New Criticism

New Criticism is a school of Anglo-American literary critical theory that was influential from the late 1920s and prominent until the late 1960s, whose founding fathers were two colossal figures of the critical world, T.S.Eliot and I.A.Richards. Though influenced by Russian Formalism, it developed independently on both sides of the Atlantic, in England and the United States, centering around literary devices and the author’s craft with an exclusive focus on poetry. It insisted on the intrinsic value of a work of art and investigated the individual work as an independent unit of meaning. It was opposed to the critical practice of bringing historical, socio-political or biographical data to bear on the interpretation of a work.

The term ‘New Criticism’, though put into circulation by J.E. Spingarn in his booklet The New Criticism in 1911,  was made current by John Crowe Ransom’s  The New Criticism (1941), a work that organized the principles of this approach to literature. Early works in the New Critical tradition were those of  English critics – T.S.Eliot’s The Sacred Wood, I.A. Richards’ The Principles of Literary Criticism, and William Empson’s  Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). Some figures associated with New Criticism include Cleanth Brooks, R.P. Blackmur, William K. Wimsatt, Allen Tate  and Robert Penn Warren although their critical pronouncements, along with those of Ransom, Richards, and Empson, are somewhat diverse and do not readily constitute a uniform school of thought. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, through textbooks Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943), did much to make the New Criticism the predominant method of teaching literature in American colleges. Central instances of the theory and practice of New Criticism are Cleanth Brooks’  The Well Wrought Urn (1947), and W. K. Wimsatt’s  The Verbal Icon (1954). The Anglo-American New Critics attempted to systematize the study of literature, to develop an approach which was centered on the rigorous study of the text itself. The earliest criticism carrying this method could be found in the poetry magazine The Fugitive.

Intentional and Affective Fallacies: New Criticism is distinctly formalistic in character. It stresses close attention to the internal characteristics of the text itself, and  discourages the use of external evidence to explain the work. It is not concerned with external circumstances like the biography of the author, historical context, social conditions at the time of production, effects on the reader and  content of the text (message/ideas). New Critics warn the reader against critical practices which divert attention from the poem itself. New Criticism disclaims both the personal input of the writer (intention) and the emotional effect on the reader (affect) in order to study the ‘words on the page’.  In The Verbal Icon (1954), William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, while emphasizing the need for ‘objective’ criticism, describe two fallacies which are encountered in the study of literature – Intentional Fallacy and Affective fallacy. “Intentional Fallacy” is the mistake of attempting to understand the author’s intentions when interpreting a literary work. Such an approach is fallacious because, to the New Critic, the meaning of a work is contained solely within the work itself, and attempts to understand the author’s intention violate the autonomy of the work. The design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging a literary work. “Affective Fallacy” is the mistake of equating a work with its emotional effects upon an audience. To the New Critics, a text should never be understood in relation to the responses of its readers; the critic must base his analysis on the text’s intrinsic dimensions.

Close reading: New Criticism is founded on the premise that the text is an autotelic artefact, complete in itself and existing for its own sake.  It insists that the proper concern of literary criticism is not with the external circumstances or effects or historical position of a work, but with a detailed consideration of the work itself as an independent entity. The primary technique employed in the New Critical approach is explication or close reading of the text,  a technique as old as Aristotle’s Poetics. Close reading is a detailed analysis of the text itself to arrive at an interpretation without referring to historical, authorial, or cultural concerns. It was a strict ‘word on the page’ approach. Close attention is paid to individual words, theme, imagery, metaphor, rhythm, metre etc. Close reading involves a scrupulous examination of the formal elements which contribute to the unity of the work.  This makes New Criticism ‘intrinsic’ ie, it exists within the confines of the text. It must be noted in this context that some of the principles of New Criticism derives from  Samuel Taylor Coleridge who was the first to elaborate on the concept of the poem as a unified, organic whole which reconciled its internal conflicts and achieved some final balance or harmony.

Anglo-American/New Critical Formalism: Since New Criticism countered author-centered biographical and psychological approaches as well as the reader-centered history of reception, and studied the literary work in isolation from its circumstances and effects, it is often considered a type of critical ‘formalism’. The New Critics were often called ‘formalists’ to show their lack of social concerns. They adopted an unhistorical and scientific approach which isolated a work from its origins and context, a technique similar to the French ‘explication de texte’. There is a special emphasis on the connotative and associative values of words and figurative language. The complexity of  a work is often a result of multiple/conflicting meanings, produced by devices like irony, paradox, ambiguity, tension etc. Therefore New Criticism focuses on multiple meanings, paradox, irony, word-play, puns, rhetorical figures and so. New Criticism, however, objects to the common practice of paraphrase in literary studies since it does not highlight the central elements of a work such as multiple meanings, ambiguity, ambivalence, paradox, order, harmony, tension,  irony etc.

