zurnal24 Forumzurnal24.info
Students who hire academic writing "experts" must do their homework too!    
 
Forum / Research TutorialNEW

New Criticism (Literary Theory)


Writing Help 129 | -   Freelance Writer
Apr 08, 2013 | #1
Theory: The How's and Why's of Literature

New Criticism - Part I



For those of you who already know something of literary theory and its history allow me to make apologies for some blatant omissions between 300 B.C. and 1900 A.D. This 2200 year period was certainly not devoid of important literary theorists and important developments, and there are notable figures in every century form Aristotle to the 20th. However, since I do not have the time nor the space to be exhaustive here, I feel it is my task to present the most important information, "most important" being defined, for the purposes of this series, as that information which will be the most useful in helping students understand what theory is and what its manifestations are as they apply to contemporary studies. Aristotle was absolutely necessary, and omitting him would have been a glaring oversight indeed. Some might argue that leaving out Quintilian is a problem, leaving out Sidney is a mortal sin, and leaving out Coleridge is nothing short of a tragedy. However, I know with the way literary studies is run in the academy at present, it is far more useful for students to be aware of Derrida than Dryden, and so while I encourage all those interested to investigate the great names I have just listed, and while I hope to be able to return to give them their due in a future series, I must sadly abandon them in favor of their more contemporary counterparts.

New Criticism WritingThere are several ways to begin a tour through 20th century literary theory, especially considering that the continental tradition and the Anglo-American tradition were so utterly independent of each other at the beginning of the 20th century. However, I think it makes the most sense to begin with the North Americans and the British; their influence, practically speaking, is still very present in most instances of university English classes. Their counterparts in Europe and Russia have such close connections to subsequent theories (like Marxism and structuralism), that it makes sense to cover those in succession, which also allows for a more chronological and geographical approach than beginning overseas, coming to America, then returning to Europe. So, this gives the New Critics the distinction of coming first, although, chronologically speaking, they were largely contemporaneous with the Russian Formalists we will be discussing next.

My first reaction when I heard the term "New Critics" or "New Criticism" was immediate interest. I felt like I would be getting something fresh and new, an approach that was on the cutting edge of literary theoretical knowledge. My second reaction, when I learned something about the subject, was disappointment. You see, there are several titles from literary periods, theories, and movements whose descriptive power gets severely dimmed over time. It is as if those who created the term didn't really expect it, or perhaps the thing it describes, to last any more than a few years. This seems to have been the case in the early 1900s, where we have the rise of literary modernism, and the advent of the New Critical school of thought. It goes without saying that academics at this time saw their culture, and their explorations of it, as a definite departure from what had come before, and they desired greatly to express this in their labels, slogans, and methods. Being accused of "mere impressionism" was a high insult, as it put you in league with scholars from the previous century who were certainly not on the cutting edge of the literary world.

It is difficult to say too much by way of introduction to the New Critics without giving some basic idea of the context in which this school of thought arose. In the first paper of this mini-series, I mentioned impressionism, which was a dominant and well respected method of literary study itself in the 19th century, and even into the start of the 20th. To properly understand impressionism, however, it is necessary to briefly discuss two of its forebears, realism and naturalism. I promise this is as far back along the path as I will travel by way of introducing and contextualizing the New Critics, but this constant reading back and behind each theoretical moment is a process that you will find yourself engaging in often in the pursuit of knowledge of literary theory. Most people come to theory from the present day, and are first exposed to the theories that are most widely employed and therefore most useful to know right now. However, they find themselves reading articles within the present theoretical paradigm which make extensive use of ideas from other periods of theoretical history. So, the student goes back and discovers an older school of thought, which fills in some of what they had been missing, but of course the theorists they read from this period make frequent reference to previous theory which the student does not know or understand. This process repeats itself until the student decides to arbitrarily terminate this near infinite regress, or it never stops, leading the student back and forth both diachronically (back and forth through time) and synchronically (within a given temporal period but across the breadth of theories which existed at that time).

Realism was a 19th century theory of literature that demanded certain standards from a literary text, especially the novel, in order for it to be considered of any value, or possessing any merit. As you can guess from the title of this particular theoretical branch, portraying life in a realistic manner was of the utmost importance. This might seem like an obvious thing for an author to do today, but at the time, many heroes of fictional works were very, very heroic, almost idealized versions of people who were almost beyond human in their virtues, which, if you think back to an earlier item in this series, defied many Aristotelian directives. Realism demanded a more balanced central character, one who had vices like real people did. This would allow that character to stand not only for him or her self, but also for the class of people that that person represented. If I am reading about someone who is from my social class and who has the same kinds of strengths, struggles, and weakness as I do, I am going to be very likely to identify with that character, and it is also quite likely that I will experience an emotional, empathetic attachment to that character. In a time when the industrial revolution was in its late stages, and class consciousness was so pervasive you could simply not escape it (especially in light of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the not-so-distant Russian Revolutions bolstered by Marxist political philosophy), the purpose of the novel was to prompt change in the reader, to call them to arms in a way, but also to exploit these present interests in order to give the people what they wanted, and what they expected.

In realism, the characters were not heroic, the settings were not exotic, and the plot, while somewhat extraordinary, of course, did not involve events that were outside the range of possibility. Fantasy, therefore, was not to be taken seriously, and the function of literature was to enlighten and ennoble while it entertained. Without its potential didactic influence, the entertainment was meaningless. Because the protagonist was not a particularly noble, notable, or powerful individual, it was possible to cast him or her in the role of the universal human, or "everyman," who could be a strong symbol for entire classes of people.

