Origins Axioms Aims

All the New Critics emerged from milieux in which, as Ransom put it, 'young men speak up and quote Eliot pertinently on nearly any literary occasion' (Ransom, 1941, p. 146). At Tennessee's Vanderbilt University in 1922, Warren and Tate lived together in rooms on whose walls Warren painted scenes from The Waste Land; both studied together under Ransom (himself ambivalent about that poem). Starting from the poems of Eliot, Yeats and Pound, New Critics found themselves following leads from Eliot's criticism. These included his 'classical' ideals and his religious thought; his attention to the poetry and drama of the early seventeenth century; his deprecation of the Romantics, especially Shelley; his proposition that good poems constitute 'not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion'; and his insistence that 'poets ... at present, must be difficult' (Eliot, 1975, pp. 43, 65). Against the passive absorptions of popular entertainment, New Critics elevated poetry whose difficulties required (in Tate's words) 'the direct and active participation of a reader' (Tate, 1968, p. 163).

I. A. Richards's Practical Criticism (1929) showed that subtle poems escaped the comprehension of students at Cambridge University: Richards used his 'experiments' there to argue that university teachers should convey both analytical skills and literary taste. Richards's other early books proposed structural and linguistic analyses of poetry while stating its effects in psychological terms. Like him, Ransom, Brooks and their allies aimed to teach analysis and taste; like him, they tried to make aesthetically oriented, intensive study of literature as academically respectable as extensive bibliographical and linguistic study already was. American New Critics, however, rejected what they saw as Richards's scientific worldview. They sought instead to defend literary experience against perceived threats from the exact sciences, from behaviourist social science, and from the industrial economy.

Brooks's Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) and The Well-Wrought Urn (1947) have become ideal—typical examples of New Criticism. Lauding metaphor, paradox and productive ambiguity, Brooks argued that 'the difference between metaphysical poetry' — pre-eminently that of Donne — 'and other poetry [was] a difference of degree not of kind' (Brooks, 1939, p. 39). Robert Frost, Brooks contended, 'exhibits the structure of symbolist—metaphysical poetry' where simpler, ostensibly modern poets do not (ibid., p. 116). New Critical thinking accepted the Coleridgean doctrine that a successful poem creates a unified aesthetic whole, containing or reconciling conflicting ideas and attitudes. (Brooks called this attribute, perhaps misleadingly, 'irony'; Tate and Empson both preferred 'tension'.) In one key New Critical locution, 'poems are little dramas, exhibiting actions in complete settings' (Ransom, 1938, p. 249). These dramas, however, play themselves out among words or attitudes rather than among characters. In practice New Critics often wanted poems to resemble little tragedies: for Brooks, 'The principles of poetic organization, developed to their logical conclusion, carry the poem over into drama, with the characteristics of tragedy — con-creteness, dramatic ambiguity, irony, resolution through struggle — as perhaps their highest expression' (Brooks, 1939, p. 218).

In general, New Critical taste in poetry sought, explicitly: 'tension', paradox, polysemy, ambivalence; central symbols; compression and verbal density; seventeenth-century models; Coleridgean unity, and strong closure. As a result, the New Critical climate favoured implicitly: difficulty, seriousness, violence, frequent allusion, complex syntax and Christian symbolism. The best poems written out of New Critical paradigms reject some of these goals to accomplish the rest.

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