The origins of the dominant Anglo-American traditions of criticism in the mid-twentieth century (roughly from the 1920s to the 1970s) are complex and can appear contradictory. We can say, however, that the British nineteenth-century poet and literary and cultural critic Matthew Arnold was a strong influence upon them especially in his proposition that philosophy and religion would be ‘replaced by poetry’ in modern society and that ‘Culture’ – representing ‘the best that has been known and thought in the world’ – could mount a humanistic defence against its destructive opposite, ‘Anarchy’. F. R. Leavis was later similarly to denigrate what he termed the ‘technologico-Benthamite’ civilization of urban, industrialized societies. The principal twentieth-century inheritor of Arnold, however, and himself a wide influence, including upon the development of a new Anglo-American criticism, was the American (and subsequently naturalized English) poet, dramatist and critic, T. S. Eliot.
What was central to the diverse inflections of the Anglo-American tradition was a profound, almost reverential regard for literary works themselves. An obsessive concern with ‘the text itself’, or ‘the words on the page’, bolstered by an ‘objective’ or in Arnold’s term ‘disinterested’ criticism, invested literary works with iconic human value to be deployed against twentieth-century cultural barbarism. One of the most influential – and later most crucially deconstructed – effects of this critical position was the elevation of some literary works over others and hence the construction of a selective, preferred tradition or canon of works which assumed the status of an unalterable given. To its opponents, the great danger of this thinking was that it disenfranchised huge tracts of literary writing. Hence the importance, in the post-1960s critical
revolution, of questioning and dismantling the received conservative tradition so as to open the agenda for reading and teaching to other kinds of texts and modes – to ‘gothic’ and ‘popular’ fiction, working-class and women’s writing, for example.
T. S. Eliot was central, as both poet and essayist, to many of the tendencies shaping early Anglo-American criticism. His early essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919) proved especially influential. Here he makes a series of related arguments. Firstly, that writers must acquire ‘the historical sense’ if they are to place themselves as true innovators within a European tradition and thereby, secondly, attain the ‘impersonality’ of the artist and an art matching ‘the condition of science’. Famously, for Eliot: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’, adding the telling caveat that, ‘of course, only those who have personality or emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things’. Eliot’s privileging of poetry and the figure of the poet was to influence the character of literary modernism and its study as well as the allied practice of New Criticism. A further important concept, related to the theory of impersonality, appeared in his essay on ‘Hamlet’ (1919). Here Eliot describes the work of art as an ‘objective correlative’ for the experience or set of emotions which engendered it. These allied notions of ‘tradition’, ‘impersonality’, ‘objectivity’, the model of science and a self-conscious attention to the medium of poetry together gave Eliot’s criticism and his own verse its distinctively ‘classsicist’ character; an emphasis shared by many of his peers, notably Ezra Pound and the philosopher and founding imagist poet, T.E. Hulme.
In the immediate post-First World War period when Eliot was developing these ideas, ‘English’ was emerging (most particularly at Cambridge University) as a central subject in the Arts higher-education syllabus. This development brought with it a new, younger generation of academics determined to transcend the older ‘bellettrist’ critical tradition which had dominated English hitherto. In a sense, they can be regarded as the first proponents of a ‘professional’ criticism working from within the academy, and it was to them that Eliot’s critical precepts appealed most strongly.
I. A. Richards, William Empson and, slightly later, F. R. Leavis were the main proponents of the new English at Cambridge. Richards, whose background was in philosophy (aesthetics, psychology and semantics), produced his widely influential Principles of Literary Criticism
in 1924. Here he attempted to lay down an explicit scientific base for literary study. To this end, he sought to identify the special character of literary language, differentiating the ‘emotive’ language of poetry from the ‘referential’ language of non-literary discourse
(his Science and Poetry
was to follow in 1926). Even more influential – certainly in terms of its title and the praxis it enunciates – was Practical Criticism
(1929), in which Richards included examples of his students’ attempts to analyse short, unidentified poems. The students’ vague and shallow responses prompted Richards to outline the basic tenets for the close reading of poetry. Practical Criticism became, in both the United States and England, the central compulsory critical and pedagogic tool of the higher-education (and then secondary) English syllabus. Its explicit emphasis – and still seen by many as an essential virtue – was to encourage the attentive close reading of texts. In itself this was to bring a kind of democratization of literary study to the classroom, in which nearly everyone was placed on an equal footing in the face of a ‘blind’ text. Richards left Cambridge in 1929, later settling at Harvard University, and his influence, particularly through Practical Criticism
, substantially underpinned similar developments in the United States.