The concepts of realism certainly did not die out completely in the 19th century, and the tenets outlined above survived well into the 20th century, directly in the writings and theory of orthodox Marxism, and indirectly in the modernist movement, where the idea of the ordinary "hero" was taken to a new extreme. However, later in the 19th century a movement arose which gained prominence and later dominance, which we have already mentioned was known as naturalism. Naturalism took the general character of the realistic protagonist and turned it in another direction. In realism, the protagonist was a representative of a given social class; in naturalism, however, there was a turn away from the specifically social (and urban), and a turn toward the human being as a natural creature, an animal in many ways, subject to forces of external and internal natures beyond his or her control. The focus was at once more specific and broader: the workings of an individual's character's mind were put on display, and we watched, much like a scientific observer, his or her behavior and actions as we saw the character develop, and, usually, unravel. The context for this theory of literature (and personality, it should be noted) was the explosion of scientific and sociological theory regarding the natural world and the place of humanity within it. Darwin's theory of evolution helped to move the human back into the natural world in the academic imagination, but at the same time, the growing power of science led to a feeling of increasing technological progress, creating the key tension of naturalism; humanity is described in terms of its inescapable nature, as prey to the forces of the body and its basic instincts, but this is done with a Spenserian motivation, to show how we are and to enable us to rise above this, to evolve through social means.

The limitations of both realism and naturalism came to frustrate theoreticians and authors alike, giving rise to a new way of conceptualizing human life and its exploration through literature, that being impressionism. Impressionism is, like naturalism, concerned more with human nature naturally conceived than with realism's focus on general class character, but it does not endorse the scientific, evolutionary project in the same way. The aim of literature, according to the theory of impressionism, is to cause the reader to have a reaction, to show them a situation and have them experience it, feel it on the most visceral level. Of course, this can only be accomplished through an exacting, very methodical, one might even say scientific manipulation of language and emotion by the author/narrator. This deeper paradox between reason and nature emerges in literary theory at this time, a paradox that would not easily be resolved.

As we move into the 20th century, the dominant literary attitudes were still in a process of flux, and the world was primed, though perhaps unready, for what would come to be known as literary modernism. Like realism, naturalism, and impressionism, modernism is a direction taken by the producers of literature even more than a theory about literature. The modern period was one focused on as radical a disjuncture from previous forms and ideas about literature as possible. Beginning anywhere from, approximately, 1905-1915, this movement would come to define the progress of literary endeavor for the better part of the next 50 years. There were several focal points, most notably a rejection of Victorian morality and propriety, and with it, a rejection of the poetic and other literary forms that were associated with it.

Much of the reason for this literary shift had to do with a definite shift in the climate of world politics and societies across much of the world. In this age of unprecedented technological advancement and enormous human promise, the edifice of uninterrupted human progress that had been established in the 19th century thanks to the industrial age and its consequences, as well as the rise of modern science, came crashing down as a result of the most brutal and bloody human conflict in history, the First World War. Whereas the course of humanity seemed set on a forward course to continued advancement, the potential for the perceived advances to result in unmitigated catastrophe on a global scale was a sobering reminder that rose-colored glasses would still sometimes need to be put aside for the murky view from behind the panes of a gas mask. Boundless hope, faith in progress, technology, and even God, was replaced in artistic circles by extremes of disillusionment, despair, and fragmentation. Freud's work in psychology rose to prominence, and its ideas of the dark reaches of the human psyche rose to fill the popular artistic imagination, showing a mind divided against itself, and throwing the whole question of subjectivity and the representation of minds under a disturbing, though revealing, new light.

Two of the greatest watershed moments in this literary movement occurred in the year 1922, when both T.S. Eliot's long poem The Waste Land, and James Joyce's novel Ulysses were published, challenging the very forms that they were nominally considered to be employing. Eliot's fragmentary verse structure, liberal use of free verse, and most of all his dark, startling images juxtaposed in nightmare fashion proved a quandary for contemporary theory and criticism. After all, what is one to do with a work that calls itself a poem, but seems to define itself by defying the usual, expected poetic conventions? Similarly, Ulysses was no novel in the traditional sense, and after the first, (relatively) standard section dealing with the current situation of the protagonist, the work goes on a tour of experimental literary styles and perspectives which can be baffling, and demand full engagement of any reader who wants to gain anything from the work at all. A new, very serious and very different current was now running through the world of literature, and in order to make sense of it, or to talk about it at all, a new critical and theoretical vocabulary would have to be developed. Indeed, the very definition of literature needed to expand, to grow, in order to account for this writing that was intended to be relevant to the new reality in which the world found itself, but for which the world did not seem adequately prepared.

As we saw in the three 19th century movements we examined earlier, realism, naturalism, and impressionism, the authors of given works of literature were the ones who were forwarding the movements, displaying the tenets of particular movements in their works, and then commenting on them only after in critical works. As far as theory was concerned, this was at a relatively low level, and was not the providence so much of the institution of literary studies, which really did not exist officially in the 19th century, as it was the makers of literary works. Note too that these "theories" about the various movements were not at all useful for examining and coming to better understand the works in question; they were useful as basic guidelines for composing literature, and perhaps somewhat useful for evaluating it, but not at all useful for describing it, showing how it works, and what forces of language are operating under the surface to create the effects that do get created. All this would start to change, however, with the rise of literary modernism, and the concomitant rise of the literary academy and of a critical consciousness that evolved to deal with the growing complexities literature was beginning to display.

