ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature
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Introduction to Theory of Literature
ENGL 300 - Lecture 6 - The New Criticism and Other Western Formalisms
Chapter 1. Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” and Tony the Tow Truck [00:00:00]
Professor Paul Fry: All right. Now last time we were giving examples of what might happen if one takes seriously that extraordinary eleventh footnote in Wimsatt’s “The Intentional Fallacy” in which he says that the history of words after a poem was composed may well be relevant to the overall structure of the poem and should not be avoided owing simply to a scruple about intention. Essentially, that’s what Wimsatt says in the footnote. So I went back to the great creator raising his plastic arm and suggested that, well, maybe after all there might be some good way of complicating the meaning of Akenside by suggesting that the modern, anachronistic meaning of “plastic” would be relevant to the sense of the poem. This by the way–just because one can make this claim and, I think, make it stick in certain cases, doesn’t mean that the proposition is any less outrageous. Just imagine [laughs] a philologist being confronted with the idea that the meaning of words at a certain historical moment isn’t the only thing that matters in understanding the meaning of a poem.
So I just wanted to give another example a little closer to home in the poem of Yeats, the 1935 poem “Lapis Lazuli.” I began talking about it last time. It’s a poem which begins, “I have heard that hysterical women say / they are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow, / of poets that are always gay…” The storm clouds of the approaching war are beginning to gather. A lot of people are saying, “Enough of this kind of effete culture. We need to think about important things, particularly about politics and the social order”–by the way, a very powerful argument in 1935. In any case, Yeats was on the other side of the controversy and insisted, after all, that there is a continuing role for art, as indeed, on the other hand, there may well be even in such times. So he’s sick of everybody saying they don’t want to talk about painting, they don’t want to talk about music, and they don’t want to talk about poets who are “always gay.”
All right. So then the poem continues. It involves a stone, a piece of lapis lazuli that has a kind of a flaw in it, which is like a “water-course,” and where one can imagine a pilgrim climbing toward increased enlightenment. As the poem goes on, Yeats talks about the way in which civilizations crumble–that is to say, all things fall apart, but then it’s possible to build them back up. He says, “All things fall and are built again / and those that build them again are gay.”
Now, as I said last time, needless to say, Yeats was not aware of the anachronistic meaning that we may be tempted to bring to bear on the poem. Yeats is thinking of Nietzsche, he’s thinking of a word, froehlich, which probably is best translated “joyous, energetically joyous.” He is just borrowing that word from the translation of a book by Nietzsche.
Well and good but, if you were a queer theorist or if you were interested in making not a weak, but a strong claim for the importance of queerness in our literary tradition, you would be very tempted to say, this enriches the poem–not just, in other words, that they are energetically joyous as creators, but also that in our contemporary sense of the word they’re gay. Now this again, as in the case of Akenside, may or may not raise the hackles of the philologists, but there’s a certain sense in which from a certain point of view, it’s difficult to deny that it doesn’t lend a certain coherence, an additionally complex coherence, to the nature of the poem.
All right. Then we have Tony the Tow Truck. You’re probably beginning to wish I would refer to it, so why don’t I? In the second line of Tony the Tow Truck, we learn that “I live in a little yellow garage.” Now of course, the denotation of the word “yellow,” as Cleanth Brooks would say, is that the garage is painted a certain color. The connotation, which undoubtedly the author had no notion of, wasn’t thinking of–this is a book for toddlers–the connotation is that somehow or another there’s the imputation of cowardice, possibly also the derogatory imputation of being Asian. Maybe Tony is Asian. Well–okay. This has nothing to do with the text, we say, and yet at the same time suppose it did. We could interrogate the author psychoanalytically. We could say, “Hey, wait a minute. Okay. So you say it was painted yellow. Why don’t you say it’s painted some other color?” We could begin to put a certain amount of pressure on the text and possibly, as I say, begin to do things with it which are kind of a five-finger exercise–we’ll be doing a lot more of that sort of thing–but which might work.