William Empson, who transferred from mathematics to English as an undergraduate and became Richards’s pupil, produced in this same period his first, famously precocious work Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). While Empson’s later work resists any easy labelling, this first book’s emphasis on ‘ambiguity’ as the defining characteristic of poetic language, its virtuoso feats of close, creative ‘practical criticism’ in action, and its apparent indifference to social and historical context was particularly influential on New Criticism.
American New Criticism, emerged in the 1920s and became especially dominant in the 1940s and 1950s, its development in effect paralleling the establishment of a new professional criticism in the emerging discipline of ‘English’ in British higher education during the inter-war period. As always, origins and explanations for its rise – in its heyday to almost hegemonic proportions – are complex and finally indefinite, but some suggestions may be sketched in. First, a number of the key figures were also part of a group called the Southern Agrarians, or ‘Fugitives’, a traditional, conservative, Southern-oriented movement which was hostile to the hard-nosed industrialism and materialism of a United States dominated by ‘the North’. Some consanguinity with Arnold, Eliot and, later, Leavis in his opposition to modern ‘inorganic’ civilization may be discerned here. Second, New Criticism’s high point of influence was during the Second World War and the Cold War succeeding it, and we might see its privileging of the internal, formal harmony, order, and transcendence of history and ideology in what were deemed great
works of art as offering a haven in difficult times for alienated intellectuals and, indeed, for whole generations of students. Third, with the huge expansion of the student population in the States in this period, catering for second-generation products of the American ‘melting pot’, New Criticism was at once pedagogically economical (copies of short texts could be distributed equally to everyone) and also a way of coping with masses of individuals who had no ‘history’ in common. In other words, its ahistorical, impersonal, concentrated study, limited to ‘the words on the page’ – was an apparently equalizing, democratic activity appropriate to the new American experience.
But whatever the socio-cultural explanations for its provenance, New Criticism can be straightforwardly characterized. It is neither concerned with matters of historical, biographical, ideological or intellectual context, nor interested in the ‘fallacies’ of ‘intention’ or ‘affect’, but solely with the language and organization of the ‘text in itself’. It does not seek a text’s ‘meaning’, but how it ‘speaks itself’ (Archibald MacLeish’s poem ‘Ars Poetica’, itself a synoptic New Critical document, opens: ‘A poem must not mean/But be’). It is concerned to trace how the parts of the text relate, how it achieves its ‘order’ and ‘harmony’, how it contains and resolves ‘irony’, ‘paradox’, ‘tension’, ‘ambivalence’ and ‘ambiguity’; and essentially with articulating the formal quintessence of the text itself (usually a poem – but see Mark Schorer and Wayne Booth, below).
An early, founding essay of New Criticism was John Crowe Ransom’s ‘Criticism, Inc.’ (1937). (His book on Eliot, Richards and others, entitled The New Criticism, 1941, was to give the movement its name.) Ransom, one of the ‘Fugitives’ and editor of the Kenyon Review 1939–59, here lays down the ground rules.‘Criticism, Inc.’ is the ‘business’ of professionals – professors of literature in the universities in particular; criticism should become ‘more scientific, or precise and systematic’; students should ‘study literature, and not merely about literature’; Eliot was right to denounce romantic literature as ‘imperfect in objectivity, or “aesthetic distance”’; criticism is not ethical, linguistic or historical studies, which are merely ‘aids’; the critic should be able to exhibit not the ‘prose core’ to which a poem may be reduced but ‘the differentia, residue, or tissue, which keeps the object poetical or entire. The character of the poem resides for the good critic in its way of exhibiting the residuary quality.’
