Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1452
This book, an important landmark in twentieth century critical theory, reviews the thinking of I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, and Yvor Winters. As Ransom notes, the New Criticism begins with these men, is indeed indistinguishable from them.
He singles out I. A. Richards as the originator of the new way of looking at language, a way dependent on psychology and semantics rather than on taste or feeling. The aspects of Richards’ theories that are singled out are Tone, Intention, and Dramatic Situation. The first of these, according to Ransom, is a form of particularization. It represents some particular speaker and indicates who his auditor might be. A poem’s tone, then, is a quality of its characters, their situation, and their language. The intention of a poem, Ransom suggests, is equivalent to what might be called its logical thesis. Intentions may not always be clearly stated, nor is it desirable that this be the case. Ransom believes that Richards is not always clear on this aspect of his theory, but he adds that intention is what the critic sees as the meaning of the play. An example might be the reaction of a Freudian to HAMLET, compared with that of a spiritualist or a medieval historian. The psychologist might see the intention of the play as a statement of incestuous love; the spiritualist might read it as a statement of faith in the supernatural; the historian might see it as a reflection of Elizabethan monarchal policies.
Ransom then covers the important categories of Irony and Ambiguity. In covering the latter he notes that the work of Richards is to be understood as continued in that of his pupil, William Empson. The latter has been extraordinarily intelligent in tracing the multiple meanings inherent in poetic language. In a judicious review Ransom surveys the kinds of ambiguity that Mr. Empson has discovered in poetry, its characteristics, and the place ambiguity has in the totality of a poem. He is on the whole much in favor of Empson’s methods, but he notes, as most critics since have noted, that intricacy and allusiveness may often be sought where they do not exist and praised for qualities they do not objectively possess.
The next critic treated is T. S. Eliot, who is used as the example par excellence of the historical critic. Ransom begins by writing that Eliot is highly conscious of the past, and that he uses his sense of the past for the sake of literary understanding. It is Eliot’s method to examine poets by contrast; to see how poets of different times will have interests characteristic of themselves and of their intellectual climates. Each man of letters, according to T. S. Eliot, is a product of what he believes and what he was born to. The force of tradition, Ransom suggests, is especially evident in Eliot’s SELECTED ESSAYS of 1932. It is Eliot’s purpose in this book to anchor poetry to its past; to discourage a complete break with either the forms or the beliefs of the past.
When Ransom deals with some specific statements of Eliot’s criticism, he comments that it is a kind of process of revaluation. Ben Jonson is, for example, the kind of poet whose work is not often admired by an audience brought up on nineteenth century lyric poetry. Yet, as Eliot points out in his essay on Jonson, there are passages in which the qualities of feeling and thought easily equal the more blatant and possibly cruder poetry of his successors. In addition, one sees operating in Jonson a kind of wit that is no longer available to us. Eliot, then, is not only a first-rate practitioner of modern poetry, but a man pre-eminently concerned with the rediscovery of his poetic tradition, and with its emulation.
Ransom then takes up Eliot’s famous description of the Metaphysical poets and both supports and criticizes it. He acknowledges that certain metaphysical poems, like John Donne’s “Valediction,” have a kind of unique status and power. The compass imagery of this poem, which, since the work of Eliot and Cleanth Brooks has become part of the baggage of literary criticism, is acknowledged to have very strong powers of definition. Yet, unlike Eliot and Brooks, Mr. Ransom believes that such imagery is not self-justifying. He states that imagery and conceit are only elements of a poem, layers of its texture. The danger of such long and intricately developed patterns of language is that texture dominates the body of the poem and threatens its fullest meanings: it offers a part when we should be seeing the whole. In addition, he shows that the poetry of conceit becomes too particularized and therefore too restricted in its communication.
When Ransom takes up the central matters of Eliot’s criticism and religion, he points out that Eliot insists upon religious belief. He is our most important religious poet as well as our first important modern historical poet. He adds that Eliot is particularly a Christian writer, one grounded deeply in the Anglican tradition. Ransom is particularly illuminating when he follows a controversy between Eliot and more secular thinkers. In this argument with the followers of Irving Babbitt, Eliot expressed distrust of what he called the positivistic tendencies of Humanism. His criticism is grounded not on the rational content of Humanism but on its capacities for intuitive belief. On this issue Ransom disagrees strongly, and he rebukes Eliot for being too distrustful of the ways of modern secular thought.
The third of the interpretations is centered on Yvor Winters, whom Ransom calls the critic best at interpreting the structure of a poem. Winters is strongest, and perhaps most restricted, by virtue of his commitment to ethical poetry. Indeed, Ransom indicates, any other aspect of poetry seems to Winters to be negligible. Yet Winters is not guilty of external and commonplace moralism; he is not a modern Bowdler to whom the moral is worth more than the poem. This thesis is borne out by Ransom’s study of “The Morality of Poetry” an essay central to the development of Yvor Winters. In this essay Winters claims that the intention of a poem is not really known to the poet when he addresses himself to the act of writing. It is the total meaning of the finished poem, which is expressed by the fact that it has attachments to local and particular things, that transcends the simple intention of writing it. For Winters the force of a poem consists in its author’s attempt to come to terms with an experience and to order thereby a meaning for his own consciousness.
Ransom adds that Winters is at his best when he grapples with particulars; unlike Hart Crane or Yeats he does not evade moral issues by escaping from this world and celebrating the powers of a less defined and natural realm. In sum, then, he is to be valued insofar as he has a grasp of actuality and of the moral alternatives it offers.
The concluding section of THE NEW CRITICISM is titled “Wanted: An Ontological Critic.” In this part of the book Ransom argues that the best mode of critical attack on poetry is to differentiate the poem from other modes of discourse. Poetry, he states, is really revolutionary in that it departs from the conventions of ordinary communication. Ordinary scientific discourse deals with only single values at a time, yet in a literary structure like HAMLET we may be dealing with particulars that do not have fully finite definitions. For example, each time that Hamlet appears—or perhaps each time we interpret a varying action of his—he appears to be quite different from our last experience of him. Art, in other words, deals with qualities that are not consistent in the scientific sense.
THE NEW CRITICISM concludes with a consideration of how art is different from the ordinary modes of life and how poetry differs from scientific expression. Ransom points out that in certain poems (he uses Andrew Marvell’s “Coy Mistress”) the poet is not really concerned with a logical and predictable chain of statements but with a kind of irrelevance that seems either necessary or desirable. The principle of poetry, then, is connected not with statement but with imagination; when Marvell adds to a love poem his complex allusions to the conversion of the Jews or the chronology of the world, what he is doing is developing the particularity without which the body of the poem would remain abstract and theoretical. As far as Ransom is concerned, the texture of the poem is not really separable from its statement. THE NEW CRITICISM ends by asserting this fact through demonstration.
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