Formalism/New Criticism

 

A literary movement that started in the late 1920s and 1930s and originated in reaction to traditional criticism that new critics saw as largely concerned with matters extraneous to the text, e.g., with the biography or psychology of the author or the work's relationship to literary history. New Criticism proposed that a work of literary art should be regarded as autonomous, and so should not be judged by reference to considerations beyond itself. A poem consists less of a series of referential and verifiable statements about the 'real' world beyond it, than of the presentation and sophisticated organization of a set of complex experiences in a verbal form (Hawkes, pp. 150-151). Major figures of New Criticism include I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, David Daiches, William Empson, Murray Krieger, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, F. R. Leavis, Robert Penn Warren, W. K. Wimsatt, R. P. Blackmur, Rene WellekAusin Warren, and Ivor Winters.

 

- New Criticism is a method that provides the reader with a formula (or a way) for arriving at the correct interpretation of a text using only the text itself.

- This method gives the reader an objective approach for discovering a text’s meaning regardless of his\her level.

- The name New Criticism became widely used to describe this approach to understanding literature with the publication of John Crowe Ransom’s New Criticism in 1941, which also contained Ransom’s personal analysis of several of his contemporary theorists and critics.

- It  focuses on the intrinsic (form & text), rather than extrinsic (history & biography).

- A text can be analyzed to discover its true meaning independent of its author’s intention, or the emotional state, or the values and beliefs of either its author or reader.

- Ransom’s principles is to seek for an ontological critic, one that would recognize a poem (use it as a synonym in New Criticism for any literary work) a concrete unit like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

- A text can be analyzed to discover its true or correct meaning independent of it’s author’s intention, or the emotional state, or the values and beliefs of either its author or reader.

- New Criticism and its adherents (called New Critics) are an eclectic group, which develops this literary method while having a common core of basic ideas.

 

Historical Development:

Formalism (New Criticism) focuses on intrinsic (form and text), rather than extrinsic (history and biography) criticism.

Other forms of criticism were mixed with this emphasis on history and biography:

- Impressionism: appreciating the text for its beauty.

- Naturalism: a naturalistic view of life that emphasizes the importance of scientific thought in literary analysis. 

- New Humanism: valued the moral qualities of art.

- Romanticism (expressive school): values the individual artist’s feelings, attitudes and experiences as evidenced in the text. 

New Criticism:

- New Criticism rejected all these previous extrinsic views. 

- Being formalists, the New Critics adopt what many call "the text and the text alone" approach to literary analysis. 

- Because many of the practitioners of this formalistic criticism disagree with each other concerning the various elements that make up the poem, it is difficult to cite a definitive list of critics who consider themselves New Critics. 

- Among those critics who hold some of the same New Critical assumptions concerning poetic analysis are: John Crowe Ransom, T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks.

Warren and Brooks’ Understanding Poetry (1938). 

Two critics that helped lay the foundation for New Criticism:

- T. S. Eliot:

Criticism should be directed toward the poem, not the poet. 

Poetry is an escape from the poet's emotions (impersonal, common to all humanity).

Objective correlative: a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, or reactions that can effectively awaken in the reader the emotional response the author desires without being a direct statement of that emotion.

- I. A. Richards: 

Practical criticism: an intricate system for arriving at a poem's meaning, including a close reading of the text.

 

Key Terms:

- Intentional Fallacy - equating the meaning of a poem with the author's intentions.

- Affective Fallacy - confusing the meaning of a text with how it makes the reader feel. A reader's emotional response to a text generally does not produce a reliable interpretation.

- Heresy of Paraphrase - assuming that an interpretation of a literary work could consist of a detailed summary or paraphrase.

- Close reading (from Bressler - see General Resources below) - "a close and detailed analysis of the text itself to arrive at an interpretation without referring to historical, authorial, or cultural concerns" (263).

 

Background:

Historical & biographical criticism dominated literary scholarship up to the beginning of the 20th century:

- Russian Formalism: Attention to literary language versus ordinary language - started in Moscow in 1915 - eliminated by Stalin in 1930 for political reasons as it divorces literature from sociology at a time when the revolution expected everyone to work towards the goals of this revolution

- 1917 Shklovsky argues that the function of art isn’t leading us to knowledge above but restoring our capacity to see world that we failed to see because of habit. He introduces the term “fefamiliarization” (presenting reality in a new and unfamiliar way, seeing texts’ representations of reality as technique for defamiliarizing the social ideas of a dominant culture)

- 1921: T. S. Eliot: Poem is an impersonal formulation of common feelings, not manifestation of poet's personal feeling. Poet uses language to present feelings common to all mankind. He introduces the term “objective correlative” (a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, or reactions that can effectively awaken in the reader the emotional response the author desires without being a direct statement of that emotion.)

- 1938: Brooks & Warren's Understanding Poetry advices students to pay attention to the language of literature

- 1941: Ransom's The New Criticism calls for ontological criticism (seeing the poem as a concrete entity in and of its own)

- 1942: Wellek & Warren’s Theory of Literature contrasts extrinsic with intrinsic criticism, distinguishes literature by its use of complex and rich language as opposed to scientific or everyday language, rejects justifying poetry through sociological or political aims


The Methodology

How to become a Formalist (New Critic)?

- Read the text many times.

- Associate the work’s title with the text itself.

