Study Guide

New Criticism Texts

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  • Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare (1609)

    Sonnet 116 just might be one of the most quoted and most loved of Shakespeare's many sonnets. And, of course, it's all about love: love is an "ever-fixed mark," even against Time's "bending sickle's compass."

    Brooks and Warren print this sonnet in Understanding Poetry, and ask some questions about it in the New Critical style. They asked things like: What sort of images are implied and developed in this poem? How are the images related? Are the images all in agreement, or in tension or conflict?

    And how do you understand the line, "Love's not Time's fool?" Or the image of Time's "bending sickle's compass"? Why "compass"? Why a "sickle"? Why, why, why?

    (Sometimes embracing the New Critics' way of reading poems can feel a little like talking with a toddler. But, you know, a super smart toddler who knows how to ask why about all the right things…)

  • "Death, be not proud" (Holy Sonnet 10) by John Donne (1617)

    Donne takes on death in this sonnet, and he's not afraid to pull some punches. It's more of a gentlemanly duel between Donne and the Grim Reaper than a Street Fighter Death Match, you see.

    This poem has enough contradictions in it to keep a New Critic busy for a week. But let's start with the lines "For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me" (3-4). How does Donne play with different ideas of Death here?

    And while we're at it, what's going on with the relationship between sleep and death in this poem? How does Donne use them to get at the similarities and differences between humans' temporary and permanent resting states?

    Oh Donne, you fabulous Don of Poetry you.

  • "Batter My Heart" (Holy Sonnet 14) by John Donne (1618)

    Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14" addresses God, but not in the way you'd expect. Like most sonnets, it's chock full of imagery, conceits, and dramatic turns. But when Donne uses the sonnet to talk to God, things get especially interesting.

    This is no slow morning at church.

    Donne covers a lot of ground in just 14 lines; he imagines his relationship with God as everything from a war to a marriage. Clearly, the Donne Dude was hard at work on contradictions –a.k.a. paradoxes—to draw out the complexity of man's relationship to a higher power.

    Cleanth Brooks defines poetry in The Well Wrought Urn as "a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations, developed through a temporal scheme." How could you talk about Donne's poem in terms of its balances and resolutions over the "time" of the poem?


  • "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797)

    Dreamy, haunted, and bizarre, Coleridge's poem about Xanadu and the "stately pleasure-dome" is a confusing read, if we do say so ourselves. But, as such, it's a great poem for exercising your close reading chops.

    Coleridge claimed "Kubla Khan" was based on a dream he had. He said that he wrote it in flurry of inspiration. And when the inspiration was interrupted, he just stopped writing.

    Do you think you need to know this tidbit o' history about the poem in order to understand it? How would your reading change if you argued that the poem was actually a coherent whole, instead of just a fragment?

    Some critics think the last eighteen lines of this piece should be read as a separate section. What do you make of this last section, that begins, "A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw"? Here's a clue to put you on the right path: Why is this the first time that the speaker uses "I," do you think?

  • "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" by William Wordsworth (1802)

    One morning, going over Westminster Bridge, Wordsworth has a shocking realization: London is actually way prettier than he had ever noticed before. (Maybe it had something to do with the fact that no one was awake yet? People can be noisy and annoying.)

    How does Wordsworth draw on ideas about nature and the city in "Composed upon Westminster Bridge"? We think about these places as totally opposed—but do they have to be? What does this poem have to say about it? These are all questions that the New Critics were into answering via a close reading of the text.

    This sonnet also packs in a lot of imagery. How does Wordsworth use the words "bare" and "silent," in particular? Can you find different ways of reading these descriptions? (Imagine you're William Empson writing Seven Types of Ambiguity, and have a literary ball, friends.)

  • "Bright star, would I were as steadfast as thou art" by John Keats (1819)

    Romance, loneliness, and poetry—what's not to love here? Plus, "Bright star" is the poem that gave the movie Bright Star its title. And you know how we love movies that are based on poems (way cooler than movies that are just based on boring old novels, are we right?).

