappears in all of Brooks's disscussions of poetic criteria, poetic truth, and the problem of belief. On the one hand, Brooks disqualifies "abstract philosophical yardsticks," which encourage critics to go "outside the poem" to judge it. On the other hand, borrowing his terms from Eliot, Brooks says that a good poem is one whose unity is "coherent," "mature," and "founded on the facts of experience," although he is careful to reject Eliot's implication that these qualities are to be sought in some implied propositional content. Brooks attempts to make Eliot's case "stronger still by frankly developing the principle of dramatic propriety suggested by his statement and by refraining from attempting to extract any proposition from the poem at all." This he proposes to achieve by regarding as acceptable "any poem whose unifying attitude is one which really achieves unity ('coherence'), but which unifies, not by ignoring but by taking into account the complexities and apparent contradictions of the situation concerned ('mature' and 'founded on the facts of experience')." Brooks claims that he has followed the principle of dramatic propriety here and thus obviated any need to go outside the organization of the poem, but it is scarcely possible to take these claims seriously. Clearly, to the degree that one judges poetry according to whether it is mature and founded on the facts of experience one is judging it no longer merely as speech in a drama but as a kind of commentary, and the criteria of judgment cannot be called intrinsic. Brooks's refusal to recognize this fact frequently leads him to make baffling assertions…. (pp. 95-6)
Much of Brooks's confusion appears to be a consequence of his gratuitous separation between "abstract philosophical yardsticks" and "the facts of experience," a separation which … is traceable to the Bergsonian assumptions about abstract ideas…. What is a critic's sense of the facts of experience, after all, if it is not his "philosophy"? Brooks appears to think he can circumvent the need for abstract philosophical criteria by appealing to down-to-earth-sounding qualities like depth, maturity, and tough-mindedness, when, of course, he merely introduces his own preferred set of abstract yardsticks…. (p. 97)
But here it might reasonably be objected that Brooks's difficulties stem primarily from excessive eagerness to relate the poem directly to the world of human values and knowledge, and that he would have strengthened his position had he remained faithful to his principle of dramatic propriety and his analogy between a poem and a speech in a drama. In other words, Brooks's vulnerability lies not, as I have been arguing, in his refusal to grant assertion to poetry but rather in his appeal to criteria like maturity, tough-mindeness, and the facts of experience, which covertly presuppose that poems do assert. If Brooks had rested his case on the contextualist or "structuralist" principle of dramatic propriety, he would have avoided the confusions and inconsistencies for which he has been taken to task here. (pp. 97-8)
Gerald Graff, "Cleanth Brooks: New Critical Organicism," in his Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; copyright © 1970 by Gerald Graff), Northwestern University Press, 1970 (and reprinted by University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 87-111.
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[Cleanth Brooks] comes close in many minds to being the New Critic. Having, unlike most of his peers, published little poetry and fiction, he is wholly a critic and an academic. And he is an editorial half of that famous dreadnought, Understanding Poetry, which was as responsible as any work for disseminating the New Criticism. [A Shaping Joy] is much concerned with the label as it represents both condemnation and legitimacy. Brooks sets out in his first two essays (their titles are revealing: "The Uses of Literature" and "The Modern Writer and his Community") to gainsay the accusation that the New Criticism is insular, impervious to anything beyond its own involvements. At the same time he insists on its basic soundness. Thus, while often enlightening us on familiar works, he does succeed in justifying close criticism and in answering charges of irresponsibility before our nuclear bomb age: the extent to which such study is not only legitimate but necessary to keep the world open and to try to reach the truth, rather than to turn literature—in our hot pursuit of certainties—into propaganda…. He has generally salubrious, if gently put, things to say about our present excesses.
The essays themselves, however, labour under a double difficulty. Many of them, having been lectures, required aeration for easy comprehension. Thus occasionally they seem too loose, too casual, given over too much to gestures, preliminaries, exposition, and the teacherly. Moreover, close criticism, even when practised with Brooks' disarming grace, tends to be unhappy in lectures. But at his best, as in his Housman essay and his work on Milton and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, he skilfully skirts both dangers and vindicates close, accurate reading for the pleasurable understanding and the important errors in understanding it discloses. (p. 70)
Theodore Weiss, "Old, New and Newest Criticism," in Encounter (© 1971 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XXXVII, No. 6, December, 1971, pp. 67-75.∗
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[In "A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Winter Craft"] Brooks remains a reader's reader. In a sense he is not a writer at all, for he is a writer without style. Style, he quotes Yeats as saying is "'a still unexpended energy, after all that the argument … needs, a still unbroken pleasure after the immediate end has been accomplished—a most personal and wilful fire."… Style by Yeats's definition we have in Eliot, in Tate, in Ransom—other formalist critics who are certainly far from impressionistic. But no critic, not even Eliot, is less personal or wilful than Brooks. His relation to his subjects, which are uncompromisingly literary, is that of a fine lens. When his subject is an individual work, he performs a kind of quintessential act of reading—not line by line or paragraph by paragraph, but a concentrated reading—for which we almost always have reason to feel grateful.
