Skip to main content

Forward into the Past: Reading the New Critics

ISSUE:  Spring 2008

Great poetry is not a matter of memorable snippets and gobbets; but, without snippets worth remembering, poetry does not exist. The critic must give meaning to memory, yet there has long been an argument about what that work requires. If you walk into college classrooms now, you’ll meet two armed camps of critics. In a poetry workshop, discussion turns on the poem’s meaning and how meaning becomes lodged through metaphor, image, meter, symbol, allusion, argument (what Pound called the “art of getting meaning into words”). In a literature class, the poem will be analyzed, often as not, as a “text” that mirrors the world of its making, as if it had been written not by a poet but by Sir History or Dame Sociology. The professor will employ the cryptic jargon of methods that to their promoters reveal hidden tensions in language, but to their detractors tar and feather poems for the sins of another day and force very different poets to sing the same tune. To the Marxists, the sins remain those of class; to the feminists, gender; to the scholars of ethnic literature, race—they wave over poems, mere poems, a Geiger counter that detects the decaying radioactivity of racism, sexism, and class hatred. “Sir!” says the critic, accusingly. “I have discovered a swarm of phonemes in your poems.” “Aye, sir,” the poet replies, “the damned lines are infested with ’em.”

Perhaps there was a prelapsarian era, before the flood of “theory,” as it is so unhappily called, when men were men and women were women and critics were critics. There may also have been an exact hour in the seventeenth century when, as Eliot declared, a “dissociation of sensibility set in” or a specific day, “on or about December 1910,” when Virginia Woolf noticed that “human character changed.” My quarrelsome reading of history, however, suggests that men were never simply men, women never simply women, and critics never simply critics.

There did exist, however, a golden age of modern literary criticism, roughly from the early essays of Eliot and Pound to the end of the heyday of Partisan Review. Call it fifty years when a reader could pick up certain magazines and be gratified, provoked, or happily infuriated by the discussion of poems (of course it didn’t seem a golden age then—it never does at the time). We are rarely so stimulated or flabbergasted today (when infuriated now, we’re not happy about it)—if readers have grown no less intelligent, the time must no longer be ripe for critics. One of the ways a time is not right is if it falls after an age of such criticism.

I’ve known poets who kept runs of the old Partisan or Hudson or Kenyon Review at arm’s reach, just to browse the stray essays of an Empson or a Blackmur. I’m speaking of criticism proper, not reviewing—for reviewing is always its own fashion, its pleasure the Force-9 gales of the reviewers themselves, whether George Bernard Shaw and Bernard Haggin on music, James Agee and Pauline Kael on film, Mary McCarthy on fiction, Randall Jarrell on poetry, or Robert Hughes on art. A good reviewer is both of his time and beyond his time—we can read his charities and condemnations with delight, even if we haven’t the faintest notion of the book or play or painting judged. A good critic, however, must say something, not just about a particular work of art, but about the structures of art itself; and to understand him you need to know the work criticized.

Great critics have a long afterlife, but sometimes a long beforelife. When Matthew Arnold at last gave them a name, “touchstones” had lain ready for a millennium or two in the teaching of schoolboys—among ancient grammarians, a similar idea rescued lines from the lost plays of Athenian drama. It’s good to be reminded of exactly what Arnold wrote:

Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry.

Arnold was not without subtlety, for he went on:

Of course we are not to require this other poetry to resemble them; it may be very dissimilar. But if we have any tact we shall find them, when we have lodged them well in our minds, an infallible touchstone for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality, and also the degree of this quality, in all other poetry which we may place beside them.

Behind Pound’s gists and piths and Eliot’s vaunted gift for quotation lies the touchstone. Though Arnold has often been disparaged, I caught a critic recently referring to the touchstone with approval; a century or two from now it will not be dead to critics yet. We think of criticism as transient, as à la mode and all too soon outmoded; but the name and nature of criticism have sometimes proved more durable than what was criticized. (Though I hesitate to accept it, the reviewers of one day may inherit the outmoded critical practices of the day before—reviewers are often conservative in their technique, even when radical in their tastes.)