- Carefully note the diction (word choice).

- Locate any possible allusions in the text and relate them to their original sources.

- Search for images and symbols and relate them to each other.

- Look for elements of prosody, such as rhyme, rhythm, stanzas, meter, language and style.

- Examine the tone, speaker (narrator), theme, setting and point of view.

- Are there any paradoxes? Ambiguities? Tensions? Ironies? Or conflicts?

- Finally, put all the clues (elements), which helped in developing the text, in front of you. Re-associate them with the complexities of the whole text. Explain the text’s meaning, thus by resolving its tensions.

 

Historical & biographical criticism dominated literary scholarship up to the beginning of the 20th century:

    Impressionist criticism focuses on how art makes us feel

    New Humanists focus on the moral qualities of art

    Romantic or expressive critics focused on art portraying the artist's own experiences

 

Early 20th century: T. S. Eliot: Poem is an impersonal formulation of common feelings, not manifestation of poet's personal feeling. Poet uses language to present feelings common to all mankind. Eliot introduces 'objective correlative: set of objects or situations that awaken in the reader the emotions the poet wishes to evoke

1920s Fugitives: Ransom, Tate, Davidson at Vanderbilt University: conservative discussion group

1930s Southern Agrarians: Brooks and Warren at Louisiana University: contrast conservative harmonious South with modern one, humanizing literary language with dehumanizing scientific one

1938 Brooks & Warren's Understanding Poetry advices students to pay attention to the language of literature

1941 Ransom's The New Criticism calls for ontological criticism (seeing the poem as a concrete entity in and of its own)

1942 Wellek & Warren’s Theory of Literature contrasts extrinsic with intrinsic criticism, distinguishes literature by its use of complex and rich language as opposed to scientific or everyday language, rejects justifying poetry through sociological or political aims

Formalism focuses on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic criticism.

 

Russian Formalism: Attention to literary language versus ordinary language - started in Moscow in 1915 - eliminated by Stalin in 1930 for political reasons as it divorces literature from sociology at a time when the revolution expected everyone to work towards the goals of this revolution

Defamiliarization: presenting reality in a new and unfamiliar way, seeing texts’ representations of reality as technique for defamiliarizing the social ideas of a dominant culture

Shklovsky: function of art isn’t leading us to knowledge above but to restore our capacity to see world that we failed to see because of habit

 

Methodology:

      Relate title to meaning of text

      Analyzes words and patterns seen among these words

      Analyzes connotations, allusions, symbols, figures of speech, tensions, ambiguities, and how all these elements support the main paradox within the text

 

The assumptions of formalists:

 

1) Science vs. Literature:

 

- New Criticism begins by assuming that imaginative literature is valuable.

- To Study poetry or any literary work means engaging oneself in an aesthetic experience that can lead to truth.

- The truth that is discoverable from an aesthetic experience differs from that   truth that science provides us.

-  Science speaks propositionally telling us weather a statement is true or       false however, poetic truth involves the use of intuition and imagination which is a form of truth that is discernible only in poetry.

 

2) The poem:

 

-  New critics begin by defining a poem as an object which has an ontological status. In effect a poem becomes an artifact, an objective, self contained, autonomous entity with its own structure as W. K. Wimsatt declares that a poem becomes a verbal icon.

    - The formalist's objective theory of art: as a poem is an object of its own then a poem must not be equated with the author's feelings or implied intentions.

 

3) The Poem vs. the Poet:

 

-  According to New Critics believing that a poem's meaning is not more than an expression of a private experience or intentions of the author's feelings is committing a fundamental error of interpretation called the Intentional Fallacy.

 - New Critics also believe that a poem must be a public text that can be understood.

-  We cannot deny that a poem is related to the author as T.S. Eliot states that a poem's mind serves as a catalyst for the reaction that yields the poem.

 

4) The real meaning of a poem:

 

- New critics give little importance to the biographical or contextual history of the poem arguing that the poem's real meaning cannot reside in this extrinsic or outside the text information.

- New critics also argue that a reader's emotional response to the text is neither important nor equivalent to the interpretation of it and such an error in judgment is called the Affective Fallacy.

   - A poem and its structure can be analyzed scientifically and New Critics believe that they have devised a methodology and a standard of excellence that we can apply to discover their correct meaning.

- They also believe that the poet is an organizer of the human experience.

- The chief characteristic of the poem is the coherence and interrelatedness of its structure.

 

5) The Organic Unity and the Oneness of the poem:

 

-  New critics borrow their ideas from Samuel T. Coleridge in forming what they call the Organic Unity of a poem which is the concept in which all parts of the poem are interrelated and interconnected with each part reflecting and helping to support the central idea of the poem.

- The Organic Unity allows the harmonization of conflicting ideas, feelings, and attitudes and results in the poem's oneness.

-  New Critics declare that superior poetry achieves such oneness through paradox, irony, and ambiguity.

- Because the poem's chief characteristics it its oneness, New Critics believe that a poem's form and content are inseparable.

-  They also believe that form is more than the external structure of the poem however it is the overall effect that the poem creates.

-  They believe that all the elements of the poem both structural and aesthetic work together to achieve a poem's effect or form, it is impossible to discuss the overall meaning of the poem by isolating or separating form and content.

- Finally it is also impossible to the New Critic to believe that a poem's interpretation is equal to a mere paraphrased version of the text.