George Core has remarked of Brooks's and Ransom's latest books that Ransom has too much theory and Brooks not enough. Brooks objects to being type-cast as the "myopic 'close reader.'" He says, "I am interested in a great many other things besides close reading" …; and most of these selections do range more widely than a local text. But it is true that, because the range is wide, we miss finally a general definition of literature. Brooks is decisive in separating literature from what it is not (pp. 586-87)
But [his] are chiefly negative definitions. If we were to ask how, in having as its themes situations to be explored, literature is distinguished from psychology or from the social sciences, Brooks would answer that it is by "the total unity that any work of art must have."… Now the unity of a work is what we English professors are usually concerned to demonstrate for our students' appreciation …: we try to show how this image or that scene "fits in." Brooks performs just such an exercise, and convincingly, in "The Unity of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus". Surely it is a useful exercise. But on the level of theory there is a further way to go. Ransom, in fact, has raised some embarrassing questions about our happy Coleridgean notion of unity as the differentia of literary art. (I wonder myself if we do not ask nothing less than the same unity of our students' inartistic essays). Although he is disarming in the way he often anticipates objections in his audiences and readers, Brooks does not acknowledge these objections of Ransom's in his appeals to unity.
In fairness to Brooks, however, we should complete the contrast between these two critics, whose likenesses are evident, by remarking the greater variety of subjects that Brooks illuminates in his practical way. (pp. 587-88)
The themes that connect most of the essays are the theme of artistic unity and the theme of cultural disintegration. The point of view behind the essays is best defined not by a literary term, but by a religious; it is decidedly Christian. This point of view does not distort Brooks's readings of the texts; it is in fact never explicitly stated. But it informs his conception of the place of literature: the future of literature is not immense, it is not a substitute for religion; it is "in final terms frivolous"—Brooks's summary of Auden's position is only a slight overstatement of his own. And the religious point of view is behind his choice of subjects; it comes nearest the forefront of discussion in the final three essays, on Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus; but Brooks has already written of "the hidden God" traceable in a number of the moderns. (p. 588)
Robert Buffington, "Book Reviews: 'A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1973, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1973, pp. 586-88.
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Cleanth Brooks is usually identified with one method, "close reading," and with a search for such devices as paradox and irony in English poetry from Shakespeare to Yeats. He has been accused of "critical monism" by R. S. Crane [see excerpt above]. (p. 196)
[I want] to make a plea for Cleanth Brooks as a historian of criticism, as a critic of critics. His comments on criticism constitute an extensive part of his work that has not received the attention it deserves. (p. 197)
Much of Brooks's comment on other critics is, no doubt, self-defense, apologia pro domo sua. He knows that criticism is, as Benedetto Croce knew and so said repeatedly, "criticism of criticism." In criticizing others, Cleanth Brooks defines his own position, sometimes clarifying or modifying it in the context of the history of criticism or with rival currents of literary theory in this century. But his criticism of criticism is not only an attempt at self-definition. It has, predominantly, an objective aim and value, taking "objective" to mean Brooks's success as an expositor of ideas often alien to his own way of thinking. Brooks is an eminently fair-minded, text-oriented, conscientious examiner of ideas who is rarely openly polemical. (pp. 197-98)
Aristotle, undeniably the fountainhead of literary theory for centuries, is not in the center of Cleanth Brooks's interest. But Brooks appeals to his example on one crucial point: he sees Aristotle as the prototype of a critic concerned with the technical analysis of works of literary art who at the same time is, in his other writings, overwhelmingly concerned with moral, political, and metaphysical issues. Brooks approves of this division because he is convinced that the amalgamation and confusion of literary theory with morals, politics, and religion has been at the root of many difficulties of critical theory. He insists on a clear distinction between poetry and religion. Aristotle is thus upheld as a model of a great and exemplary man who implicitly denies Matthew Arnold's prophecy that "most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry." (pp. 198-99)
Though Brooks can appeal to Aristotle's separation of poetics and ethics, he cannot relish the peculiar reinterpretation of Aristotle's poetic theories in the Chicago group. This is due not only to a reaction against the sharp criticism of R. S. Crane, whom he has singled out as a "good example" of "elaborate system building, admirable as a display of sheer dialectic, almost for its own sake." Rather there is a fundamental disagreement about the role of language in poetry. The Chicago group, Cleanth Brooks asserts, has a false view of language as "a mere phonetic protoplasm without inherent character," as the inert "material" of poetry. These critics overemphasize plot and construe a theory of genres that leads to their indefensible proliferation. (p. 200)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's saying (derived from Goethe) that men are either Aristotelians or Platonists has been quoted ad nauseam. It does not apply in the case of Cleanth Brooks. I am not aware of any comment on Plato beyond a few casual allusions, but Brooks is undoubtedly indebted to Coleridge, who can be described (and has described himself) as belonging to the Platonic tradition. Brooks, however, completely cuts off Coleridge's thought from its metaphysical roots. He does not bother about the dialectics of subject and object, about the reconciliation of man and nature, the distinction between poetry and poem. He rather singles out the definition of imagination as the reconciliation of opposites and quotes it in several contexts…. (p. 201)
