New Criticism’s Relation to Modernism

New Criticism and Modernism emerged out of a world that was perceived as fragmented, with the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, progress and justice discredited; the artist alienated from the social and political world, and art and literature marginalised. The vast devastation, psychologIcal demoralisation and economic depression consequent to the war intensified rejection of the bourgeoisie modes of thought, that characterized the Decadent and the Avant Garde artists. Reactions to these traumatic socio-political circumstances were backed by a new understanding of language as a social and historical construct.

A crucial link between Modernism and New Criticism, TS Eliot formulated a theory of tradition (Tradition and Individual Talent), inspired by Irving Babbitt and Ezra Pound (and later endorsed by FR Leavis), which claimed that fife major works of art, both past and present, formed an “ideal order” (which is the tradition itself) and which is to be preserved, sustained and nurtured by subsequent works of art. This implied that contemporary writers ought to find their position in the tradition and work towards extending the tradition. Eliot effectively redefined the European literary tradition by bringing into prominence ‘Dante, the Metaphysical Poets (The English Metaphysical Poets) and the French Symbolists. He also proposed an “impersonal” nature of poetry, ‘whereby the poet but expresses not his personality, t. a precise formulation of thought and feeling or an “objective correlative  where objects and events of the external world are used to express complexes of’ thought and emotion. Employing objective correlative often amounted to trimming the verbosity of language and making the language concise, concrete and precise in the expression of emotion echoing the views of Ezra Pound on imagist poetry.

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The works of Modernist writers such as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Pirandello and Kafka were marked by a self-reflexivity and a self-consciousness regarding the process of literary composition, an awareness of the author’s position in the chain of literary tradition, acknowledgement of the problematic nature of language, alternate definitions of reality and a perception of the complex roles of time, memory and history in the creation of the self and the world. Thus the language in Modernist works is more suggestive and cryptic (rather than explicit statements), often marked by irony, ambiguity and paradox, and a breakdown of the narrative structure, which are typical values advocated by the New Critics and Russian Formalists. Modernist poetry tends to be fragmented, creating its own internal logic of emotion, image, sound, symbol and mood, and despite the apparent disintegration and fragmentation, there is an underlying unity, as best exemplified in The Waste Land. The Modernist penchant for textual experimentation was rightly paralleled by the New Critical ethos of pure textual’ analysis.

Both Modernism and New Criticism insist on classicism and austerity, maintaining the strict divide between “high” and popular art, and believing that “cream rises” and the works of genius will eventually be “vindicated by posterity”.

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