It is difficult for us to imagine here in the 21st century, with every university campus boasting an English department as one of the largest, both in terms of faculty and students, and with freshman English a required course in almost as many, but before the 1920s and 30s, and even later for many schools, university departments where the study of contemporary literature took place simply did not exist. One could pursue the humanities, and the arts and letters, but one found the classical model to be present in great force; learning Latin and Greek were of the utmost importance, so that you could read the classics of ancient Greece and Rome in their original languages. Rhetoric was also very important, and was taught in conjunction with such courses, unlike today where all of these subjects are marginalized in literary studies and now covered in classics along with archeology, or, in the case of rhetoric, in conjunction with studies of more contemporary, vernacular literature courses.

With the rise of a new artistic, literary consciousness, however, came the need for a new way of dealing with unexpected and unconventional literary works. It was no longer such an easy matter to come to be an expert on works of literature, and one had to be more than a hobbyist to come to some understanding of the kinds of literature that were being created. Indeed, with the wealth of allusions, the abundance of irony and paradox, and the layering of meaning on multiple levels, with form subtly reflecting content at every turn, one had to be well trained and educated to be an authority on modern literature. Indeed, with traditional narrative being pushed to the background, it became necessary to have some literary training in order to come to have any chance at gaining a grasp of modern literature; with the focus no longer on plot, and what happens in a given work, but rather more on the language itself, and the consciousness of characters and narrators/poetic speakers, the whole idea of what it meant to "understand" a literary work changed, and this is where the focus on interpretation comes to the fore. After all, a realist novel is comprehensible to almost anyone, and while training in literature might make some structuring and symbolism more clear, anyone can "get" it, and its message. With modern literature, this was no longer the case.

In order to deal with the unique problems posed with the understanding of modern literature, scholars began to respond with essays dedicated not merely to the evaluation of a work's quality, as in a review, but rather dealing, in depth, with what a work was really about, and how it achieved its goals through the various structures and devices it employed. This is where our current conception of textual criticism comes from, and is why a literary critic is so different from many others kinds of critics we see in popular culture. The literary critic does not give a "thumbs up" to good work and a "thumbs down" to poor literature. Rather, he or she strives to elucidate the work in question, pointing out various aspects of it, and showing how they intersect, both with each other, and with other texts. The idea of the unity of the literary work was a paramount importance to critics of this time, which was simply not possible in previous ages. When a literary work is obviously coherent and cohesive, following a plot one can immediately understand and appreciate, unity is understood, and the places where things do not line up, the moments of disjunction (perhaps caused by poor writing or authorial oversight) are more interesting points to consider and debate. However, when a text looks fragmentary from the outset, stating that there are points where the text is not connected is simply not interesting; it is too obvious to be worth writing about. So, it becomes a more difficult, and therefore more popular critical endeavor, to show how the broken text actually fits together into an organic, though surprising whole.

Like the previous literary movements we have discussed, modernism began with authors who practiced it, and was discussed most, at first, by those same practitioners. T.S. Eliot is one of the main bridges here, as he wrote some of the most important works of modern literature, while at the same time publishing the most influential early essays of criticism, and what can now be considered the first works of New Critical theory. New Criticism is so named, as you can imagine, because it became the novel way of evaluating the modern literary texts that would not submit easily to older methods of textual evaluation. As such, many later scholars have commented that New Criticism was not so much an aspect of literary theory as an ad hoc mode of criticism that (hence the name) happened to work well with the texts of its time. New Criticism was a practice, it is argued, and as such, it was not conscious of its own place, its own operations, to the extent it would need to be to be considered theory.

This criticism is valid to some extent, as the New Critics were concerned first and foremost with dealing with their chosen texts, and less concerned about formulating ideas about the practices they were developing. However, this was certainly not uniformly the case, and authors like I.A. Richards, with his work Principles of Literary Criticism, set out a definite program for applying critical practice to literary works. In this work, and other to follow, including most notably and famously Practical Criticism, Richards reflects on the operations of literary criticism, and both interrogates and provides a unified, coherent framework for the study of literary works. Looking back to our earlier definitions and distinctions of and between criticism and theory, it becomes quite clear that this kind of higher level reflection on practice, rather than the application of principles to given texts, is precisely what defines theory, and Richards stands as the foremost New Critical theorist as a result.

Although it would certainly be possible to write books merely on the historical context in which New Criticism arose (which a quick search on "literary modernism" will reveal to be the case hundreds of times over), the basic background already provided here will serve as a sufficient framework for understanding the ground out of which New Criticism sprouted. What is perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, with the new forms of literature that were arising, with their intentional difficulty and obscure references, it became possible to make specific works of literature the subject of academic investigation. After all, a straightforward piece of prose can only really be analyzed on its surface, for its ideas, and the artistic proficiency and quality with which they are presented. Once a literary work is no longer obviously telling of something that can be easily understood, its surface is no longer available, and so one must work hard merely in order to figure out what is happening at even the most basic of levels. At this point, interpretation takes on an unparalleled significance in literary studies, and literature moves from the pursuit of talented amateurs to its current status as a professional academic discipline. Interpretation now required a certain level of training and sophistication, which meant that literary studies could now be considered, in some very important ways, a literary science with its own taxonomies, jargon, and systems of authority.

