Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn. New York: Harcourt, Inc. 1942.
(AD: I am here much less interested in the notes Brooks takes on the poems that he explicates than in what these notes say about the New Critical methodology of which he is an exemplary practitioner.)
1: The Language of Paradox
“I am not here interested in enumerating the possible variations [of meaning born from paradoxes]; I am interested rather in our seeing that the paradoxes spring from the very nature of the poet’s language: it is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations. And I do not mean that the connotations are important as supplying some sort of frill or trimming, something external to the real matter in hand. I mean that the poet does not use a notation at all–as the scientist may properly be said to do so. The poet, within limits, has to make up his language as he goes.
T. S. Eliot has commented upon ‘that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations,’ which occurs in poetry. It is perpetual; it cannot be kept out of the poem; it can only be directed and controlled. The tendency of science is necessarily to stabilize terms, to freeze them into strict denotations; the poet’s tendency is by contrast disruptive. The terms are continually modifying each other, and thus violating their dictionary meanings” (8-9).
“The method of art can, I believe, never be direct–is always indirect. But that does not mean that the master of the game cannot place the bowl where he wants it. The serious difficulties will only occur when he confuses his game with that of science and mistakes the nature of his appropriate instrument” (10).
“…how many of the important things which the poet has to say have to be said by means of paradox: most of the language of lovers is such…so is most of the language of religion…Indeed, almost any insight important enough to warrant a great poem apparently has to be stated in such terms” (18).
“The urns are not meant for memorial purposes only, though that often seems to be their chief significance to the professors of literature. The phoenix rises from its ashes; or ought to rise; but it will not arise for all our mere sifting and measuring the ashes, or testing them for their chemical content. We must be prepared to accept the paradox of the imagination itself; else ‘Beautie, Truth, and Raritie’ remain enclosed in their cinders and we shall end with essential cinders, for all our pains” (21).
3: The Light Symbolism in ‘L’Allegro- Il Penseroso’
“Milton is using in these poems something which looks curiously like symbolism, and a symbolism too delicate and indeterminate to be treated in terms of the coarser modes of it such as allegory, for example…” (51). (AD: Symbolism: Allegory :: Fine: Coarse)
“The typical critic since Johnson has done little more than express his appreciation of the delicious quality of the double poem, feeling perhaps that the beauty of the poem was so obvious as to require no further comment, and the effect given so simple as to render any consideration of architectonics a mere intrusion. this view is based upon a sound consideration of the effectiveness of the poem; but great art is never so simple that it will not repay careful reading, and the result has been that except for communication between admirers of the poem, the ‘criticism’ has been quite useless” (51).
“To unravel these questions is to recapitulate the entire symbolism of the two poems” (66). (AD: This is the NC method.)
4: What Does Poetry Communicate?
“The question of what poetry communicates, if anything, has been largely forced upon us by the advent of ‘modern’ poetry. Some of that poetry is admittedly highly difficult–a very great deal of it is bound to appear difficult to the reader of conventional reading habits, even in spite of the fact–actually, in many cases, because of the fact–that he is a professor literature. For this reason, the difficult moderns are often represented as untraditional and generally irresponsible” (67).
“The question, however, allows only one honest answer: modern poetry (if it is really poetry, and, at its best, it is really poetry) communicates whatever any other poetry communicates” (67). (AD: the NC method is to ask questions better to better fit the poems.)
“All this is ‘communicated’ by the poem, and must be taken into account when we attempt to state what the poem ‘says.’ No theory of communication can deny that this is part of what the poem communicates, however awkwardly a theory of communication may be put to it to handle the problem” (71).
“I shall not try to indicate in detail what the resolution is. Here one must refer the reader to the poem itself. Yet one can venture to suggest the tone” (72).
“If my clumsy paraphrase possesses any part of the truth, then this is still another thing which the poem communicates, though I shall hardly be able to ‘prove’ it. As a matter of fact, I do not care to insist upon this or any other paraphrase. Indeed it is just because I am suspicious of such necessarily abstract paraphrases that I think our initial question, ‘What does the poem communicate?’, is badly asked. It is not that the poem communicates nothing. Precisely the contrary. The poem communicates so much and communicates it so richly and with such delicate qualifications that the thing communicated is mauled and distorted if we attempt to convey it by any vehicle less subtle than that of the poem itself” (73).