Coleridge is an authority for the view that a work of art is a totality, a unity in multiplicity, an organism. Brooks stresses that this multiplicity can be and should be contradictory, should be a multiplicity of tensions. He expressly disapproves of what he considers the romantic perversion of the organic concept of poetry to a mystical unity. He has no use for Coleridge's distinction of imagination and fancy…. Cleanth Brooks also objects to Coleridge's suspicion against the share of intellect in poetry, to his defense of inspiration and even divine madness. (pp. 201-02)
In short, Cleanth Brooks is no idealist. He inherited from Coleridge (and his sources, Kant and August Wilhelm von Schlegel) the concept of organism and with it all the difficulties raised by a view which seems to make the work of art self-enclosed and to make criticism, in Eliot's term, "autotelic."… But Brooks never embraced the identification of a work of art with a biological organism, or even analogue to God's creation, but picked the term "organism" to mean "organization," ordering, coherent design. It is used as a defense of the inseparability of content and form, as a term implying a rejection of the reduction of a work of poetry to a disguised statement of philosophical truth or an immediate appeal to the reader's beliefs and convictions. It serves as an equivalent of illusion, semblance, Schein, or generally art as distinguished from reality, but it is not and could not mean "aestheticism" or "formalism" or even an isolation of the work of art from everything outside itself. Brooks tirelessly argues that language itself carries us outside of the poem: that the very words can be understood only in the context of an inherited language and that their meaning is circumscribed by external reality. He has, on many occasions and with many examples, combated the misunderstanding that he would want to interpret poems in a historical vacuum. He has picked poems such as Marvell's "Horatian Ode" to demonstrate the relevance of understanding a specific historical situation for a proper interpretation of a poem, and he has never been a "formalist" in the sense in which the term has been used by the opponents of the New Criticism…. Mostly, he is concerned with themes, with motifs, with tone and attitude, with what would be called "content" in older aesthetics, though Brooks of course considers themes as functioning in a whole, as cooperating even in contradiction, as working toward a unified structure which is far from being merely formal but is not merely raw, extraliterary, unshaped content. (pp. 203-04)
Brooks's main theoretical interests converge on twentieth-century English and American critics: Eliot, Richards, William Empson, Ransom, and Allen Tate. Older views are sometimes rejected but rarely discussed in extenso. (p. 206)
Cleanth Brooks's main admiration goes to T. S. Eliot as a poet, as a thinker on culture and religion, and as a literary critic. The experience of Eliot's poetry must have profoundly shaped Brooks's taste. He is in the company of Allen Tate rather than his teacher John Crowe Ransom, who had criticized The Waste Land severely when it appeared. The influence of I. A. Richards—important for Brooks's vocabulary and critical practice—came later. (p. 209)
On some points Brooks has disagreements with Eliot and some misgivings about his theories. He recognizes that Eliot is sometimes inconsistent, that there is much psychologism left in Eliot's concept of synaesthesis, and he is impressed by Eliseo Vivas' destructive analysis of the concept of the "objective correlative" and even agrees with Vivas' rejection of Eliot's analysis of Hamlet. But, in general, Brooks shares Eliot's critical doctrines: the impersonal theory, the poetry of synaesthesis, the dissociation of sensibility, the view of tradition. (p. 211)
Eliot's influence merged with that of Richards. Brooks is particularly impressed by the "all-important" Chapter 32, "The Imagination," in Principles of Literary Criticism, which distinguishes two types of poetry: a poetry which excludes the opposite and discordant qualities of experience and one which synthesizes the heterogeneity of the distinguishable impulses and thus will bear ironical contemplation. Irony in this wide sense of detachment and awareness of the inclusiveness of experience became Brooks's main standard of good poetry…. Brooks's method is an examination of the interanimation not only of words but of motifs, themes, metaphors, and symbols. Brooks does this by inspecting the poem's text, though particularly in his early work he often uses misleadingly the psychological vocabulary of Richards…. Later Brooks recognized that Richards' psychological vocabulary "evaporates when we get ready to use it," but he insists that we need not accept his "particular psychological theory" to agree with his theory of criticism. (pp. 211-13)
Brooks defends himself against the charge of denying any value to simplicity, which seems to follow from his praise of "complexity." But he does not approach it directly, deflecting attention to E. B. Burgum's idiosyncratic disposal of simplicity and suspecting defenders of simplicity of doubting that the complexities and ironies discovered in (and not merely read into) the poems discussed were not and could not have been consciously in the poets' minds. Brooks, then, argues convincingly that a bare statement such as "ripeness is all" assumes its meaning only in the context of King Lear and that an apparently simple lyric such as "western wind, when wilt thou blow" is not really simple at all. But one can hardly deny that Brooks's taste and preference, as well as his theory, work against wide varieties of the world's poetry: folk poetry, narrative poetry, poetry of statement, romantic mood poetry, poetry with no metaphors. He must define "the principle task of criticism—perhaps the task of criticism—as making explicit the implicit manifold of meanings." Brooks feels acutely the need of making a case for complexity to readers brought up with a taste for romantic poetry. The showpieces of Brooks's close readings are inevitably instances which allow him to reveal undervalued or unsuspected complexity. Texts which are transparent at first sight have not tempted him, though on occasion he grants their appeal and value.
