Eliot’s and Richards’ influence spread to the USA, consolidating the establishment of a school of criticism that would dominate American universities for much of the 20th century.
The New Criticism, as it was known, refers to a particular (ideological) way of reading texts, a kind of formalism that stressed the virtues of close reading, encouraging an aesthetic attitude in which a poem was best approached as a self-contained object, rather than an expression of external historical or biographical material. Many of the movement’s adherents carried over the critical principles they had encountered in Richards’ writings.
The movement gathered pace in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until 1941 that John Crowe Ransom (1888—1974) published The New Criticism, which critically engaged with the work of Eliot, Richards and Empson.
At Vanderbilt University Ransom met Cleanth Brooks (1906—94), Allen Tate (1899—1979) and Robert Penn Warren (1905—89). This informal group of New Critics, sometimes called the Southern Agrarians, espoused the broadly traditionalist values of the Old South, against the industrializing impulse of the North. Brooks and Warren co-founded The Southern Review in 1935, a journal that proved to be an important mouthpiece of the New Criticism.
Brooks’ collection of essays The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947), like Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, is a celebrated example of the critical practice of close reading. Brooks strongly disagreed with the idea that a poem’s “meaning” could be paraphrased in prose.
This would do violence to the irreducible specificity of poetic language.
The prioritization of careful textual analysis made poetry’s relationship to real social and historical practices seem indistinct. The figure of the author, too, was drastically reduced in significance.
In 1946, William K. Wimsatt (1907—75) and Monroe Beardsley (1915—85), who were both aligned with New Criticism, collaborated on an essay “The Intentional Fallacy”, in which they argued that critics who sought to discover an author’s intentions as a key to decoding a literary work were pursuing an irrelevant and misguided line of enquiry, not least because such authorial intentions are unavailable to the critic.
A poem does not come into existence by accident. The words of a poem come out of a head. Yet to recognize this fact doesn’t mean that the author’s design or intention should be used as a standard for critical judgement.
The implication of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s argument was to prioritize the text as the primary locus of meaning — rather than the author. This may seem self-limiting and self-referential; however, the New Critics linked the practice of close reading to grand claims about the universal status of a poem’s meaning.
The role of the New Critic was to mediate between the particular and the general, between body and spirit, in order to cast light on the universal truths evident in poetry. Poetry is an embodiment of the “concrete universal”, giving a specific form to timeless truths.
All concrete illustration has about it something of the irrelevant. An apple falling from a tree illustrates gravity…
…but apple and tree are irrelevant to the pure theory of gravity. It may be that what happens in a poem is that the apple and the tree are somehow made more than usually relevant.