    Anywho, in this piece, Keats plays a lover talking to a bright star. How does he describe the similarities and differences between the human lover and the star? (Like, come on: How are these star-crossed lovers going to work out? Haha, we're hilarious.)

    Also, put on your New Criticism hat—we know you've got one in your closet, right next to that fedora you never wear—and answer us this: How do the meter and sound of the poem contribute to its central themes? Can you find lines that seem to accelerate or slow down the poem's action? Why does Keats play around with the pacing of the poem in these ways?

  • "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats (1820)

    This famous Grecian urn is full of life and music and action—and yet, it's a solid, unmoving object. With such a great central paradox, this poem was a favorite of New Critics everywhere.

    As you move through the poem, we suggest you watch for how the paradox of "frozen action" works. Does it change over the different sections? What is "frozen action," exactly?

    One of the purposes of art could be to teach us what we need to know in life—to help us best understand the human condition. Given that both the urn and the poem are forms of art, what do you think Keats's poem is saying about the relation between art and real life?

    Are they in tension in the piece, or do they interact?

  • "God's Grandeur" by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1877)

    This is a tongue twister of a poem, with beautifully difficult lines like "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" (4). This is just the sort of language that begs for close (and slow) reading… lest you want to embarrass yourself at your next poetry-spoutin' dinner party.

    Like many sonnets, "God's Grandeur" takes a dramatic turn as we near the end of it. What are the two contradictory ideas that Hopkins holds together in this piece?

    Oh, and by the by, Hopkins called his distinctive poetic style "sprung rhythm." How does his language speed you up or slow you down as you read? Do you pay more attention to his poem's sounds than you might while reading other poems? Why? What's the balance between sound and meaning that Hopkins strikes in this poem?

    So many questions, so little time. Can you imagine if the New Critics focused on whole novels rather than itty-bitty poems? They might die before they ever published their first books.

  • "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams (1923)

    Okay, "The Red Wheelbarrow" is super short, but that can make it all the more difficult to analyze. When you've only got 16 words, a lot depends on each one.

    Speaking of "depending" on things, what does Williams's line "So much depends" mean in the context of the poem? Exactly what we've written in the first paragraph here, maybe?

    Plus, how does the poem use enjambment? Which words stand out with the line breaks? (Why in the world would WCW split "wheel" and "barrow" across two lines, you know?)

    Close readers, put some juice boxes in those fanny packs—our services are needed in WCW-town.

  • "The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot (1925)

    Eliot's poem gets at the hollow center of his passive, exiled speakers. They're not good enough to get into heaven, but they're also not bad enough to be sent to hell. Yikes.

    This poem also has some of Eliot's most famous lines, like: "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper." Aw, yeah.

    How does Eliot use ideas about form and essence to explain the "hollow men," and what they're missing? (In other words, why are they hollow?)

    "The Hollow Men" has tons of allusions as well—even snippets of nursery rhymes woven into the free verse. So a New Critic might ask: What effect does the form of this poem (and its different sections) have on your reading experience?

    Some critics have noted that Eliot often talked about journalists and politicians in the same way that he talked about the "hollow men" in this piece. Do you think we should use Eliot's other writing to look inside "The Hollow Men"? Or should we stay with our noses close to this text?

    Tough questions, we know. But kind of fun, right?

  • The Sacred Wood by T.S. Eliot (1920)

    Eliot wanted readers to focus on the poem itself when trying to understand what poetry was all about, in addition to the long tradition of poetry each poem belongs to. (He was a famous poet himself, after all. Poets are as poets do.)

    One of his most famous essays to this effect, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," was published in The Sacred Wood. In this one he argues:

    No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism.

    What do you think Eliot means by saying that no artist "has his complete meaning alone"? If you were using Eliot's style of "aesthetic" criticism to analyze, say, The Waste Land, how would you go about it? How would you give this doctor a little bit of his own medicine, huh?