All right. These are examples of the extraordinary implications of Wimsatt’s eleventh footnote, and also, I think, perhaps in advance of today’s discussion, clarify to some extent the importance for critics of this kind of notion of unity. In some ways, everything we have to say today will concern the idea of unity. In other words, a connotation is valuable and ought to be invoked even if it’s philologically incorrect if it contributes to the unity, the complex building up of the unity, of the literary text. If, on the other hand, it is what Gadamer would call a “bad prejudice”–that is to say, some aspect of my subjectivity that nothing could possibly be done with in thinking about and interpreting the text–then you throw it out. So the criterion is: is it relevant to the unified form that we as critics are trying to realize in the text? That criterion, as I say–not just for the sorts of semi-facetious readings we can do with Wimsatt’s eleventh footnote but also for readings that may at least have some marginal plausibility–this sense of unity is what governs interpretive decisions of this kind.
Chapter 2. The New Criticism: Modernist and Academic Contexts [00:07:18]
All right. Now a word or two about the antecedents of the New Criticism: In the first place, the thirties and forties in the academic world bear witness to the rise of a canon of taste largely introduced by the great Modernist writers, particularly by T. S. Eliot. You may notice that Brooks, for example, has a kind of Donne obsession. He gets that from Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” which is a review essay of a volume of Donne’s poems edited by somebody named Grierson which made Donne overnight, for a great many readers, the central poet in the English tradition. Brooks is still, as I say, very much under the influence of this.
Well, Eliot, in “The Metaphysical Poets,” says some rather interesting things that had far-reaching consequences for the New Criticism. He says, “Poetry in our own time–such is the complexity of the world we live in–must be difficult.” He says that poetry has to reconcile all sorts of disparate experience–reading Spinoza, the smell of cooking, the sound of the typewriter. All of this has to be yoked together in the imagery of a good poem, particularly of a metaphysical poem, and this model of complexity is what matters both for modern literature and for literary criticism. Now by the same token, other Modernists like James Joyce are also contributing to this idea of the independent unity of the work of art. In “Stephen Hero” or “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” you remember Stephen in his disquisition on form and Aquinas and all the rest of it argues that the work of art is something that is cut off from its creator because its creator withdraws from it and simply pares his fingernails, in the famous expression. It’s very interesting. You remember that in the Wimsatt that you read last time, Wimsatt argues–I think probably thinking about that passage in Joyce–that the work of art is “cut off” from its author at birth. This is an umbilical cord he’s talking about. It has no more connection with its author from birth on and roams the world on its own. Ideas like this, as I say, are taken from the aesthetic and practical thinking about the nature of the work of art that one finds in Modernism.
In the meantime, let’s consider the academic setting. In the 1930s, when Ransom in particular is writing his polemical manifestos, The New Criticism and The World’s Body, and attacking most of what’s going on as it’s being done by his colleagues, he has two things in particular in mind: in the first place, old-fashioned philology, the kind of thinking about the literary text that would insist that “plastic” means what it means in the eighteenth century–and a lot of that was being done. This was the golden age of the consolidation of the literary profession. Standard editions are being created. The great learned journals are in their early phase. Knowledge is actually still being accumulated having to do with the basic facts of the literary tradition. We didn’t know a great deal about certain authors until this period of the flourishing of philology in the very late nineteenth and early twentieth century took hold and pretty much created for us the archive that we now use today in a variety of ways. So although the New Critics were fed up with philological criticism, I don’t mean to be condescending toward it or to suggest that it didn’t play a crucially important role in the evolution of literary studies.
Now the other thing that was going on, and here–I don’t know, depending on one’s viewpoint, perhaps some measure of condescension might be in order, but these two were spectacular figures–the other thing that was going on was that there was a vogue for what might be called “appreciative teaching.” That is, the contemporary and colleague of I.A. Richards at Cambridge was the famous “Q,” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose mesmerizing lectures had virtually no content at all. They were simply evocations, appreciative evocations, of great works of literature. I have to say that at Yale, exactly contemporary with “Q” we had a similar figure, the person after whom Phelps Gate is named: the great William Lyon Phelps, who would enter the classroom, begin rapturously to quote Tennyson, would clasp his hands and say that it was really good stuff, and the students were so appreciative that they gave hundreds and thousands of dollars to the university ever after. In other words, this was valuable teaching, [laughs] but again [laughter] [laughs] the New Critics were fed up with it. This was the atmosphere they found themselves in, and what they wanted–and this anticipates the atmosphere that you’ll see the Russian formalists found themselves in when we turn to them next week–what they wanted was something like rigor or a scientific basis or some sort of set of principles that could actually be invoked, so that the business of criticism could become more careful and systematic, less scattershot, less effusive and so on. So this is, in effect, the backdrop in which in the American academy–influenced, as we’ll now see, by certain trends in the British academy–arose in the thirties and in the forties.
