Brooks, Cleanth

Assigned: Brooks, Cleanth. “The Heresy of Paraphrase” from The Well Wrought Urn (1183-95). Also read the editors’ introduction (1179-82).

From The Well Wrought Urn (1947)

The Heresy of Paraphrase

1. On 1183-84 (“The ten poems that have been…”), Cleanth Brooks opens with a brief discussion of how the poems for The Well Wrought Urn were chosen for analysis. How does he begin to address the possibility of arriving at a way of talking about the “common goodness” (1183 bottom) of such different poems from a variety of literary periods? Why aren’t categories like “content” or “subject matter” (1184 top) of much use? Why doesn’t it make sense, in Brooks’ view, to suggest that this or that feature of a poem is “poetic” and leave it at that?

2. On 1184-85 (“To say this is not, of course…”), Brooks explains why the concept of a poem’s structure is so important in the determination of a given poem’s meaning. What happens to our understanding of a poem, according to him, if we fail to emphasize “the primacy of the pattern” (1184) or its “total pattern” instead of talking in outmoded fashion about “form” and “content”? How does Brooks, alluding to Pope’s mock epic The Rape of the Lock, explain what he means by the term “structure”? (1184-85) As he says, it doesn’t consist in heroic couplets or cantos, or, strictly, in “the mock-epic convention” itself. What definition of his key term “structure,” then, emerges here? Furthermore, what kind of “unity” does a worthwhile poem’s structure create, and what further terms does Brooks suggest are most appropriate in exploring the structure and unity he evokes?

3. On 1185-86 (“The conventional terms are much…”), how does Brooks begin to analyze the perils of making “statements” about a given poem in our quest to arrive at its meaning? What problems immediately crop up when we do this and it comes time to “judge” the poem—what two inadequate options alone are available? Furthermore, what happens to a critic’s “proposition” or statement so soon as it “approaches adequacy” (1186 middle)? How do Brooks’ brief comments about several well-known poems help him show the failure of the statement-seeking method of criticism? (If you are presenting on this question, develop an example of your own: i.e., try to do what Brooks says we shouldn’t, and see what results you get.)

4. On 1186-88 (“If we are to get all these qualifications…”), what further explanation does Brooks offer regarding the propensity of readers and critics to make statements about poems? What is the nature of the error made—i.e., the “heresy” committed—by those who insist on paraphrasing the actual words of a poem until they arrive at a statement they consider adequate to the meaning of those words? What obvious and not-so-obvious ways of making this error does Brooks specify, and what unfortunate consequences should we expect if we commit “the heresy of paraphrase”? In particular, what criticism does Brooks make of Ivor Winters’ analysis of a Robert Browning poem (“A Serenade at the Villa”) whose fifth stanza begins with, “So wore night…” Why is it a mistake to suppose that the paraphrase “Thus night passed” offers the same “rational meaning” as “So wore night” (1188)? According to Brooks, how do such critical moves lead to further misreading of a given poem?

5. On 1188-90 (“But what would be a positive…”), by way of delivering what he calls a “positive theory” of criticism, a “positive account of what a poem is and does” (1189 top), what three main analogies drawn from other arts does Brooks offer for poetic structure? What does each analogy in succession add to his case against construing a poem in terms of logical or rational structure and in favor of a more dynamic way of understanding how poetry is structured and how we ought to interpret poetry? Why does Brooks find “drama” the most productive analogy—what advantages does it offer as a vehicle for explaining how to deal with poetic structure? (1189) Finally, in what very restricted circumstance does Brooks agree that a “proposition” or paraphrase might prove useful, even if it is not to be taken as a proper interpretation? (1190)

6. On 1191-92 (“But to deny that the coherence…”), how does Brooks situate and explain the “characteristic unity” (1191) of a poem along the lines of the drama analogy he has settled upon? How does a poem achieve the unity Brooks grants it? What does his example drawn from Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” ode add to our understanding of what Brooks means by a poem’s unity? What rescues the ode’s concluding lines, “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” from mere sentimentality?

7. On 1191-92 (“Perhaps this is why the poet…”), how does Brooks deal with a possible challenge to his notion of a poem’s unity and integrity? What is it that those who reproach poetry for its supposed “blurring out distinctions, effecting compromises” and “coming to […] conclusions only after provoking and unnecessary delays” (1191) don’t understand about the purpose of poetry?   Why is it unnecessary and wrong for a critic to “excuse” the “meanderings of a good poem” (1192)? How should the “apparent irrelevancies which metrical pattern and metaphor introduce” be factored into a poem’s “total attitude” (1192)?

8. On 1192-94 (“If the structure of poetry is…”), how does Brooks define “irony” (1192)? How does he explain his preference for the term “irony” as a means of capturing the way poetic language functions and allows the meaning of a poem to be apprehended? In discussing the significance of irony, what contrast does Brooks make between the language of science and the language of the literary arts, and how does this contrast advance his argument about the “ironic” quality of poetry? (1193) Finally, how does Brooks enlist that most scientific- and logical-seeming of poets, John Donne, in the service of promoting “irony” as a fundamental mode of poetic language and process? In what sense, according to Brooks, was Robert Penn Warren right to suggest that “Donne as a poet is fighting the devil with fire” (1193 bottom)?

9. On 1194-95 (“Yet there are better reasons…”), Brooks declares that the poet’s task is “finally to unify experience. He must return to us the unity of the experience [i.e., the poet’s experience] itself as man knows it in his own experience” (1194). He also insists that the poet provides us with “an insight […] which triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern” (1195 top). Why does the fulfillment of this task necessarily involve complex operations such as “paradox and ambiguity” (1194 bottom)? Although Brooks has previously declared that he has no interest in promoting a “therapeutic” notion of poetry (see 1192, “If the last sentence seems to take…”), is he advancing in his conclusion an almost Romantic or Modernist view of poets as redemptive figures—priestly writers who recreate for us a feeling of unity in a broken world? Or would he most likely argue that such a claim goes beyond the bounds of his remarks? Explain.

10. General question: Cleanth Brooks’ theory of poetry in “The Heresy of Paraphrase” from The Well Wrought Urnis a fully “formalist” theory: that is, Brooks as the dean of the New Critics posits a literary object that is autonomous, one that has an integrity and separateness all its own and that isn’t dependent on any outside frame of reference for its meaning. How do you assess this formalist approach to engaging with works of literature? What are its strengths and weaknesses—in particular, what benefits come with formalism’s emphasis on “close reading” of literary texts? At the same time, what legitimate social, cultural, and political matters of interest must be left aside in order to facilitate such intensive focus on the text’s language and its “paradoxes,” “ironies,” and so forth? To what extent do you think formalism is still part of the intellectual environment in your own school’s English department or other humanities department?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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