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Critical Essay by Richard S. Calhoun
SOURCE: "Formalistic Criticism," in Critical Survey of Poetry, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1992, pp. 3973-80.
In the following essay, Calhoun gives a concise history of the development of Formalistic Criticism, especially the New Criticism of Brooks and others.
The formalist approach to poetry was the one most influential in American criticism during the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's, and it is still the one most often practiced in literature courses in American colleges and universities. Its popularity was not limited to American literary criticism. In France, formalism has long been employed as a pedagogical exercise in reading literature in the universities and in the lycées. In England in the 1940's and in the 1950's, formalism was associated with an influential group of critics writing for a significant critical periodical, Scrutiny, the most prominent of whom was F.R. Leavis. There was also a notable formalist movement in the Soviet Union in the 1920's, and, although championed by René Wellek in the United States, its influence at that time was primarily limited to Slavic countries.
The formalist approach in America was popularized by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks, all four Southerners, all graduates of Vanderbilt University, and all, in varying degrees, receptive to the indirections and complexities of the modernism of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and William Butler Yeats, which their critical method—known as the "New Criticism"—was, in part, developed to explicate. A fifth critic, not directly associated with the Vanderbilt group, R. P. Blackmur, made important contributions to the formalist reading of poetry in The Double Agent (1935) and in essays in other books. He did not, however, develop a distinctive formalist method.
Formalism in the History of Literary Criticism
Formalism is clearly a twentieth century critical phenomenon in its emphasis on close reading of the literary text, dissociated from extrinsic references to the author or to his or her society. There had been formalist tendencies before in the history of literary criticism, but it did not, as in twentieth century formalism, approach exclusivity in its emphasis on the structure of the work itself. Aristotle's analysis in the Poetics (written sometime between 370 and 322 B.C.) of the complex tragic plot as having a tripartite division of reversal, recognition, and catastrophe is one of the most valuable formalist analyses of the structure of tragedy ever made. That Aristotle's approach to poetics was not intrinsic but extrinsic, however, has been made clear by his twentieth century followers, the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians, Ronald S. Crane and Elder Olson. They have been the harshest critics of what they regard as the limited critical perspective of modern formalists, pointing out that an Aristotelian analysis was characteristically in terms of four causes. These were the formal cause (the form that the work imitates), the material cause (the materials out of which the work is made), the efficient cause (the maker), and the final cause (the effect on the reader or audience). Crane charged in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern (1952) that the New Criticism is concerned with only one of these causes, language, in order to distinguish poetic from scientific and everyday uses of language without being able to distinguish among the various kinds of poetry. It is true that formalism is largely concerned with literature as a verbal art. This single-mindedness has been its strength in explication as well as its weakness as a critical theory.
Two key concepts in the literary theory of the English Romantic period may have been influential on twentieth century formalism. Although the New Critics were professedly anti-Romantic following T. S. Eliot's call for impersonality in modern poetry, their stress on the meaning of the total poem rather than finding the meaning centered in a specific part probably owes something to the concept of organic form, assumed by most Romantics and stated explicitly by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his defense of William Shakespeare. This is the concept that a poem grows like a living organism, its parts interrelated, its form and content inseparable; the total work is thus greater than the sum of its parts. This concept was assumed by all the New Critics except Ransom, who viewed "texture" as separate from structure.
The formalist view of creativity is of a "rage" brought to "order" through submission to the discipline of form. A good poem is characterized by tensions that are usually reconciled. The most detailed statement of this view by a New Critic is in Robert Penn Warren's essay "Pure and Impure Poetry," in which Warren gives a long list of resistances or "tensions" in a good poem. The origin of this idea lies in Romantic critical theory. Warren's statements, as well as Allen Tate's discussion of tension in his essay "Tension in Poetry," undoubtedly owe much to Chapter 14 of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817), in which he describes the distinctive quality of the creative imagination of the poet as revealing itself "in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities."
The strongest twentieth century influences on formalism in America and in England were the early essays of T. S. Eliot, especially those in The Sacred Wood (1920), and two books by I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929). Eliot, influenced by the anti-Romanticism of T. E. Hulme in Speculations (1924), called for a theory of the impersonal in the modernist view of poetry to rectify the personality cults of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and he even detailed how to impersonalize personal emotions through the use of "objective correlatives." Eliot's intention was to redirect critical attention from the poet to the work of art, which he declared to be "autotelic," self-contained, a fictive world in itself. It was this pronouncement of Eliot's, more than any statement in his essays in the 1920's, which had the strongest influence on the development of formalist criticism.