“To sum up: our examination of the poem has not resulted in our locating an idea or set of ideas which the poet has communicated with certain appropriate decorations. Rather, our examination has carried us further and further into the poem itself in a process of exploration. As we have made this exploration, it has become more and more clear that the poem is not only a linguistic vehicle which conveys the thing communicated most ‘poetically,’ but that it is also the sole linguistic vehicle which conveys the things communicated accurately. In fact, if we are to speak exactly, the poem itself is the only medium that communicates the particular ‘what’ that is communicated. The conventional theories of communication offer no easy solution to our problem of meanings: we emerge with nothing more enlightening than this graceless bit of tautology: the poem says what the poem says” (74).
“the poet is a maker, not a communicator. He explores, consolidates, and ‘forms’ the total experience that is the poem” (74-5).
“I believe that I. A. Richards, if I understand him correctly, has attempted to qualify his theory in precisely this way. At any rate, the net effect of his criticism has been to emphasize the need of a more careful reading of poetry and to regard the poem as an organic thing” (75).
“What does this poem communicate? If we are content with the answer that the poem says that we should enjoy youth before youth fades, and if we are willing to write off everything else in the poem as ‘decoration,’ then we can properly censure Eliot or Auden or Tate for not making poems so easily tagged. But in that case we are not interested in poetry; we are interested in tags. Actually, in a few years, when time has wrought its softening changes, and familiarity has subdued the modern poet’s frightful mien, and when the tags have been obligingly supplied, we may even come to terms with our difficult moderns” (77).
the “blush recollected in tranquility” (84).
6: Gray’s Storied Urn
“…we can conceive of the prose-sense as the exclusive source of the poetic effect only as a limiting case. In no actual poem is the reader’s response determined solely by the prose-sense. Still, what the ‘Elegy’ ‘says’ as poetry does seem so close to what the prose-sense manages to say, that the reader is tempted to think of the prose-sense as the poetic content, a content which in this poem is transmitted, essentially unqualified, to the reader by means of the poetic form, which, in this case, merely supplies a discreet decoration to the content” (105-6).
“The ‘Elegy’ is thus–like The Waste Land–a tissue of allusions and half-allusions. If the materials of which it is composed are ‘poetic,’ they have been made poetic by other poets” (107).
“…the precise modifications made by these allusions are difficult to assess and more difficult to prove” (107).
“These points are perhaps too obvious to seem worth making. But there must be no mistake as to what is going on…” (109).
“But this is, if not to beg the question, at least to ask the question badly: for the self-consciousness of the artist is not necessarily involved. The appeal is to be made to the poem itself” (110).
7: Wordsworth and the Paradox of the Imagination
“…it may actually surprise some readers to see how much the poem, strictly considered in its own right, manages to say, as well as precisely what it says. If we consider the ‘Ode’ in these terms, several observations emerge. For one thing, the poem will be seen to make more use of paradox than is commonly supposed. Of some of these paradoxes, Wordsworth himself must obviously have been aware; but he was probably not aware, the reader will conjecture, of the extent to which he was employing paradox” (125).
“In one sense I think the question of whether or not Wordsworth did this consciously is irrelevant. What I am certain of is this: that the lines ‘The moon doth with delight / Look round her’ strike any sensitive reader as fine to a degree which their value as decoration will not account for” (130).
8: Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes
[re: ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’] “This is ‘to mean’ with a vengeance–to violate doctrine of the objective correlative, not only by stating truths, but by defining the limits of truth” (152).
“But the question of real importance is not whether Eliot, Murry, and Garrod are right in thinking that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ injures the poem. The question of real importance concerns beauty and truth in a much more general way: what is the relation of the beauty (the goodness, the perfection) of a poem to the truth or falsity of what it seems to assert? It is a question which has particularly vexed our own generation–to give it I. A. Richards’ phrasing, it is the problem of belief” (152).
“It will not be sufficient, however, if it merely drives us back to a study of Keats’s reading, his conversation, his letters. We shall not find our answer there even if scholarship does prefer on principle investigations of Browning’s ironic question, ‘What porridge had John Keats?’ For even if we knew just what porridge he had, physical and mental, we should still not be able to solve the problem of the ‘Ode.’ The reason should be clear: our specific question is not what did Keats the man perhaps want to assert here about the relation of beauty and truth; it is rather: was Keats the poem able to exemplify that relation in this particular poem?” (153).
“It has seemed best to be perfectly frank about procedure: the poem is to be read in order to see whether the last lines of the poem are not, after all, dramatically prepared for” (154).
9: The Motivation of Tennyson’s Weeper
“I have no wish to intellectualize the poem–to make conscious and artful what was actually spontaneous and simple. Nevertheless, the qualities of ironic contrast and paradox do exist in the poem; and they do have a relation to the poem’s dramatic power” (175).
11: The Heresy of Paraphrase
“For what is it to be poetic?” (193) (AD: This is one of the important “good questions”)
“…if we are to proceed at all, 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. The latter is the effect of a total pattern, and of a kind of pattern which can incorporate within itself items intrinsically beautiful or ugly, attractive or repulsive. Unless one asserts the primacy of the pattern, a poem becomes merely a bouquet of intrinsically beautiful items” (194).
“But though it is in terms of structure that we must describe poetry, the term ‘structure’ is certainly not altogether satisfactory as a term. One means by it something far more internal than the metrical pattern, say, or than the sequence of images. The structure meant is certainly not ‘form’ in the conventional sense in which we think of form as a kind of envelope which ‘contains’ the ‘content.’ The structure obviously is everywehre conditioned by the nature of the material which goes into the poem. The nature of the material sets the problem to be solved, and the solution is the ordering of the material” (194).
“the critic is forced to judge the poem by its political or scientific or philosophical truth; or, he is forced to judge the poem by its form as conceived externally and detached from human experience” (196).
there are paraphraseable and non-paraphraseable elements to a poem.
“The essential structure of a poem (as distinguished from the rational or logical structure of the ‘statement’ which we abstracted from it) resembles that of architecture or painting: it is a pattern of resolved stresses. Or, to move closer still to poetry by considering the temporal arts, the structure of a poem resembles that of a ballet or musical composition. It is a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations, developed through a temporal scheme” (203).
“…the reader may well ask: is it not possible to frame a proposition, a statement, which will adequately represent the total meaning of the poem; that is, is it not possible to elaborate a summarizing proposition which will ‘say,’ briefly and in the form of a proposition, what the poem ‘says’ as a poem, a proposition which will say it fully and will say it exactly, no more and no less? Could not the poet, if he had chosen, have framed such a proposition? Cannot we as readers and critics frame such a proposition? The answer must be that the poet himself obviously did not–else he would not have had to write his poem” (206).
“I have in mind no special ills which poetry is to cure. Uses for poetry are always to be found, and doubtless will continue to be found. But my discussion of the structure of poetry is not being conditioned at this point by some new and special role which I expect poetry to assume in the future or some new function to which I would assign it” (209).
“If the poet, then, must perforce dramatize the one-ness of the experience, even though paying tribute to its diversity, then his use of paradox and ambiguity is seen as necessary. He is not simply trying to spice up, with a superficially exciting or mystifying rhetoric, the old stale stockpot (though doubtless this will be what the inferior poet does generally and what the real poet does in his lapses). He is rather giving us an insight which preserves the unity of experience and which, at its higher and more serious levels, triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern” (214).
“he must transcend the conventional and polite attributions of divinity which would be made to her as an acknowledged belle. Otherwise, he is merely trivial and obvious” (214).
Appendix 1: Criticism, History, and Critical Relativism
“I insist that to treat the poems discussed primarily as poems is a proper emphasis, and very much worth doing” (215).
“We are not likely to ignore those elements which make the great poems differ from each other. It is entirely possible, on the other hand, that the close kinship that they bear to one another may be obscured–those qualities that make them poems and which determine whether they are good poems or bad poems” (216).
“If we are to emphasize, not the special subject matter, but the way in which the poem is built, or –to change the metaphor–the form which it has taken as it grew in the poet’s mind, we shall necessarily raise questions of formal structure and rhetorical organization: we shall be forced to talk about levels of meanings, symbolizations, clashes of connotations, paradoxes, ironies, etc. Moreover, however inadequate these terms may be, even so, such terms do bring us closer, I feel, to the structure of the poem as an organism” (218).
“The question of form, of rhetorical structure, simply has to be faced somewhere. It is the primary problem of the critic. Even if it is postponed, it cannot ultimately be evaded. If there is such a thing as poetry, we are compelled to deal with it” (222).
“The Humanities are in their present plight largely because their teachers have more and more ceased to raise normative questions,have refrained from evaluation. In their anxiety to avoid meaningless ’emoting,’ in their desire to be objective and ‘scientific,’ the proponents of the Humanities have tended to give up any claim to making a peculiar and special contribution” (235).