One of the principles that was foundational to the New Critical project was the importance of studying texts on their own terms, without reference to the life of the author who produced them, the social or historical conditions they explored, or any other matter that was somehow not imbedded in the text - and the world of the text - itself. Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly institutional, or academically political; literary studies wanted to be seen as a discipline worthy of consideration on its own terms, in and for itself, not as some aspect of another discipline like history, sociology, or psychology. Northrop Frye, somewhat late in the period of New Critical dominance, remarked that literary studies did not need to be carted around in a Marxist or Freudian wheelbarrow, but could make its own way without such assistance. The New Critics took this to heart, and devised fascinating practical and theoretical systems for analyzing literature that kept the focus firmly on the text itself.

One of the most memorable of these devices was (and still is) known as the intentional fallacy. This sounds like it is describing someone who is making an error on purpose, but it actually has to do with the role the intention of an author plays in literary analysis. As you might expect, with the New Critical aversion to evaluating extra-textual factors, the intentional fallacy is the error of believing that that author of a text has any privileged position from which to offer a superior evaluation of it. According to the New Critics, if you are discussing what an author meant to say or do in a text, you are fishing in the wrong pond. It is impossible for us to reconstruct authorial intent, because all we have access to is the text itself, not the author who completed the work. The literary work of art should be able to stand on its own, and the author cannot follow it around and explain what he or she meant by a given passage. A strong reader will be able to develop the meaning of the text independently of any factors but the text itself.

Of course, when it comes to the study of ancient texts, or even texts of a previous generation, it is not possible to glean what the author intended, because in all likelihood, he or she is dead. However, what about current works whose authors are very much still alive, and perhaps even commenting on their own works? According to the New Critics, this did not matter at all. If you and a friend are having a dispute about some aspect of a given poem or story, over a point which seems quite ambiguous, you would most likely be tempted to ask the author what the correct answer is. According to the New Critics, however, even if you got a signed note from the author which explicitly states how he intended the issue to be resolved, and how the passage in question should be interpreted, this would not be a definitive end to the argument. The literary work must be considered independently of its creator; it is an open text, free for all to examine in its own terms. Once the author releases the work into the world, it takes on a life of its own, and it says whatever its words happen to say, regardless of what the authors think they say, or want them to say. So, the voice of the author is just one voice among many who make pronouncements about the literary text, and his or her opinion is judged on the basis of its ability to use evidence from the text to create a compelling interpretation, just like the opinion of any other critic.

Another fallacy which the New Critics invented to support their insistence on reading the text in and for itself is called the affective fallacy, and deals with, in a manner of speaking, the opposite side of the production/consumption dichotomy than the intentional fallacy. Whereas the intentional fallacy forbids the critic from looking at how a text is produced in determining its meaning, the affective fallacy forbids the critic from looking at how the text is received, especially with regard to its emotional effect. In order to be an effective critic, one must first of all distance him or her self from the potential emotional impact of the work; this emotion would bias judgment, and remove the scientific objectivity needed to study the entity in question. Interpretation should not be based on how a work makes you feel, because this is an impossible to quantify, highly subjective experience that makes critical consensus impossible, and really tells us very little about the work itself. After all, my noticing that the structure of a poem is reflective of its content has nothing to do with how all of this affects me, or any other reader for that matter.

Note that this is very different from examining the emotional experiences and responses of characters within literary texts. While it is true that the New Critics did not want to focus on the psychology of given characters, preferring to look at elements of form and specifically textual features as opposed to human ones, it was nonetheless sometimes vital, especially in prose, to account for the actions of given characters in terms of their emotional states of being. Thus, for example, T.S. Eliot writes in good detail of Hamlet's emotional state, or states, in all their confusion, as a failure of Shakespeare's. Since his reactions and emotions form part of the text world, they are open to evaluation. Since neither the reader's experience nor the author's is situated in the text world, neither is considered valid in interpretation.

The term "affect" from the "affective fallacy" has to do with the feeling a reader gets from reading a literary work, and many people feel that this is a prime part of what literature is, from Aristotle up to the present day. One of the primary reasons we read, after all, is to engage in an emotional experience; if we just read for facts and information, novels would never be looked at and newspapers would be completely dominant. By the same token, movies would take a back seat to news programs, and we might get television stations full of news programs, with perhaps the 11:00 sitcom thrown in for some variety. Indeed, the New Critics recognized that emotion and feeling were very important to motivating reading experiences, and Eliot even talks about something he called the "objective correlative," which basically describes the creation of a mood or feeling not through directly stating these emotions in the text, but by combining images in such a way that their interaction produces the effect. This sounds like it defies the dictates of the affective fallacy, but carefully considered, it is worded in such a way that it objectifies a particular emotional experience in terms of the text which very carefully creates it. Subjective emotional experiences are not valid in interpretation, but objective ones are. If the patterning of textual features in a given configuration results in the creation of a specific feeling which arises from the poem itself, this too becomes a feature of the text, rather than merely the experience of someone outside the text. This argument is obviously highly debatable (after all, how can a text contain its emotion, if the emotion only comes into being in the people who read it?), but it formed a way of working feeling into a theory of literary evaluation that would otherwise ignore it completely.

Needless to say, in the light of the New Critics' general approach and their creation of specific fallacies, their general approach to literary texts is one that involves a kind of reading that goes far beyond the casual or everyday experience of most readers. If the only object of your concern and examination can be the words on the page and the internal tensions created by the ideas and themes created by them, reading quickly or lightly would reveal very little. What was required, instead, was something the New Critics called "close reading," which, as you can imagine, required a dedication to the subtle nuances of a literary text and its language that went far beyond the ordinary.

