the new literary criticism

New Criticism does not cope well with this poem. Perhaps, by their lights, it is hardly a poem at all: doubtful aesthetic independence, the lines lacking inevitability of phrase, the rhythm shambling and not providing structure and autonomy. Equally clearly, it is not prose either. Corrections suggested by the New Criticism would certainly make the poem more accessible, and possibly more pleasing, but they would also change the nature of the piece.


The name is misleading, since the New Criticism is now anything but new, having been "overtaken" by a plethora of approaches under the umbrella of Literary Theory. But for some thirty years, from the thirties to the sixties, New Criticism was the dominant activity of university literature departments on both sides of the Atlantic. The approach was unhistorical, dismissed authors' intentions and biographical matters as unknowable and/or irrelevant, and brought an armoury of sharp analytical tools to bear on what the poem precisely said to a contemporary reader.

If its presiding genius (though hardly devotee: he practised very little close reading himself) was T.S. Eliot, the founding fathers were I.A. Richards and William Empson. Richards had no time for the Edwardian prose-poetry in which contemporary literary criticism was couched, and argued for analysis in the cool, strictly-defined and well-supported language of the sciences. Empson looked into the complexity of literary language, and suggested that poems were often successful by deploying meanings at different levels. Behind lines and phrases lurked many ambiguities and paradoxes, which held the poem together in creative tensions. Further developed by K. Burke, J.C. Ranson, R.P. Warren and Cleanth Brooks, the approach looked for three characteristics from poetry. First was self-sufficiency: the poem should be independent of biography, historical content or effect on the reader, which were called the intentional, historical and affective fallacies. Second was unity: the poem should be a coherent whole: a very traditional view. Third was complexity: which was sometimes, though not always, held to be the central element of poetry. {1}

The New Criticism did not go uncontested. The Marxist critics felt that literary criticism ought to be a history of man's ideas and imaginings in the (economic) setting which shaped them. {2} The Christian apologists felt that the arts had a civilizing mission, and deprecated the subversive attitudes of many Modernist writers. {3} And the historicists sought a continuity between western industrial societies and the medieval past. {4} Divisions between the schools were not clear cut, and there was little of the acrimony and technical elaboration that now characterizes literary criticism. But academic criticism did become more specialized and remote, and to cater for a self-educating middle class there sprang up literary journalism, which continues, somewhat attenuated, to the present day.

Published Examples

IA Richard's Practical Criticism: a Study of Literary Judgement (1929).

Cleanth Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn (1947).

Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop's British Poetry Since 1960 (1972).

Calvin Bendient's Eight Contemporary Poets (1974).

P.R. King's Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical Introduction (1979).

Christopher Ricks's The Force of Poetry (1987).


First we look for unity, the ability of a poem to stand on its own feet, without any scaffolding of theory, social or historical context, author's intentions or preoccupations. And here we meet the first obstacle.

The Architects

But, as you'd expect, they are very
Impatient, the buildings, having much in them
Of the heavy surf of the North Sea, flurrying
The grit, lifting the pebbles, flinging them
With a hoarse roar against the aggregate

They are composed of — the cliffs higher of course,
More burdensome, underwritten as
It were with past days overcast
And glinting, obdurate, part of the
Silicate of tough lives, distant and intricate

As the whirring bureaucrats let in
And settled with coffee in the concrete pallets,
Awaiting the post and the department meeting —
Except that these do not know it, at least do not
Seem to, being busy, generally.

So perhaps it is only on those cloudless, almost
Vacuumed afternoons with tier upon tier
Of concrete like rib-bones packed above them,
And they light-headed with the blue airiness
Spinning around, and muzzy, a neuralgia

Calling at random like frail relations, a phone
Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to,
That they become attentive, or we do — these
Divisions persisting, indeed what we talk about,
We, constructing these webs of buildings which,

Caulked like great whales about us, are always
Aware that some trick of the light or weather
Will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing —
And fill with placid but unbearable melodies
Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass.


