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First Lecture

New Criticism, moral formalism and F. R. Leavis


Origins: Eliot, Richards, Empson

The origins of the dominant Anglo-American traditions of criticism in the

mid-twentieth century (roughly from the 1920s to the 1970s)


There are two main sources of Anglo-American New Criticism: Matthew
Arnold and T.S. Eliot

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold proposed that philosophy and religion would be

replaced by poetry in modern society.


For Arnold, Culture represents the best that has been known

and thought in the world.


This can be regarded as a humanistic defence against the destructive
Anarchy.

T. S. Eliot

The single most influential common figure behind the Anglo-American

traditions of criticism was T. S. Eliot.


Both critics have a profound, almost respectful regard for literary works

themselves.
This may manifest itself as an obsessive concern with the text itself.
For them, what is important is the words on the page, nothing more

nor less;
For them, literary works are icons of human value deployed against

twentieth-century cultural barbarism;


They provide an objective, scientific, disinterested (Arnolds word)

criticism of the text.


T. S. Eliots early essay Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919)
has been perhaps the single most influential work in Anglo-American
criticism.

Eliot does two things in particular.


First, he emphasizes that writers must have the historical sense
that is, a sense of the tradition of writing in which they must situate

themselves;
secondly,
that

this

process

reinforces

the

necessary

depersonalization of the artist if his or her art is to attain the


impersonality it must have if it is to approach the condition of

science.
Famously, Eliot wrote: 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.


According to Eliot, the poet becomes a kind of impersonal catalyst of
experience, a medium not of his or her consciousness or personality
but of that which in the end makes up the medium itself the poem

and our sole object of interest.


In another famous phrase from his essay on Hamlet (1919), Eliot
describes the work of art as an objective correlative for the
experience that may have engendered it: an impersonal re-creation that
is the autonomous object of attention. It is closely related to the notion

of the image.
New Criticism adopts an anti-romantic stance that emphasizes the
importance of science, objectivity, impersonality, and the medium

as the focal object of analysis.


This stance emphasizes also the notion of a tradition of works which
most successfully hold an essence of human experience in their

constituent medium.
I. A. Richards, William Empson and, slightly later, F. R. Leavis were
the main proponents of New Criticism at Cambridge.

I. A. Richards

Richards, whose background was in philosophy (aesthetics, psychology


and semantics), produced his widely influential Principles of Literary
Criticism in 1924.
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In Principles of Literary Criticism, Richards innovatively attempted

to lay down an explicit theoretical base for literary study.


He argued that criticism should emulate the precision of science.
He attempted to articulate the special character of literary language,
differentiating the emotive language of poetry from the referential

language of non-literary discourse.


In Practical Criticism (1929), Richards included examples of his

students attempts to analyse short, unidentified poems.


He showed how loose their reading equipment was, and attempted to

establish 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
English syllabus rapidly and damagingly becoming untheorized, and

thus naturalized, as the fundamental critical practice.


There are two virtues of New Criticism
It encourages attentive close reading of texts
It enhances a kind of democratization of literary study in the classroom,
in which nearly everyone was placed on an equal footing in the face of a
blind text.

William Empson

William Empson, was Richardss pupil.


His first, famously precocious and astoundingly quickly produced work

is Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930).


In this book Empson emphasizes ambiguity

characteristic of poetic language.


This book has an apparent tendency to detach literary texts from their

as

the

defining

contexts in the process of reading their ambiguities


The American New Critics

American New Criticism, emerged in the 1920s and especially dominant

in the 1940s and 1950s.


It is equivalent to the establishing of the new professional criticism in

Britain.
New Criticism is clearly characterized in premise and practice:
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It is not concerned with context historical, biographical, intellectual

and so on;
It is not interested in the fallacies of intention or affect;
it is concerned solely with the text in itself, with its language and

organization;
it does not seek a texts meaning, but how it speaks itself
The New Critical slogan is A poem must not mean/But be;
New Criticism 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;


It is concerned essentially with articulating the very poem-ness the
formal quintessence of the poem itself.

John Crowe Ransom

John Crowe Ransoms Criticism, Inc. (1937) is an early, founding

essay in the self-identification of New Criticism.


His book, The New Criticism, 1941, gave the movement its name.
Ransom is the editor of the Kenyon Review 193959.
He lays down the ground rules:
First, Criticism, Inc. is the business of professionals professors of

literature in the universities in particular;


Second, criticism should become more scientific, or precise and
systematic;

thus, Eliot was right to denounce romantic literature as

imperfect in objectivity, or aesthetic distance;


Third, criticism is not ethical, linguistic or historical studies, which are

merely aids;
Fourth, 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.


Fifth, the character of the poem resides for the good critic in its way of
exhibiting the residuary quality.