Theory: The How's and Why's of Literature

New Criticism - Part II



Most of the students I interact with on a daily basis read stories and poems and immediately jump to its grander significance to their lives, or to the world as a whole. They read Dickens, for instance, and immediately comment on how sensitive he was to social issues, and how his social concerns are the driving force behind the popularity of his works. For the New Critics, this approach is in part totally irrelevant, and in other aspects entirely backward. The process of examining a text, for the New Critic, had to begin from the ground and work up. A critic should begin with the words of the text, what is happening on the surface, between the various literary devices and text-world events that are taking place, and only later move on to anything of grander significance. So, if you wanted to say anything about Dickens' social consciousness, you had better focus on this as it manifests itself in the text, and provide plenty of solid examples and explore its manifestation in various literary devices before attempting to say anything overarching or grand.

The new critics were especially fond of the examination of poetic works, which makes perfect sense if you consider their preferences and the context in which their school arose. After all, most prose texts possess a large measure of narrative, which means that a definite, relatively easily definable story exists which can be interpreted without professional credentials. Poetry, on the other hand, especially modern poetry, was not usually structured according to narrative patterns, and so coming to understand it, or to find some thread of narrative in it, required some very specialized forms of close reading. Take, for example, the following poem from Ezra Pound entitled "In a Station of the Metro": "The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough." These two lines comprise the entirety of the poem, and serve as an excellent example of where New Critical close reading could best be employed.

First of all, it is important to establish the time, place, and circumstances of the work, in as far as this information is presented to us. In this case, the extreme condensation of the work means that even the title has to do a lot of work, and it does, telling us that we are in a subway (or metro) station. Now, from the fact that it is called a metro rather than a subway, it is a safe assumption that we are located somewhere in Europe rather than America, and that fact that we are in such a station at all lets us know we are likely in the 20th century, possibly the late 19th. Since the title indicates that the poem takes place in a station, we can reliably infer that the speaker is located there, presenting the poem from a point of view inside the station.

From here, we start to make other connections and significant observations, including the mood or tone set by this specific location. The metro is underground, making it cool and dark, as well as enclosed and compressed. All of these descriptors are associated with feelings on the neutral or negative side of human emotion, and someone in this situation, as the speaker is, would likely be feeling somewhat melancholy, or at least coolly contemplative and detached, as opposed to warm and comfortable. This is also a highly artificial situation, where nature does not have a significance presence; the concrete walls, steel tracks, and dim artificial lighting serve to separate the people inside from the natural world, and we have no idea whether it is night or day, summer or winter. We are in the artificial depths, isolated, and coolly detached. All of these factors support and reinforce one another, which leads us to seeing a thematic unity developing where before we only, on the surface, saw juxtaposing, fragmented images. And, of course, we get all of this from looking merely at the title of the poem, before we even start to consider the two lines of the body of the poem that come after! It is obvious, from this example, what close reading entails; the critic investigates each line, each word in the literary work of art, very carefully, examining the significance of each in relation to the others, and looking for links that tie various aspects of the work to each other, even if these aspects are not evident during a first reading. Each word we use in a poem can tell us something more than it seems to, and in a work where there are so few words, we must extract all the meaning we can from every one if we are to come to some conclusion about what the work means and how all of its elements form part of a coherent whole. If you miss an important aspect of a single word, you might well be dooming yourself to misunderstanding the entire text.

Although close reading, in a way, attempted to investigate and examine a literary text as if it were an object that existed in the natural world, objectively for all to see, it had a definite direction that is seen today as a bias by most literary scholars. In the case of a scientific observation and investigation of some phenomenon, we see that there is something there to investigate, and then proceed to determine how it functions, what forces are at work within it, and how they interact. The range of what can be found in this kind of investigation is almost limitless, as there are countless ways different natural phenomena can exist, and innumerable ways they be internally organized; the scientific method is merely a consistent and reliable approach to discovering this diverse range of potential information, not a prediction of what the examination will find.

Close reading, on the other hand, as many of the New Critics practiced and conceived it, was a consistent and reliable approach like the scientific method, but one that often led to the same set of conclusions regardless of what literary phenomenon was subject to its application. The New Critic would read a text, apply the methods of close reading, and almost inevitably discover that what seemed like a series of disconnected fragments was in fact an organized, organic whole, linked by pervasive irony and paradox that allowed for contradiction on one level, while forging consistency and unity of another. For example, returning to Pound's poem presented earlier, we can see a definite discrepancy between the first and second lines of the poem. Line one, "The apparition of these faces in the crowd," most obviously connects back to the title "In a Station of the Metro": the crowd that is appearing is appearing in the subway station. However, the second line of the poem, "Petals on a wet, black bough" stands in complete contradiction to the setting and tone that have already been established. Here, we have a paradox, a contradiction that seems to have no reconciliation. After all, how can the people in the subway, already described as very artificial and mechanical, be boughs and leaves?

