Cleanth Brooks
Born 1906

Murray, Kentucky

Relevant Work The Well Wrought Urn


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biography Edit

  • Cleanth Brooks was a literary critic and theorist whose critical books and essays contributed to the development of the literary movement New Criticism.
  • Brooks argued that critics should approach the interpretation of a poem by examining the "interior life of the poem," not the poem's historical or authorial context (1214).
  • Though Brooks's work was criticized in the 1970s and 1980s for its failure to address the historical background of a text, his formalist approach, including the close reading technique he helped develop, remains a foundational component of modern literary analysis.

from The Well Wrought Urn Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

The Well Wrought Urn closely examines a selection of ten widely celebrated English poems in an attempt to respond to historicist criticism, which seeks to interpret poems within the historical context in which they were written. Brooks, instead, argues that all poetry can be analyzed and understood exclusively by its text.

These ten poems "were not selected because they happened to express a common theme or to display some particular stule or to share a special set of symbols," and include: Donne's "The Canonization" (1633), Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606), Milton's "L'Allegro" and "II Penseroso" (1632), Herrick's "Corinna's Going A-Maying" (1648), Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1714), Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751), Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807), Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (1807), Tennyson's "Tears, Idle Tears," (1847), and Yeats's "Among School Children" (1927).

"The Heresy of Paraphrase" is the eleventh chapter of The Well Wrought Urn and seeks to reject the paraphrasing of poetry as a way to find its meaning.

Key Words and Terms Edit

The Heresy of Paraphrase - the assumption that the real, core meaning of a work of writing can be paraphrased and the subsequent assignment of primacy to the paraphrasable parts of the work.

Paradox - a statement that seems self-contradictory or nonsensical on the surface but that, upon closer examination, may express an underlying truth. Brooks maintains that "paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry" (Bedford Glossary, 365).

Irony - a contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality. Positive Unity - "The principle of unity which informs it seems to be one of balancing and harmonizing connotations, attitudes, and meanings...It unites the like with the unlike" (Brooks).

Negative Unity - " does not unite them, however, by the simple process of allowing one connotation to cancel out another nor does it reduce the contradictory attitudes to harmony by a process of subtraction. The unity is not a unity of the sort to be achieved by the reduction and simplification appropriate to an algebraic formula" (Brooks).

Key Quotations Edit

"The 'content' of the poems is various, and if we attempt to find one quality of content which is shared by all the poems- a 'poetic' subject matter or diction or imagery- we shall find that we have merely confused the issues" (1218). "...we must draw a sharp distinction between the attractiveness or beauty of any particular item taken as such and the 'beauty' of the poem considered as a whole" (1218).

"The conventional terms are much worse than inadequate: they are positively misleading in their implication that the poem constitutes a 'statement' of some sort, the statement being true or false, and has expressed more or less clearly or eloquently or beautifully; for it is this formula that most of the common heresies about poetry derive" (1219).

"As W.M. Urban puts it in his Language and Reality: 'The general principle of the inseparability of intuition and expression holds with special force for the aesthetic intuition. Here it means that form and content, or content and medium, are inseparable.'" (1221)

"We can very properly use paraphrases as pointers and as shorthand references provided that we know what we are doing. But it is highly important that we know what we are doing and that we see plainly that the paraphrase is not the real core of meaning which constitutes the essence of the poem" (1219).

"If we allow ourselves to be misled by it (paraphrase), we distort the relation of the poem to its 'truth' we raise the problem of belief in a vicious and crippling form, we split the poem between its 'form' and its 'content' — we bring the statement to be conveyed into an unreal competition with science or philosophy or theology" (1222). "The essential structure of a poem (as distinguished from the rational or logical structure of the 'statement' which we abstract from it) resembles that of architecture or painting: it is a pattern of resolved stresses" (1223).

"But to deny that the coherence of a poem is reflected in a logical paraphrase of its 'real meaning' is not, of course, to deny coherence to poetry; it is rather to assert that its coherence is to be sought elsewhere" (1225). "What is true of the poet's language in detail is true of the larger wholes of poetry....When we consider the statement immersed in the poem, it presents itself to us, like the stick immersed in the pool of water, warped and bent" (1227).

Discussion Edit

Statements Edit

The focus on statements and making statements is popular throughout “The Heresy of Paraphrase.” When discussing the misleading and inadequate tendencies of conventional terms, Brooks states that poetry is seen as constituting a “statement” of some sort (1219). No matter how these statements are expressed, they are responsible for the formula that causes most of the common poetic heresies; beginning by “introducing a dualism which thenceforward is rarely overcome, and which at best can be overcome only by the most elaborate and clumsy qualifications” (1219). This is to say statements about poetry are reductive and introduce dualism that critics take sides with. When a poem is interpreted as making a statement, it is forced to make a statement about something that moves interpretation away from the center of the poem.

The alternative to the concept of poems making statements is the interpretation of them as “being an experience” (1228). Poetry as being an experience is more explicitly understandable when thinking of a poem as an imitation of reality that can be experienced, as Brooks does. This defies the interpretation that poetry is about experience or is an abstraction from experience.

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

Cleanth Brooks has been criticized along with the rest of the New Critics for his singular focus on the text, an approach that critics argue fails to take any account of biographical or historical context. For example, theorist Edward Said has drawn attention to the "antihistorical thrust" of the New Critical approach, arguing that literary criticism should be conducted in conjunction with historical inquiry and ideological critique.

Related Works Edit

  • The New Criticism by John Crowe Ransom
  • Literary Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

References Edit

  • The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010 (pages 1213-29).
  • The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms.  Boston :Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. Print.