The poem doesn't stand on its own feet. We are missing the first half, that part which precedes and explains the But as you'd expect, and seems to be continued in the So perhaps it is only... Then we have the difficulty of knowing what the poem is about. The images do not illustrate a centralizing conception, or develop an argument, but seem to float as thoughts only tangentially associated. Nor perhaps do the worlds evoked by the images have any obvious association, either natural, literary or logical.

Does the poem fall at the first hurdle, lacking autonomy and distance from the practical world? It seems to, which is a serious failure. But, however baffling — and the poem is very perplexing first off — we could perhaps regard the missing sections as the foregoing genesis of the poem, i.e. treat them as the personal and social context of the poem, which New Criticism deems irrelevant. A poem, as Empson said once, has to show its readers in what way it intends to be a poem, and we can evaluate only what is given us. Put aside literary forebears, therefore, and the technical knowledge that is perhaps called for, and ask the most obvious question: could the piece be mistaken for anything other than a poem? Is it perhaps prose?

But, as you'd expect, they are very impatient, the buildings, having much in them of the heavy surf of the North Sea, flurrying the grit, lifting the pebbles, flinging them with a hoarse roar against the aggregate they are composed of - the cliffs higher of course, more burdensome, underwritten as it were with past days overcast and glinting, obdurate, part of the silicate of tough lives, distant and intricate as the whirring bureaucrats let in and settled with coffee in the concrete pallets, awaiting the post and the department meeting - except that these do not know it, at least do not seem to, being busy, generally.

So perhaps it is only on those cloudless, almost vacuumed afternoons with tier upon tier of concrete like rib-bones packed above them, and they lightheaded with the blue airiness spinning around, and muzzy, a neuralgia calling at random like frail relations, a phone ringing in a distant office they cannot get to, that they become attentive, or we do — these divisions persisting, indeed what we talk about, we, constructing these webs of buildings which, caulked like great whales about us, are always aware that some trick of the light or weather will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing — and fill with placid but unbearable melodies us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass.

Does that make it different? Perhaps, but no clearer. The two sentences seem to outdo Proust in their labyrinthine sinuousness, and we miss the structure and balance that would be accorded by a periodic sentence. One thought simply follows another, tailing away into obscurity and personal reflection. The poem reads better as verse, with five beats to the line. Whatever else it might be, this is not (to repeat the usual jibe against modern poetry) simply chopped up prose. We feel that there is something more, though perhaps struggling to get out.


Much has been said about free verse {5}, and confusions multiply. But, at least until recently, lines were expected to have some internal consistency and autonomy, to be the better for their expression in one way than another. If the line breaks could be differently employed, or the words rearranged on the line without significant loss, then the writing was not good verse. What's the verdict here?

Many of the lines have no real autonomy. Not until line 10 is there something which looks more than a segment taken at random from a prose narrative.

-/x x x/-/-/x x/x x
 Silicate oftough lives distant andintricate
Or possibly:-
-//x x x//-/-//x x//x x

Here the metre slows, the predominantly four-stress line is buttressed by the alliteration in k and t's, and the repetition of l and i ties the line together.

Some of this autonomy is seen in lines 12 and 13, rather less so in lines 16 -15, and then returns in some strength in the final stanza. But even here the line endings do not coincide with what is suggested by the stress pattern, or the texture of vowel and consonant:-

awIAAe ouua(r)
k kdl kgr tw lzb ts-

aw Ae (A)rauioeIawe e(r)ieeae
lw  zwth  ts  mtr  kvthl  t-w  thw ldr  sth  mzfr  ndz