Eliot also devised his own version of a Cartesian "split" between logic and untrustworthy feelings, his theory that a dissociation of sensibility took place in English poetry in the late seventeenth century. John Donne had a unified sensibility capable of devouring any kind of experience. In the Metaphysical poets "there is a direct sensuous apprehension of thought": they could think feelings and feel thoughts. The New Critics were to develop a formalist approach to poetry that could show this kind of sensibility at work. To a formalist such as Cleanth Brooks in Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), Metaphysical poetry was the proper tradition in which to fit modern poetry, and critical techniques were needed in order to explicate the complexities of poetry in the tradition. He provided a model for formalist explication in a brilliant analysis of parallelisms and ironic contrasts utilized functionally by Eliot in The Waste Land (1922).
The Formalist Defense of Poetry
Formalism in America and England may have evolved in reaction to nineteenth century literary thought and practice as a method of understanding a modernist literature that was indirect, impersonal, complex, and "autotelic." As far as the New Critics were concerned, their formalism was a defense of poetry in an age of science. Their criticism can quite properly be regarded as an "apology" for poetry in the tradition of Sir Philip Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley. An "apology" is a formal defense of poetry in an age thought to be hostile to the poetry of its own time. Sidney "apologized" for poetry at a time when Puritans were attacking drama and voicing suspicions as to whether poetry could and did advance morality. Shelley defended the value of poetry in an age that was beginning to turn to prose, assuming that the golden age of poetry was over. In this tradition the New Critics "apologized" for poetry in an age of logical positivism, when scientific method was regarded as the sole means to truth and poetry was being limited to mere emotive effects.
In his Principles of Literary Criticism, I. A. Richards sought to find a place for poetry in an age of science by emphasizing the psychological effects of poetry on the personality of the reader. In Practical Criticism he documented the helplessness of his graduate students when confronted with an unidentified poem to explicate, and made a case for a literary criticism that specialized in explicating the text. Richards seemed, however, at least in the earlier book, to be in agreement with the positivistic view that poetry was a purely emotive use of language in contrast to science, which was the language of factual assertion. Although influenced by Richards, the New Critics attempted to counter his apparent denial of a cognitive dimension of poetry. They did this through their formalism, staying inside the poem in their explications and declaring it characteristic of the poet's use of language to direct the reader to meanings back inside the poem rather than to referents outside the poem.
Cleanth Brooks contended that poets actually block too direct a pinpointing to everyday referents outside the poem and that the meanings of a poem cannot be wrenched outside the context of the poem without serious distortions. He was making a case for meaning in the poem and at the same time was keeping poetry out of direct competition with science. In a poem, he asserted, apparently referential statements are qualified by ambiguities, paradoxes, and ironies so that the knowledge offered cannot stand as a direct proposition apart from the poem itself. This is why it does not matter that John Keats in a famous sonnet credits Hernando Cortes, not Vasco de Balboa, with the first sighting by a European of the Pacific Ocean. What Keats writes is true to the poem, not to historical fact, and he does not intend a truth claim to be taken outside the poem and examined for factual accuracy. Murray Krieger has argued quite plausibly in the New Apologists for Poetry (1956) that the New Critics might be called "contextualists" because of their insistence on getting meaning from and in the context.
Each major New Critic was in his own way trying to establish that poetry offers a special kind of knowledge and does not compete with the more referential knowledge that Richards found characteristic of scientific assertions. Their "apology" for poetry committed them to formalism, to directing critical attention intrinsically to the structure of the poem rather than extrinsically to referents outside. Ransom, The World's Body (1938) and The New Criticism (1941), even departed from the concept of organic form to argue that the main difference between scientific and poetic language was that while both had "structure," only the latter had "texture," details that are interesting in themselves. Through his "texture" the poet expresses his revulsion against the inclination of science to abstract and to categorize by giving his reader the particulars of the world, the "sensuous apprehension of thought" that Eliot had admired in the Metaphysical poets. To Ransom, this was knowledge of "the world's body." Ransom's single most important contribution to formalism was his often anthologized essay, "Poetry—A Note on Ontology."