Richards also taught Brooks to dismiss the old criterion of the visual vividness of metaphor and to see the need of metaphor for the expression of subtler states of emotion as well as the lack of poetic effect of mere sound divorced from meaning. (pp. 213-14)
In his public pronouncements, at least, Cleanth Brooks avoids confronting the fact that Richards is and remains a behaviorist, a positivist who considers poetry, metaphysics, and religion "nonsense," whatever social utility he might ascribe to them. There is a basic misunderstanding in Brooks's allegiance to Richards; it is due to the feeling of gratitude for the formulas and techniques of analysis he has learned from him. It conceals the gulf between Richards' scientism and Brooks's religious commitment. (p. 215)
[Brooks] admires his teacher John Crowe Ransom as a poet and critic. He expounds the contents of The New Criticism in an encyclopedia and quotes God Without Thunder about the conflict of poetry, of Hobbes, and of sound symbolism approvingly, and he praises Ransom specifically for considering myths the greatest radical metaphors. But this praise should not hide the deep disagreements between pupil and teacher. Brooks is upset by Ransom's low view of the role of paradox, irony, and wit in poetry. He must criticize Ransom for his advocacy of a structure-texture dichotomy which he sees as "ominously like the old content-form dualism." (pp. 217-18)
Cleanth Brooks is clearly much more in sympathy with Allen Tate and repeatedly endorses his formula: "Poetry is neither religion nor social engineering." Like Tate, he argues that the poem is an object and that "specific moral problems are the subject matter of literature, but that the purpose of literature is not to point a moral." Brooks emphatically agrees with Tate that "form is meaning" and that "poetry is complete knowledge," a somewhat obscure statement which Brooks interprets to mean the knowledge that science leaves out, presumably the knowledge of qualities claimed by Ransom as the special domain of poetry. Brooks defends Tate against the charge of formalism. Tate deals, Brooks says, rather with social history, with politics, and with the cultural situation. His strength is in his belief in a traditional society and a "coherent metaphysics."… (p. 219)
Brooks reviews Northrop Frye sympathetically as an ingenious classifier and definer of new genres. But Brooks must disapprove of his dismissal of all value judgment and all judicial criticism as it would lead to a new historicism and relativism. He sees Frye's dilemma between a scheme which would make literature autonomous and, at the same time, fruitful for the human enterprise. Frye, like Arnold, is in danger of making literature a substitute religion—a prophetic observation if we know Frye's later writings about a "myth of concern." Myth criticism, Cleanth Brooks concludes, "provides no way of circumventing the basic problems of traditional criticism."
Actually, Brooks's most sympathetic accounts of myth and archetypal criticism are devoted to the two modern poets whom he admires besides T. S. Eliot: W. B. Yeats and W. H. Auden. Every one of Brooks's books, except the monograph on Faulkner, contains a chapter on Yeats. Yeats's critical and theoretical writings are constantly referred to and expounded since they serve as a commentary on and support for the interpretation of Yeats's poems and the myth behind them, which is one of Brooks's major concerns. Since Yeats's most extravagant schemes of history and of psychological types or his most preposterous pronouncements upon occult phenomena and the transmigration of souls may serve to elucidate a poem, Brooks is extremely indulgent of their truth claims…. Only rarely does Brooks demur at Yeats's occultism and allude to Yeats's "life-long interest in table-rapping, spirit mediums, and clairvoyants."… Brooks feels that a poet has his privileges and tries, sometimes forcing the texts a little, to make acceptable sense out of Yeats's pronouncements, which, restated in cooler terms, often can be made to agree with much of what Brooks accepts and approves. Thus Yeats's view of history appeals to him because of its rejection of progress and of the benefits of science. (pp. 223-24)
Art is, despite Yeats's own self-dramatization, ultimately impersonal. [In A Shaping Joy, Brooks quotes] Yeats on the artist's "shaping joy" which "has kept the sorrow pure, as it had kept it were the emotion love or hate, for the nobleness of the arts is in the mingling of contraries." A Shaping Joy serves as title for Brooks's recent collection of essays…. "The mingling of contraries" could be called the best definition of Brooks's own concept of poetry.