Chapter 3. Earlier Close Readers: I. A. Richards [00:13:44]
All right. Now the first figure I want to talk a little bit about, and the first figure whom you read for today’s assignment, is I. A. Richards. Richards, before he joined the English department at Cambridge, was actually a psychologist, trained as a Pavlovian psychologist, so that when you read in his essay about “stimuli” and “needs,” you see pretty much where you stand. His sense of the way in which the mind reacts to the world, to its experience, and the way in which it’s an uncomplicated reaction, a resisting reaction, or an adjusting reaction, all has very much to do with Pavlovian principles. These govern to some extent Richards’ understanding even of his literary vocation during the period when in 1924 he wrote Principles of Literary Criticism. For Richards, reading is all about experience–that is to say, the way in which the mind is affected by what it reads. And so even though his subject matter is literature, he’s nevertheless constantly talking about human psychology–that is to say, what need is answered by literature, how the psyche responds to literature, what’s good and bad about psychic responses, and so on. This is the intellectual focus, in other words, of Richards’ work.
Now another aspect of his having been and continuing to be a scientist is that Richards really did believe, seriously believed, in reference–that is to say, in the way in which language really can hook on to the world. Verifiable and falsifiable statement is for Richards the essence of scientific practice and he cares very much about that. He does not, in other words, share with so many literary critics–perhaps even with Brooks, who follows him in making the fundamental distinction I’m about to describe–he does not share with the majority of literary critics and artists a kind of distaste for science. This, by the way, is also true of his student, Empson, who was a math major before he became an English major. Both of them take very seriously the notion that there can be a scientific basis for what one does in English or in literary studies.
So another aspect of it for Richards is–because he takes science so seriously–is that he actually reverses the idea that we talked about last time in Sidney, Kant, Coleridge, Wilde, and Wimsatt. He actually reverses the idea that it’s art that’s autonomous. If you look on page 766 in the left-hand column, you’ll find him saying that science is autonomous, and what he means by that is that scientific facts can be described in statements without the need for any kind of psychological context or any dependency on the varieties of human need. It is autonomous in the sense that it is a pure, uncluttered and uninfluenced declaration of fact or falsehood.
Then he says:
Here you see Richards’ basic distinction between what he calls “scientific statement” and what he calls “emotive statement,” the distinction between that which is truly referential–that which is incontrovertibly verifiable or falsifiable on the one hand, and that which is emotive on the other. Later on Richards changes his vocabulary, and he no longer talks about scientific and emotive language. Even more dangerously, from the standpoint of anybody who likes poetry, [laughs] he talks instead of “statement,” meaning science, and “pseudo-statement,” meaning poetry. You are really out on a limb if you’re going to defend poetry–as Richards kept doing–as “pseudo-statement,” but of course “pseudo-statement” is just another expression for what he calls here “fiction.”
Once we sort of settle into this vocabulary, and once we get used to this clearly unquestioningly scientific perspective, why on earth do we need pseudo-statement or fiction at all? We know very well, by the way, that there are scientists who simply cannot stand to read poetry because it’s false, right? Just as Richards says, there’s always something kind of archaic or atavistic about poetic thinking. It’s not just that it’s not trying to tell the truth, as Sidney said–“nothing lieth because it never affirmeth.” It is in fact, Richards goes so far as to say, following Plato, lying. Poetry is constantly getting itself in trouble in all sorts of ways–on page 768, for example. He says, sort of toward the top of the right-hand column, page 768:
In other words, they’re a pack of lies. It usually follows from this that somebody like this points out that whereas we all know that a democratic society is the best society to live in, poetry prefers feudal society: it makes better poetry. Whereas we all know that the universe is of a certain kind–we can’t even call it Copernican anymore–poetry has this odd preference for Ptolemaic astronomy. In other words, everything about poetry is atavistic. It’s a throwback to some earlier way of thinking. There is some kind of latent primitivism in poetic thinking, and Richards seems cheerfully to embrace this idea. That’s what he means by “fiction” or “pseudo-statement.”