E  iaA  i
pl  d  ngndfl  l  ng

iiia  iuu  A(r)   a  ee  O  E
f  lw  thPL  s  db  tn  b  r  b  lm  l  d  z

uiEe  aoi  era(r)
snd  ph  nt  l  ndzvnc  vdgl  s


Whatever complexities may exist in the poem, they are not really those of sense. We do not feel an interlocking or underpinning of meaning that reinforces any paraphrase we can make, but rather the opposite, that the images are yoked together simply by association of properties. Consider:

past days overcast
And glinting, obdurate, part of the
Silicate of tough lives, distant and intricate
As the whirring bureaucrats let in
And settled with coffee in the concrete pallets,

But for whirring both the connotations and the consonant structure suggest the hard, self-enclosed world of rocks and buildings. The verse is very tactile, without colour beyond perhaps a dull grey. The arid, repetitious and essentially pointless activities of bureaucrats is carried over from the lines preceding. But the connection is not one of meaning. The work of bureaucrats may be dull, but it's not pointless, or more repetitious than most jobs. Is it fair to argue in such a way or — since there is no argument as such — are we persuaded to accept the poem's viewpoint? Do human beings think in this sort of way?

In fact they do, although thinking is too precise a word. Our brain does not work in strictly logical fashion, but calls upon many other functions, both physical and abstract, poetry being a powerful language to the extent it recognizes and employs these mechanisms. Nonetheless, such subsidiary functions are not what the New Criticism made its province, or not essentially so. How a word had been deployed in the past, its literary history, was also important. Likewise its deployment in everyday speech. And New Critics were often sensitive to metrical phrasing, alliteration, assonance and other weapons in the poet's armoury. In all this, meaning was the go-between. To their lights, the connections were not to be made (as it seems largely to be attempted by this poem) by raw physical associations, which might interest the psychologist but elude the fine discriminations that poems should make.

So have we reached an answer? Not quite. Consider the urgent rhythm and imagery of the first stanza, the sense of a wave rearing — first in water, then as aggregates forming cliffs that seem to involve stormy weather, becoming detached and then collecting whales to end in the hinterlands of incurved glass. Hinterland: is it fanciful to see the poem as a movement from sea to land, from the open turbulence of the changing shore to settled permanence beyond, a notion supported by the echoes of the splinteriness in hinterlands which remind us of the consonance of lines 9 and 10? And isn't there more than geography implied? Hinter, from the German, means behind, some buttress perhaps that is solid and perduring. Glass is a supercooled liquid of silica, the main constituent of beach sands. So, in some odd way, the speaker has become more than enclosed and preoccupied by buildings — he's become immersed in their very constituents, drowned by the facticity of their world.

With these conflicting notions we can begin to unpick some of the threads of the poem. Its imagery seems not so arbitrary. Progression appears: from shore to land, from ground to air to water, from threat to imprisonment. Nature is an intruding presence, its implacable qualities entering into and building up our own lives: the aggregate they are composed of ... underwritten as it were with past days ... part of the silicate of tough lives .. Notice the sly underwritten, employed not only as a commercial guarantee but in a physical sense. As the aggregate is constituted, so are our lives with past days. Notice also the settled with coffee of line 12, which seems to mischievously regard the bureaucrats as flighty creatures to be compressed between concrete pallets. Also the neuralgia, an inflammation of the sinus cavities, the human skeleton being compared with the structure of buildings - emphasized by rib-bones and continued with Divisions and then Caulked There are many punning associations: bureaucrats . . busy, generally, the Vacuumed afternoons, the Caulked . . . dress them. Notice also how reference is passed — from past days to tough lives, from lightheaded to neuralgia, from pleading to unbearable melodies.

Suggested Improvements

The New Criticism grew out of the Modernist movement, being an attempt to read traditional poetry in ways useful to the practising contemporary poet. Its forté was the short lyric in the Humanist tradition, and its achievements were always vulnerable to the charge of intellectual ingenuity. This poem is not a lyric, and appeals not to the intellect but a subconscious visceral sense of words. A meaning can be teased out, but the poem does not work by images or intellectual gymnastics. It represents some barely articulated fear of the raw purposes of nature, purposes not accommodated by Humanism, and not fully grasped. At the rational level the poem is preposterous, but it is also unsettling. New Criticism techniques can analyze some of the strategies employed, but the full picture eludes them.