Criticism never starts over; yet sometimes it suffers a forgetfulness, an ill nature, an ignorance of its soundings. There’s no going back, but there is a going forward that does not fear looking back. The complaint about “theory” is that it treats literature with the dispatch of a meat grinder—if you know the method, long before the poem has been dragged in by the tail you can predict whether the butcher will sell you the sausages of Derrida, or Foucault, or Lacan. It’s disheartening to see a poem raided for evidence of sins long defunct or treated with a forensics kit, as if it were a crime scene. I therefore find it hard to work up enthusiasm for the latest announcement of racism in Oliver Twist or Huckleberry Finn (there are scholars who would ban both books, and gladly), or elitism in Shakespeare, or sexism in, well, in just about everything. There have been sophisticated and revealing studies on these subjects, but in the classroom what you tend to get is a professor who counts penis symbols—this reduces criticism to something like trainspotting. If even teaching Shakespeare is elitist, what of the professor who uses a jargon so pompous, tortured, and harrowingly opaque the man on the street would stand scratching his head about it for a month of Sundays?

Seventy or eighty years ago, what we now call criticism was forbidden in literature classes—English professors clerkishly confined their studies to literary history or philology. John Crowe Ransom recalled the head of graduate English studies at a prestigious university telling a student, “This is a place for exact scholarship, and you want: to do criticism. Well, we don’t allow criticism here, because that is something which anybody can do.” (Ransom remarked that it was easy for a professor of literature “to spend a lifetime in compiling the data of literature and yet rarely or never commit himself to a literary judgment.”) What passed for “criticism,” where it existed at all, was an amateur course in appreciation, the instructor like some hereditary retainer rambling the halls of a stately home, pointing out the heroic cast of a rusty suit of armor or the haunted eye of some time-darkened portrait, as well as the cupful of finger bones dubiously from the Battle of Towton—the professor, in his own house of literature, repeated the plot; muttered respectfully over artistic touches of language; and enthused, if not on the nobility of character, then on its iniquity.

New Criticism was created by a divided and often embattled group of American poets (they were almost all poets) born between 1888 and 1907—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, R. P. Blackmur, Yvor Winters, and Kenneth Burke, less a close-knit family than a quarrel of cousins and perfect strangers. To them may be added their precursors and influences, the expatriate poets Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, the English literary critic I. A. Richards, and Richards’s brilliant student William Empson. The age in which they practiced most fruitfully, from about 1913 to 1963, was an age newly scientific, the age of Einstein’s relativity and Bohr’s quantum mechanics (the equations of Maxwell half a century earlier came from a ruder mechanic age). New Criticism grew up partly to justify modernist literature—the novel’s novel experiments in consciousness or chronology and the rejection of meter in vers libre were the literary correlatives of the repudiation of figure in painting and sculpture (English use of avant-garde for art rather than armies dates only to 1910). The tension between Eliot’s resistance, in “The Perfect Critic,” to the “vague suggestion of the scientific vocabulary” in criticism and his wish to cultivate an Aristotelian intelligence that might “see the object as it really is” dramatized the ambivalence toward science in much of the New Criticism. (When Ransom writes that “criticism must become more scientific,” he means “precise and systematic,” not something using beakers and Bunsen burners.)

The New Critics reacted violently against the impressionistic criticism of the previous generation, which favored books like Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury and A Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry—such criticism longed for the moral suasion of art. (The moral appeal has been smuggled back into literature in the self-righteousness of the “poetry of witness.”) The comprehensions of art a century later live within the climate that reaction established; even when our arts are more conservative, or at least tolerant of conservation (figure has returned to painting, fiction has abandoned experiment in wholesale fashion, meter occasionally worms its way back into poetry), they are created on the foundations of the moderns, and often with the moderns in mind—in fiction the sense of belatedness is especially demanding.

