Sunday, April 7, 2013

The New Critics Vindicated

While waiting for Hilary to finish breakfast the other day, I slipped into the “office” to read an article about “Core Knowledge” education, little suspecting that I’d be returning to the land of New Criticism I left behind decades ago. The author, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., is a retired professor of humanities at the University of Virginia and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. At the age of 85, he thought it might be instructive for him to share one or two youthful moments that set him on the part of educational reform. Indeed it is.
Both experiences took place at Yale in the mid 1950s, when the New Criticism of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (both of whom taught there) were the rage. As Hirsch describes it:
The theory was that you didn't need to have a lot of biographical or historical information to understand poetry. You could learn to read any poem if you knew poetic conventions and techniques.
At the time, a student challenged Hirsch’s analysis of a poem by Donne, arguing that the poet’s intention was irrelevant, and any interpretation consistent with the poem’s stated meaning would do. This response flummoxed Hirsch, leading him to ask the question:  So, why am I teaching this class? This is an important question, to which we’ll return.
Hirsch later went to Germany to study the influence of German thinkers on the poetry of Wordsworth and came home convinced that such background material was essential to a proper understanding of his poems.
Hirsch cites differing interpretations of an evidently simple poem by Wordsworth to prove his point. 
A slumber did my spirit seal;
            I had no human fears:
            She seem'd a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
            Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Brooks, one of the founders of The New Criticism, finds in this poem a sense of futility -- the lover's "agonized shock" at watching his beloved turn into an inert object like a rock, stone, or tree. Brooks writes:
“Part of the effect, of course, resides in the fact that a dead lifelessness is suggested more sharply by an object's being whirled about by something else than by an image of the object in repose. But there are other matters which are at work here: the sense of the girl's falling back into the clutter of things, companioned by things chained like a tree to one particular spot, or by things completely inanimate like rocks and stones. ... [She] is caught up helplessly into the empty whirl of the earth which measures and makes time. She is touched by and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image.”
By way of contrast, the scholar F. W. Bateson, well-known for several exhaustive biographies of literary figures, sees in the poem a "pantheistic magnificence":
“The vague living-Lucy of this poem is opposed to the grander dead-Lucy who has become involved in the sublime processes of nature. We put the poem down satisfied, because its last two lines succeed in effecting a reconciliation between the two philosophies or social attitudes. Lucy is actually more alive now that she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature, and not just a human "thing."
Comparing the two, Hirsch finds the later more accurate, based on his own researches in Germany. “As someone deeply immersed in Wordsworth,” he writes, “I could say authoritatively that Bateson caught the poet's intended sense pretty well: He knew that nothing was really dead in Wordsworth's nature.” And then he cites a passage in Wordsworth’s Prelude to support this position:
To every natural form, rock, fruits, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass 
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.

 The only thing Bates (and Hirsch) failed to consider in their interpretation of the poem is what it actually says. They have succumbed to what critics call “the intentional fallacy,” by which the critic attempts to guess what the poet meant to say or  wanted to say, rather than considering what he or she did say.
Hirsch tries to suggest that Wordsworth meant something diametrically opposed to what he actually said, and calls the judgment “authoritative” on the basis of his years in Germany studying Shelling and phenomenology. Yet there’s nothing in the poem to suggest that Wordsworth thinks being rolled around is “grander” (Bates’s term) than being alive. Nor do the sentiments expressed in the poem match those  in the passage from The Prelude. Feeling the “moral life” of rocks and fruit is quite different from seeing life slip away from a beloved companion or relative. All the references in the poem under consideration are to things that have been lost. “She” can no longer feel, move, hear, or see. She has become a passive entity. It’s not a happy feeling.
In short, Brooks’s description of the poem is essentially accurate and his analysis is sound. He’s right. Hirsch is wrong.
Yet Hirsch is obviously a thoughtful, decent individual, deeply interested in students, and learning, if not poetry. (His theory of Core Knowledge strikes me as both sound and important. And opening a book about the history of lierary theory, I read, "A theorist who speaks unapologetically for rational values, E.D. Hirsch stands pretty much by himself in the landscape of contemporary literary theory.") Part of the issue he has with the New Criticism is that it’s hard to teach. After all, what can a professor of literature talk about if he can’t load his syllabus with biographical material? But the situation is not that bleak. The New Criticism exposed vast landscapes of thought to both teaching and reflection. His characterization of what the New Criticism is, alas, also wrong.
 The trouble with the New Criticism, he feels, is that “if there was no such thing as a "correct" interpretation, then a poem could mean one thing and its complete opposite. In other words, if the text was all you needed, you were led by a kind of Hegelian logic to the next dominant literary theory: deconstruction.”
But that’s not what the New Critics were saying. They were merely underscoring the point that a poem ought to be considered on its own terms as an act of expression, rather than as a clue to the author’s life or personality. It’s a work of art, after all, an entity; it ought to be considered as such. The clues contained within it point, not to the author’s life, but to the poem’s meaning. The value of the poem, in turn, depends on how well the elements are assembled, how interesting, beautiful, or profound the images and sentiments are. Contrary interpretations would be appropriate only if given words or phrases had meanings that were diametrically opposed to begin with—which is rarely the case.
No doubt the New Critics went too far on occasion in their single-minded devotion to the text.  Extraneous data about the times or the author’s other works are often relevant to appreciating a poem, but only in so far as they illuminate what a given word or phrase meant during the author’s lifetime. We might call this the hermeneutical element. Once such issues have been resolved, the real work begins—the aesthetic one, in which we consider why a poem ought to be considered beautiful, important, or good.
When deconstruction arrived on the scene, it represented, at best, a programmatic perversion of New Critical thinking. In place of an analysis of beauty and personal expression, it focused on a tiresome, one-dimensional investigation of various forms of oppression—linguistic, conceptual, societal. Not only the author’s expression, but also his or her intention and very self, disappeared. The poem became a generic symptom of a specific place and time, rather than a leap toward the universal. It was a bad era for literary studies, full of hypocrisy, sham scholarship, reductionism, and sheer idiocy. Hirsh’s characterization of this sad era (especially sad for the students, some of whom arrived on campus with a dream of exploring life’s mysteries rather than merely reiterating its angriest clichés) is spot on.   
“But deconstruction was far less tolerant than New Criticism. It said you have to read every poem as meaning one thing and its opposite. This was how the heady optimism of early New-Critical days evolved into a world-weary, endlessly recurring, formulaic self-contradiction: all texts in the end say the same self-subverting sort of thing.”
Throughout all of these academic fashion wars, and beyond, poets continued to write poetry, and readers—a few—even today continue to read it. I do.
Because it sanctifies the fleeting. It opens a worm hole to the heart of the cosmos.

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