Feb 1, 2008

Coming Soon: A New Anthology of the New Criticism

An anthology of essays from the New Criticism will soon be published, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The anthology will include one of the most important essays of Yvor Winters, “Preliminary Problems,” which is one of his most frequently read and reprinted critical writings. It stands as one of the central essays of his career, for it lays out many of the general theoretical principles that form the foundation of his critical examinations of hundreds of individuals poets and novelists. Some time in early 2008, Ohio University Press, through its Swallow Press (which was the publisher of much of Winters’s work 40 years ago and more), will issue Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism. CHE’s Chronicle Review article is entitled “What We Owe the New Critics,” by Mark Bauerlein. The article is online, though I believe it is available only to CHE subscribers:


The New Criticism, as famous as it is, greatly waned in influence a couple decades ago and among our postmodern critics has almost become passé. The goal of the anthology, Bauerlein says, working from an interview with its editor, is to give professors a means by which to bring the New Criticism back into college classrooms, which is a crucial way to revive its influence:

Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism and Geoffrey H. Hartman's Beyond Formalism had discussed New Critical theory closely, but for younger readers the message lay all in the titles. [Paul] De Man and others contested the New Critics at length about organicism, self-referentiality, intention, and irony, but their students didn't recognize the respect implied in mounting arguments against precursors. All they heard was, "The Old Guard was wrong." Why bother with them? Why read them? It was easier to win, casting them as benighted apostles of "transhistorical truths," "timeless verities," "objective interpretation," and other exploded notions.

Those titles implied that the New Criticism and anyone associated with it were dead issues. To me, it still stings, if not sickens, to read such phrases as “timeless verities” being disparaged (as they have been for so long now). Obviously, someone thinks the New Criticism worth much more than as an example of outmoded theorizing or faded foolishness. The attention of the classroom is crucial in reviving the New Criticism, as it was and is and will be for every literary movement of any kind or purpose in the modern age, including the theories of Yvor Winters. I have written of how important the classroom will be to the creation of a Stanford School enclave of modern classicism, and Bauerlein appears to agree:

New Criticism will carry on only if it survives in the classroom, which is to say only if instructors have a handy anthology to assign. They'll get it in early 2008...

My Yvor Winters web site and this blog are my two efforts to revive the study of Yvor Winters in the same way. This new anthology might give a bit of help. Winters’s essay “Preliminary Problems” is one of seminal essays of his career. I think it might be helpful to summarize it briefly to try to inspire you to look it up and study it closely. It could be life-changing. It is one of the two or three best essays for those just getting introduced to Winters.

The essay (it is still in print and can be found in In Defense of Reason) examines a series of problems designed to show that meaningful value judgments, in literature and other areas of life and thought, outside an absolutistic frame of reference, are impossible. The essay defines the nature of poetry and the central issues and procedures of literary criticism. Early on, it reissues Winters’s usual definition of poetry: a poem is "a statement in words," a statement which has "by intention a controlled content of feeling". This simple definition can alter your understanding of poetry radically.

One of his central theoretical tenets, laid out in sharp detail in this essay, is that a poem is written in verse rather than prose because "the rhythm of verse permits the expression of more powerful feeling than is possible in prose when such feeling is needed, and it permits at all times the expression of finer shades of feeling." Nonetheless, this important idea is one that I have the most doubt about -- which is a matter for examination in another post. For Winters part, he argues that words have denotative content and vague associations of feeling. The poets refines words with precision through the control of diction, context, and the details of style. Conceptual content cannot be eliminated from words, and the poet's main task is to fuse concept to feeling through just motive. In contrast, the Romantics sought to suppress the conceptual content of words and to present unmotivated feeling for its own sake.

The essay also presents Winters’s crucial critical tenet of moral judgment in literature, a matter with which I wholly agree. Winters claims that a reader discovers whether feeling has been justly motivated through an act of moral judgment. In human life, he writes, distinctions between better and worse are distinctions between the degrees to which people fulfill the potentialities of their nature, an aspect of Winters’s criticism influenced by Thomism. The existence of clearly incomplete and unfulfilled human beings demonstrates the existence of greater or lesser fulfillment and, therefore, of greatest fulfillment. Winters does on to make the general case that a reader should judge a poem or other work of literary art by the fullness with which it employs the possibilities of the poetic medium, which he defines as versified language, and the extent to which the feeling in a poem (or any work of literature) is adequately and correctly motivated by concept. The better poets try to use the full potentialities of their minds and the medium, and better critics should do likewise in studying their poems. Critics should consider the relevant history behind each poem, the biography of the poet, and the relevant tenets of good literary theory, as well as the paraphrasable content of the poem and the feeling motivated by the details of style, all to make a final act of judgment.

Finally, Winters claims that right judgment, in the case of both poets and critics, is an act of intuition as much as rational understanding. The final judgment is a unique act. (To me, this idea has always sounded strangely Romantic -- and thus has always troubled me a bit. But a consideration of it must wait.) But, for the most complete act of human judgment, Winters states that rational understanding must be fully present in a work of literature.

No Wintersian, no member of the Stanford School, has ever endeavored to reassess this essay, point by point. I believe that such a reconsideration is needed in order to advance Winters’s theory, to search out and shore up its weaknesses (or even to abandon them) and reinforce its strengths. Another matter that has received very little study is Winters’s connections to the New Critics. Scholars have often said that he is not a New Critic, though he did share a few of their traits and concerns. Yet his writings have often been reprinted with the New Critics and discussions of the New Criticism often involve him to one degree or another. I would agree that Winters is not a New Critic, but then why might it be appropriate to include him in an anthology of the New Criticism? How did he shape what we think of as the New Criticism? How much and in what ways did he influence individual New Critics? These are questions that could use some answers.

Perhaps this new anthology will provide an occasion for such work. More information on the New Criticism anthology can be found at the web site of the Ohio University Press:


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