But New Criticism can still say something. What the poem clearly lacks is an inherent rightness or inevitability of phrase. The diction is heavy, over-elaborated hoarse roar, burdensome...overcast.. obdurate, the Spinning around and muzzy. Cut these and the poem breathe may breathe a little more, perhaps resonate with meanings more finely drawn. The metre is not regular, but shambling: indeed seems to be neither verse, free-verse or prose. A rhythm is discernible in detail, and in the overall shape, but many sections trail into metrical incoherence.

Some of the shortcomings have been corrected in a new version, now entitled Office Workers.

This and other pages in the Literary Criticism section are now available as a free pdf ebook from Ocaso Press entitled 'Ten Approaches to Literary Criticism'.


1. Chapters 9 and 10 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986).
2. Jean-Paul Sartre's What is Literature? (1967) and Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory (1982).
3. Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950) and Vincent Buckley's Poetry and Morality: Studies in the Criticism of Arnold, Eliot and Leavis. 1959.
4. C.S. Lewis's The Allegory of Love (1936).
5. Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (1990), and H.T. Kirby-Smith's The Origins of Free Verse (1996).

Internet Resources

1. Definition of the New Criticism. 1998.
critical_define/crit_newcrit.html. Article adapted from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supriya M. Ray. NNA
2. Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. 1950. Online excerpts from their book.
3. T.S. Eliot's Criticism. Brief listing of online texts.
4. Richards, I. A. 1997.
. Extended article in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.
5. I. A. Richards 1893-1979. Ed. Lamoureux. Extensive notes on Richards and his work.
6. I.A. Richards Research Links. 2000.
rhetoricaltheory/ Another good set of links. NNA
7. Sir William Empson. Nieves de la Flor Ponce. 2000. Short introduction on a site with several articles on The New Criticism.
8. William Empson. Sep. 2002. Wikipedia article with in-text links.
9. Critical Essays on William Empson. John Constable (Ed.) 1993. An appreciative and entertaining introduction.
10. Cleanth Brooks (1906-1994). Short introduction to the man and his work.
11. Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism by Mark Royden Winchell. Aug. 1996. Washington Post book review.
12. 17. Robert Penn Warren. 2004. Introduction to his poetry, prose and letters.
13. Robert Penn Warren. Bob Frey. Website devoted to the life and works of Warren.
14. C.S. Lewis Foundation. 2004. Very full site devoted to the novelist, writer and critic.
15. On Christopher Ricks As Critic. P. N. Furbank. 2003.
. Close reading of the work of someone who practises close reading.
16. Notes away from the Definition of Major and Minor. Christopher Ricks. 1978. Short article by Ricks.
17. Timothy Steele. Articles by the Formalist writer.
18. Teaching and Studying Literature at the End of Ideology. Richard Ohmann. 1976. Excerpt from English in America: A Radical View of the Profession.
19. Anecdotes of a jar: the dominion of spatial tropes in recent criticism of the lyric. Jeffreys. Winter 1998. Issues in recent literary criticism of the lyric: detailed and technical.
20. Literary Criticism. Feb. 2004. Short overview of the whole field.
21. General Literary Theory and Criticism Guides. John Phillips.
. Listings for course.
22. Literary History. Jan Pridmore. Jan. 2004. Index of critical articles.
23. Guide to Literary Theory. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Johns Hopkins online guide: free access limited.
24. Literary Criticism. Library Spot's listing.
25. Comparative Literature and Theory. Stephen Hock and Mark Sample . Jun. 2003. Essential listings.
26. Literary Resources on the Net. Jack Lynch. Jun. 2003. 's Extensive as usual.
27. Internet Public Library. Jun. 2002. Listing of critical and biographical websites.
28. Voice of the Shuttle. Alan Liu et al. Literary theory section.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.