This is where the New Critical gesture of greatest potency is brought into the investigation to reconcile the apparent opposites in a way that makes the poem as a whole cohere tremendously well. If we lay what we know about the subway and what we are told about the branch side-by-side, we only see the contradictions at first, but if we look more closely, we can see how they are remarkably, unexpectedly parallel. We have a subway station as the main setting, which tends to be tube-shaped and long, as well as being quite narrow, often just wide enough to accommodate a narrow platform on either side of the tracks, which themselves are only wide enough to accommodate the train. Subway trains are never colorful (which was even more true in the early 1900s than it is today), and tend to be very dark or neutral colors. The people who pile into them have to crowd on, and are grouped together quite closely, making it hard to distinguish one face from another, especially once the train is in motion. Compared to the dull, uniform colors of the train, however, these people are relatively colorful, and stand in high contrast to the dead, dull steel and concrete that enclose them in darkness. They are living, vibrant beings and lives attached to dead, dark, inert matter.

Now, moving to the final line of the poem, we can see how the characterization we made of the first line ties in, and is unified with what comes after. The wet, black bough stands in close relation, metaphorically speaking, to the subway station (also commonly known as "the tube"). Both of them are long, narrow, and cylindrically shaped. Also, both have a similar color, at least as they are described in this poem; the bough, which could be a number of vibrant colors normally, is in this case as dark as possible, which matches the dark muted colors of the subway station and the train itself. Note as well that the bough is wet, and while the underground train is not usually exposed to the elements, the tracks and the ground around them are often, because of their depth, repositories for very dirty, stagnant, water, which makes them excellent places for rats and other vermin to assemble. Finally, the bough described in the poem is most likely dead, or close to it, as not many plants feature boughs that are normally such a dark color. When a gardener is poor at his or her craft we call him or her a "black thumb," as black is the color associated with dead vegetation of all kinds. This parallels the subway station, track, and train, which all have the muted colors of things that are not alive. There is no vibrancy either in the bough itself, or in the station.

This links the bough and the station, but what about the faces? And the petals? As you might expect from what has come before, these very different things are actually more similar that we might suppose as well. First, we can see the people on the subway, and in the subway station, in a crowd. Their faces look similar to each other, and bunch closely together. The petals on the bough stand in a similar relation to each other, tightly bunched and stuck on the same dead object. Note that if the poet had used flowers instead of petals the comparison would have been weaker; flowers are more identifiably individual, and separated, whereas the petals all form almost identical, tightly-packed clusters of living vegetation, which is far more like the closely packed passengers on the trains and platforms. Both the people and the petals stand in contrast to their perches, as they are living things, still vibrant. They occupy dead spaces, but are not themselves dead, which means they offer some hope of life in a dreary situation. Things may be dark and dim in both settings, but there is some reason to be hopeful as long as life is present.

This has tied the lines of the poem together, but has left us unsatisfied. After all, what is the value of linking these images, unless that is the explicit point of the poem? If, for example, the poem had read "The apparition of these faces in the crowd/ like petals on a wet, black bough" we could be satisfied with stopping where we are, since we have established the relation, promised by "like," between the opposing elements of the poem. However, there is no like, and part of the poem is still unaccounted for. The poem does not simply say "this crowd" or "these faces in the crowd" but "the apparition of these faces in the crowd," which causes us to need to consider things more carefully. We are not focused merely on the crowd, or its faces, but the apparition of these faces, their act of appearing before us. Perhaps you have experienced the phenomenon of standing still while a crowd of people passed by continually; most of the time you are aware of a large, undifferentiated mass, but here and there, individual faces pop out at you, making you take some notice, and causing the mass of people to fade into the background. This is what seems to be happening here.

As these faces that we notice come out at us, we are forced to consider something individually that we had just been automatically considering in a communal, collective way, and this can be somewhat disconcerting. The petals on their wet bough, in a similar way, are striking when they differentiate themselves, and come toward us in a way that we can clearly see. But how does this happen? The petals bloom and blossom out of the bough, which is something that we especially associate with springtime. So, this dead, black bough, which we were considering as if it were dead for all time, may only be discolored from its winter stasis, and while it still wears the evidence of its slumber, it is actually coming back to life. This means that the petals can blossom from its dark surface, popping out at us the same way the faces of the people in the subway pop out at us in the crowd scene. Further, we can apply this motion, both literal and metaphorical, to the people coming out of the subway trains when the doors open. Inside, they are a mass of faces unmoving and stagnant, but once the doors open, they emerge, flood out toward us, and have the appearance of blooming out.

Although the New Critics would go (and have gone) into far more detail here, for our purposes we have laid the groundwork that illustrates how the process of close reading, built from the ground up, proceeding line-by-line, has enabled us to solve the paradoxical nature apparent at the surface of the poem. This has underlined another key dichotomy in New Critical investigation, which is the difference between appearance and reality. In most New Critical analyses, the surface of the literary work in question is described, and usually likened to the opinions or interpretations of some anonymous, undefined group of common, untrained readers. However, as you might have already guessed, this is only done in order to enable the inevitable contrast that is going to be established. Although the work appears to be a simple description of a human experience, in reality it is about the struggle of humankind to overcome its darkest psychological deformities. The contrast between appearance and reality is central to New Critical practice, and although it is not officially the end which close reading must attain, it most often is its result.

There are, of course, times when paradox in a literary work cannot be resolved so quickly and efficiently with reference to a common metaphorical connection. As a result, irony is often brought in to offer an alternative explanation. Irony, like paradox, only exists in the presence of opposing ideas and tensions, which is something the New Critics saw as central to literature. Whereas paradox presents seemingly irresolvable tensions in logic and reality, irony most often presents apparent contradiction on the level of discourse. For example, Eliot's poem The Waste Land ends in the same word, repeated three times: Shantih Shantih Shantih. This word is a Hebrew blessing meaning something like "the peace that passes understanding." Of course, the poem, as you might have inferred from the title, even up to the end is about the fragmentation of human life and experience in a world torn apart by external and internal upheaval. The three words stand in sharp distinction to most of what comes before, and it seems highly unlikely that the speaker is now just saying that everything is going to be ok. More likely, especially if you are a New Critic, is that these lines present an ironic counterpoint to what has come before, and quote the blessing only to mock its empty powerlessness in the face of so much despair.

