From Neo Classicism to New Criticism

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      Alexander Pope had, in his Essay on Criticism, laid down the maxim: In every work regard, the writer’s end Since none can compass more than they intend. This meant not going to biography or psychology to discover the author’s intention, for it is not personal intention that is meant here, but poetic intention with reference to the cultural climate or tradition in which the poet worked, and that is what needs to be established. Applied to a poem like The Faerie Queene, it meant that we come to the poem without false analogies in mind (the Homeric epic and classical ideas of unity), that we see it for what it really is, and appreciate its own proper excellence (which means, regarding The Faerie Queene, written on the Gothic model, as a Gothic cathedral and judging it as such, rather than seeing it as an unsuccessful Greek temple or neoclassic church). This precisely was Bishop Hurd’s method (Letters on Chivalry and Romance) in dealing with The Faerie Queene. Dryden had taken an even bolder and more: open-minded stand in regard to Shakespearian plays. He had declared: Other climes, other standards.

      Catholicity of taste as is expressed: here in the recognition of different kinds of excellence, can be a virtue in a literary critic, but only upto a point. For, beyond a point, it may mean abandonment of all standards. The critic in that case runs the risk of falling into “the affective fallacy”, which is to indulge in autobiographical chatter about personal likes and dislikes, in mere impressionism. Such an approach shows an absence of method, too, an absence of reasoned judgment and a failure to recognize a critical order. Criticism should be able to distinguish the good from the bad, and should do it by an objective method.

      But impressionism, too, has its plus points. A subjective response, in place of critical assessment, may not be a very useful method of criticism, all right. But, it may be urged, criticism is not solely a matter of evaluation; it is also one of the functions of the critic to help increase understanding and appreciation. By his enthusiastic response, the critic may help illuminate the text, evangelically communicate his joy to the reader, and thus drive him to ‘savor’ the text, to read it. Lamb, Hazlitt and De Quincey were the chief practitioners of the impressionistic method. Their critical responses may not always be ‘gush’, or egotistical chatter about books and authors. We see that they are often mixed with valuable insights and evaluative pronouncements. The last of the trio, especially used a sophisticated, composite method. In his piece ‘On the knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, we notice that he not only relates literature to life, but also raises questions of form and structure.

      This may be a long way away from Hurd, but practical criticism must avoid the pitfalls or extremes at either end — literary criticism digging into history for its own sake, with barely a link with the literary work under reference, on the one hand, and on the other placing undue stress on the poet’s biography as if poetical truth were the same as autobiographical truth.

      The whole view of art as a transcript of personal feelings and experiences is demonstrably false, observes David Daiches (Critical Approaches to Literature). The biographical approach ignores the quite simple psychological fact that a work of art may embody the poet’s dream, rather than mirror the facts of his actual life, or maybe, it is the ‘mask’ behind which the real person is hiding, or that the work represents his ‘anti-self. We would be grievously in error if we were to take every statement in a man’s poetry as literal autobiographical truth It is precisely that kind of fallacy which had made people argue that Shakespeare must have been a soldier, lawyer, farmer and so on. In that case, (as Ellen Terry pointed out) it is possible to argue that he must have been a woman too.

      Of course, there is no denying the presence of a personality behind the work. But this is in the sense that the work has the stamp of the author’s genius: there is something which we call ‘Miltonic’ or ‘Keatsian’ in the works of those authors. And we know what is ‘Shakespearian’ without having any definite biographical knowledge about the writer. Biography may help explain certain allusions or even words in an author’s work. But it is dangerous to give it any real critical importance, says David Daiches. Whether or not Byron’s poem ‘Fare Thee Well’ dramatizes the poet’s actual relations with his wife, whether or not the poet’s tears fell over the manuscript (as Thomas Moore alleges, in his Memoranda), it is of no consequence to the critic. The poem is neither worse nor better on that account. “The poem exists; the tears shed or unshed, the personal emotions, are gone and cannot be reconstructed, nor need they be”. (Wellek & Warren in Theory of Literature, quoted by David Daiches).

      Matthew Arnold, the avowed classicist, is on surer ground when he talks of the ‘grand style’ and ‘high seriousness’, but when he comes to speak of poetry as a ‘criticism of life’ he fails to define his terms with finesse, and is overtly didactic, that is, he takes a moralistic view of the function of literature. ‘He was rather a propagandist for criticism than a critic’, as Eliot remarks. He is more concerned with pointing out what he regards as the touchstones of great poetry than in analyzing its qualities and the wa^ it operates. As for his judgment about particular poets, his verdict declaring Dryden and Pope as ‘classics of our prose’ is obtuse, and that about Shelley crassly unjust (because temperamentally unsympathetic). He is hardly able to demonstrate, with analytic precision, where Shelley’s poetry lacked ‘body’ or ‘muscle’. To translate into symbolic terms his dream of future deliverance of the earth from its present oppressive regimes, as Shelley did in ‘Prometheus Unbound,’ was certainly not to be ‘ineffectual’.