W. H. Auden deserves the same indulgence as Yeats for his opinions, though Auden spoke condescendingly of Yeats's superstitions. Auden's often whimsical views serve, as do Yeats's, as a commentary on the poetry. But Auden's criticism appeals to Brooks also for quite objective reasons. In a special essay, "W. H. Auden as a Literary Critic," Brooks describes and characterizes Auden's "zest for classification," his search for patterns of motifs when he discusses the master-servant relationship in literature, and his interest in symbolic clusters which can be regarded as a form of archetypal criticism. Brooks does not conceal some misgivings…. Brooks shares Auden's view that art has only a limited role in history and quotes him to the effect that "if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged." Brooks seems even to agree with Auden's view that art is "in the profoundest sense frivolous" …, and that art must not be misused as magic or prophecy. Brooks quotes Auden as saying that Shelley's claim that the poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" is "the silliest remark ever made about poets."… The central poetic problem for both Brooks and Auden is "the problem of securing unity," which is inclusive in fitting the disparate and recalcitrant into the poem and exclusive in rejecting what cannot be fitted. Brooks is pleased that Auden—a serious moralist with clear religious convictions—holds "what amounts to a formalist conception of poetry" and states, "The assumption that poetry must be either an escape from life or else the blueprint for a better life is obviously oversimple." Brooks does not seem to notice the contradiction of Auden's view of a fallen but redeemable world he had quoted before, of which the poem provides an analogue. "Analogue" differs little from blueprint: poetry, in Auden, does provide a plan for redemption.
Auden's difficulty runs through Brooks's criticism. Aristotle's distinction between poetics and politics, ethics and metaphysics links up with Auden's separation of Christian faith from "frivolous" art. Brooks must sympathize with this view because he distrusts the confusion of realms: the Arnoldian (and Richardsian) view of poetry as ersatz for religion. But Brooks cannot honestly accept the view that art is frivolous…. [As] all his writings show, Brooks cannot surrender the claim that literature gives us knowledge, "knowledge of a value-structured world."… Though Brooks holds fast to the distinctions among poetry, politics, and religion, poetry is for him ultimately a way to truth, a way to religion. The charge of "formalism" falls flat. It would be correct only if formalism means simply a grasp of the aesthetic fact, an insight into the difference between art and statement, art and persuasion, art and propaganda. Brooks's analyses of poems show this amply. But they show also that he believes in a meaning of art which transcends hedonism, play, harmony, and joy. Poetry for Brooks is "a special kind of knowledge. Through poetry, man comes to know himself in relation to reality, and thus attains wisdom." Brooks is defining the view of his favorite poet Yeats, but he could be speaking of his own. (pp. 226-29)
René Wellek, "Cleanth Brooks, Critic of Critics," in Southern Review, n.s. Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter, 1974 (and reprinted in a slightly altered version in The Possibilities of Order: Cleanth Brooks and His Work, edited by Lewis P. Simpson, Louisiana State University Press, 1976, pp. 196-229).
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If Brooks as critic may be said to have a characteristic method, it is that of demonstrating that a formula or generalization is inadequate because it will not fit all the complex facts of the individual case. Applying this method to Brooks's own work, we observe immediately that his last three books, at least, are not limited to close reading, since one, The Hidden God, deals explicitly with the religious implications of literature and the other two, William Faulkner and A Shaping Joy, are, in their different ways, richly historical. In the latter volume, he protests against being typed "as the rather myopic 'close reader', the indefatigable exegete," and affirms mildly, "In fact I am interested in a great many other things besides close reading."… It is not that Brooks has changed …, but that the stereotype that made him archetypal New Critic never did correspond to the facts. The "New Criticism" was from the beginning an unfortunate and misleading label; only insofar as it meant "the first really adequate criticism" did it ever make sense…. In A Shaping Joy, Brooks suggests "structural or formal" to designate his emphasis on the work rather than on the reader or the writer. These labels are unquestionably better than New Criticism, but have their own misleading associations: Brooks's "structuralism" has little in common with that of recent anthropologists and linguists, and his "formalism" is neither that of the Czech or Russian schools nor that Aristotelian version once copyrighted by the University of Chicago. At any rate, though Brooks continues to maintain that close reading is the critic's primary obligation, in these later books he deals more explicitly and at greater length with the other facets he is interested in.
Far from being the irresponsible aesthete or technician that his opponents have represented him as (in the polemics of literary journals and seminar rooms), Brooks is, I propose to argue, distinguished among critics precisely by his strong sense of responsibility. This is not his only distinction; aside from such obvious gifts as perceptiveness, imagination, and intelligence, his critical integrity, his sense of proportion, and his instinct for the centrally human are rare qualities indeed. But responsibility is primary.
To whom, as Brooks sees it, is the critic responsible? I suggest that, judging from his practice, we might put the priorities in this order of ascending importance: to his readers or other audience; to his authors, whether living or dead; and to whatever standards of truth he believes in. For Brooks, the kinds of truth invoked most often are those of fact, especially linguistic and historical, and of religion in the basic onto logical sense of the awareness of human nature and experience as being complex, contradictory, and mysterious.
