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...
(The entire section is 1,452 words.)