Cleanth Brooks

Cleanth Brooks was a professional academic, editor of the Southern


Review (193542)
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He was one of the most skilled and exemplary practitioners of the New

Criticism.
His and Warrens anthologies, Understanding Poetry (1938) and
Understanding Fiction (1943), are often regarded as having spread

the New Critical doctrine throughout America.


His most characteristic book of close readings is the significantly titled

The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947).


In The Well-Wrought Urn, Brooks gives the best exemplification,

explicitly and implicitly, of New Critical practice.


In this book, Brooks analyses Keatss An Ode to a Grecian Urn.
o He refers to Eliot and his notion of the objective correlative;
o He rejects the relevance of biography;
o He reiterates throughout the terms dramatic propriety,
irony, paradox (repeatedly) and organic context;
o He performs an outstanding reading of the poem which leaves its
sententious final dictum as a dramatically organic element of the
whole;
o He constantly admires the poems history above the actual
histories of war and peace, of our time-ridden minds, of
meaningless accumulations of facts, of the scientific and
philosophical generalisations which dominate our world;
o He explicitly praises the poems insight into essential truth;
o He confirms the poems value to us precisely because, like Keatss
urn, it is All breathing human passion far above thus stressing
the ironic fact that all human passion does leave one cloyed;
hence the superiority of art.

W. K. Wimsatt & Monroe C. Beardsley

Wimsatt and Beardsley wrote two New Critical essays The

Intentional Fallacy (1946) and The Affective Fallacy (1949).


The two essays are overtly theoretical and have become influential

texts more generally in modern critical discourse.


Both essays, influenced by Eliot and Richards, engage with the
addresser (writer) message (text) addressee (reader) nexus
outlined in the Introduction, in the pursuit of an objective criticism
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which abjures or avoids 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; that a poem goes about the
world beyond [the authors] power to intend about it or control
it it 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 it works or not.


The New Critics 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.


In the second essay, 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.


Opposing the classical objectivity of New Criticism to romantic
reader psychology, the essay asserts that the outcome of both
fallacies is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically
critical judgement, tends to disappear

The tenets of the American New Criticism

The poem is an organic system of relationships, and the poetic quality


should never be understood as inhering in one or more factors taken in

isolation.
The American New Critics emphasized the organic unityof the poem.
They put more emphasis on form.
They believe in the autonomy of the literary text, i.e. the text is a

verbal icon. or the poem is a well-wrought urn.


There is a clear-cut boundary between text and context, the reader
needs to focus on the system of relationships that are operating within

the text.
Literature must be understood in itself
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Literary artefact: the text is primarily a system of language. In it,


language operates differently than it does elsewhere, it is governed by

a different set of rules.


The believe in the heresy of paraphrase: It is impossible to
paraphrase a poem, a poem should not mean but be. It is never what

a poem says which matters, but what it is.


They proposes two fallacies Intentional fallacy and affective

fallacy
Intentional fallacy occurs when readers evoke what the author

meant.
What the author intended is never relevant to the literary work, and it is
also unavailable: Never trust the artist, trust the tale (D.H.
Lawrence) to invoke the intention of the author is to threaten the

integrity of the literary text.


Affective fallacy occurs when readers convey their own emotional
responses to the text. One has to concentrate solely on the work the
way in which it brings the diversity of experience into unity. It is not the
author that does this, but rather a principle inherent in any good

artwork.
Practical Criticism and New Criticism focus on the meaning, how

form contributes to meaning.


For them, meaning is always one, and one that can be deciphered.
Literature offers a critique of the superficial, rationalised and

commercialised world we live in.


They believe in liberal humanism: the human subject is an autonomous
individual, free from social and historical determinations, able to make
autonomous choices, master of its own life and actions.

Moral formalism: F. R. Leavis

F. R. Leavis is the editor of Scrutiny (1932-1953) which is a


conservative journal of literary criticism that combines literature with
morality.

In his The Great Tradition (1948), Leavis asserts that the great
English novelists such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and

Joseph Conrad constitute the canon of great writers.


For him, they have "a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent

openness before life, and a marked moral intensity"


The study of literature has a civilising mission to humanise people

and provide values.


civilising is a process of forcing people into a fixed, ideal pattern of

Englishness
Criticism should make an objective judgement.
At the same time, the reader must demonstrate sensibility to the

text, which happens naturally.


Sensibility is the natural response of the reader towards the text.
Close reading involves the intense scrutiny of a piece of prose or poetry,
concentrating on the words on the page, and disregarding the works

context.
The literary text has an intrinsic artistic worth, transcending all

particularities of time and space.


There is a canon of authoritative list of great works of literature that

everyone with sensibility should study and admire.


Canon is judgements of worth of a piece of literature as great