With respect to his audience (and both meanings of "respect" are appropriate), Brooks has always seemed to think of his criticism as simply an extension of his teaching, exactly the same in nature and purpose. All the pieces in The Hidden God and most of those in A Shaping Joy were originally lectures; they differ from those written first as essays only in having a slightly more open texture. It appears never to have occurred to him to think of his criticism as autotelic; assuming its role to be obviously ancillary to that of literature itself but nevertheless vitally important, he has been concerned chiefly with its practical effectiveness upon its audience—mostly students and teachers, with some general readers. Through collaborative textbooks and editing, as well as through reviewing, lecturing, and criticism proper, Brooks has devoted himself single-mindedly to the aim of improving this audience's understanding of literature and hence its power of discrimination. (pp. 230-32)
The personal qualities of courtesy and tact (in addition to modesty) are, I would suggest, what has enabled Brooks to establish the relation to his audience that has made him so effective as teacher-critic. Like W. H. Auden, another natural teacher, he has also the gift of simplification, of reducing complex problems to their essentials…. [These] are, obviously, humane qualities, the very opposite of the kind of bloodless formalism or mechanical ingenuity attributed to the New Critic by popular mythology.
The same personal qualities lie behind the second kind of responsibility demonstrated by Brooks, that toward his authors. Some critics do not hesitate to instruct their authors (living or dead) and show them the error of their ways. F. R. Leavis, for example, at his best excels in discriminating between the good and the less good; at his worst he seems to take special satisfaction in showing where authors went wrong and why their later careers were so much inferior to their early work (Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Auden). Brooks seems to feel that this would be presumptuous. The critic's function, as he sees it, is to improve the reader, not the author, though the aspiring author may well be also an educable reader. Thus Brooks usually begins his analysis with the tacit assumption that whatever the author has done is right; if it seems wrong, the probable fault is in the reader's understanding, which is enlightened and corrected through Brooks's patient analysis and interpretation. It is not that Brooks is uninterested in evaluation; if his hypothesis that the work is good will not stand up under analysis, he abandons it, and he can both demolish bad work with gusto and make fine discriminations between degrees and kinds of goodness. But his primary dedication is to helping the reader to understand as fully as possible why good literature is good.
If it is not part of the critic's responsibility to correct or guide his author, or to cut him down to size, then for what is the critic responsible to the author? He is responsible primarily, as Brooks sees it, for respecting the integrity of the author's works and defending them against violation and for reading these works in the right way and thus helping to provide him with the right kind of audience. John Crowe Ransom long ago remarked that Brooks was our best living "reader," and this distinction seems to be generally conceded even by opponents. The essential secret is to be found, I think, in his personal attitude. To revert to previous terms, this attitude may be described as exhibiting a kind of metaphysical tact. One feels that Brooks never claims to pluck out the heart of the mystery of art. He does his best to explain, and he is in no doubt about the legitimacy and importance of his enterprise; but the reader never feels that Brooks is inclined to set up his version as exclusive and complete truth or to substitute it for the original work. The poem, he always remembers, is more complex and more permanent than the critic; and life is larger and more mysterious than either. Hence Brooks always appeals finally to a standard beyond literature; truth to experience. His firm sense of limitations, of an order of priorities and significances, of man's creatureliness and mortality, is (I suppose) ultimately religious. In this respect, as in many others, Brooks stands in strong contrast to his only serious rival as "reader," F. R. Leavis. (pp. 233-35)
Insofar as "close reading" is a method, it has been well learned; reasonable competence in it seems fairly common. True excellence is, however, extremely rare. Brooks's academic epigones often seem like the sorcerer's apprentices; they know how to work the machine but do not fully understand it, so that finally the machine takes over. It was Brooks's distinction that he, not the machine, was always master. In adapting and synthesizing the theories of other critics for pedagogical purposes and reducing them to a practical method, he never forgot that the method was a dynamic one of balances and tensions between opposing qualities and that it had to be operated by a responsible human being. There is a similar contrast in style. Brooks's writing is always alive, sensitive, and lucid; he seeks no meretricious charms and maintains a proper decorum; but he is without a trace of the pomposity, over solemnity, and excessive display of method that mar the writing of many of his imitators. (p. 236)
In a time when many hanker after newer and fancier critical models, when textbooks are full of "relevant" propaganda against pollution and for minorities, of new journalism, science fiction, and rock and pop lyrics, it is salutary to come back to the integrity of Brooks's position, with its utter unconcern for fashion and the topical. He has kept faith, in Yeatsian terms, with "the Muses" sterner laws."… Those who demand relevance—and hence ultimately demand that literature be propaganda—assume "that the themes of literature are generalizations to be affirmed rather than situations to be explored." But the knowledge to be gained from literature is self-knowledge and knowledge of the world conceived in human terms: that is, dramatically.
