The New Criticism

In this page I’ll be introducing the concept of the “persona” of a poem, which is not to be confused with the poet himself or herself. It’s a really important distinction to make, and also one that it has taken hundreds of years to crystallize in the minds of poets, readers, and those who enforce laws that have to do with censorship, libel, and intellectual property.

Throughout most of literary history, the default was to assume that a lyric poem conveyed the true thoughts of the poet: it was an intimate genre, perhaps as intimate as a diary, but also public in ways that diaries are not. If you felt that the poem exposed you too much you could always decline to publish it, or to do so anonymously. Before mass publication was developed, before consumers had enough money to buy books, and before literacy rates were high enough to make it possible to have a mass readership, most poetry was written for wealthy patrons. Poets who were not independently wealthy were writing not in order to promote their own brand of authorship but to satisfy the tastes of those who made it possible to write professionally. But as poets began contributing to the literary marketplace, the possibility of angering the powers-that-be and facing recrimination from the powerful became very real. It all came to a head with the trial of the poet and novelist Oscar Wilde in London in the 1890s, at whose trial the novel The Picture of Dorian Grey was used as state’s evidence for Wilde’s own thoughts (and in this case, sexuality, since he was on trial for slander related to an accusation of sodomy). Wilde defended himself by noting that the prosecution was reading speeches by his novel’s characters as if they were all equally applicable to Wilde’s personal politics and interiority, and that even the narrator was not truly an extension of himself (as he sat in the witness stand). He also pointed out that it was absurd to think of literature as a corruptive force that could be traced back to an author, who might then be held responsible for the effects of, basically, bad reading on his audience’s part.

Wilde lost his case and was sentenced to hard labor, but his example led to a set of related critical practices called “close reading” that came of age in the next generation in Britain, rose to its height in the mid-twentieth century, and still informs most of what we do when we read literature in universities around the world. Even though some of its premises are no longer rigidly adhered to, its influence is still being felt, and it’s the best way for me to teach you how to find evidence in texts, especially poetry, and how to know whether the case you are trying to make about a poem is going to be persuasive to other people. One way we can think about literary texts is that they generate new meanings for each new generation of readers, and for every new reader that comes along, based on the emotions and intelligence that that person uniquely brings to its study. So multiple interpretations can arise out of any poem. But not all interpretations are going to be persuasive, and some are just downright bad. No one should have to believe you if you don’t prove your case with evidence from the text, and close reading is a powerful way to do that.

You have probably been told to read things closely in the past, but it probably wasn’t “close reading” in the historical and critical sense I’m invoking right now. Close reading is an invention of the new criticism, a school of literary criticism prevalent in American academic institutions after World War II and which is now emphatically not-new. Its major proponents included C. K. Ogden, I. A. Richards, William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, Monroe Beardsley, and Allen Tate. Before the new criticism, English professors would generally teach a text by informing students about its historical and biographical context: this is who the author was had become the best way of gesturing toward this is what the poem means. Drawing on theories of the subconscious sponsored by Sigmund Freud after the advent of psychoanalysis, and reacting strongly against standard psycho-biographical practices of previous generations, the new critics favored an approach in which the text stood in isolation. They restricted themselves solely to the language of the text, and tried as much as possible to divorce it from the author (the real, physical person) who wrote it. They produced interpretations of texts that approximated an impersonal judgment of meaning unaffected by the critic’s individual biases: the former attempt rectifies the “intentional fallacy,” and the latter the “affective fallacy.”

Before I describe these two problems, it’s worth noting that although most critics no longer consider this type of microscopic, isolated approach to be sufficient by itself, 1.) your English teachers in high school were taught by professors who were probably taught by new critics, 2.) even if now deemed to be unnecessarily restrictive, the new criticism invented many technical ways of pointing to hard textual evidence, which is always going to be to your benefit to learn about, and 3.) the key will be to salvage what’s useful from these old techniques while keeping an open mind to the later critical theories and methods you will hear about in successive weeks of this course, and perhaps beyond! Those other theories react and respond to the new criticism, but they also build off of and therefore honor those earlier accomplishments.

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