According to René Wellek, there were four major objections to New Criticism: it was (1) merely aestheticism by another name, (2) a method profoundly unhistorical, (3) an attempt to make criticism a science, and (4) a deracinated imitation of the French schoolboy’s explication de texte. In the American volume of A History of Modern Criticism, 1750–1950, he vigorously refutes these accusations. Even so, if a shiver of suspicion regarding history or the whiff of aestheticism infects New Criticism (any criticism so fond of literature must have some taste for the aesthetic), the bill of complaint betrays the prejudice of critics dubious in their own practice of history and flagrantly hostile to aesthetic concern—which has meant, among other things, hostile to the notion that some poems are better than others. As Winters wrote some seventy years ago,

The professor of English Literature, who believes that taste is relative yet who endeavors to convince his students that Hamlet is more worthy of their attention than some currently popular novel, is in a serious predicament.

The resolution to this dilemma is that the professor has stopped trying.

Critics cannot be blamed for every wrong turn taken by art; but a less frantic approval of the modish and “original,” of gesture over craft, of idea over execution might have spared visual art in the past half century from fashions dizzying in their rapid and rabid succession. (This is not to deny that an artist as rich in character as Richard Serra may emerge from a sometimes trivial movement; but the rage for novelty that produced the broken crockery of Julian Schnabel, now almost forgotten as a painter, has replaced it with the formaldehyde-drenched sharks of Damien Hirst.) To look back at the New Critics is to indulge in a nostalgia for the days when books were books and not “texts” (when critics natter on about “dialogic intertextuality” in Batman, my eyes glaze over). Beyond the holy trinity of race, class, and gender; beyond the murder of the author (hardly the death of him); beyond jargon-ridden, vatic, riddling “methodologies” fond of sophomoric wordplay and genial mystification (recall how Pound despised “critics who use vague terms to conceal their meaning”); contemporary theory remains largely inoculated against the way poems work. In the end, it is a very dull way to look at poetry.

Despite its pretense of dispassion, theory—which often lies in a fog of unfinished philosophy—turns out to be surprisingly judgmental, for behind the mask of tolerance, the love of the “free play of the signifier” and respect for the “other,” the “valorization” of relative values, it wallows in the age’s prejudice: for female over male, black over white, poor over rich, gay over straight, Palestinian over Jew, colonist over empire, native over colonist, anarchy over order. It little matters where one’s sympathies lie in such oppositions, if they require sympathies at all (rather than, say, curiosity, or regret); but you can’t pretend to moral relativity, as theorists do, and embrace such prejudices. Theory often mingles, in a way Orwell would have noticed, the language of revolutionaries with that of prison guards—who will “subvert” these subversives or “interrogate” these interrogators? For a criticism that prizes nonconformity and “difference,” theory proves alarmingly fond of orthodoxy. (In the classrooms of theory, all readings are tolerated, except the wrong ones—the morally absolute masquerades here as the morally relative and manages to be high-minded about it, too. Kafka would have smiled in recognition.) Having deprived the author of “agency,” reduced him to the victim or weathervane of his time, the smug discriminations of theory are exactly those New Criticism set out to disturb. To the New Critics, the poem struggles to escape its time; the interest lies in the rare poem that succeeds, not the mass that do not. (The importance of some poems, especially in the modern period—Howl, for example—may be largely sociological. That is their failure.)

Poets become poets by making sense of the poets who came before them. As literature classes were slowly dyed in the blood of theory, New Criticism retreated to writing workshops. Like all schools of criticism, the New Critics have been derided by their successors; but they retain an extraordinary influence on the daily practice of criticism (this division between practice and theory is more than peculiar just now). It’s not surprising that the close reading of poetry has remained the method of choice in workshops, which are—lamentably, no doubt—more concerned with craft than capitalism. They still believe, with Allen Tate, that “literature is neither religion nor social engineering.” The New Critics developed a mechanics of poetry that any poet would love—by attending to the words. Such critics did not treat poems in ignorance of what literary history or biography reveal; but these became the means of criticism, not the end. This turned topsy-turvy the academic study of the day—it would be no less radical now.

Wellek reminds us that close reading was a late development in New Criticism—it was not the point but the tool developed to prove the point. The method was secured by the textbook Understanding Poetry (1938), which became a mainstay of college classrooms for two generations. The editors, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, tried to dissect what a poem said, not reveal the poet as a dolt, a closet racist, a chauvinist, a snob, or a prig. New Criticism takes as its task to understand how meaning and feeling are invented in language (theory flinches as much from the neural itch of feeling as from aesthetics) and to judge if some poems are better than others—not simply better at kowtowing to the mores and manners of our day, but better in aesthetic terms. If New Criticism seems a bit like a hen house built by foxes, the foxes sometimes walked and talked like hens themselves, out of respect—or because they were secretly hens themselves.