So why on earth do we want it? We want it, according to Richards, because it answers needs in our psychological makeup that science can’t answer. In other words, we are a chaos of desires. Some of them involve the desire for truth–that is to say, for what we can learn from science–but a great many of our desires have nothing to do with any notion of truth but, rather, are needs that require fanciful or imaginative fulfillment, fulfillment of other kinds. The reason this fulfillment is important and can be valued is, according to Richards, that these needs–unless they are organized or harmonized so that they work together in what he sometimes calls a “synthesis”–can actually tear us apart. Literature is what can reconcile conflicting or opposing needs, and Richards cares so much about this basic idea that in another text, not in the text you’ve just read, he says, shockingly, “Poetry is capable of saving us.” In other words, poetry is capable of doing now what religion used to do. Poetry, you remember–this is a scientist–is no more true than religion, but it can perform the function of religion and is therefore capable of saving us. And so even despite the seeming derogation of the very thing that he purports to be celebrating in books like The Principles of Literary Criticism, Richards does hold on to an extraordinarily important feeling for the mission of poetry to harmonize conflicting needs.
That’s the role of poetry and that’s what it does, simply by evoking our wishes, our desires–irrespective of truth–in their complicated, chaotic form and synthesizing them organically into something that amounts to psychological peace. It’s a little bit like Aristotle’s idea of catharsis, which can be understood in a variety of ways, but Milton at the end of Samson Agonistes understands it in one way when he says, Now we have as a result of this tragedy “calm of mind, all passion spent.” That could be the motto for Richards’ work. The experience of art, the experience of poetry, and the reconciliation of conflicting needs results in a kind of catharsis, a “calm of mind, all passion spent”.
Chapter 4. Earlier Close Readers: William Empson [00:24:27]
All right. Now Richards had a student, an undergraduate student, William Empson, who had, as I say, been a math major who decided he’d switch to English. He went to Richards and he said he had an idea about ambiguity. He said he felt there was quite a bit that could be written about it, and so he wondered if Richards would mind if maybe he worked on that. Richards said, “Fine. Fine. Sounds terrific. Go do it.” So a few months later Empson brought him the manuscript of one of the greatest books of criticism in the twentieth century ,and one of the most amazingly surprising: Seven Types of Ambiguity. The brief excerpt you have in your photocopy packet– I trust that you have picked it up by this time at Tyco [copy center]–from Empson is taken from Seven Types of Ambiguity.
I think Empson is the funniest person who has ever written literary criticism. I think that his deadpan way of bringing things down to earth when they get a little too highfalutin’ involves the skill of a genuine stand-up comic. His timing is perfect. He has, in other words, all of the attributes of a great comic writer. I’ve enjoyed reading him so much that when I was asked to write a book about him, I agreed to do so. I’ve always been like that. Byron was the only person I enjoyed reading during the nail-biting and tense period of studying for my orals. So I wrote my dissertation on Byron as a result of that–nothing complicated, no deep reason for doing these things.
But Empson I hope you enjoy. He’s a page-turner, and his extraordinary brilliance as a critic is really just part of the experience of reading him. I’m particularly interested in the excerpt you have and what he does with his notions–because this is his way of responding to “enthusiastic” or appreciative criticism. One of the tricks of “Q” and Billy Phelps and all the other sort of authors and lecturers in this mode was to say that they read for “atmosphere,” that there was something that one just felt along one’s bloodstream or in the pulses when one encountered great literature, and their purpose as lecturers and as critics was to evoke the atmosphere of things. So Empson says, Well, atmosphere, certainly that exists and we can talk about it in all sorts of ways; but after all, what is the use of atmosphere? What is the use of any aspect of literature if, as good scientists, we can’t analyze it or can’t somehow or another account for it? If there is atmosphere in the passage I’m about to quote from Macbeth, it must be atmosphere of a certain kind and there for a certain reason. What follows, it seems to me, is one of the most staggeringly beautiful, wonderful, amazing riffs on a passage of literature that you can encounter. I’m sorry if I sound a little bit like Billy Phelps, but I do get excited. He quotes the passage from Macbeth. As Empson says, the murderers have just left the room, and Macbeth is sort of twiddling his thumbs, hoping it’s getting dark because it’s got to get dark before Banquo can be killed. So naturally he looks out the window to see [laughs] how the time is going, and this is what he says:
Empson doesn’t mention this word, “pale,” but in juxtaposition with the crows and rooks it strikes me that it itself is an interesting moment in the passage.
