Cleanth Brooks Brooks, Cleanth (Vol. 24) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cleanth Brooks 1906–

American critic.

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.)

W. H. Auden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Brooks's thesis in Modern Poetry and the Tradition] may be summed up as follows:

  1. The Augustan neo-classicists regarded metaphor only as a decoration of thought. This is false. In poetry, idea and image are one.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. In returning to the metaphysical and ironic style of writing common in the seventeenth century, modern poets like Eliot, Yeats and Allen Tate are returning to the true tradition of En-glish poetry, from which the Augustans and romantics were heretical deviators.

Anyone who, like Mr. Brooks or myself, has ever had to teach literature, will agree that it is still necessary to combat romanticism, and this book will provide them with valuable weapons. The general public still thinks of poetry as something vague and uplifting, and that true poets look like Shelley. Wit and irony are suspect to both Right and Left….

If, then, I venture some doubts about the complete soundness of Mr. Brooks's position, I do so only on the...

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R. P. Blackmur

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title of ["The Well Wrought Urn"] is taken from Donne's "Canonisation," where "a well wrought urne" is said to become as well "the greatest ashes, as halfe-acre tombes." It is no accident either that Mr. Brooks should take his title from Donne, that the first essay in reading should be on this poem by Donne, or that his last should be on a poem by Yeats. Mr. Brooks' type of criticism is a result of the special kind of reading which went with the establishment of the present high reputation of Donne's poetry and habits of mind; something difficult, closely patterned, arbitrary but consistent, intensely fused, passionately learned, and full of private or concealed symbolism: to which the clues are in the visible ironies, paradoxes, telescoped images, and rapid contrasts in attitude and tone….

[Brooks] applies the methods of the "new criticism" to ten standard poems. The tenor of his work is not judicial but interpretive, not analytic but descriptive. He teaches. To teach, he reads the poems as if their problems were the same as those found in a new quartet by Eliot or a late poem by Yeats; and for his readings he uses the weapons of paradox, irony, ambiguity, attitude, tone and belief. When the reader has learned how to deal with the great weight Mr. Brooks puts upon these words—they equal the whole weight of poetic activity—he will discover that Mr. Brooks gives us intensive and exciting readings of his chosen poems. He will also discover that the readings vary in value. (p. 6)

[On the whole], the "new criticism" works well on old material. It brings to light depths and varieties of meaning not naturally available to readers of the present generation, and which, judging by the history of criticism, were not available or were taken for granted by earlier generations. For we like to think that this generation makes a new use of poetry. We ought also to think that it has forgotten the old unconscious skills in the use of poetry, of which Mr. Brooks is here attempting to give an account. In either case, the task of criticism in each generation is to see older poetry in the light of its own, and its own in all the light it can find….

What Mr. Brooks gives us is a way of seeing that the life of these poems may be accounted for by their symbolic structure, and that the life seems richer than by some other accounts. I myself believe that our own generation...

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William Empson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have been reading Mr. Cleanth Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn with enjoyment and admiration, and want to write down the points at which I disagree with it. The minds of critics often work in this disagreeable way, and I hope I am right in taking for granted that the book as a whole does not need summarizing or defense. Indeed I agree so fully with his general position that if I were attacking him I should be attacking myself. (p. 691)

The general criticism I want to make of Mr. Brooks's approach is that he is too content to find the intellectual machinery of a fine and full statement in the poem; there is enough irony and paradox and so on, he feels, for the meaning to be made profound; this is true, but you still need to ask whether the machine worked the right way. (p. 692)

The chapter I chiefly want to examine is the one on the Keats "Grecian Urn." I agree with Mr. Brooks (against so many critics) in finding that I can enjoy the "Beauty is Truth" passage, at the end of the poem. But I find his explanation of it rather fuzzy writing, and I suspect the weakness here is due to a certain anti-emotionalism in his own whole mode of approach. He dislikes biography as a means of explaining a poem, since a poem ought to be complete in itself, and he is not very patient with personal expressions of feeling from a writer who is engaged in building one of these complicated structures. The whole of the third stanza of the Ode, he feels, is a falling-off; "there is a tendency to linger over the scene sentimentally." This is the stanza that begins "Ah happy, happy boughs" and ends by saying that human passion leaves "a burning forehead and a parching tongue." If we are to try to defend it, says Mr. Brooks, "we shall come nearest success by emphasizing the paradoxical implications of the repeated items…. Though the poet has developed and extended his metaphors furthest in this third stanza, the ironic counterpoise is developed furthest too." He often uses "irony" in a very extended sense, and this example...

