Study Guide

New Criticism Critics

  • T.S. Eliot

    It is part of the business of the critic to preserve tradition—where a good tradition exists. It is part of his business to see literature steadily and to see it whole; and this is eminently to see it not as consecrated by time, but to see it beyond time; to see the best work of our time and the best work of twenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes.

    Eliot's insights helped inspire the New Criticism movement. Here, he gets at one of the central ideas that would characterize the theory: the critic needs to see literature not as some historical artifact, but as a timeless art. As a bundle of meaning-laden words that can be picked up any place, at any time, and fully appreciated.

    For example, we're not supposed to view Hamlet as some antique of the Renaissance, but as one of the best pieces of literature to ever come out of the Western tradition. As Eliot puts it, we need to see the best work—regardless of when and where it came from—"with the same eyes."

    Just because you're reading Elizabethan drama doesn't mean you need to wear Tudor-rose colored glasses.

    BTW, Eliot was writing before New Criticism was a thing (or even a proper name). But his ideas were super important to starting the movement. The New Critics agreed with Eliot: literary criticism should be all about studying the best works across time, not about getting caught up in what those different times were like.

    Why are certain works so great? What makes them last? These were the questions that really lit the New Critics' fires.

  • Allen Tate

    [A graduate student in English] cannot discuss the literary object in terms of its specific form; all that he can do is to give you its history or tell you how he feels about it. The concrete form of the play, the poem, the novel, that gave rise to the history of the feeling lies neglected on the hither side of the Styx, where Virgil explains to Dante that it is scorned alike by heaven and hell.

    Burn. In this passage, Tate skewers on the way people were doing literary study before the New Critics came along. Since Tate wrote this little gem back in 1938, of course, the system is totally changed now. But according to Tate, back in his day, the universities were full of professors who were basically studying literary history.

    If you asked one of these old school professors about, say, The Tempest, all he would do is "give you its history or tell you how he feels about it."

    Never fear, young Shmoopers. Tate has a solution. It's time to discuss "the literary object in terms of its specific form." We have to start with the form before we talk about feelings, he says. And, ideally, the two should be linked.

    We should study how "the concrete form" of a poem gives rise to readers' evaluations of a work. So if you want to talk about how you were on the edge of your seat while reading Edgar Allan's Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, don't just describe your suspense to us. Tell us about how the story builds that suspense.

    To do a reading à la New Criticism, just imagine Allen Tate standing on your shoulder with a pipe and asking: "Ah yes—but how?"

    (Not that we've ever done that… Um…)

    Although Tate doesn't get into tons of specifics in this quote, he does give us a roadmap for how to approach poems anew. Literary study was at a crossroads in 1938, and Tate didn't want it to go down the rabbit hole of history, or to languish on the other side of the Styx. He wanted lit crit to go up the heavenly path, that's paved with well-founded, text-based analyses of famous works.

    To each his own heavenly path, are we right?

  • John Crowe Ransom

    Studies in the technique of the art belong to criticism certainly. They cannot belong anywhere else, because the technique is not peculiar to any prose materials discoverable in the work of art, nor to anything else but the unique form of that art. A very large volume of studies is indicated by this classification. They would be technical studies of poetry, for instance, the art I am specifically discussing, if they treated its metric; its inversions, solecisms, lapses from the prose norm of language, and from close prose logic; its tropes; its fictions, or inventions, by which it secures "aesthetic distance" and removes itself from history; or any other devices, on the general understanding that any systematic usage which does not hold good for prose is a poetic device.

    A device with a purpose: the superior critic is not content with the compilation of the separate devices; they suggest to him a much more general question. The critic speculates on why poetry, through its devices, is at such pains to dissociate itself from prose at all, and what it is trying to represent that cannot be represented by prose.

    This is a dense quote, but it boils down to the same old bit: the "old" critics have been doing it all wrong. Ransom criticizes the existing way of analyzing literature, and those scholar-dinosaurs who continue to insist on studying literary history.

    Then he argues for a new direction for literary criticism: the study of technique and form. And he gives us an example of what the New Critic should do. In a nutshell, Ransom wants criticism to be "more scientific, or precise and systematic." Hear, hear.