Of course, part of the problem with irony is that it is often hard to know, especially in a difficult poetic text, what is ironic and what is sincerely stated. If you also take the intentionality of the personal author out of the equation, as the New Critics did, you are sometimes faced with a dilemma that can lead to an impasse amongst equally respected and well trained critics. For example, to this day critics cannot agree over whether The Waste Land is an essentially hopeful poem set in a dark world, or whether it is a despairing piece of work with glimpses of something better offered only in order to show their futility. This is a weakness emblematic of the New Critical project; no matter how closely you examine what is happening in a given text, or how strong your close reading is, sometimes you will reach a point when a leap of faith (which usually foregrounds your own biases) must take place to pick one alternative or another.

The goal of a New Critical encounter with a text was finding unity where it did not seem to exist, and to provide as thorough and complete a reading of the text as possible. In this case, a reading meant a sustained argument that tied together each aspect of the whole according to a thesis of unity that the critic would develop from an investigation of each part, line, and word of the poem in their minutest and most general interactions. The more of the work in question that the reading accounted for and supported, and better it was considered to be. As you might expect, as we have seen with a lot of the readings we have looked at so far, this approach encouraged critics to come up with a definite position with regard to the text as a whole. Although they worked from the smallest textual units possible, their goal was to work up to a reading of the entire text in the grandest way possible. So, after all the close reading was done, the paradoxes resolved, and the irony identified and justified, the last step was to talk about how the work in question had a grander significance, a message about the world or literature as a whole. Pound's poem, for instance, was considered a compact discourse on the power of the natural human spirit to shine through even in the midst of artificial, alienating darkness. This pithy description tied all of the critical work together, and served as a starting point for future critics, who could agree with the point while taking issue with the process by which it was arrived at, who could disagree with the point but agree with the method followed (just not the interpretation of its results), or who could disagree with both the conclusion and the means used to reach it. Thus, New Critical practice built upon itself and referenced itself endlessly, creating the edifice of the literary academic community as we know it today.

This building upon prior critical knowledge was reflected in another vital New Critical tenet, that being their reevaluation of the literary canon. As anyone who knows theology is well aware, the word canon (never, ever to be confused with cannon), comes from the almost identical Greek word meaning rule, standard, or boundary. In Biblical terminology, it has to do with both the declaration of saints, and, more importantly, the selection of texts to include in the Bible. It was of vital importance for early Christian leaders to separate the books which would be considered most holy, and inspired by God, from those that, while potentially useful, were not divinely inspired, and thus potentially flawed.

Like so many other aspects of Biblical interpretation, also known as exegesis, the idea of the canon made its way into literary studies, at no time more prominently and obviously than with the New Critics. Of course, the term has to be understood somewhat differently to have meaning in literary studies; after all, no one really believes that all authors need to be divinely inspired to be considered effective and powerful artists, and very, very few of them would ever be regarded, or even attempt to be regarded, as saints. In this case, the earlier Greek meanings are more obviously applicable, and the canon as conceived in literary studies represents the works, spanning though the ages, that are considered the best. These works are of the highest quality, and are universal in their appeal; they have stood the test of time, meaning that they are considered as strong and powerful today was they were in their own time, and in all times in between. These canonical texts are the ones that deserve most to be studied, both by the critics and by students, and they will form the base not only for the literary curriculum, but also for the literary community as a whole. These great works form the object of study, and are the common glue which holds the discipline together. After all, if there were no common body of texts to investigate, and critics and students examined whatever texts struck their fancies, what you would have would be a random assortment of voices crying in the wind, rather than a community with any kind of focus.

In the late 19th century, Matthew Arnold presented the idea of the canon, and indeed the purpose of education, as to forward the best of what is thought and known in the world. His problem, like that of the New Critics in their valuation of the canon, was the assumption that objective standards, applied without bias, could be applied to all of the literary works in the world, across times and cultures. What is considered the art of one age may be disparaged in the next, only to be revived again later. Also, because of various social conditions that exist in different times and places, things we may now consider to be the greatest literature might well have been banned and burned in their own times, kept from the greater public view and destroyed because of the progressive ideas they contained. Arnold and the New Critics both assumed a simple meritocracy, where all texts have equal access to evaluation, and which are all judged fairly according to standards that would apply to all works equally. What they failed to account for was the historical and social, and the power of tradition. After all, if a text in its own age was unpopular, how would we come to know about it now, even if copies were available? The most popular works at any given time get reproduced most and tend to survive long enough to get adopted by subsequent generations, but this gives us a limited view of previous eras. If Shakespeare were known to be a woman in her day, would she still have become the most influential voice of English literature? It is almost impossible to say for certain, but this is the kind of question that severely complicates the straightforward idea of the canon in literary studies. The New Critical program strove to be objective and scientific in many regards, but sometime forgot that much of what they were saying way rooted in subjective human processes rather than natural, apparent scientific fact.