    And to get even more meta on you, we want to ask: In order to understand Eliot's poetry, do you think we need to know his theories about poetry?

  • Practical Criticism by I.A. Richards (1929)

    In this ground-breaking book, Richards writes about that time he experimented on his students. What did he ask them to do? Well, he handed 'em a packet of poems and said "analyze these," without giving them any other information about their works—no titles, no authors, no dates of publications, nada.

    Nice one, teach. His central question was this: Do you need to know anything about the author of a work and the historical context in which it was written in order to analyze it well?

    Also, riddle us this Batmen: If you had to analyze one poem by Shakespeare and one by someone you'd never heard of, would you give the poems equal attention?

  • Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson (1930)

    Empson was all about analyzing what makes poetry so rich and so interesting. In his view, this was... ambiguity. You know, all those words, images, ideas, etc. that allow a poem to be open to different interpretations.

    In Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson, like most of the New Critics, focused his attention on poetry. Do you think we can lift his ideas and use them for novels, too? Are novels just as full of ambiguity? Would we ever get a proper night's rest again if we were always trying to close read every novel we got our hands on?

    Oh, and here's a real stumper: Do you think that ambiguity is a necessary ingredient for literature to be Literature with a capital L? (Can you think of a totally straightforward poem or novel?)

  • Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and and Robert Penn Warren (1938)

    Brooks and Warren work hard for the money. Um, we mean, they work hard to define poetry. In this text, they say a poem isn't some bundle of "poetic" things, or just a decorated box that holds some great moral or truth:

    Certainly it is not to be thought of as a group of mechanically combined elements—meter, rhyme, figurative language, idea, and so on—put together to make a poem as bricks are put together to make a wall. The relationship among the elements in a poem is what is all important […] If we must compare a poem to the make-up of some physical object it ought not to be to a wall but to something organic like a plant. ("Introduction," 16)

    What do Brooks and Warren mean when they say a poem isn't a "bundle," like a bunch of bricks? Why do they argue it's about the "relationship" among the elements?

    The New Critics were super attentive to metaphors and figurative language. So why would they talk about how a poem is or isn't like a wall or a plant? In each of these metaphors, what's the relationship of the part to the whole?

  • The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks (1947)

    One of Brooks's big arguments in The Well Wrought Urn is that you can't summarize (or paraphrase) a poem and retain its meaning. The poem says something in a certain way for a reason. And if you try to sum it up or explain what "happens" in it, then you lose the very thing that makes the poem a poem.

    Do you agree with Brooks that a poem's content is all wrapped up in its form? Do you think it's equally true of long epic poems like The Odyssey and short lyrics like Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"?

    Let's say you wanted to tell a friend about "Tintern Abbey." Do you need to just give them the poem, or can you explain it to them in some other way that actually captures something of the poem's essence?

  • "The Intentional Fallacy" by William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley (1954)

    In this master essay, Wimsatt and Beardsley call out readers who just go through texts hoping to figure out what their authors really meant. According to these guys, authorial intent is not the most important thing about a text. What is important is the text itself—and its magical stew of literary devices and structures. (Double, double, toil and trouble…)

    Clearly, W&B's argument against trying to get inside an author's head is pretty controversial. Do you think an author's intention is important to understanding a text?

    If Stephenie Meyer claimed that Twilight was actually a political novel dressed up as a vampire romance, would you believe her? Would her ideas about what she meant mean more than all of her readers' notions about her stories?

    What if Rebecca Black came forward—in a serious version of what others have done only in parody—to say that "Friday" was, like, totally deep? Would you trust the author over your own reading (or listening)? If not, how would you argue against him or her, using your own close reading of the work?

    Wimsatt and Beardsley use T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land as an example of why it's important to delineate between the author's mind and the poem as it exists. In one version, Eliot actually gave footnotes to the poem, explaining where he got the different allusions he uses in the piece.

    According to W&B, should we pay attention to these footnotes? Are they important to the poem (maybe even part of the poem, since Eliot included them), or are they just a distraction from the text itself?

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