New Criticism Arises in American Universities Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The New Criticism was a school of criticism that read literary texts formally, in isolation from the cultures or people that produced them. Adherents of the school taught a generation of students the methodology of close reading and helped shape the history of literary criticism in the United States.

Summary of Event

By the end of World War II, a new method of literary study had gained primacy in American colleges and universities. Education;higher education The method, dubbed “New Criticism,” soon triumphed over other ways of interpreting literature, becoming the dominant lens for looking at poetry and other works taught in academia. New Criticism Literary theory [kw]New Criticism Arises in American Universities (1941) [kw]Criticism Arises in American Universities, New (1941) [kw]American Universities, New Criticism Arises in (1941) [kw]Universities, New Criticism Arises in American (1941) New Criticism Literary theory [g]North America;1941: New Criticism Arises in American Universities[00040] [g]United States;1941: New Criticism Arises in American Universities[00040] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1941: New Criticism Arises in American Universities[00040] [c]Literature;1941: New Criticism Arises in American Universities[00040] [c]Education;1941: New Criticism Arises in American Universities[00040] Ransom, John Crowe Eliot, T. S. Brooks, Cleanth Wimsatt, William K., Jr. Richards, I. A. Blackmur, R. P. Tate, Allen

New Criticism was a reaction to and a rejection of previous literary studies, which (according to the New Critics) had submerged poetry in historical, philological, cultural, and biographical studies. These studies according to some New Critics were all valid approaches to reading, but they were not literary approaches. If one were to look at a poem’s historical context, for example, one would according to New Critics be engaging in history rather than literary study. The New Critics, then, attempted to delineate a field of study, literary studies, that would approach poetry Poetry in a distinctive way, one that was not historical, philological, or biographical.

Spearheaded by early critics such as T. E. Hulme Hulme, Thomas E. (1883-1917) and T. S. Eliot, New Criticism argued that poetry should be interpreted by the reading of individual poems themselves. According to Hulme, scholarship in the Romantic age had focused instead on the poet, whose verbal expressions were seen less as poetry and more as versified statements about the poet’s emotional experience. Eliot, in his key critical work The Sacred Wood (1920) Sacred Wood, The (Eliot) , argued that the poet, rather than seeking to express emotion, should try to escape it. By writing a poem—a construction of images, plot, and metaphors that embodies the truth intrinsic in the work itself—the poet could transcend personal experience. The author of a work, Eliot argued, is therefore far less important than the work itself. The historical context and moral worldview of the work are similarly unimportant to its proper literary appreciation.

The New Critics rejected the Victorian scholar Matthew Arnold’s Arnold, Matthew cultural criticism, which had claimed that poetry would replace religion and provide the stability that religion had previously given. New Criticism insisted that poetry is neither religion emotionally stated nor the ornamental embellishment of cultural values and hopes—nor, New Critics argued, is poetry to be valued according to its effect on readers; it is a verbal construct, a thing made—indeed, the word “poetry” comes from the Greek poieo, which means “to make.” The New Critics thus taught and interpreted the poem as poetry: as a work with various parts and characteristics that were fit together to make an artful whole.

After this initial stage, New Criticism expanded its effect through the work of such other poets and critics as I. A. Richards, R. P. Blackmur, William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate. In The New Criticism (1941), John Crowe Ransom carefully defined the school but lamented its apparent lack of philosophical depth, social awareness, and attention to cultural and moral values. Cleanth Brooks, in Understanding Poetry (1938) Understanding Poetry (Brooks) , had provided a text that challenged poets and critics; mostly, however, Brooks’s work captivated students by focusing on each individual poem’s language, images, narrative, argument, and metaphors and on how these intrinsic qualities worked with and against one another to sustain a tension that was primarily literary and aesthetic.

In a third stage of New Criticism’s development, various professors, critics, and poets codified the school into a discernible method of literary criticism that was used to teach poetry to thousands of students between the 1940’s and the 1960’s. Such texts as René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature (1949); The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (1954), by William K. Wimsatt, Jr., with Monroe C. Beardsley; Murray Krieger’s The New Apologists for Poetry (1956); Brooks and Wimsatt’s Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957); Allen Tate’s Essays of Four Decades (1969), dedicated appropriately to John Crowe Ransom; and Cleanth Brooks’s 1956 reprint of Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) all partook of the formidable authority that New Criticism had achieved.

Several of these men, notably Eliot, Ransom, and Tate, were poets themselves. This led to the blurring of the distinction in some of their criticism between how a poem should be written and how it should be interpreted. In other words, New Criticism applied to the reading endeavor held that a poet’s life and emotion were not relevant to interpretation. Applied to the poet’s activity, however, it held that poets should strive to separate their emotions from their work. This was a contradiction, however, because it indicated that in some poetry—poetry in which the poet had “failed” to be “properly” dismissive of vulgar emotion—the New Critical methodology might misconstrue the poem. The contradiction was resolved by those critics who held that poetry that was readable by New Criticism was the best poetry, and other poems—poems, for example, in which form and content seemed not to be perfectly suited to each other—were simply inferior poems.