      Prof. George Saintsbury, of the early 20th century, though a professional critic of massive learning, was yet an amateur in method. With him, practical criticism has not yet become a ‘discipline’. It is more literary chat, an after-dinner monologue in the impressionistic tradition than literary criticism proper. Unconcerned about method, Saintsbury does not attempt to demonstrate, with analytic precision, the presence of any given quality in a literary work. He is more a literary connoisseur than an analyst, moving quickly from one work to another, like a wine­taster, without pausing to address himself to the more profound critical questions. There is always the critic’s personality before us, seated in a plush leather chair, and talking, in pedantic involuted style, of his preferences and prejudices.

      All this was to change not long afterward. Winds of change were beginning to blow across the field of criticism, even as they had begun to blow across the field of creative literature. In reaction to Romanticism, criticism had to extricate itself from the eclectic tradition, leave behind the impressionistic mode, shed its amateur tone, and acquire professionalism and analytic rigor. As early as 20th century, Spingam, of Columbia University, had given a call for the New Critic (John Crowe Ransom fixed the label used by Spingam first by his The New Criticism, 1941) to address himself to the work of art before him, rather than get entangled in bio-critical considerations. The New Criticism had to stop being mere appreciation and become close reading of the text and investigation, analysis, exegesis. Percy Lubbock defined the new approach, with reference to the novel, in his Craft of Fiction (1921): The business of criticism in the matter of fiction seems clear, at any rate. There is nothing more that can usefully be said about a novel until we have fastened upon the question of its making and explored it to some purpose....That Jane Austen was an acute observer, that Dickens was a great humorist we know, we have repeated, we have told each other a thousand times. It is their books, as well as their talents and attainments, that we aspire to see—their books, which we must recreate for ourselves if we are ever to behold them. And in order to recreate them durably there is the one obvious way—to study the craft, to follow the process, to read constructively. To study the craft, to follow the process, to read constructively—the critical idiom sounds familiar. For it is in much the same language that the New Critics defined the function of literary criticism.

      It was about this very time that T. S. Eliot published his first collection of critical essays, which changed the climate for literary criticism. An examination of one of his critical essays will show us that Eliot’s interest is less in the poetry than in what goes on in it. He is not content with citing resemblances and echoes, as is Saintsbury, but quotes other poets to illustrate a fine distinction that he is making. The reader feels he is present at a demonstration of what happens in a poem, not listening to literary reminiscing. If you compare an academic critic like Oliver Elton with Eliot, both speaking on one and the same poet, say Swinburne, for example, you will see the difference. Eliot avoids the general and abstract description which Elton uses. He is concerned to explain what happens in Swinburne’s poetry, how language works in his poems. Eliot shows how words have an independent existence in Swinburne, unrelated to objects, or meaning; he tells us that his verse is not sham, that the verbal opulence of Swinburne makes us think of him as nothing short of a genius, that the’ diffuseness’ in him is not a fault but one of his glories etc. etc. The whole approach is analytic to a degree that the reader, unaccustomed to such hair-splitting, has to do a lot of head­scratching. This critical writing is very different from the performance of an academic critic like Prof Oliver Elton (author of The English Muse) working in the eclectic tradition. The generalities that Elton notes may fit into a survey; if parallelisms, correspondences and echoes are noted, it is by way of literary reminiscence, not with a view to pinning down or defining a subtle point of difference or distinction. Such a treatment or discussion is oriented towards the reader and the effect that the poem has on him, rather than towards the author and the text.

      Eliot’s method, on the other hand, shows a commitment to the text, a concern for the way a poem is put together, or rather the way it grows out of the crucible of experience: ideas, images, the sounds of words, their associations, the nuances they take on in combination with other words or in certain juxtapositions. (The poet disrupts the ordinary process of language in order to create new structures of meaning through paradox, irony, symbol, ‘gesture’, so on and so forth, as the New Critics put it).