Many of these precepts are given practical application in the work of Cleanth Brooks, himself also a ‘Fugitive’, professional academic, editor of the Southern Review
(with Robert Penn Warren) 1935–42, and one of the most skilled and exemplary practitioners of the New Criticism. His and Warren’s textbook anthologies, Understanding Poetry
(1938) and Understanding Fiction
(1943), are often regarded as having spread the New Critical doctrine throughout generations of American university literature students, but his most characteristic demonstration of close reading appears in the significantly titled The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry
(1947), in which the essay on the eponymous urn of Keats’s Ode, ‘Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes’ (1942), is an especially telling exemplification of New Critical practice. Here Brooks quotes the opening of MacLeish’s ‘Ars Poetica’ (see above); refers to Eliot and his notion of the ‘objective correlative’; rejects the relevance of biography; reiterates throughout the terms ‘dramatic propriety’, ‘irony’, ‘paradox’ and ‘organic context’; performs a bravura reading of the poem which leaves its ‘sententious’ final dictum as a dramatically organic element of the whole; constantly admires the poem’s ‘history’ above the ‘actual’ histories of ‘war and peace’, above ‘our time-ridden minds’, the ‘meaningless’ ‘accumulations of facts’, and ‘the scientific and philosophical generalisations which dominate our world’. He explicitly praises the poem’s ‘insight into essential truth’; and finally confirms its value to us (in the midst in 1942 of the nightmare of wartime history) precisely because, like Keats’s urn itself, it is ‘All breathing human passion far above’ – thus demonstrating ‘the superiority of art’.
As New Criticism is, by definition, a practice, much of its ‘theory’ occurs along the way in more specifically practical essays (as with Brooks above) and not as theoretical writing. (Leavis, it might be added, notably refused to theorize his position or engage in ‘philosophical’ extrapolation.) But there are two New Critical essays in particular which are overtly theoretical and which were to become influential texts more generally in modern critical discourse. These were ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (1946) and ‘The Affective Fallacy’ (1949), written by W. K. Wimsatt – professor of English at Yale University and author of the symptomatically titled book, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry
(1954) – in collaboration with Monroe C. Beardsley, a philosopher of aesthetics. Both essays, influenced by Eliot and Richards, engage with the nexus of ‘addresser’ (writer) – ‘message’ (text) – ‘addressee’ (reader) in the pursuit of an ‘objective’ criticism which abjures both the personal input of the writer (‘intention’) and the emotional effect on the reader (‘affect’) in order purely to study the ‘words on the page’ and how the artefact ‘works’. The first essay argues that ‘the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art’ which ‘belongs to the public’; that it should be understood in terms of the ‘dramatic speaker
’ of the text, not the author; and be judged only by whether or not it ‘works’. The question of ‘intention’ has continued to be debated in criticism and especially in the teaching of
literature. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s position strikes a chord, for example, with poststructuralist notions of the ‘death of the author’ (see below, pp. 146–7) and with deconstruction’s freeing of the text from common assumptions of a single anterior ‘meaning’. But there the resemblance ends, for the New Critics still basically insist that there is a determinate, ontologically stable ‘poem itself’, which is the ultimate arbiter of its own ‘statement’, and that an ‘objective’ criticism is possible. This runs quite counter to deconstruction’s notion of the ‘iterability’ of a text across its multiple re-readings.
This difference becomes very much clearer in the second essay, which argues that the ‘affective fallacy’ represents ‘a confusion between the poem and its results’: ‘trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem … ends in impressionism and relativism’. The outcome of both fallacies is that ‘the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgement, tends to disappear’. What is lost, in New Critical terms, is the way a poem by ‘fixing emotions and making them more permanently perceptible’, by the ‘survival’ of ‘its clear and nicely interrelated meanings, its completeness, balance, and tension’, comes to represent ‘the most precise emotive report on customs’: ‘In short, though cultures have changed, poems remain and explain.’ Assumptions of this kind, of formal unity, transhistorical permanence, of supreme aesthetic value, and ‘classical objectivity’ so central to New Critical doctrine are precisely what became contentious and unwarrantable in later criticism and theory.
New Criticism focused principally on poetry, as indicated, but two essays by Mark Schorer, ‘Technique as Discovery’ (1948) and ‘Fiction and the Analogical Matrix’ (1949), mark the attempt to deploy New Critical practice in relation to prose fiction. In the first of these, Schorer notes: ‘Modern criticism has shown ...