New Criticism, born and nurtured during the.late twenties and early thirties of the present century, are in sharp reaction to Sociological or Marxian criticism which regarded a litterateur a product of the society in which he lived.
It put the theory of inspiration off the gear. It assumes a close and causative relationship between society and literature and between society and the writer. It is the stress on textual criticism which has made it new. Otherwise there is nothing new in it. It had its origin in the writings of T. E. Hulme; but it is now mainly an American movement. The term was first used by J. E. Spingam. Its chief exponents in America are Kenneth Burke, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Richard Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, etc. In England its leading representatives are I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, William Empson, etc.
The New Critics are opposed to the biographical, historical, sociological and comparative approach of conventional criticism. Similarly, they reject the traditional division of literature into periods and groups for the purpose of criticism. All such considerations are regarded as extrinsic and irrelevant and a work or art is judged solely on its own merits. Their criticism is Intrinsic or Ontological, and not Extrinsic. A poem, a piece of literature, is the thing in itself, with a definite entity of its own separate both from the poet and the socio-cultural milieu in which it is produced. The emphasis is laid on the study of the text, and its word by word analysis and interpretation. The music of a poem, its imagery and versification, its total structure must be taken into account to arrive at its meaning. Words must be studied with reference to their sound, and their emotional and symbolic significance. New Criticism is predominantly textual, and the new critics have rendered valuable service to literature by their study and interpretation of literary classics. While Eliot has his affinity with the critics of the new school, he is against too close a scrutiny of a work of art. The poem is the thing, and it must be studied in itself, but he is against the ‘lemon-squeezer’ critics who press the words too closely. Although the term ‘new criticism’ was first used by Joel E. Spingam in his address at Columbia University, yet it came in general use after John Crow Ransom published his book, The New Criticism in 1941. And it was I. A. Richards who provided the theoretical foundations.
The Contribution of the New Critics
Speaking about the contribution of the new critics, Pritchard observes : “their concentration upon linguistic expression has benefited the study of poetry. Readers needed to realize that ‘the poem’s the thing’. 3y this redirection of poetic study and by the publicity they have given to poetic problems they have increased the number of readers of poetry. Even their too sweeping assertions, by stirring opponents to combat them, have injected new life into the study of literature. The self-evaluation of the New Critics during the past few years, and the indications that they are increasingly ready to widen their study, are encouraging signs. Whether this expansion indicates their further development or their disappearance as a school, no one can now say. They remain, however, one of the most important and colourful schools of criticism which the century has yet produced.”
The Basic Tenets of the New Critics
It is yet too early to make any definitive evaluation of their work and contribution. Therefore, it would be more fruitful to consider their basic tenets, tenets to which they all subscribe despite their individual differences. These basic doctrines and principles may be summarised as follows :
(a) To the New Critics, a poem, or a work of art, is the thing in itself, and the critic must concentrate all attention on it and illuminated it. The function of the critic is to analyse, interpret and evaluate a work of art. A poem is distinct from the poet and his social milieu; it is a definite entity in itself and must be studied as such. The critic must devote himself to
close textual study, unhampered by any extraneous concerns.
(b) Moral and religious considerations, social, political and
environmental conditions, the details of the poet’s biography, are all irrelevant and are all obstacles in the way of a real understanding of a, work of literature. The literary critic must rid himself of all such extrinsic bias and prejudices. He must approach the work with an open mind, ready to study it, “as is in itself.”
(c) The critic must not allow himself to be hampered and prejudiced by any literary theories also.
(d) A poem has both form and content and both should be closely studied and analysed before a true understanding of its meaning becomes possible.
(e) Words, images, rhythm, metre, etc., constitute the form of poetry and are to be closely studied. A poem is an organic whole and these different parts are inter-connected and these inter-connections, the reaction of one upon the other, and upon the total meaning, is to be closely followed, and examined. That is why a prose paraphrase cannot convey the total,
and poetic, meaning of a poem.
(f) The study of words, their arrangement, the way in which they act and react on each other is all important. Words, besides their literal significance, also have emotional, associative, and symbolic significance, and only close application and analysis can bring out their total meaning. The new critics, in their minute scrutiny of words, and the structure of poetry, have propounded different theories. “From I. A. Richard’s concept of the ‘behaviour’ of words, through Empson’s seven categories of “ambiguity” with their subdivisions, to John Crowe Ransom’s principle of’texture’ of Robert Penn Warren’s preoccupation with symbols, or Allen Tate’s theory of ‘tensions’, we find the same search for the meaning of words, for the strange transformation they undergo as they react on one another for the way they contribute to build up the structure of the poem— the unified whole of which they are the parts.