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Charles V. Hartung

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The long analysis of The Waste Land in Modern Poetry and the Tradition is a good example of Brooks' earlier [critical] method. As Brooks himself admits, the greater part of his discussion of The Waste Land deals with the "prose meaning" of the poem. What Brooks does is to summarize the theme, to call attention to important contrasts, to paraphrase difficult passages, to indicate shifts in tone, to trace recurrent symbols and to interpret their meanings in different contexts, and to trace the sources of allusions. The essay concludes with a relatively brief justification of Eliot's method. (p. 186)

Brooks' critical method in analyzing The Waste Land is often in curious contradiction with his theory. Much of the essay consists of paraphrase, in spite of Brooks' derogation of paraphrase as a criticized practice. In spite also of Brooks' oft repeated objection to poetry which points a moral, he praises Eliot for his supposed intention of rehabilitating a now discredited system of beliefs. It is true that the highest praise is devoted to the method of The Waste Land as "concrete," "dramatic," "indirect," "complex," "ironic," etc., but the essay as a whole is a dedicated defense of Eliot's obliquity as a strategy for rendering effective the paraphrasable theme. Brooks claims that Christian material is central in The Waste Land but that Eliot is expressing Christian attitudes by such indirect means as his description of fertility rites and his use of Sanskrit words. If Eliot actually had this aim in mind, Brooks deserves the praise he has received for being one of the first critics to discern Eliot's intention. It seems to me, however, that Brooks avoids his responsibility as a critic in his unqualified approval of Eliot's use of literary confusion to evaluate ideological confusion. In condoning Eliot in the practice, Brooks, like Eliot, has fallen victim to what Yvor Winters calls the fallacy of imitative form. Eliot has surrendered to what he calls the chaos of the age, and Brooks has surrendered to Eliot. What is remarkable about Brooks' surrender is that he has consistently censured the age for being muddled and confused, and yet much of his criticism is devoted to justifying ambiguity and confusion as suitable poetic methods.

To show the wide applicability of his critical method Brooks has written about a variety of poems composed in different periods and exhibiting various poetic styles. The essay on Gray's "Elegy" in The Well Wrought Urn is avowedly devoted to proving how irony may be found in a poem which has often been taken as a classical instance of "simple eloquence." Brooks undertakes to demonstrate that the "Elegy" is actually a complex dramatic utterance replete with irony…. Much of his analysis...

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R. S. Crane

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Certain skeptical doubts which I have long felt concerning "the new criticism" have been considerably sharpened by Mr. Cleanth Brooks's latest volume, The Well Wrought Urn, as well as by his recent essay on "Irony and 'Ironic' Poetry." I am not happy about this, since on a number of points I am in sympathy with the purposes which differentiate Mr. Brooks and the writers commonly associated with him from most of the other critical schools of the day. (p. 83)

I do not question … that "irony," in Brooks's sense of the term, is a constant trait of all good poems, and I should have no quarrel with him had he been content to say so and to offer his analyses of texts as illustrations of one point,...

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John Edward Hardy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Brooks regards] the use of language in at least his kind of critical writing as something essentially different from the poetic use. It is unlikely that he would be much disturbed by the charges one has heard that he talks about literature, but does not make literature of his talk.

It may be making virtues of natural limitations, but Brooks's style seems a deliberately plain, steady, utilitarian style. The critical commentary does not emulate but only serves the poem, assists it in the performance of its "miracle of communication," like the disciples distributing the bread and fish.

One may weary a little at the limited variety of Brooks's rhetorical and logical...

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Maxwell Geismar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] moralistic emphasis which pervades Mr. Brooks' ["The Hidden God"] may be just as fatal as that "social significance" which he derides in the literary criticism of the 1930's. Over and over again this critic warns us, quite correctly, against finding a "moral," a "lesson," a single meaning in any work of art—even while he himself, in his present criticism, is doing just that.

Thus he praises Hemingway's courage and stoic dignity and sense of individual gallantry in a blind and fatalistic universe, although these obvious traits in Hemingway's work are, strictly speaking, pagan rather than Christian virtues. Indeed what puzzles me most about "The Hidden God" is that I can hardly find in it any...

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Reynolds Price

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country is at once] the most courteous, modest, sensible and helpful of existing guides. For a guide is most nearly what it is, a handbook for strangers….

In many ways … [this is] the book one might have expected from Brooks as Southerner and distinguished teacher but curiously not the book expected of Brooks as New Critic, author of The Well-Wrought Urn, the relentless verbal inquisitor. (p. 110)

Brooks has cast a broad loose net and landed, not the inert mass of symbols, parallels, archetypes which are the usual Faulknerian catch (which Brooks himself denounces as "symbol-mongering") but any number of separate attentions,...

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David Littlejohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Professor Cleanth Brooks of Yale has written a long, handsome, and unfailingly sensible book about all of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha novels [William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country]. He is obsessed by no thesis, driven by no design: he simply wants to help us to read the novels as sympathetically and thoroughly as he has, and as they deserve to be read. To those who would shrink the novels into histories of the South or tracts on the Negro Problem, or bloat them into symbol-lands, to those who would wrench out his characters' speeches and call them Faulkner's, to all of the many non-readers and misreaders and pushy, perverse interpreters he counters his own brand of humble and illuminating common sense. "The...

