Formalistic Criticism - Poetry Analysis

Historical Background

The formalist approach to poetry was the most influential in American criticism during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s, and it is still often practiced in literature courses in colleges and universities in the United States. Its popularity was not limited to American literary criticism.

In France, formalism has long been employed as a pedagogical exercise in reading literature in the universities and in the lycées. In England in the 1940’s and 1950’s, formalism was associated with an influential group of critics writing for a significant critical periodical, Scrutiny, the most prominent of whom was F. R. Leavis. There also was a notable formalist movement in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s, and, although championed by René Wellek in the United States, its influence at that time was primarily limited to Slavic countries.

The formalist approach in the United States was popularized by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks, all four southerners, all graduates of Vanderbilt University, and all, in varying degrees, receptive to the indirections and complexities of the modernism of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and William Butler Yeats. The critical method of Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Brooks that came to be known as New Criticism, was, in part, developed to explicate the modernism of Eliot, Joyce, and Yeats. A fifth critic, R. P. Blackmur, not directly associated with the Vanderbilt group, made important contributions to the formalist reading of poetry in The Double Agent (1935) and in essays in other books. He did not, however, develop a distinctive formalist method.

The formalist defense of poetry

Formalism in the United States and England may have evolved in reaction to nineteenth century literary thought and practice as a method of understanding a modernist literature that was indirect, impersonal, complex, and autotelic. As far as the New Critics were concerned, however, their formalism was a defense of poetry in an age of science. Their criticism can quite properly be regarded as an “apology” for poetry in the tradition of Sir Philip Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley. An “apology” is a formal defense of poetry in an age thought to be hostile to the poetry of its own time. Sidney apologized for poetry at a time when Puritans were attacking drama and voicing suspicions as to whether poetry could and did advance morality. Shelley defended the value of poetry in an age that was beginning to turn to prose, assuming that the golden age of poetry was over. In this tradition the New Critics apologized for poetry in an age of logical positivism, when scientific method was regarded as the sole means to truth, and poetry was being limited to mere emotive effects.

In his Principles of Literary Criticism, Richards sought to find a place for poetry in an age of science by emphasizing the psychological effects of poetry on the personality of the reader. In Practical Criticism, he documented the helplessness of his graduate students when confronted with an unidentified poem to explicate, making a case for a literary criticism that specialized in explicating the text. Richards seemed, however, at least in the earlier book, to be in agreement with the positivistic view that poetry was a purely emotive use of language, in contrast to science, which was the language of factual assertion. Although influenced by Richards, the New Critics attempted to counter his apparent denial of a cognitive dimension of poetry. They did this through their formalism, staying inside the poem in their explications and declaring it characteristic of the poet’s use of language to direct the reader to meanings back inside the poem rather than to referents outside the poem.

Brooks contended that poets are too direct at pointing to everyday referents outside the poem, and that the meanings of a poem cannot be wrenched outside the context of the poem without serious distortions. He was making a case for meaning in the poem and at...

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The practice of formalism

Brooks was the most consistent practicing formalist and the most influential as well, whether in collaboration with Warren, in their popular textbooks, Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943), or in his own studies in formalism, Modern Poetry and the Tradition and The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947). In Modern Poetry and the Tradition, Brooks extended Eliot’s concept of tradition to a selective history of poetry from seventeenth century Metaphysical poetry to twentieth century modernism. The proper tradition for the modern poet was the Metaphysical tradition because “hard” Metaphysical conceits conveyed both thought and feeling and maintained a proper balance, in contrast to the excessive emotion in much Romantic poetry and the excessive rationalism in much neoclassical poetry. Brooks wrote the book to show the relationship between Metaphysical and modern poetry and to explain modern poetry to readers whose understanding of poetry was primarily based on Romantic poetry.

Brooks’s next book, The Well Wrought Urn, was slightly revisionist, expanding the tradition to include some of the best works of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and even a major poem of the neoclassical period, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714). The test for admission to the tradition is again a careful formalist analysis, revealing, in unexpected places, tensions and paradoxes—although the formalist technique has been refined and even expanded. Brooks contended that poetry is “the language of paradox,” evident even in a poem such as William Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” (1807). The paradox central to the structure of the poem is that a city, London, is enabled to “wear the beauty of the morning,” a privilege that Wordsworth usually reserves for nature. The city is also paradoxically most alive with this surprising beauty when it is asleep, as it is on this occasion. Brooks conceded that Wordsworth’s employment of paradox might have been unconscious, something he was...

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The decline of formalism

The influence of formalism reached its peak in the 1950’s and began to decline in the 1960’s. In England, Scrutiny suspended publication; although Leavis continued to publish, his criticism became less formalistic and more Arnoldian. In the United States, the New Critics also became less formalistic, and their formalism was taken over by followers who lacked the explicative genius of Ransom, Tate, Brooks, and Warren.

Warren had always published less formal criticism than his colleagues, and in the 1960’s he turned his attention even more to fiction and, especially, to writing poetry. Tate, never as fond as the others of critical explications, continued to write essays of social and moral significance, moving in and out of Catholicism and the influence of Jacques Maritain. His best critical explication remained that of his own poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (1937), an exploration of the creative process as well as a formalistic analysis. He died in 1979. Ransom continued to edit the most important new critical journal, Kenyon Review, until his retirement from Kenyon College; he then returned to something he had put aside for many years—his poetry. In the few essays that he wrote in the years just before his death in 1974, his Kantian interests preoccupied him more and more. Brooks wrote one more book that might be called formalistic, A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer’s Craft (1971), but he turned most of his attention to his two major books on William Faulkner, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) and William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978). In these works, Brooks brilliantly discusses Faulkner’s novels, but it is clear that his interest is more in the relationship of Faulkner’s fiction to his Southern society than in...

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Beck, Charlotte H. Robert Penn Warren, Critic. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006. A chronological study of Warren’s development as a critic, noting that though his main interest was the text itself, he often took into account the biographical and historical background. Although Warren thought of himself primarily as a writer, it is now evident that he was among the most important critics of the twentieth century.

Brooks, Cleanth. Modern Poetry and the Tradition. 1939. Reprint. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. A study of the relationship between modern poetry and the established tradition,...

(The entire section is 788 words.)