    In that first sentence, Ransom talks about the "technique" of art. (And by "art" Ransom often means "poetry"—the New Critics are a tad bit biased like that.) But what does he mean by technique? Let him count the ways: meter, inversions of syntax, tropes or figures of speech… Basically: anything that separates poetic language from plain prose.

    But a good literary scholar must do more than simply list a poem's techniques. If you give a mouse a list of poetic devices, then she'll ask why poetry uses language in these special ways. In kind, the "superior critic" will want to address questions like: Why are poems so dead-set on being different from prose in the first place? Can poetry do something that prose can't? Is poetry uniquely well suited to representing the human experience?

    Ransom's essay is important because he wasn't just criticizing the old way of doing literary study. He was proposing a new plan of attack for future literary analysts. He was as interested in doing as he was in undoing. In fact, we think the questions he was asking about poetry back in 1937 are just as important today as they were then.

    It is my feeling that we have in poetry a revolutionary departure from the convention of logical discourse, and that we should provide it with a bold and proportionate designation. I believe it has proved easy to work out its structural differentiation from prose. But what is the significance of this when we have got it? The structure proper is the prose of the poem, being a logical discourse of almost any kind, and dealing with almost any content suited to a logical discourse. The texture, likewise, seems to be of any real content that may be come upon, provided it is so free, unrestricted, and large that it cannot properly get into the structure. One guesses that it is an order of content, rather than a kind of content, that distinguishes texture from structure, and poetry from prose. At any rate, a moral content is a kind of content which has been suggested as the peculiar content of poetry, and it does not work; it is not really peculiar to poetry but perfectly available for prose; besides, it is not the content of a great deal of poetry. I suggest that the differentia of poetry as discourse is an ontological one. It treats an order of existence, a grade of objectivity, which cannot be treated in scientific discourse.

    Ransom simply had to know what makes poetry different from prose. He thought that if we could elaborate on those differences, we could better understand what makes individual poems powerful. So in this passage, he takes a stab at defining the Great Poetry-Prose Divide.

    He proposes that poems have two main elements: First, there's the content of a poem. Second, there's the thing that makes a poem a poem—its "texture." This poetic texture, or form, is what's "free, unrestricted, and large."

    But then things take a left turn into Head Scratch Territory. Ransom thinks that the texture isn't just a type of content, like morality or emotion or philosophy. Just because you write about morality doesn't mean you're going to write a poem. Nope, texture has to do with how you structure the content.

    In this view, there is an "ontological" difference between poetry and prose. In other words, poetry is a particular way of being, and this way of being is just as objective as a plant's way of photosynthesizing light.

    Careful though, Shmoopers. Ransom argues that the objectivity of poetry cannot be accessed using the same kinds of scientific tools and talk that exist in other academic disciplines. The job of New Criticism, in Ransom's mind, was to be scientific in a literary way: a way that helps us to understand how poetry is, in its unique fashion, objective.

  • Wimsatt and Beardsley

    Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work. It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of an artificer. "A poem should not mean but be." A poem can be only through its meaning—since its medium is words—yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant. Poetry is a feat of style by which a complex of meaning is handled all at once. Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what is irrelevant has been excluded, like lumps from pudding and "bugs" from machinery.

    How is a poem like a pudding? As much as this sounds like a riddle from Lewis Carroll's cutting room floor, we promise that Wimsatt and Beardsley are going somewhere with this one. Both puddings and poems are made by someone, and for some purpose.

    If you ate a pudding and you couldn't figure out what flavor it was, then the pudding was probably a failure. You wouldn't track down the chef and ask them what they were going for, and then slap your forehead and sigh, "Oh, of course. Silly me: This was supposed to be a pudding that didn't taste like a pudding."

    Ya see? If you read a poem and can't figure out what it means, then the poem is a failure. And readers shouldn't have to consult a Ouija board to figure out what the dead author was trying to say with that failure. Even if the author is still alive, we shouldn't have to write her a letter to figure what the heck is happening in the poem.

    As W&B put it, "Critical inquiries, unlike bets, are not settled in this way. Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle." In other words, critics should be able to figure out the poem's meaning from the poem.