From these three decades of critical and poetic activity, a remarkable school evolved. While there never was unanimity among the New Critics, their work was largely defined by the following characteristics: a concern for form that meant that poetry was viewed as a structure of events, images, and metaphors; an emphasis on close reading as the method by which texts were to be explicated; the use of structural analysis to determine how the parts of a poem work together to achieve its effect; a deliberate ignoring of the author’s life, values, and worldview, as well as of the poem’s effect on the reader and of the poem’s origin in society; an emphasis on semantic studies in which the way words “mean” according to poetic context is used to understand the poem; an insistence that literary criticism must be literary and not primarily, if at all, moral criticism, social (Marxist) criticism, or psychological or theological criticism; and an assertion that a poem is a vital organic unity—not a mechanical contraption but a living thing that ideally includes everything necessary to, and nothing extraneous to, its meaning. The tenets of the New Criticism exerted a powerful influence on the teaching and interpretation of poetry in the mid-twentieth century.


The most important effects of New Criticism had three sources: the assertion that a literary work was best understood in isolation, as a closed system on the page separate from the person and culture that produced it; the creation of an ostensibly objective methodology for the study of literature called close reading Close reading ; and the particular aesthetic most effectively analyzed and appreciated by those who practiced New Critical close readings. To take the latter source first, it is important to note that every school of criticism is better suited to read and explain some types of works than it is to understand others. New Criticism came to focus upon the economic and poetic use of tension and paradox; the school portrayed unresolved paradoxes within a work as the hallmark of the greatest art. The works in which it is easiest to deploy that particular type of representation are relatively short poems. As a result of the rise of New Criticism, then, poetry came to be seen as the greatest literary art, and specifically shorter poems came to be valued more highly than epics. The novel, for example, was far less of a focus for the New Critics and their followers than was poetry.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of New Criticism, and the one that accounts most plausibly for its appeal among the thousands of students educated by the New Critics, was its populism. Prior to the rise of the New Criticism, students who wanted to understand a poem written in eighteenth century London were told to study eighteenth century London, to study the life of the poet, and to learn a host of other facts—including the history of poetry and the English language to that point—before they would be capable of truly understanding the poem. As a result, lay people assumed that they could simply never understand a poem as well as professional scholars, because they did not have a sufficient background. New Criticism’s rejection of external material, however, made all readers equal. Anyone who learned the methodology of close reading could apply it to any poem, regardless of his or her scholarly background or the obscurity of the poem’s history. New Criticism thus offered a generation of students who had no plans to become professional literary scholars the tools to approach and appreciate poetry on the same level as those scholars.

Finally, the decision to treat a work as a closed object in itself that was to be attended to through close reading was an important stage in the development of twentieth century criticism and philosophy. It had aspects in common with the school of criticism known as structuralism—though New Criticism and structuralism were distinct schools—and it looked ahead to post-structuralism and deconstruction, which would embrace close reading as a methodology, albeit using it for very different purposes from those of the New Critics. Indeed, many of the terms and perspectives of New Criticism, such as the focus on the relationship between form and content, remained centrally important to the later schools that rejected New Criticism itself. The underlying assumptions of the New Critics may have eventually fallen from favor, then, but their lens on literature remained an integral part of literary studies. New Criticism Literary theory

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beck, Charlotte H. The Fugitive Legacy: A Critical History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. Includes an analysis of the influence of Cleanth Brooks and the New Criticism upon the reading and writing of Southern American fiction. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren, eds. Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students. New York: Henry Holt, 1938. A clearly written text that introduces readers to narrative, description, meter, imagery, and theme. Actual poetic texts are analyzed with helpful questions and explanations. An excellent, lucid book for teacher and student alike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Survey of literary theory by a major scholar of structuralism and deconstruction. Relates New Criticism to the movements it helped to foster, both as reactions and as sometimes unwitting followers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950. Written in tight, clear, direct language, these essays are models of analysis and judgment about writers such as Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, William Blake, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Eliot combines careful scrutiny of the works with ultimate, personal, and even theological verdicts. This book gives the lie to the charge that the New Critics paid no heed to anything but the poem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krieger, Murray. The New Apologists for Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. A difficult and complex book; nevertheless, it carefully distinguishes between poet, poem, and reader and shows the difference that is produced by talking about each.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lentricchia, Frank. After the New Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. An intellectual argument for the necessity that criticism proceed beyond New Criticism and its progeny. An important work that shows how New Criticism asked all the important questions about the uniqueness of the work of art and yet too easily assumed that each work was available to the reader for interpretation.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ransom, John Crowe. The New Criticism. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. The seminal text that first defined New Criticism and then pointed out that it lacked ultimate, ontological foundations. Does not spell out clearly or finally what poetry, as poetry, really is, or why it is essential. After reading this book, however, one will feel that poetry is both necessary and enriching to the human condition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richards, I. A. Science and Poetry. New York: W. W. Norton, 1926. The first modern influential text to focus on poetic language, its powers, and its limitations. A subtle, difficult work that shows the demand that thinking about and using language make on humanity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Garland, 1999. Accessible summaries of ten major schools of criticism, including the New Criticism. Places the school in its historical and philosophical context. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wimsatt, W. K., Jr. The Verbal Icon. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1954. A book written for academics; however, its focus on the work of art, as well as its placing of poetry in moral and religious contexts, shows that New Critics did not ignore the place of poetry in the total human situation.

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