Empson italicizes that because while he has something to say about every part of the passage–which all good criticism by the way should do. If you quote something, say something about all of it. [laughs] Okay–but Empson italicizes these particular lines because it’s going to be the true focus of what he’ll say later.
All right. So Empson is fascinated by this passage, and then he gives you, in the next few paragraphs, the amazing variety of grounds for his fascination. He says, Look. This is what people mean when they talk about atmosphere. It’s not just something you feel on your pulse. It’s something that can be described, something that can be analyzed. And I just want to touch on the last part of it. He says, “Rooks live in a crowd and are mainly vegetarian…”–Empson’s the person who says that the ancient mariner shot the albatross because the crew was hungry. He points out that in the 1798 edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, biscuit worms had gotten into the hard-tack, so naturally, he says, “The particular kind of albatross that the mariner shot, I am told, makes a very tolerable broth.” [laughs] [laughter] This is the mode of William Empson.
So he begins here:
I’m not at all sure there’s anything more to be said about that passage, which I think lays it to rest. It does so by insisting on a complex mode of ambiguity that governs the passage–not atmosphere. Sure, call it “atmosphere” if you like, as long as you’re willing to subject it to verbal analysis, as long as you’re willing to show how and why the atmosphere is exactly of the nature that it is, and that it arises, in other words–and here is the relationship between Richards and Empson–out of a complex state of mind; that poetry, the poetry of this speaker, this speaker/murderer, is attempting desperately to reconcile and harmonize, just as he is attempting desperately to be reconciled and harmonized with the society from which he has alienated himself and, of course, is failing. Macbeth is not Shakespeare. Shakespeare is representing him in poetry, attempting to do something which in the immediate psychological circumstances poetry can’t do, but in the process evoking an extraordinary complexity of effort on the part of the mind to be reconciled through the medium of language. As I say, this is the sense in which Empson follows Richards.
But at the same time, there’s something rather different between the two. First of all, Empson doesn’t really kind of settle into a sense that it’s all about the reader–that is to say, that it’s all about the reader’s experience of the literary. Richards is actually an avatar of figures like Iser, like Hans Robert Jauss and Stanley Fish–whom we’ll be discussing later in the syllabus–who are interested in reader response: that is to say, in the way in which we can talk about the structure of reader experience. Empson is sort of interested in that, just as he’s fascinated by the texture of textual evidence itself. He is also very interested–much more so than Richards, and certainly more so than the New Critics from whom he sharply diverges in advance in this respect–interested in authorial intention; that is to say, for him, literary criticism is always an appeal to authorial intention. Mind you, he ascribes to authorial intention the most amazingly outrageous things that other critics threw up their hands in despair about, but nevertheless it is for him always still an appeal to authorial intention. At bottom, Empson doesn’t really settle into the rigorous consideration of the author, the text, or the reader as if they were separate functions. For Empson, there’s a kind of a fluid and easy movement back and forth between what for hermeneutics are three very different phenomena: author, text, reader. For Empson, it’s a kind of synthetic mélange that’s ultimately an appeal to the author, but certainly involves both working on the text itself and also understanding its effects on the reader.
So all of this distances Empson from Richards to a certain extent, but the most important difference, I think, between Empson and the other figures we’re discussing–a difference which makes it even a little bit complex to say that he’s a precursor of the New Criticism–is that Empson very rarely concerns himself with the whole of a text. He isn’t really interested in the unity of “the poem.” He is simply interested in saying as much as he can about certain local effects, certainly with the implication, possibly, that this has a bearing on our understanding of, let’s say, the whole of Macbeth; but he doesn’t set about doing a systematic reading of the whole of Macbeth. He always zooms in on something, thinks about it for a while and then goes away and thinks about something else, leaving us to decide whether it has a genuine bearing on the entirety or on the literary wholeness or unity of Macbeth. Empson is interested in the complexity of local effects.