      The doctrine that poetry, far from being an expression of personality. Eliot, by his precepts and practice, laid the foundations of the New Criticism. Other theoreticians and professional critics who laid the philosophic groundwork for the New Criticism were T. E. Hulme, E R. Leavis, and I. A. Richards in England, and Spingarn and John Crowe Ransom in America. Eliot had himself felt the influence of Hulme’s doctrines, as is evidenced by his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1917). The literary periodical ‘Fugitive’ of South America, founded by J. C. Ransom, and co-edited by him and Allen Tate, from 1922 to 1925, became the forum through which the new voices spoke, propounding a new critical creed, which David Daiches calls ‘the modern Neo-Classical movement’. Its central tenet was to concentrate on the text, and by a close reading of it to disengage the elements that went to make up its complex structure of meaning. The formulations of the new critical theory believed that poetic discourse exemplified a special use of language, and the value of poetry lay in the fact that nothing else can do what it does, that a work of art is autonomous, unique, and that the business of the literary critic, therefore, is to discover this uniqueness and explicate it for the benefit of the ordinary reader.

      With the turning of the fide of literary taste in favor of Donne and the other Metaphysicals, critics demanded of poetry a tougher intellectual texture. The group, consisting of J. C. Ransom, Allen Tate, R. R Warren, Cleanth Brooks in America and I. A. Richards, William Empson and F. R. Leavis in England, did not, however, have identical views regarding the nature of poetry or its differentia.

      Ransom, the high priest of the New Criticism, distinguished three kinds of poetry: Physical Poetry (Poetry that deals with things, or the thingness—or thingishness—of the subject, which Imagist poetry was, or affected to be. A similar venture was the ‘Pure poetry’ of George Moore); Platonic Poetry (the poetry of ideas, which is science masquerading as poetry. When it affects the physicalness of Physical poetry, it is bogus poetry, since it is neither real images nor real poetry); and Metaphysical Poetry (Poetry that uses metaphorical language to shock the reader into new perceptions of its subject). The presentation of objects in terms of images, Ransom notes, is the basic constituent of poetry. He further notes that a certain Platonic element enters into almost all poetry. ‘What then are the characteristics of true poetry?’ he ask and answers: They are three: Metre (the obvious device ), fiction and tropes (i.e. figures of speech, metaphor being the climactic figure). The kind of poetry in which metaphor (‘conceit’) works wonders is the so-called metaphysical poetry. Whereas Platonic Poetry is too idealistic, and Physical poetry too realistic, Metaphysical poetry operates in the way that religion does. // startles us into a new awareness of things. Poetry is valuable not because of what it does but because what it does is unique. Poetry makes a kind of statement (predication) which no other kind of discourse does.

      This is how we arrive at the theory of the uniqueness of the work of art and the close scrutiny it deserves. The thrust of the whole of Ransom’s argument (as admirably summed up by David Daiches in his Critical Approaches to Literature) is to show that a poem exists as a complex of potential meaning, to be actualized only partially in the case of any given reader, because it represents a larger experience than that of any one reader. The approach of the New Critics to a poem, therefore, is to try to dig out the complex of potential meaning by acting the part of many different readers at once.

      I. A. Richards, one of the modern critical theorists in England, who to a great extent influenced the New Critics (he is regarded by some as the father of New Criticism) brought his knowledge of Semantics and Psychology to the study of poetry with a view to bringing out the difference between Science and Poetry. (He termed the statements of poetry as ‘pseudo-statements’, whose truth should not be subjected to the canons of logic. He distinguished two kinds of meaning— emotive and rational or referential, the former belonging to poetry and the latter to scientific discourse). His psychological account of what happens in poetry may not win general acceptance, but his insistence on the proper reading of poetry and on the necessity of training in reading with care and sensitivity was in keeping with the general tenor of modern literary criticism.

      The outcome of the combined efforts of all these New Critics - their theorizing about the nature of imaginative literature (significantly, they took the lyric as representative) and their practical demonstrations in periodical essays and books was to rescue the work of art from biography and history and to bring the text, the words on the page, to the fore, and to set the reader to discover its uniqueness, with an analytical rigor.

      The tenets of the New Criticism have not gone unchallenged. The opposition came mainly from the Chicago school of critics, chief among whom was R. S. Crane. A general criticism brought against the New Criticism is that it reduced poetry to a formula—Tension, Texture, Irony, Paradox and so on. A further charge is that its insistence on the importance of the text led to a divorce between the literary historian and the literary critic. The freedom which the New Critic claimed from the historical discipline led in some cases to fantastic excesses like those of Empson. Critics like T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, Allen Tate and Lionel Trilling, however, did not overlook the historical setting, and the cultural and moral value of literature. Establishing the relation of literature to life is also an important dimension of the study of literature which cannot afford to be ignored, as was done by the New Critics.

      The New Critics, too, like every other school which must in course of time yield place to a new heresy, have been succeeded by the Structuralists and Deconstructionists - the controversial new critical schools of the 70’s and 80’s.

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