Cleanth Brooks (1906–1994) was an acclaimed American academic specializing in poetry and literary criticism. Much acclaimed for his pre-eminent work The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947), he was a pioneer of New Criticism, a method of literary criticism based on the analysis of the language of the literary work itself, rather than the factual circumstances surrounding ...
Cleanth Brooks (1906–1994) was an acclaimed American academic specializing in poetry and literary criticism. Much acclaimed for his pre-eminent work The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947), he was a pioneer of New Criticism, a method of literary criticism based on the analysis of the language of the literary work itself, rather than the factual circumstances surrounding its creation. Born roughly 100 miles northwest of Nashville, Tennessee, in Murray, Kentucky, he received his bachelor of arts degree from Vanderbilt University in 1928. He received his master of arts degree from Tulane University and continued his studies at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He began his teaching career at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in 1932.
During his years at Vanderbilt University, Brooks was introduced to the Southern Agrarians, or Fugitive Poets, a group of academics from the Southern United States who extolled Southern culture and traditions, especially that of rusticism, traditionalism and religious fundamentalism. They published a pro-Southern collection of essays, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, that detailed their pro-agrarian, anti-industrial manifesto. Many in this group were involved with the publication of the literary magazine The Fugitive (1922–25). Working with writers such as Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, Brooks developed his style of close reading during this time. Also in this period, he became indirectly involved with the Southern Renaissance, or the resurgence of prominent Southern writers (e.g., William Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell and Tennessee Williams), who created groundbreaking new works and introduced innovative literary tools, such as Faulkner's "stream of consciousness."
While at the University of Oxford, Brooks collaborated with Warren, creating manuals that delved into the pedagogy of poetry and literature. He published the influential Understanding Poetry (1938) incorporating the basic tenets of New Criticism. In it, he guides the reader for the purposes of instruction in the understanding of poetry, not by its parts, but through its form and its impact as a whole. The textbook, which had four reprintings, covers narrative poetry, descriptive poetry and literary topics, including metrics, tone, imagery and theme. It also acknowledges the importance of cultural context in determining intention and meaning.
In The Well-Wrought Urn, Brooks uses explication de texte to examine the lexicon and syntax of a sample of English poems to impart instructional value in the textual analysis of poetry. It includes analyses of works by Yeats, T.S. Eliot, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Alexander Pope, John Milton and Shakespeare. In the first chapter, "The Language of Paradox," Brooks explains that unlike the language of the scientist, which must be free of ambiguity, the language of the poet is steeped in the contradictions of reality. Using the examples of William Wordswoth's "It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free" and "Composed upon Westminster Bridge," he illustrates how a poet may use an apparent contradiction to illuminate his version of truth.
In the chapter "What Does Poetry Communicate?," he uses Robert Herrick's "Corinna's Going A-Maying" and "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" to explore the irony of the levity of the poet's language with the seriousness of its carpe diem theme. In the chapter "The Heresy of Paraphrase," Brooks instructs that one cannot use paraphrase to unlock the meaning of a poem. Throughout the book, he proposes that the goal of criticism is to discern the unity of the work, that form and content cannot be separated and that form is meaning; therefore, to substitute parts of a work is to destroy the work as a whole.
During the course of his career, Brooks was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Philosophical Society. He was appointed a cultural diplomat for the U.S. embassy to London (1964–66). In 1985, Brooks was selected for the National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. government's penultimate honor for accomplishment in the humanities.