Aside from a rather narrow view of the canon criteria and its evaluation, however, the New Critics had some interesting and influential opinions about how the canon made itself felt in the present day, and how, highly counter-intuitively, the present day made itself felt in the canon. It is obvious that works of the past have a definite effect on what we see today as valuable, and that the contemporary works will be judged worthy of inclusion in the canon only if they can compare with the works which already have membership. According to this view, the canon grows by accumulation, as the old works rest comfortably, while more and more new works are added to the pile. Also according to this view, admission to the canon becomes more and more difficult as times goes on. The early great works have the most evident impact on what comes later, and shape the course of literary history, which is a large part of the reason they are included. However, as time goes on, this originary power becomes diluted, as newer and newer texts are seen as owing more and more influence to many, many others that came before. There is only so much possible innovation, only so many ways of arranging a text, and so the newest artists are always in the most difficult position; everything seems to have been done, and doing it better than a great master, who is the very source for the criteria used for evaluation, is no easy matter.

The New Critics, however, did not subscribe to this accumulative view of literary history, and believed that the present age could have an impact on works of the past. T.S. Eliot succinctly outlines this position in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent." He discusses the importance of tradition in the creation of all modern art, and notes that the very standards by which art can be judged derive, although not without modification, from the great works of the past. However, he asserts that when new literature is created, it also modifies the way we look at previous literary works. Modern poetry obviously couldn't directly influence the production and contemporary reception of ancient tragedy, but it could certainly have an influence on how we, today, read it, and how we evaluate its place amongst the greatest works of all time.

Let us take, for example, Eliot's own poetry as an example of work that spread its influence not only forward in time, but also back. His poetry self-consciously makes reference to, and use of, the work of the 17th century metaphysical poets. These poets were not very highly regarded previous to Eliot's (and other modernist's) poetry, but after his work became influential, the status of these poets rose dramatically. As a result, their place in the canon was significantly improved, as was that of the romantics, whom Eliot used both in his art and his criticism. The Victorians, on the other hand, had the misfortune of writing in the age just prior to the time of modernism and the New Critics, and as is so often the case, one age defines itself in opposition to the one that immediately precedes it. As a result, although the Victorians were certainly not removed from the canon, their work no longer had the same relative status it did before New Criticism. As the years have come and gone, the influence of modern poetry itself has waxed and waned depending on the contemporary literary movement, and while it makes for a bumpy ride for their poetry, it only shows that their idea of the canon was a strong and resilient one.

One of the primary critiques of New Criticism by later schools of literary theory is that the New Critics seemed to be largely blind to the theoretical positions they followed. For this reason, some academics refuse to call New Criticism a theory at all, referring to it instead as a series of common practices without any theoretical awareness undergirding them. To some extent, this criticism is valid; the New Critics were far more concerned with doing practical criticism that worked to explain the new kind of literary works that modernism offered, and less with more abstract and self-reflective work in laying out their premises and examining them critically. This makes sense considering the time in which all of this was taking place, however, since literary scholars were attempting to make their craft into a recognized discipline with a firm place in universities. When a discipline is being crafted and promoted as it was in this time, enthusiastic practice is the norm, and critical self-reflection usually comes only later, when the discipline is firmly enough established that it can bear the attacks not only from without, but from within as well.

The relationship between criticism and art is also unusually blurred in this period, at least unusually for the 20th century, because the division that later periods saw between poets and critics was only just beginning to form here, and many of the most prominent figures in literary modernism were also the foremost figures of literary criticism. The exemplar for this situation once again is the oft-quoted T.S. Eliot, who was considered the foremost critic and poet of New Criticism and modernism respectively, especially in the 1920s and 30s, some of the earliest years of the movements. More than one detractor has pointed out that New Critics were in the early years people who were writing purportedly objective standards of criticism that just happened (wink wink) to be an explication and justification for the kinds of poems they themselves were writing. There is certainly some truth to these claims, which explains why critical and artistic practice rose to the fore, and theory took a back seat.

The theory of a given academic discipline puts that discipline on display, exposing its most sensitive areas, and pointing out all its strengths and flaws. In the early years of a discipline's development, this is difficult to do, for there is not even a recognized, unified body of knowledge to lay bare, meaning that theory has no real target to aim its analysis at. So, aside from a few exceptions mentioned earlier (including I.A. Richards), New Criticism becomes a coherent theoretical position only later on, when it is relatively well established, and when the idea of the discipline of literary studies is itself somewhat more defined. For a time, New Criticism and literary scholarship were virtually synonymous in North America, and it is only when each matures that alternative ways of conceptualizing criticism and literary studies become possible in a significant and important way. With an influx of European influence and critical literary thought in the 50s and 60s, it became apparent that literature stretched far beyond the bounds of the New Critical imagination, and that it was merely one theoretical approach, amongst many, to the study of literature. Only when the tried and expected method is confronted with a viable alternative will it be seen as an option, one theory among many, rather than simply the common-sense way of doing things. Thus New Criticism, while being a foundational theory for literary studies in North America and Britain, does not know itself as such till long after its prime has passed.



Forum / Research Tutorial / New Criticism (Literary Theory)

9 users online in the last hour
Need Help? ➰
CLOSE
THE BEST FREELANCE WRITERS [4]:
Top Academic Freelance Writers!
THE BEST WRITING SERVICES [5]:
Top Academic Research Services!

RECOMMENDED SERVICES:
- (coupon: GW10)
- (coupon: Best7)
VERIFY WRITER PROFILE:
Verify a freelance writer profile:
Check for a suspicious Twitter profile:
SIGN UP for an zurnal24 account!