Cleanth Brooks

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.

Cleanth Brooks: Selected full-text books and articles

Cleanth Brooks, 1906-1994 The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1, Fall 1994
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
American Literary Criticism, 1900-1950 By Charles I. Glicksberg Hendricks House, 1952
Modern Poetry and the Tradition By Cleanth Brooks University of North Carolina Press, 1939
Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: Notes on Their Literary Correspondence By Grimshaw, James A The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter 1994
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Achievement of American Criticism: Representative Selections from Three Hundred Years of American Criticism By Clarence Arthur Brown Ronald Press, 1954
Librarian's tip: "Modern Criticism" by Cleanth Brooks begins on p. 678
The Humanities: An Appraisal By Julian Harris University of Wisconsin Press, 1950
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Quick and the Dead A Comment on Humanistic Studies" by Cleanth Brooks
The Modern Critical Spectrum By Gerald Jay Goldberg; Nancy Marmer Goldberg Prentice-Hall, 1962
Librarian's tip: "The Formalist Critic" by Cleanth Brooks begins on p. 1
Literary Theory and Criticism Festschrift Presented to René Wellek in Honor of His Eightieth Birthday By Joseph P. Strelka Peter Lang, 1984
Librarian's tip: "The American South and Yeats's Ireland" by Cleanth Brooks begins on p. 729
The Major English Romantic Poets: A Symposium in Reappraisal By Clarence D. Thorpe; Carlos Baker; Bennett Weaver Southern Illinois University Press, 1957
Librarian's tip: Chap. 19 "The Artistry of Keats: A Modern Tribute" by Cleanth Brooks
John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays By Helen Gardner Prentice-Hall, 1961
Librarian's tip: "The Language of Paradox: The Canonization" by Cleanth Brooks begins on p. 100
Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks By Louis Dollarhide; Ann J. Abadie University Press of Mississippi, 1979
Librarian's tip: "Eudora Welty and the Southern Idiom" by Cleanth Brooks begins on p. 3
The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction By Laurie Champion Greenwood Press, 1994
Librarian's tip: "The Past Reexamined: The Optimist's Daughter" by Cleanth Brooks begins on p. 226
The Permanence of Yeats By James Hall; Martin Steinmann Macmillan, 1950
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Cleanth Brooks begins on p. 152
Literary Theories in Praxis By Shirley F. Staton University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987
Librarian's tip: Includes criticism by Cleanth Brooks: "Yeats's 'Sailing to Byzantium'" begins on p. 17, "Interpretation: 'The Birthmark'" begins on p. 32, and "Interpretation: 'A Rose for Emily'" begins on p. 53
A Library of Literary Criticism: Modern American Literature By Dorothy Nyren Frederick Ungar, 1960 (3rd edition)
Librarian's tip: "Brooks, Cleanth (1906- )" begins on p. 75
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