This discussion has taken us imperceptibly across the threshold of our third kind of responsibility, that to ultimate standards of truth. The qualities we have stressed so far are humane and personal: courtesy, tact, integrity, innocence (in the etymological sense). Brooks has also an eighteenth-century sense of human limitations and respect for tradition, as well as an old-fashioned reticence about himself that makes it a little embarrassing to spell out these personal attributes. Nevertheless, we must go so far as to designate him scholar and gentleman, a phrase hardly to be used nowadays without irony, but applying to Brooks so precisely that it cannot be avoided. Gentleness and mildness (sometimes deceptive) are conspicuous characteristics of the man, as is respect for his opponents even in vigorous controversy. While exposing the errors and pretensions of individual scholars, he has demonstrated his faith in scholarship by his own excellent practice, especially in his Faulkner book and his collaborative editions of Milton's early poems and the Percy letters. (pp. 238-39)
Brooks's most frequent critical "strategy" … is that of showing that a stereotyped or partial response to the literary work is inadequate. It is true that the implications go beyond literature; when the reader is shown that simple and abstract interpretations do not do justice to the literary work, he is likely to be suspicious of simplistic and abstract explanations of human experience in other realms—in politics or religion, for example. But Brooks's concern is with the nature of truth, and his conviction is that truth—at least that most important kind with which literature deals—is never simple or easy and that to learn the truth about himself and his world is man's basic need. Human experience is seen as complex and contradictory, involving the recognition of evil and hence of duality…. Man is seen as weak and limited, guided by inherited patterns and by instinct and emotion far more than by reason. Truth is seen as real and absolute, though forever exceeding the comprehension of the individual, and as multiform and perceived by other faculties as well as by reason…. [Brooks is not] concerned with the writer's beliefs or philosophy as such, but rather with the nature of the world he presents, and not with what the poem says, but with what it is. Nevertheless, such qualities as wit, ambiguity, irony, paradox, complexity, and tension are valued for more than aesthetic reasons; they are indexes to the view of reality—of man and truth—in the work. They are, therefore, not really aesthetic or rhetorical but, since they are modes of apprehending reality, onto logical or, in the broad sense, religious. (pp. 239-40)
The notion of Brooks as pure aesthete has never been plausible to anyone with even a slight acquaintance with his career. His profound respect for and deep concern with history, especially in its relation to literature, are increasingly apparent in the third edition of Understanding Poetry, in William Faulkner, and in A Shaping Joy; he has also practiced the more "scientific" varieties of literary scholarship in his early linguistic treatise … and in his editing, still in progress, of the Percy letters. But he has always insisted on a firm distinction between the literary work considered as art and its use as historical document, case history, sermon, or sociological or moral tract.
Important among the third category of critical responsibilities—fundamental, in fact—is the English language itself. This Brooks seems to think of as a tradition in the literal sense, a heritage passed into his stewardship to be cherished and improved if possible (if not, preserved) and handed on to succeeding generations. This attitude is the opposite of the apocalyptic one now so fashionable; Brooks is, in this respect as in others, concerned not only with the present, but with the past and future; and his sense of the present is thereby greatly enriched. (p. 241)
[Let] me repeat my paradigm of the critic's responsibilities as I think Brooks sees them; or, to put it another way, let me describe Brooks's work as a model of responsible criticism. First, he is responsible to the reader for treating him tactfully and courteously. But, since Brooks takes him seriously as a human being, he also treats him with a certain rigor and strictness: he insists that the reader confront all of the literary work and will not allow any evasion or easy out…. Second, he takes his authors as serious artists and respects the complexity and integrity of their works. Moreover, he responds to these works not only through "the fascination of what's difficult," but as a human being, with love…. Finally, his criticism respects language and historical fact, elucidating them and preserving them against distortion, and it deals responsibly with the full complexity of human nature and experience as they are manifest in the work of art. Political, moral, and religious issues are recognized and explored; but no abstraction or simplification is allowed to be a shortcut or escape route from the contemplation of the whole work. Brooks's criticism embodies a high, noble, and strenuous view of art and of human nature. It will remain useful and inspiring (to use a word that might make Brooks wince) for a very long time. (p. 252)
Monroe K. Spears, "Cleanth Brooks and the Responsibilities of Criticism," in The Possibilities of Order: Cleanth Brooks and His Work, edited by Lewis P. Simpson (reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press; copyright © 1976 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1976, pp. 230-52.
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[William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond] as a whole is less impressive than The Yoknapatawpha Country because its topics are more diverse and because most of it is concerned with less impressive works. Faulkner's poetry and early prose would not be worth discussing at such length were it not for the light they cast on his literary sources and on qualities he was to develop further in his later writing…. For me, however, the principal value of the book is that it completed Brooks's magisterial study of Faulkner's work as a whole. The two volumes taken together, as they should be taken, are the best-rounded exposition not only of Faulkner but of almost any American author.