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Lee T. Lemon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Little is wrong with The Hidden God that a new title would not remedy, for actually Cleanth Brooks' book is less about God than about the contemporary search for human dignity. Prof. Brooks' initial premise is that Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and R. P. Warren are concerned with the position of man in a hostile or an indifferent universe. (p. 366)

None of this departs much from what seems to be general critical opinion; in fact, The Hidden God is most successful when Brooks says clearly and well what lesser critics have said obscurely and badly. The difficulty occurs when he tries to realize the implications of his title by placing his authors within the Christian tradition. (In...

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Earl Rovit

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Hidden God, a] casual discussion of the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and Warren, is an attempt to indicate the religious relevance that these works may possess for the contemporary Christian reader. At times Brooks seems to be apologizing for the success of these writers and for his own interest in them. His cursory investigations are surely more sharply focused on the potential uses that they may be put to by one uneasy in his Christian faith than on a reading of the texts within a more stringent aesthetic frame. Brooks's style is admirable, his sincerity is warmly apparent without being zealous, but the value of his excursions is sharply limited by the narrowness of his aims. In our age,...

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Gerald Graff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We may enumerate several distinct senses in which, for Brooks, poetry is "dramatic" rather than propositional. (1) Poems communicate to the reader not directly but through the agency of a dramatic persona engaged in responding to a situation, whose speeches are arranged so as to be "in character" rather than objectively true. (2) Poetry is not organized according to the model of logical exposition but seeks to dramatize prelogical, associative states of consciousness…. (3) "Any 'statement' made in the poem bears the pressure of the context and has its meaning modified by the context." Therefore, "poems never contain abstract statements." Just as any single character in a drama interacts with other characters and the...

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Theodore Weiss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Cleanth Brooks] comes close in many minds to being the New Critic. Having, unlike most of his peers, published little poetry and fiction, he is wholly a critic and an academic. And he is an editorial half of that famous dreadnought, Understanding Poetry, which was as responsible as any work for disseminating the New Criticism. [A Shaping Joy] is much concerned with the label as it represents both condemnation and legitimacy. Brooks sets out in his first two essays (their titles are revealing: "The Uses of Literature" and "The Modern Writer and his Community") to gainsay the accusation that the New Criticism is insular, impervious to anything beyond its own involvements. At the same time he...

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Robert Buffington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Winter Craft"] Brooks remains a reader's reader. In a sense he is not a writer at all, for he is a writer without style. Style, he quotes Yeats as saying is "'a still unexpended energy, after all that the argument … needs, a still unbroken pleasure after the immediate end has been accomplished—a most personal and wilful fire."… Style by Yeats's definition we have in Eliot, in Tate, in Ransom—other formalist critics who are certainly far from impressionistic. But no critic, not even Eliot, is less personal or wilful than Brooks. His relation to his subjects, which are uncompromisingly literary, is that of a fine lens. When his subject is an individual work, he performs a kind...

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René Wellek

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cleanth Brooks is usually identified with one method, "close reading," and with a search for such devices as paradox and irony in English poetry from Shakespeare to Yeats. He has been accused of "critical monism" by R. S. Crane [see excerpt above]. (p. 196)

[I want] to make a plea for Cleanth Brooks as a historian of criticism, as a critic of critics. His comments on criticism constitute an extensive part of his work that has not received the attention it deserves. (p. 197)

Much of Brooks's comment on other critics is, no doubt, self-defense, apologia pro domo sua. He knows that criticism is, as Benedetto Croce knew and so said repeatedly,...

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Monroe K. Spears

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Brooks as critic may be said to have a characteristic method, it is that of demonstrating that a formula or generalization is inadequate because it will not fit all the complex facts of the individual case. Applying this method to Brooks's own work, we observe immediately that his last three books, at least, are not limited to close reading, since one, The Hidden God, deals explicitly with the religious implications of literature and the other two, William Faulkner and A Shaping Joy, are, in their different ways, richly historical. In the latter volume, he protests against being typed "as the rather myopic 'close reader', the indefatigable exegete," and affirms mildly, "In fact I am interested...

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Malcolm Cowley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond] as a whole is less impressive than The Yoknapatawpha Country because its topics are more diverse and because most of it is concerned with less impressive works. Faulkner's poetry and early prose would not be worth discussing at such length were it not for the light they cast on his literary sources and on qualities he was to develop further in his later writing…. For me, however, the principal value of the book is that it completed Brooks's magisterial study of Faulkner's work as a whole. The two volumes taken together, as they should be taken, are the best-rounded exposition not only of Faulkner but of almost any American author.


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Joseph Blotner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fifteen years ago Cleanth Brooks published William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. It was then and remains now the best single critical work on the novels of Faulkner's fictional saga. In the years that followed, many of Brooks's readers looked forward to the promised companion volume that would deal with the works Faulkner set beyond the boundaries of his apocryphal county. From time to time essays appeared which gave previews, essays ranging from Faulkner's poetry to his view of history. Now at last he has gathered most of them together, revised them, and added new chapters, appendices, and notes to form William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. It was worth waiting for. (p. 145)


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