New Criticism: An Essay

At a time when literary artists were turning away from society into an introspective preoccupation with ‘art for art’s sake’, a similar movement was initiated in criticism, parallel to the Modernist ethos, by Cambridge professors IA Richards, FR Leavis and William Empson, and by the American Fugitives and Southern Agrarians Allan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks and JC Ransom, which came to be known as New Criticism (which is also the name of a book by JC Ransom, 1941).

New Critics attempted to systematize the study of literature, and develop an approach that was centred on the rigorous study of the text itself. Thus it was distinctively formalist in character, focusing on the textual aspects of the text such as rhythm, metre, imagery and metaphor, by the method of close reading, as against reading that on the basis of external evidences such as the history, author’s biography or the socio-political/cultural conditions of the text’s production. Although the New Critics were against  Coleridge‘s Impressionistic Criticism, they seem to have inherited his concept of the poem as a unified organic whole which reconciles its internal conflicts and achieves a fine balance.


Like the liberal humanists, the New Critics believed in the primacy of the text as an autotelic artefact, complete within itself, written for its own sake, unified in form, and not dependent on its relation to the author’s intent/history etc. Such a text is to be read by the technique of close reading, which would reveal that its formal aspects serve to support the structure of meaning within the text. They believed that the critic’s job is to help readers appreciate the form and technique of the art and the mastery of the artist. Like Arnold and TS Eliot, New Critics also believed that “Western Tradition” is an unbroken continuum of internally consistent set of artistic conventions, going back to ancient Greece and continuing up to the present, and that good art participates in and extends the tradition, and that a critic’s job is to uphold the tradition and protect it from encroachments from commercialism, political posturing and vulgarity. As they believed in the canon, so also, they believed that literature/criticism is an internally edifying process that hones the sensibilities of “good” readers and sets them apart from the “unreflective masses”. Like the Modernists, they also made a firm distinction between “high” art and popular art, and held that “good” literature reflects universal values and is of timeless significance.

While IA Richards proposed close reading in his Principles of Literary Criticism and Practical Criticism, Wimsatt and Beardsley in their The Verbal Icon, eschewed the reading of a text based on the author’s intention (Intentional Fallacy) and on the impression on the reader (Affective Fallacy). Cleanth Brooks in his The Well Wrought Urn conceptualized the “heresy of paraphrase” and proposed that through the use of irony, paradox and ambiguity, a poet works constantly to resist any attempt at reducing the poem to a paraphrasable core. FR Leavis upheld austerity and moral seriousness in The Great Tradition while Empson explicated the multiple semantic possibilities of individual words in The Seven Types of Ambiguity.

In their emphasis on the “formal” aspects of a text, the New Critics were closely associated with the Russian Formalist school of Jakobson, Eichenbaum, Shklovsky and others. The New Critics’ attention to language and form was extended to the schools of contextual criticism, structuralism and poststructuralism. However, its principal notions were opposed by the Chicago school, New Historicism, Reader Response theory and Culture Studies.

For detailed note The American New Critics

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