    Granted, we might have to stare at the poem for a while and have some deep thoughts about it. But to get the poem, all we need is its language—and our wits.

    To sum up: it's the poem, not the author, that means anything at all.

    We'd like to stress the fact that this is a truly radical passage in literary theory. It puts pressure on the text, and on us in reading the text. The text needs to work it, and we need to figure out how the text's cogs are a-turning.

  • Brooks and Warren

    Was this, then, the attitude of Andrew Marvell, born 1621, sometime student of Cambridge, returned traveler and prospective tutor, toward Oliver Cromwell in the summer of 1650? The honest answer must be: we do not know. We have tried to read the poem, not Andrew Marvell's mind. That seems sensible in view of the fact that we have the poem, whereas the attitude held by Marvell at any particular time must be a matter of inference, even though we grant that the poem may be put in as part of the evidence from which we are to draw inferences. True, we do know that Marvell was capable of composing the "Ode" and one must concede that that very fact may tell us a great deal about Marvell's attitude toward Cromwell. We think it probably does. But we shall not claim that it tells us everything: there is the problem of the role of the unconscious in the process of composition, there is the possibility of the poet's having written better than he knew, there is even the matter of the happy accident. It is wise to maintain the distinction between the total attitude as manifested in the poem and the attitude of the author as man and private citizen.

    This chunk from Brooks and Warren's textbook Understanding Poetry takes on Andrew Marvell's "An Horation Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland." That poem declares up front that it's all about reality: a real person (Cromwell) and a real event (returning from Ireland).

    So, it shouldn't be surprising to you that scholars of this ode have speculated a lot about what Marvell really thought about Cromwell. And about Ireland. And about all of the politics of that day and time.

    Brooks and Warren are okay with this reading of the poem—but only up to a certain point. In the first line of the quote, they're wondering: Well, then, was this how Marvell felt about Cromwell back in 1650? But their answer to this question's a big shocker: "The honest answer must be: we do not know."

    Really, they say, it was a silly question to ask of the poem to begin with. As critics of the poem, they're not trying to get at what Marvell thought: "We have tried to read the poem, not Andrew Marvell's mind." Yep, Brooks and Warren know how to get sassy.

    Then our boys B&W explain why we need to distinguish between the poem and Marvell's mind. See, the relations between the two are actually quite complex. First of all, the process of writing a poem is mysterious, even to the poet himself. Who knows what role the unconscious might play in writing?

    Second, poets can write something deeper than they realize at the time. A poet might just have a "happy accident" and write something brilliant off-the-cuff. (Hey, it happens.) So Brooks and Warren draw a hard line between the poem's attitude toward Cromwell, and Marvell's attitude toward Cromwell.

    Right. There's a poem-'tude, and a Marvell-'tude. Got it.

  • William Empson

    Most of the ambiguities I have considered here seem to me beautiful; I consider, then, that I have shown by example, in showing the nature of the ambiguity, the nature of the forces which are adequate to hold it together. It would seem very artificial to do it the other way round, and very tedious to do it both ways at once. I wish only, then, to say here that such vaguely imagined "forces" are essential to the totality of a poem, and that they cannot be discussed in terms of ambiguity, because they are complementary to it. But by discussing ambiguity, a great deal may be made clear about them. In particular, if there is contradiction, it must imply tension; the more prominent the contradiction, the greater the tension; in some way other than by the contradiction, the tension must be conveyed, and must be sustained.

    Empson's 250-page book is basically a long list of literary ambiguities. But in this passage, he explains why he's interested in ambiguity. Ambiguity implies that something is open to multiple possible interpretations.

    So, the existence of ambiguity implies the existence of contradictions. And if contradictions are afoot in a poem, then there's tension.

    Stay with us now: poetry is a work of art that maintains the tension of ambiguity. Poems say a bunch of stuff without restricting their readers to any single interpretation of the text. Wow. Imagine doing that tightrope walk for the whole length of King Lear.

    In any case, Empson was trying to point out that ambiguity's kinda at the heart of poetry—and of why poetry is beautiful.