Another thing to say about Empson’s perspective, which makes him differ sharply, I think, from Richards and from the later New Critics, is that Empson is perfectly willing to accommodate the idea that maybe–just as in the case of the psychology of Macbeth the character–that maybe poetry doesn’t reconcile conflicting needs. Maybe, after all, poetry is an expression of the irreducible conflict of our needs. The last chapter of Seven Types of Ambiguity, his seventh ambiguity, is actually, as Empson said, about “some fundamental division in the writer’s mind.” There, you see, he diverges from his teacher, Richards. He’s fascinated by the way in which literature doesn’t unify opposites or reconcile needs but leaves things as it found them, but exposed in all of their complexity. Paul de Man more than once invoked Empson as a precursor of deconstruction, not of the New Criticism. For this reason–for the reason that he’s not concerned with unity and that he’s not concerned with the idea of the reconciliation of opposites–Empson, I think, can rightly be understood as a precursor of deconstruction, if only because deconstruction follows the New Criticism, of course, in being a mode of close reading; and there has never been a better close reader than Empson.
Chapter 5. Brooks and the “Implications of “Unity” [00:37:50]
Before turning away from Empson, whose influence was widespread despite this divergence, it needs to be said that his purposes for close reading are actually very different from the purposes of the New Critics–the American New Critics, particularly Brooks whose preoccupation with unity is something he freely confesses and something that–well, we’ve got ten minutes, so I shouldn’t rush ahead prematurely–but something that you can see to be at the heart of what Brooks is doing. Here Brooks, in The Well-Wrought Urn, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, and the other books for which he’s well known, uses a variety of different words to describe the way in which the complexity of literature is placed in the service of unification. In the essay you’re reading here, he uses the word “irony.” He admits that maybe he stretches the word “irony,” but he tries to argue that the variety of effects that he focuses on in his essay have to do with irony. In another great essay, the first chapter of The Well-Wrought Urn, he talks about paradox. Obviously, these are related ideas, and elsewhere he takes up other ways of evoking the way in which complex feelings and thoughts are brought together.
Empson’s word, “ambiguity,” continues to play an important role in the work of the New Criticism. It is–at least, it puts itself out there as a candidate to be an alternative term that one might use if one got tired of saying “irony” or “paradox.” [laughs] There are a variety of words, in other words. Another word given by the poet and critic Allen Tate, one of the founding figures of the New Criticism, is “tension”–that is to say, the way in which the literary text resolves oppositions as a tension; that is, a holding in suspension a conflict experienced as tension.
So there are these varieties of ways for describing what’s going on in a text. It’s interesting I think that if one thinks ofTony the Tow Truck one can think of–when you go home and study it, you’ll see what I mean–there’s a complex pattern of imagery, as it were, between pulling and pushing. There’s a tremendous amount of pulling and pushing that goes on in Tony the Tow Truck. We’ll revert especially to the notion of “pushing” in other contexts later in the course, but for the moment you can see the way in which there is a tension between that which pulls and that which pushes, which is one of the motive forces of the story. That, I think, is an example also: if it is ironic that Tony is now stuck and instead of pulling needs to be pushed, if it is in some Brooksian sense ironic that that is the case, we can understand that as irony or as tension or ambiguity.
Now there’s one way in which Tony is probably not a good proof text for the New Criticism. You remember that in “My Credo,” the little sort of excerpt that you get at the beginning of the Brooks section in your anthology, Brooks says, “Poetry should be about moral things but it shouldn’t point a moral.” Obviously Tony the Tow Truck points a moral and so would be subject to a kind of devaluation on those grounds by the New Criticism–even though there are ways of readingTony, as I’ve been suggesting, New Critic-ally.
All right. Now the idea of unity for Brooks, and for the New Critics in general, is that it be complex, that it warp the statements of science, and that it bring to bear a tension between the denotation and the connotation of words. The word “yellow” in the second line of Tony the Tow Truck–its denotation is that it is a certain color, the color that Tony’s garage is painted. The connotation, I have suggested, is of the variety of kinds that one might gingerly approach in thinking about complicating the texture of the story. In any case, the tension between denotation and connotation is part of the way in which irony works. So the question again is–and the question it seems to me raised in advance by Empson–why should these sorts of tension, these movements of complex reconciliation, result in unity?
It’s very interesting. Brooks’s reading of “She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways,” the wonderful Lucy poem by Wordsworth, emphasizes the irony of the poem. Brooks feels that he’s on very thin ice talking about Wordsworth and irony at all, but at the same time does bring it out rather beautifully, talking about the irony of the poem basically as the way in which you can’t really say that Lucy can be a flower and a star simultaneously. She’s a flower, she’s perishable, she’s half hidden, and she’s ultimately dead and in the ground–whereas a star would seem to be something that she just can’t be mapped onto if she is this half-hidden thing. But at the same time, Brooks says, “Well, after all she is a star to the speaker,” and he’s just saying, “She’s a star to me; she’s a flower half hidden, unnoticed to everyone else.” The relationship between the depth of the speaker’s feeling and the obscurity of Lucy in the world is the irony that the speaker wants to lay hold of and that reconciles what seem like disparate facts in the poem.