The most philosophically inclined of the New Critics, Allen Tate, also made a specific claim that literature offers a special kind of knowledge, more complete than the knowledge of science; it is experiential knowledge rather than the abstracted, shorthand version of experience given by science. Tate argued that a special characteristic of poetic language is the creation of "tension," a kind of balance between the extremes of too much denotation and literalness and too much connotation and suggestiveness. A good poem possesses both a wealth of suggestiveness and a firm denotative base. In his essay "Tension in Poetry," he provided examples of tension as a kind of touchstone for critical judgments.
In "Pure and Impure Poetry," Robert Penn Warren presented his own version of the concept of "tension," one closer to Coleridge's than Tate's was. He was also influenced by Richards' concept of a "poetry of inclusion" (in turn derived from Coleridge), a poetry that contains its own oppositions. Warren believed that such an "impure" poet writing today must "come to terms with Mercutio," that is, use irony to qualify direct propositions, much as William Shakespeare used the realistic, bawdy jests of Mercutio to counter the sentimental love poetry in Romeo and Juliet (1954–1596). Such irony is accessible only through formalist analysis of the poem itself, a close reading of the text. As a formalist, Warren believed, as the other New Critics did, in a less assessable meaning beyond the usual public meaning.
The Practice of Formalism
Cleanth Brooks was the most consistent practicing formalist and the most influential as well, whether in collaboration with Robert Penn Warren, in their popular textbooks, Understanding Poetry (1946) and Understanding Fiction (1943) or in his own studies in formalism, Modern Poetry and the Tradition and The Well Wrought Urn (1947). In Modern Poetry and the Tradition, Brooks extended Eliot's concept of tradition to a selective history of poetry from seventeenth century Metaphysical poetry to twentieth century modernism. The proper tradition for the modern poet was the Metaphysical tradition because "hard" Metaphysical conceits conveyed both thought and feeling and maintained a proper balance, in contrast to the excessive emotion in much Romantic poetry and the excessive rationalism in much neoclassical poetry. Brooks wrote the book to show the relationship between Metaphysical and modern poetry and to explain modern poetry to readers whose understanding of poetry was primarily based on Romantic poetry.
His next book, The Well Wrought Urn, was slightly revisionist, expanding the tradition to include some of the best works of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and even a major poem of the neoclassical period, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1712). The test for admission to the tradition is again a careful formalist analysis, revealing, in unexpected places, tensions and paradoxes—although the formalist technique has been refined and even expanded. Brooks contended that poetry is "the language of paradox," evident even in a poem such as William Wordworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge." The paradox central to the structure of the poem is that a city, London, is enabled to "wear the beauty of the morning," a privilege that Wordsworth usually reserves for nature. The city is also paradoxically most alive with this surprising beauty when it is asleep, as it is on this occasion. Brooks conceded that Wordsworth's employment of paradox might have been unconscious, something he was driven to by "the nature of his instrument," but paradox can also be conscious technique, as it was in John Donne's "The Canonization."
Brooks's analysis of "The Canonization" is a model of formalist method, as his analysis of Eliot's The Waste Land had been in his previous volume. The poem is complex but unified, an argument dramatically presented but a treatise on the important subject of divine and profane love as well. The tone, an important element of meaning, is complex, scornful, ironic, and yet quite serious. Also central in the poem is the "love metaphor," and basic to its development is the paradox of treating profane love as if it were divine love. Such a treatment permits the culminating paradox in the speaker's argument for his love: "The lovers in rejecting life actually win to the most intense life." In this poem, technique has shaped content: the only way in which the poet could say what the poem says is by means of paradox.
Brooks made another major contribution to formalist practice in The Well Wrought Urn. He demonstrated the importance of the dramatic context as the intrinsic referent for meaning in a poem. Even the simplest lyric has some of the drama of a play. There are within a poem a speaker, an occasion, sometimes an audience, and a conflict—in a lyric usually a conflict of attitudes. Brooks declared in "The Problem of Belief and the Problem of Cognition" that a poem should not be judged by the truth or falsity "of the idea which it incorporates, but rather by its character as drama…." The formalist as New Critic, most fully represented by an explication according to Brooks's formula, is concerned with this drama in the poem, with how the conflict of attitudes is resolved, with paradox and how it is central to argument in poetry, with metaphor and how it may be the only permissible way of developing the thought of the poem. He is concerned with technique in a verbal art, and these techniques make possible the poetic communication of what becomes the content.