  • Cleanth Brooks

    We tend to say that every poem is an expression of its age; that we must be careful to ask of it only what its own age asked; that we must judge it only by the canons of its age. Any attempt to view it sub specie aeternitatis, we feel, must result in illusion.

    Perhaps it must. Yet, if poetry exists as poetry in any meaningful sense, the attempt must be made. Otherwise the poetry of the past becomes significant merely as cultural anthropology, and the poetry of the present, merely as a political, or religious, or moral instrument […] We live in an age in which miracles of all kinds are suspect, including the kind of miracle of which the poet speaks. The positivists have tended to explain the miracle away in a general process of reduction which hardly stops short of reducing the "poem" to the ink itself. But the "miracle of communication," as a student of language terms it in a recent book, remains. We had better not ignore it, or try to "reduce" it to a level that distorts it. We had better begin with it, by making the closest possible examination of what the poem says as a poem.

    In this preface to The Well Wrought Urn, Brooks justifies his whole approach to reading poetry. He says we have a knee-jerk reaction to what poems are about; we just "say that every poem is an expression of its age." And then we just keep on blindly walking that interpretive path.

    Like, Pope's Rape of the Lock gets framed as a great poem that expresses the 18th century's idea of what poetry should be. So then old-school scholars asked questions like: What does The Rape of the Lock tell us about 18th-century culture? And about 18th-century hairstyles?

    But wait, says Brooks. If we ask questions like that, we're only looking at Rape of the Lock as a great 18th-century poem—not as just a great poem period.

    Brooks warns us that we tend to do the same thing with our own age's poetry: poems are just a sophisticated outlet for political and moral messages. Right? Wrong.

    Brooks is against this way of thinking about poetry because it reduces this complex, ambiguous, beautiful thing to one little moral. But he doesn't stop at bellyaching. He suggests how he's going to change literary analysis by studying "what the poem says as a poem."

    It is important to see that what "So wore the night" and "Thus night passed" have in common as their "rational meaning" is not the "rational meaning" of each but the lowest common denominator of both. To refer the structure of the poem to what is finally a paraphrase of the poem is to refer it to something outside the poem.

    To repeat, most of our difficulties in criticism are rooted in the heresy of paraphrase. If we allow ourselves to be misled by it, we distort the relation of the poem to its "truth," we raise the problem of belief in a vicious and crippling form, we split the poem between its "form" and its "content"—we bring the statement to be conveyed into an unreal competition with science or philosophy or theology. […] By taking the paraphrase as our point of stance, we misconceive the function of metaphor and meter. We demand logical coherences where they are sometimes irrelevant, and we fail frequently to see imaginative coherences on levels where they are highly relevant.

    Brooks starts this passage with a line from a Robert Browning poem: "So wore the night." (This is also the line that his fellow New Critic, Yvor Winters, had previously analyzed in depth: see our "Texts Through the Looking Glass" Section for more.)

    Here, dude explains that we could easily sum up the action of the line, "So wore the night," as, "Thus night passed." But this kind of "translation" of poetry only captures what Brooks calls the "lowest common denominator" of meaning. The poetic line is obviously doing something more than relating that basic meaning of "night happened."

    That's what makes it poetry.

    Brooks uses this tiny example to talk about a way bigger problem with literary analysis. He says scholars' tendency to paraphrase poetry in a straightforward manner is exactly what's wrong with the literary criticism of his time. He even gives this practice a name: "the heresy of paraphrase."

    According to Brooks, when we paraphrase, we split the poem into two elements: content (what it says) and form (how it says it). And this division leads to trouble. It privileges content, even though, as we've just said, what really makes poetry an art form is its form.

    So, if we look at a poem and just immediately start hunting for its moral message, it's like we're saying, "Hey, this poem is okay and all. But what we're really after is the moral." And what happens to the poem after we've extracted that moral? Is it like wrapping paper for a present, thrown away as soon as we take out the gift that's inside?

    Here, Brooks rightly argues that we need to pay attention to the stuff that makes poetry a unique literary genre, like metaphors and meter. As a poet himself, this guy knew that a poem is far more than its central themes. Poetry is all about how the message is conveyed—in all of its "imaginative coherences."