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New Criticism


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T. S. Eliot (1888—1965) poet, critic, and publisher

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Allen Tate (1899—1979)

William Empson (1906—1984) poet and literary critic

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An important movement in American literary criticism during 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 repudiated what they called the ‘extrinsic’ approaches to poetry—historical, psychological, or sociological—and cultivated an ‘intrinsic’ understanding of the actual ‘words on the page’.

The early phase of the New Critical campaign was led by Southern poets and university teachers: J. C. Ransom and A. Tate, along with R. P. Warren and C. 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. Other contributions came from R. P. Blackmur (The Double Agent, 1935) and Y. Winters (Primitivism and Decadence, 1937).

From 1939, when Ransom founded the Kenyon Review and Brooks published his Modern Poetry and the Tradition, the New Criticism made important headway in the universities; notably at Yale, where a second wave of New Critical theory was represented by René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (1949), and by W. K. Wimsatt's The Verbal Icon (1954), containing essays written with M. C. Beardsley (see intentional fallacy). The most celebrated work of ‘applied’ New Criticism was Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn (1947).

By the late 1950s New Criticism had become an academic orthodoxy which younger critics found to be not only inapplicable to most genres other than lyric poetry but narrow in its exclusion of social and historical dimensions of literature.

Subjects: Literature.


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