Literature Foundation 2010


Week 9


formalism and new criticism


The Oxford Companion to English Literature

formalism, a term applied, usually pejoratively, to any creative performance in which technique or manner seems to have been cultivated at the expense of substance; or to critical approaches that disregard the subject matter of a work in favour of discussing its formal or stylistic features. More positively, formalism as a critical principle may be defended as a way of understanding art or literature primarily through its techniques rather than as a mere vehicle for personal expression or for moral and political doctrines. For- malism thus exists in continuous dispute with a range of biographical, social, and religious modes of criticism that show more interest in the 'message' of an art than in the medium. Just as in literary *Modernism a 'formalist' emphasis on creative technical experiment is prominent, so in modern literary criticism formal- ism has been a powerful principle, notably in the *New Criticism of the mid-20th cent. Outside the English- speaking world, the most important such critical tradition has been that of the 'Russian formalists'— a label applied to two groups of linguistic and literary scholars active in St Petersburg and Moscow in the period 1915-30, led by Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) and Victor Shklovsky (1893-1984). Repudiating the mainly psychological and historical methods of pre- vious Russian critics, they inaugurated a new 'scien- tific' approach to literature that focused upon the linguistic 'devices' and conventions—from metre to plot-structure—by which literature distinguishes itself from ordinary uses of language. They thus attempted to arrive at an objective account of 'literariness' through formal linguistic analysis, and of its principal effects through the concept of *defamiliarization. Stalin's suppression of intellectual life led to a recantation by Shklovsky in 1930, but Jakobson had earlier emigrated to Czechoslovakia, where he helped to found in 1926 the Prague Linguistic Circle, which became a major link between Russian formalism and the emergence of the broader ^structuralist movement. Meanwhile in Rus- sia the arguments of the formalists had influenced, partly through strong disagreement, the work of *Bakhtin and his group. In the West, the work of Shklovsky and his associates, Boris Tomashevsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, and Vladimir Propp, was redis- covered in the 1960s; Propp's work in particular encouraged the development of *narratology.

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New Criticism, an important movement in American literary criticism in the period 1935-60, characterized by close attention to the verbal nuances of lyric poems, considered as self-sufficient objects detached from their biographical and historical origins. In reaction against the then dominant routines of academic literary history, the New Critics insisted that a poem should not be reduced to its paraphrased 'con- tent', but understood in its own terms as a complex unity of verbal ironies, ambiguities, and paradoxes. They repudiated what they called the 'extrinsic' ap- proaches to poetry—historical, psychological, or socio- logical—and cultivated an 'intrinsic' understanding of the actual 'words on the page', while defending poetry as a richer form of knowledge than that offered by scientific abstraction.
The early phase of the New Critical campaign was led by Southern poets and university teachers: J. C. *Ransom and his former student Allen *Tate, along with R. P. *Warren and Cleanth *Brooks, editors of the Southern Review (1935-42). The name applied to this movement comes from the title of Ransom's book The New Criticism (1941), which surveys the critical work of T S. *Eliot, I. A. *Richards, and W. *Empson in Britain, from which the New Critics clearly derived their inspiration. While Ransom and Tate formulated the theoretical principles, Brooks and Warren, notably in their textbook Understanding Poetry (1938), applied them to the teaching of literature in universities. More marginal contributions to the cause came from R. P. *Blackmur (The Double Agent, 1935) and Y. *Winters (Primitivism and Decadence, 1937).

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