Brooks will forgive me, I hope, for some niggling over major and minor points. To start a brief list of differences, his Faulkner study doesn't make sufficient use of his admirable training as a New Critic. His earlier books, especially The Well Wrought Urn (1947), contained many enlightening comments on the rhythm, imagery, symbolism, and internal relations of the works he discussed. In the Faulkner study he has adopted a different critical method, one more concerned with history, sociology, and what might be called characterology, that is, the treatment in depth of fictional characters as if they were living persons. Faulkner's characters withstand that treatment, and in general Brooks's new method leads to judgments that are esthetically and historically sound. Sometimes, however, he fails to make use of what he learned as a New Critic. Thus, he says of one novel, "Though I do not find Pylon a rich or ultimately satisfying book, Faulkner's writing, sentence by sentence and scene by scene, includes some of his very best." But why are the sentences and scenes so good? What are their rhythms and images? How do these differ—as they undoubtedly do—from those in Faulkner's other novels? Brooks is better qualified than others to answer those questions, but he says not a word about them. (pp. 35-6)
Malcolm Cowley, "'William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond' by Cleanth Brooks" (reprinted by permission of the author; © 1978 Malcolm Cowley), in The New Republic, Vol. 179, No. 5, July 29, 1978, pp. 35-7.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 809
Fifteen years ago Cleanth Brooks published William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. It was then and remains now the best single critical work on the novels of Faulkner's fictional saga. In the years that followed, many of Brooks's readers looked forward to the promised companion volume that would deal with the works Faulkner set beyond the boundaries of his apocryphal county. From time to time essays appeared which gave previews, essays ranging from Faulkner's poetry to his view of history. Now at last he has gathered most of them together, revised them, and added new chapters, appendices, and notes to form William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. It was worth waiting for. (p. 145)
[Brooks] has read a great deal of [Faulkner] criticism and put it to excellent use. But the very abundance of bad or indifferent criticism makes this new volume, like its fellow, not only particularly welcome but necessary and important. Both should be required reading for every Faulkner scholar and critic. They display the qualities that have made Cleanth Brooks our best critic whether he was writing on poetry or fiction, American literature or British: remarkable erudition, broad historical consciousness, penetrating insight, sympathetic sensitivity, blessed common sense, and the ability to express them in a flexible prose that is clear, straightforward, and persuasive. It instructs at the same time that it entertains, moving with ease from the formal to the colloquial. (pp. 145-46)
Dealing with early novels such as Soldiers' Pay and Mosquitoes, the author skillfully performs the task of analyzing their true merits while even-handedly assessing their signs of immaturity. He avoids the tactic of critics who belabor these books as a means of demonstrating the excellences of those which followed. If the former is uneven, it is also stylistically brilliant; if the latter is at once unfocused and overly demanding, it too is marked by the same brilliance.
Brooks supplies the same exemplary demonstration of the critic's function—explaining and evaluating—with the two novels that came ten years later: Pylon and The Wild Palms. Though they have not received as much attention as the sequence of great novels which began with The Sound and the Fury, they do reveal aspects of Faulkner's unique genius. Throughout this book Brooks spells out relevant connections with arguments in his earlier one…. This new book's chapter on A Fable treats in detail some of the problems Faulkner tried, with varying success, to solve. The very assertiveness with which he proclaimed its importance indicated his deep misgivings. Brooks's close examination of its theological premises, and even more, the practical problems involved in the machinations of the Old General on behalf of the High Command (treated so elaborately by Faulkner), shows how troubled was this excursion of the master beyond the boundaries of his apocryphal county. Although Brooks does not belabor this dichotomy in Faulkner's fiction, his exploration of the interaction between locale on the one hand and character and action on the other helps to explain the extraordinary power of the Yoknapatawpha novels and the way in which Faulkner's genius not only derived strength from his native region but also permitted him to use it to extract the general from the particular.
The essays on Sutpen and the narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom! do not fit neatly into the predominant concern with the non-Yoknapatawpha writings, but it is good to have them here, summarizing as they do Brooks's work over the past fifteen years on the novel he considers Faulkner's greatest. The question of the extent to which Sutpen is a planter like Sartoris or Compson or de Spain is crucial for the novel's significance, which is widened by Brooks's argument that Sutpen belongs to a much more nearly universal type. In the essay on the narrative structure he does what he has done so well before … he leads the reader through Faulkner's complexities and intricacies, not only making them more easily understandable but also showing how they function in the novel's ultimate meaning. A particularly impressive demonstration is his careful reconstruction of the way the interview must have transpired between Quentin Compson and Henry Sutpen shortly before the latter's death. When so much written about Faulkner appears not only impressionistic but more like a self-administered verbal Rorschach test than literary criticism, Brooks performs a brilliant explication de texte, extrapolating from it the probable nature of this crucial encounter which brings Quentin, whose mind Faulkner describes as "a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts," face to face with one of them. (pp. 146-47)
Cleanth Brooks reaffirms in this book his position as the best critic of our best novelist. Anyone who cares about Faulkner's work—current readers and those to come—will be in his debt. (p. 148)
Joseph Blotner, "Beyond Yoknapatawpha," in The Yale Review (© 1978 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXVIII, No. 1, October, 1978, pp. 145-48.