Heresy of Paraphrase: New Critics reject approaches which view the poem as an attempt at representing the “real world.” Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn warns us against “the heresy of paraphrase.” He asserts that the meaning of a poem is complex and precise, and that any attempt to paraphrase it inevitably distorts or reduces it. Thus, any attempt to say what a poem means is heretical, because it is an insult to the integrity of the complex structure of meaning within the work.

Preference for Poetry: The New Critics privileged poetry over other forms of literary expression because they saw the poem as the purest exemplification of the literary values which they upheld. However, the techniques of close reading and structural analysis of texts have also been applied to fiction, drama, and other literary forms. The distinction between literary genres does not play an essential role in the New Criticism. The essential components of any work of literature, whether lyric, narrative, or dramatic, are conceived to be words, images, and symbols rather than character, thought, and plot. These linguistic elements, whatever the genre, are organized around a central theme. These elements like “tension,” “irony,” and “paradox” help in achieving a “reconciliation of diverse impulses” or an “equilibrium of opposed forces. New Critics however feel that poetry lends itself to such an interpretation much more than any other genre, for features like rhyme, metre and rhetorical figures which are specific to the genre, call attention to the closed or unified character of the genre.


John Crowe Ransom: Editor of The Kenyon Review, Ransom was a leading figure of New Criticism, which gained its name from his 1941 volume of essays The New Criticism. In his seminal 1937 essay, “Criticism, Inc.” Ransom laid out his ideal form of literary criticism stating that, “criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic.” He argued that personal responses to literature, historical scholarship, linguistic scholarship, and what he termed “moral studies” should not influence literary criticism. He also argued that a poem should be regarded as an aesthetic object. His basic argument was that a poem consists of both ‘structure’ and ‘texture’ in a delicate harmony. The ‘texture’ is the quality of the expression at any given point enriched by metaphorical devices like images and symbols so as to embody the full quality of the things referred to. The structure is the paraphrasable argument. Scientific discourse, for Ransom, is all structure and no texture, for it deals with generalities and not specificities. Poetry has both structure and texture. A poem is “a loose logical structure with an irrelevant local texture.” By interpreting the poem through the complexities and specificities of the local texture, the structure is made more meaningful and truly poetic.  But Ransom himself was always more a theoretical than practical critic, and it was left to two former students of Ransom–Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren–to produce the books that are forever associated with the movement: Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943).They recorded their concerns in a magazine of verse entitled the Fugitive, which, though it appeared little more than a dozen times after the first issue was published in 1922, proved to be in the vanguard of a new literary movement—Agrarianism—and a new way of analyzing works of art—the New Criticism.

Cleanth Brooks: Cleanth Brooks, a key figure in the rise of the school of New Criticism in America, revolutionized the teaching of poetry in America. His poetics was derived from Eliot, Richards, Empson and Leavis. Brooks emphasized “the interior life of a poem” and codified the principles of close reading. His essay “The Formalist Critic” exemplifies his tenets of New Criticism. He used the term “heresy of paraphrase” in his essay “The Well Wrought Urn” and insisted that poetry should be taught as poetry and the critic should never reduce a poem to simple paraphrase, explaining it through biographical or historical contexts.

His best known works, The Well Wrought Urn and Modern Poetry and The Tradition argue for the centrality of ambiguity and paradox as a way of understanding poetry. Through the use of “ironic contrast” and “ambivalence” , the poet is able to create internal paradoxes which are always resolved.

In “The Language of Paradox” Brooks maintains that the true function of literary criticism is first to understand and then to analyse “the organic nature of poetry.” In his opinion, words, vivid images, rhyme, rhythm, metre, and thought content are the various elements which combine themselves in the making of a poem. Brooks asserts: “It is the function of criticism to analyse the internal relationship of these different elements which go into the making of a poem.”

He discussed ‘paradox’ as the most important language and literary convention in poetry. Wordsworth himself, Brooks points out, let the intention of paradox be read in his poetry, when he admitted that his purpose was “to choose incidents and situations from common life”, but to handle them in such a way that “ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect”. In his essay “The Language of Paradox” Brooks convincingly proves that paradox is “the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry.” “Irony” also plays a similar role in poetry.


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