Well, now I just want to point out that close reading can always be pushed farther. That’s the difficulty about close reading. It’s all very well to say, “Look at me, I’m reconciling harmonies, I’m creating patterns, I’m showing the purpose of image clusters and all the rest of it,” but if you keep doing it, what you have yoked together becomes unyoked again. It falls apart, or at least it threatens to do so. A contemporary of Brooks’s named F. W. Bateson wrote an essay on this same poem, “She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways,” in which he points out–the poem’s on page 802–that the poem is full of oxymorons, contradictions in terms: “untrodden ways.” A “way” is a path, but how can there be a path if it’s not trodden? What is the meaning of an untrodden way, or of “there are none to praise” her but “very few to love”? Why call attention not so much to the difference between “few love her” and “none praise her” as the notion that none praise her? This is palpably false because here’s the poet praising her, right? So what does he mean, “none”? Why is he calling attention, in other words, to this logical disparity? “She lived unknown and few could know”–how can she be unknown if few know anything about her? In other words, the poem is full of complexities, but who says they’re being reconciled? They’re just sitting there oxymoronically, not reconciling themselves at all.
So Bateson’s argument is that Wordsworth is calling attention to a conflict of emotion or feeling that can’t be reconciled, hence the pathos of the ending, “[O]h, / the difference to me,” and so on. This, as I say, is a different use of close reading. It’s close reading which is not in the service of unity or of unification but recognizes that the very arts whereby we see a thing as a unified whole can just as easily be put to the purpose of blasting it apart again, and of calling our attention to that which can’t be reconciled just as the speaker can’t be reconciled to the death of Lucy.
Now the New Critics can, I think, be criticized for that reason. The aftermath of–the historical close reading aftermath of–the New Criticism does precisely that, if one sees deconstruction as a response to the New Criticism. It’s not just that, as we’ll see, it’s a great many other things too. The deconstructive response consists essentially in saying, “Look. You can’t just arbitrarily tie a ribbon around something and say, ‘Ah ha. It’s a unity.’” Right? The ribbon comes off. [laughs] “Things fly apart,” as the poet says, and it’s not a unity after all.
There is another aspect of the way in which the New Criticism has been criticized for the last forty or fifty years which needs to be touched on. The notion of autonomy, the notion of the freedom of the poem from any kind of dependence in the world, is something that is very easy to undermine critically. Think of Brooks’s analysis of Randall Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force.” It concludes on the last page of the essay by saying that this is a poem about human nature, about human nature under stress, and whether or not human nature is or is not good; and arguments of this kind, arguments of the kind set forth by the poem, “can make better citizens of us.” In other words, the experience of reading poetry is not just an aesthetic experience. It’s not just a question of private reconciliation of conflicting needs. It’s a social experience, in this view, and the social experience is intrinsically a conservative one. In other words, it insists on the need to balance opinions, to balance viewpoints, and to balance needs, precisely in a way which is, of course, implicitly a kind of social and political centrism. In other words, how can poetry in this view–how can literature be progressive? For that matter, how can it be reactionary? How, in other words, can it be put to political purposes if there is this underlying, implicit centrism in this notion of reconciliation, harmonization, and balance?
That has been a frequent source of the criticism of the New Criticism in its afterlife over the last forty or fifty years. There’s also the question of religion. There is a kind of implicit Episcopalian perspective that you see in Brooks’s essay when he’s talking about the Shakespeare poem, in which, under the aspect of eternity, inevitably things here on earth seem ironic. [laughs] There’s always that play of thought throughout the thinking of the New Criticism as well. Naturally, one will think of things in ironic terms if one sees them from the perspective of the divine or of the eternal moment.
All right. Sorry to have kept you. I have to stop. We’ll talk next week about other sorts of formalism beginning Tuesday with the Russian formalists, a movement of thought that’s earlier than the New Criticism, and then we’ll move from there. Then on Friday, there will be that lecture which makes up the Wolfgang Iser material from last week.
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