Ranking with The Well Wrought Urn as a major formalist document is René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (1949). When it was published, the intention of the book was to argue for the use of intrinsic approaches to literature, drawing on the New Criticism, Russian Formalism, and even phenomenology, in conjunction with literary history and the history of ideas, then the dominant approaches. Its value today is as a source book of formalist theory, just as Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn is a source book of formalist practice. Wellek and Warren make the distinction between the scientific use of language, ideally purely denotative, and the literary use of language, not merely referential but expressive and highly connotative, conveying the tone and attitude of speaker and writer. Form and content are regarded as inseparable: technique determines content. Reference to the Russian Formalists reinforces the New Critics on this point. Meter, alliteration, sounds, imagery, and metaphor are all functional in a poem. Poetry is referential but the references are intrinsic, directed back inside the fictive world that is being created.
The Decline of Formalism
The influence of formalism reached its peak in the 1950's and began to decline in the 1960's. In England, Scrutiny suspended publication; although F. R. Leavis continued to publish, his criticism became less formalistic and more Arnoldian. In America, the New Critics also became less formalistic, and their formalism was taken over by followers who lacked the explicative genius of Ransom, Tate, Brooks, and Warren.
Warren had always published less formal criticism than his colleagues, and in the 1960's he turned his attention even more to fiction and, especially, to writing poetry. Allen Tate, never as fond as the others of critical explications, continued to write essays of social and moral significance, moving in and out of Catholicism and the influence of Jacques Maritain. His best critical explication remained that of his own poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," an exploration of the creative process as well as a formalistic analysis. He died in 1979. Ransom continued to edit the most important new critical journal, The Kenyon Review, until his retirement from Kenyon College; then he returned to something he had put aside for many years—his poetry. In the few essays that he wrote in the years just before his death in 1974, his Kantian interests preoccupied him more and more. Cleanth Brooks wrote one more book that might be called formalistic, A Shaping Joy (1971), but he turned most of his attention to his two major books on William Faulkner, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) and Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978). In these works, Brooks brilliantly discusses Faulkner's novels, but it is clear that his interest is more in the relationship of Faulkner's fiction to his Southern society than in formalist analysis.
Newer critical approaches appeared, none of which was content to remain within the structure of the poem itself—the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye, the phenomenological criticism of Georges Poulet and Hillis Miller, the structuralism of Roland Barthes, and the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida. The latter are influential, but more concerned with the modes of literary discourse than with the explication of texts, and better with fiction than with poetry. During the protest movement of the later 1960's, formalism fell into disrepute because of its lack of concern for the social and political backgrounds of literary works. Ironically, the New Critics were accused of empiricism and scienticism in the analysis of literature.
Nevertheless, twentieth century formalism has had a seemingly permanent influence on the teaching of literature in the United States, just as it has in France. Understanding Poetry has stayed in print, and the only widely used introductions to literature are mostly formalistic in their approaches.
The New Critics taught a generation of students the art of close reading of the text. They warned readers against fallacies and heresies in reading and teaching poetry, and the lessons seem to have been widely learned. Although they used paraphrase masterfully themselves, they warned against "the heresy of paraphase." The prose statement should not be regarded as the equivalent of the meaning of the poem. They attacked and seemingly permanently damaged the positivistic view that would limit poetry to the emotions only—what they called "The affective fallacy." As Brooks declared in The Well Wrought Urn: "Poetry is not merely emotive … but cognitive. It gives us truth …" Formalism did not prevent, but did restrict, practice of the biographical fallacy, studying the man instead of his works.
The most controversial fallacy exposed by the New Critics was the intentional fallacy, against which all the formalists warned. Monroe C. Beardsley and William K. Wimsatt, who stated (in The Verbal Icon, 1954) what was implicit in formalism all along, may have gone too far in seeming to exclude the poet from throwing any light at all on the meaning of his poem; they did, however, warn against finding the meaning of a work in some prose statement by the author before or after he wrote it. Formalism has made the point that the actual intention of a poem can be determined only from an explication of the poem itself. Few literary critics today would regard the poem as a fictive world that is sufficient unto itself. Poems have thematic and psychological contexts as well as verbal and dramatic contexts. Formalist analyses were too innocent of the linguistic structures of the language that poetry used. Nevertheless, no modern critical approach has revealed more of the richness of meaning potentially available within a poem.
This section contains 3,642 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)