Study Guide

New Criticism Timeline

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How It All Went Down

1920: T.S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood

In his introduction, Eliot takes a classic idea—studying literature as literature—and argues that it needs a revival. This might seem like such an old idea that wouldn't need repeating. But apparently it did. So he and Ezra Pound, the Poet-Critic Extraordinaire himself, usually get the credit for kicking off New Criticism.

1929: I.A. Richards's Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment

Richards has been called the father of New Criticism. He was one of the first to study literary interpretation as a kind of science. He wondered: What techniques do we use when reading a text? And how can we study those techniques? Imagine you show up for English class one morning and your teacher drops a packet of poems in front of you. Then he says, "You've got four hours to write an analysis of each poem." Oh, and you don't have the luxury of knowing who actually wrote the poems, or when. You don't even have the poems' titles to give you any clues. (And there's no Googling allowed, obviously.) This cruel experiment is actually exactly what Richards did in his own English classroom; Practical Criticism is his write-up of how it all went down. Fascinating. We're on the edges of our seats. Really. (That and we're just really glad we weren't in Richards's class…)

1930: William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity

This was one of the big books that brought New Criticism across the pond to the U.S. In it, Empson argues that poetry is full of ambiguity—poems don't have any one meaning. Painfully detail-oriented but massively impressive, this work lays out seven types of ambiguity that can occur in poetry, including the kind that comes from a word having more than one definition, and the kind that comes from a poem having multiple (and sometimes even conflicting) messages.

1937: Yvor Winters's "The Morality of Poetry"

Winters is all about using the tools of New Criticism, like close reading, to see how poems address moral questions. As he puts it, "Poetic morality and poetic feeling are inseparable; feeling and technique, or structure, are inseparable." His work explains how different poetic techniques both reflect and construct different moral worldviews.

1938: Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Understanding Poetry

Brooks and Warren literally wrote the book on Understanding Poetry. It's like a guidebook for how to use New Criticism (or how to closely analyze a poem's form and language). Is there any better way to promote your literary theory than to get it in the hands of every college English major? Score 1 for New Criticism.

1938: Allen Tate's "Miss Emily and the Bibliographer"

Tate argued that professors shouldn't just be scholars of literary history. Instead, he believed they should be critics of past and present literature. This meant that professors had to teach practical methods for analyzing books and poems; they couldn't just lecture on who wrote a text, when, and who the author had dinner with afterward. Burn.

1941: John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism

The whole movement gets its name from this book's title. Ransom was on the hunt for a new type of criticism—something more scientific, more methodical than "I like this poem" and "That poem makes my eyes bleed." So in The New Criticism, he actually reviewed the critics of his age, and identified which ones he thought were moving in the right direction. Talk about blazing a new path. Ransom had gusto, that's for sure. (And a great last name, if we do say so ourselves.)

1947: Cleanth Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn

Brooks's book is full of intense close readings of the greatest hits of English poetry, from Shakespeare and Donne to Keats and Wordsworth. His point? That you can analyze poems without just saying they were a product of their society/times. Instead, Brooks argued that you can pseudo-scientifically analyze what's really and truly good about a poem, even when you pluck it out of its historical and biographical contexts. So, rather than reading Keats as a spokesperson for the Romantics, you can just read Keats as poet who used techniques X and Y to accomplish Z.

1954: William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy"

This is one of the most famous texts to emerge from the New Criticism movement. In it, Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that scholars shouldn't Sherlock Holmes every context-driven detail of poem. Like, as interesting as it might be to speculate about what T.S. Eliot really intended with all the allusions in The Waste Land, that's not the point of literary criticism. If The Waste Land works as a poem, then we should be able to figure out its meaning just by reading the text—we shouldn't have to consult pages of footnotes, or track down clues in Eliot's copies of his books.

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