Aristotelian contributions to New Criticism

New Criticism is primarily focused on the dialogue between the author, the work itself and the reader. It centers, however, upon the notion of a work as a separate entity for critical consideration, unlike the traditional Romantic approach in which the poet was the emphasis, and unlike the Empirical tradition in which the emphasis was placed on the reader and his interpretation of a work. Yet can New Criticism’s critical method, a preoccupation with isolated textual (as opposed to historical, psychological, biographical or contextual) analysis, be attributed to a Platonic or an Aristotelian history?

It can certainly be argued that New Critical theory reflects a Platonic worldview in how it perceives structures of meaning. New Criticism admits to the presence of an objective “truth”, and posits that the fact that one can refer to such a truth is one way in which we can assess a work’s value. Plato, expresses disdain for the poets, for poetry, and perhaps for all the creative arts; he suggests that they hold an undeserved power in their ability to depict reality and to influence the behaviour and attitudes of the public. In contrast, however, the New Critics suggest that while poetry and literature must bear meaning, they also need to escape the confines of meaning made only through morality. Thus in order to unearth value in a work outside of its moral lessons, the New Critics assert that literary criticism ought to also consider the formal elements and structures that comprise it.

What Aristotle offers to New Critical analysis is a structure that is removed from the notion of morality: a “post-ethical” structure (Ransom 877). Aristotle locates “objective truths” not in the content of the poem but rather in its adherence to rules of taste, structure, formalism, language, diction, etc. (Abrams 7). This critical method gives New Critics a framework through which to evaluate poetry and literature more objectively, without falling into traps of moral relativism. It also contributes to the construction of a timeless poetic tradition that validates older poetry: for in placing value in a work’s structure and creative technique, it allows us to consider works beyond their socio-historical context.

Aristotle, unlike Plato, felt no reserve in including poetry as an important task because he had distanced himself from the absolute realities found in Plato. According to Abrams, Aristotle was the first of the contributors to literary criticism that introduced structural criterion as an element for understanding poetry (7). Aristotle emphasizes the physical structure and components of poetry above their moral “meaning” or instructional content (Aristotle 50). Like Aristotle, the New Critics emphasized the importance of the structural and technical – rather than the conceptual or moral – elements of a work (Wimsatt and Beardsley 945) – such as the intentional use of metaphor, irony, and tension (Aristotle 48). In developing a framework for literary criticism around these formal components, there appears a universal ideal and a timeless tradition by which all poetry can be judged (Eliot 784).

Richards’ New Critical perspective also places an emphasis on the Aristotelian idea of catharsis. He argues that poetry is textual form that organizes and releases one’s impulses and attitudes (Richards 576). Similarly, one of the major features of poetry for Aristotle was this idea of release through catharsis (Aristotle 54). Both Richards and Aristotle assume that there is a relief that is found for the reader through study and understanding. This notion is furthered by Abrams in his suggested analogy of the poem as a projector that contributes to the object (reality) (Abrams 1). As in Aristotle, Abrams conceives of an “objective” reality that can be altered and informed by an artistic work.

Aristotle also contributes to the New Critical valorization of an intense process of artistic creation and interpretation, through which the reader and the poet are joined in the esoteric creation of art (Wimsatt and Beardsley 946). There is a difficulty in interpreting a work, but also in the process of its creation in accordance with structural form (Eliot 786). Thus, the necessity for a certain morality in Aristotle is realized in the “post-ethical” understanding of poetry in New Criticism (Ransom 878). Morality, or the pedagogical element of moral instruction, is found in the packing (creation) and unpacking (interpretation) of a work, not necessarily in the values it espouses (Ransom 879).
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Thus Eliot’s conception of a poetic “tradition” is an attempt at an Aristotelian notion of a poetic Form (Eliot 784) : “Art is never made better but it is changed” (Eliot 785). While art and poetry remain eternally associated with the process of creation, Aristotle’s embrace of formal and structural elements allows the New Critics to envision complex poetic innovation, beyond morality.

Works cited

ENGL 317 (Theory of English Studies 3 – Philosophical Approaches) Coursepack #1. Edited by David Hensley.

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