(g) Poetry is communication and language is the means of ::ommunication, so the New Critics seek to understand the full meaning of a poem through a study of poetic language. As R. C. Crane has aptly remarked : “So everything turns, for I. A. Richards, on the opposition of ‘referential’ and ’emotive’ speech; for John Crowe Ransom, on the antithesis of logical ‘structure’ and poetic ‘texture’, and for Brooks, on the contrast between the ‘abstract’ language of science, and the ‘paradoxical’ language of poetry. Thus, for the New Critics words are all important, and their study is the only key to the poetic meaning of the poem.
(h) The New Critics are opposed both to the historical and comparative methods of criticism. Historical considerations are extraneous to the work of literature, and comparison of works of art is to be resorted to with great caution and in rare instances alone for the intent and aim of writers differ, and so their method, their techniques, their forms, are bound to be different.
(i) They are also anti-impressionistic. Instead of giving merely his impression, which are bound to be vague and subjective, the critic must make a close, objective and precise study of the poem concerned.
(f) In short, they concentrate on close textual study, on the study of the form, design and texture of poetry. The psychological state of the poet at the time of creation, as well as the effect of the poem upon the readers are not to be allowed to divert attention from the text. Stressing the point, Wimsatt and Brooks write in their book The Verbal iconT A poem should not mean but be. A poem can be only through its meaning— since its medium is words—yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant. Poetry is a feat of style by which a complex of meaning is handled all atonce.” The object of critical analysis should be the poem itself, to approach which either by way of its origins in the mind of its maker or by way of its results in the mind of its maker or by way of its results in the mind of the audience would be critical fallacies. They may be called the intellectual fallacy and the effective fallacy. The former is “the confusion between the poemand its origins. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism.” The consequence of both these fallacies is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to be ignored.
Limitations and Shortcomings of !New Criticism
The limitations of the New Critics were pin-pointed by a group of critics who have come to be known as the Chicago critics. They are called ‘Chicago critics’ because they all worked at the University of Chicago, and they form a homogenous group with little difference in their views and critical methods. Ronald Crane is the most important member of the group. He in his book Critics and Criticism (1952) has criticised the New Critics. Other members of this group are Elder Olson and others. The, Chicago Group of Critics has done the criticism of criticism and mentioned the following limitations of the New Critics :—
1. The New Critics are too much pre-occupied with textual analysis. Their excessive pre-occupation with words, images, paradox, irony, etc., makes them forget that the poem is an organic whole. In their pre occupation with the parts they ignore the beauty of the whole.
2. Their approach is dogmatic and narrow. According to them, it is through Textual study and analyses alone that truth can be arrived at. However, there are a number of other approaches—the historical, the sociological, the psychological, etc., and each has its own value and significance. All possible ways should be tried to arrive at the full truth about a poem.
3. A work of art has two functions, aesthetic and moral. While the older criticism erred in its over-emphasis on the moral concern of literature, the New Critics go to the other extreme in their entire neglect of it. Art cannot be divorced entirely from life.
4. In their insistence on the objective and scientific study of a work of art, they entirely ignore the reactions of the critic. The subjective element cannot be totally done away with, and the impressions of the critic have their own significance.
5. As T. S. Eliot has pointed out, textual analysis can establish only the literary quality of a work, to determine its greatness other methods are also necessary. Literature is certainly an art-form, but it has other values aJso, besides the literary.
6. The textual approach may work well with some genres, but it is not equally effective with all genres. There are different kinds of poetry, and different critical techniques are needed for their valuation. The same technique cannot be effective both with the lyric and the epic.
7. The New Critics are wrong in ignoring the study of the history of literary criticism. A historical study shows that various critical tools have been used effectively in different ages and countries, and their use may be worthwhile in the present also. Thus, for example, the Aristotelian literary philosophy and poetics may still be of use in evaluation and interpretation. A historical study is the only way of understanding the comparative merits of the rival schools of criticism. The critic must, therefore, master the critical traditions and from among the rival critical techniques choose the one best suited to his purposes.
8. A poem is certainly an artistic structure, and must be studied as such. The understanding of the poetic meaning of a poem is essential, and textual and structural study is an effective tool for the purpose. But social and biographical factors may also determine its meaning and a knowledge of them may also help the critic to illuminate the work under study. Hence, the new critics are wrong in totally ignoring the social milieu Df the poet.