T. S. Eliot is often accused of writing the criticism necessary to read his own poetry (this is like a man rich in nails inventing the hammer); his taste for Donne and antipathy to Milton did clear-cut a few square miles of metaphysics for The Waste Land. (It might be more accurate to say he was working out in prose the apprehensions about his predecessors that animated his verse line.) Many of Eliot’s insights, however, apply to poetry generally and can be read against his notions of taste. Taste is always more narrow than criticism, at least if it is at all interesting as taste. However much Ezra Pound’s promotion of the troubadours licensed his poems in pseudo-medieval English (he labored like a man trying to drag Edwardian England back to a world of sackbuts and krummhorns), in the end Provençal poems have proved one of the standards against which his poems are measured. Meanwhile, it did not harm the troubadours to be dragged to the century’s attention. Pound’s later drumbeating for Li Po, the Anglo-Saxons, Chaucer, and Dante opened a few dusty parlors for The Cantos in the House of Fame; but, judged against such poetry, The Cantos look less than dominating. The tastes have endured, but criticism abides even when taste goes astray—criticism creates values, taste often vices, though that is no reason not to have taste.

What happened to New Criticism? Even the best critical method may run out of things to say, may become arthritic in its response to new work, may reduce itself merely to method. (Though New Critics analyzed some kinds of poetry more brilliantly than others, any universal criticism might be universally suspect. New Criticism works well for a poetry of logical and defensible meaning, even modernist work where ambiguities have been strained to the limit—but there is a limit.) By the sixties, a sense of routine and exhaustion had set in—most of the New Critics still alive had stopped writing criticism (though Empson was scribbling combative reviews until the end), and younger critics were not, most of them, nearly so talented, nor were they poets. (The poets—Jarrell, Berryman, Lowell—made better reviewers than they did writers of critical essays.) The founders, a cleverer lot than their followers, grew old in their understandings; but discoverers always claim the richest land in terra incognita. New Criticism did, eventually, grow tired of itself; its legacy lies in the craft revealed and the clarity gained.

Most contemporary poetry is written in a tradition, a tradition more susceptible to New Critical readings than to any criticism that has followed. New Criticism remains our basic critical language—the reader schooled there is best placed to return to Matthew Arnold, or David Masson, or Coleridge, or Dr. Johnson, and extract the most from him. (I suspect the New Criticism was largely founded on the footnotes of editors of Shakespeare, beginning with Johnson, if not before.) The good doctor says little in The Lives of the Poets about how poems actually work; but he illustrates the value to the critic of generous knowledge, a robust sensibility, and a style like a battery of cannon.

If I have been unfair to the natural disaster of theory, I have grown weary of hearing my students complain that their professors don’t like literature very much—indeed, seem to prefer truffle-hunting the sins of the authors. (Of course I’m interested in the effect of his time upon the poet, and vice versa—but I’m not interested only in that.) Theory has reduced literature largely to what Winters calls the didactic function—but the poems, in their poor, poetic way, serve almost entirely as a storehouse of negative examples. A generation of students, having chosen English because they love books, has graduated bemused that anyone would read such debauched and offensive trash—the brightest wonder why studying literature seems no different from political indoctrination and why their professors have turned into grim-faced, razor-beaked theocrats. (It’s past time to launch a new Dunciad—where is Pope when you need him?)

I used to think things would get better; but young Ph.D.’s now learn no way but theory’s way of discussing poetry, if they discuss poetry at all (they also know little about grammar and less about meter, but those are complaints for another hour). We might instead think of what was lost when the New Critics were cast into the shadows and, as Eliot said of the metaphysical poets, “consider whether their virtue was not something permanently valuable, which subsequently disappeared, but ought not to have disappeared.” It might be time to rehearse arguments about poetry won almost a century ago, arguments worth winning once more.



By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading