2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism

I. A. Richards, Psychological Theory of Value

The New Critical genealogy with which Cleanth Brooks opens Modern Poetry and the Tradition--Eliot, Tate, Empson, Yeats, Ransom, Blackmur, Richards--encompasses two oscillating poles between and with respect to which "good" organization is understood. First, the text has a "structure" because it is something made, something assembled from or discovered from an assembly of language. This is the sense in which T. S. Eliot spoke of "technical excellence," and of the artist "surrendering himself to the work to be done."[25] Second, the text has a "structure" because its tensions and discords may be experienced--read--as a unified whole. In support of this, I. A. Richards advanced his "Psychological Theory of Value":

Poetry may be almost devoid even of mere sense, let alone thought, or almost without sensory (or formal) structure, and yet reach the point than which no poem goes further. The second case, however, is very rare. Almost always, what seems structureless proves to have still a loose and tenuous (it may be intermittent) structure.[26]
To understand a situation [and to derive the "value" of great literature] in the sense here intended is not necessarily to reflect upon it, to inquire into its principles and consciously distinguish its characters, but it respond to it as a whole, in a coherent way which allows its parts their due share and their proper independence most in the response.[27]
Among all the agents by which "the widening of the sphere of human sensibility" may be brought about, the arts are the most powerful, since it is through them that men may most co-operate and in these experiences that the mind most easily and with the least interference organizes itself.[28]

For our purposes, the significant relation between these two poles of New Critical "structure" is that what the one gives away, the other takes back. As something made, the structure of the text is alienated from the artist's consciousness. Eliot speaks of the "impersonality" of great art: "it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality."[29] But as something experienced, the structure of the text constitutes consciousness. Richards asserts that this experience unifies the personality such that the "mind does not shy away from anything, it does not protect itself with any illusion, it stands uncomforted, unintimidated, alone and self-reliant."[30] Richards replies to Eliot: "And to say that we are impersonal is merely a curious way of saying that our personality is more completely involved."[31]

This give and take inaugurates an aggrandizing dialectic within the discourse of New Criticism, whereby "classics" written, interpreted and valued under prior aesthetic regimes might be "modernized." Such "modernization" is always visible at the margins of a canon where "new," "neglected" great works are periodically "discovered." But, "modernization" is also evident in the center. We are perhaps most familiar with this dynamic of "revision" as it has occurred within the recent history of New Criticism itself, with respect to the abrupt turn of fate of various poetics in the hands of the New Critics. The New Critical text-centered analysis of past poetics began by devaluing, with Eliot, the expressive theories of the Romantics in favor of the Metaphysicals' more mechanical, artisanal notions of poetic creation. It has culminated in the current full-fledged recovery of Romanticism, even to the exclusion of the Metaphysical poets. The psychological structures Eliot rejected as an "emotionalism" irrelevant to the creation of art have been recaptured by the heirs to Richards' theories of poetic response. As his own "first reader" the writer recovers the text as a metaphor of mind. Instead of an expression of personality, the text (language) becomes the origin of personality. Despite this apparently radical shift in epistemology, the techniques of textual analysis remain fundamentally unchanged--they serve two masters equally well. By 1953, it was possible for Feidelson to sum up this permutation within New Criticism: "But the question may at least remain open whether craftsmanship, after all, is the differentia of modern taste--whether this concept may not be subordinate to another, in which Eliot is closer to Emerson than to Pope."[32]

Feidelson's alternative candidate for the "differntia of modern taste" is symbolism, by which he specifies the kind of "structure" that has allied modern critical theory and literary practice. His discussion of symbolic structure gives voice to both poles of New Criticism's dialectic, Eliot's and Richards':

To consider the literary work as a piece of language is to regard it as a symbol, autonomous in the sense that it is quite distinct from both the personality of its author and from any world of pure object, and creative in the sense that it brings into existence its own meaning.[33]
We recognize literary structure as such by the necessity of multiple statement when we try to render the meaning in logical terms. As Michael Roberts says, "The meaning is not any of these readings, nor is it their arithmetical sum; it is the result of having all these in mind at one time; it is something of which these, together with the sound of the passage, are aspects."[34]

In effect, Feidelson offers symbolism as a bridge between Eliot's "technical excellence" and Richards' "aesthetic response." Here, Feidelson's analysis of New Criticism is more illuminating than Cleanth Brooks' summation of the central techniques of his New Critical genealogy. Brooks' notion of metaphoric tension and discord establishes the common ground of New Critical debate. Feidelson's analysis of symbolism offers a dynamic account of New Criticism, not in its most defensible posture, but at its most aggressive. As the bridge between technique and response, symbolism is not so much common ground for these two vectors of New Criticism as it is the point at which they pass over into each other, where a "stylistic device" becomes a "metaphysics."[35]

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