Eliot's Modernism and Brook's New Criticism: Poetic and Religious Thinking

By Duvall, John N. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Eliot's Modernism and Brook's New Criticism: Poetic and Religious Thinking


Duvall, John N., The Mississippi Quarterly


Emerging as the dominant critical methodology in America after World War II during a time of enormous expansion in the American university, New Criticism apparently exemplified a democratic pedagogy: any student could learn the skills to become a close reader of literary works. Today, though, it might seem perverse to investigate a movement that repeatedly has been declared passe for at least twenty-five years. William Cain reminds us, however, that no matter what contemporary theoretical perspective from which one works, few would seriously question the usefulness of close reading as a tool of analysis: "So deeply ingrained in English studies are New Critical attitudes, values and emphases that we do not even perceive them as the legacy of a particular movement."(1) In this regard, although Cleanth Brooks is no longer at the center of debates about theory and pedagogy, there are still things to learn from historical reflection on the role he played in popularizing T. S. Eliot's modernist poetics. Such reflection, for me, points to an intriguing intersection between two differing strains of Christianity - Anglo-Catholicism and fundamentalism. This intersection, which has shaped modern literary and cultural criticism, simultaneously clarifies the telos of New Critical close reading and helps us better understand the history of literary studies from the 1940s through the 1960s as a veiled ecclesiastical history. With this understanding, then, we may experience more directly the anti-democratic undertow of New Critical grounds.

A familiar charge against New Criticism, of course, is its lack of historical perspective. Yet Rene Wellek. in his role as apologist for New Criticism, maintains that it is unfair to accuse Cleanth Brooks's literary analyses of being ahistorical.(2) If that is so, then what kind of history does Brooks write?(3) He certainly writes a form of literary history, one that is repeatedly nostalgic for community. This nostalgia cannot be traced to a single source but in part may be teased out of the way the texts of T. S. Eliot pass through Nashville, Tennessee, during the 1920s. In this matrix we discover certain underlying assumptions - some acknowledged and some explicitly denied - regarding not only history but also religion, literature, and community. Taken together, this complex has affected not only what we read but how we read in American Departments of English.

It is hardly surprising to note that Eliot, high priest of modernist poetics, shaped Brooks, high priest of New Criticism. Cleanth Brooks's admiration of Eliot, both as poet and essayist, manifests itself in a myriad of ways. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" echoes loudly in the opening sentences of Brooks's Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939): "Every poet that we read alters to some degree our total conception of poetry. Most poets, of course, modify it in only a minute degree, and we continually talk as if our conception were not modified at all."(4) Speaking in 1975 of the genesis of Modern Poetry and the Tradition, Brooks reflects: "I was particularly stimulated by two paragraphs in one of [Eliot's] essays on the metaphysical poets. In this brief passage, he suggested that the metaphysical poets were not to be regarded as a rather peculiar offshoot of the main course of English poetry, but that they had a deep, hidden connection with its central line of development."(5) Brooks's rewriting of literary history in Modern Poetry and the Tradition by linking modern poetry's use of metaphor to that in metaphysical poetry and his arguments with eighteenth-century and Romantic poetics clearly depend on Eliot. But there are religious implications in Brooks's description of "a deep, hidden connection" that he sees in Eliot's essay on the metaphysical poets. This urge toward the hidden connection, which follows from Brooks's reading of Eliot, continually blurs the boundary between poetry and religion in New Critical practice. …

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