One of Brooks’s big arguments in The Well Wrought Urn is that you can’t summarize (or paraphrase) a poem and retain its meaning. The poem says something. From ig35 to ig48 Cleanth Brooks was co-editor of The South- ern Review with In addition to these and to The Well Wrought Urn, Mr. Brooks has published. Book Source: Digital Library of India Item : Cleanth ioned.
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Search the history of over billion web pages on the Internet. In igaS he at- tended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
Since that time he has lectured and taught at a number of the major universities in this country. From ig35 to ig48 Cleanth Brooks was co-editor of The South- ern Review with Robert Penn Warren, with whom he has col- laborated on several textbooks in literature. The poem by W. Yeats and is reprinted by permission at The Macmillan Company, publishers. I wish to thank the editors of the magazines mentioned and the directors of the Princeton University Press for their courtesy in extending permission for the publication of these ma- terials here.
PREFACE Most of the chapters of this book have been published as separate essays; but Cleahth offer it to the reader, not as a miscellaneous collection, but as a book, a book with a defined objective and a deliberate plan. I have at- tempted to examine, in terms of a clleanth approach, a number of celebrated English poems, taken in chrono- logical order, from the Elizabethan period to the pres- ent.
Whether or not the approach is really brookw common approach, and whether or not the examination reveals that the poems possess some common structural prop- erties, are matters for the reader to determine. The last chapter attempts some generalizations upon these prop- erties, and upon the characteristic structure of poetry.
There is something to be said, I think, for thus ex- hibiting the concrete examples on which the generali- zations are to be based. If this procedure is frankly part of a strategy for securing conviction, it also constitutes, I may point out, something of a check on the generali- zations made in the final chapter — a means of testing them. I could even hope that, if the worst came to the worst and the account of poetic structure itself had to be rejected, some of the examples might survive the rejection as independent brookss of the poems con- cerned.
At all events, the readings represent an honest attempt to work close to specific texts.
I am sorry that this must be so. But I would point out that it is precisely our basic concerns which — like the indispensable terms of lan- guage — are hardest to define.
The Well Wrought Urn | work by Brooks |
The common-sense view of poetry wroufht very well on some levels; but when we come to inquire into the essential nature of poetry, it wrouyht not work at all — it raises far more problems than it solves. Nevertheless, I have decided to relegate the more technical parts of this discussion to an appendix where they will be available for those readers who are interested, but will intrude as little as possible on the book proper.
A more formidable objection to the plan of the book might be that I have taken too little into account the historical backgrounds of the poems I have discussed.
An adequate answer to this charge will have to be fur- nished by the book itself, but I should like to forestall some misapprehensions, here and now. If literary his- tory has not been emphasized in the pages that follow, it is not because I discount its importance, or because I have failed to take it into account. It is rather that I have been anxious to see what residuum, if any, is left after we have referred the poem to its cultural matrix. The temper of our times is strongly relativistic.
We have had impressed upon us the necessity for reading a poem in terms of its historical context, and that kind of reading has been carried on so successfully that some of us have been tempted to feel that it is the only kind of reading possible. We tend to say that every poem is an expression of its age; that we must be careful to ask of it only what its own age asked; that we must judge it only by the canons of its age. Any attempt to view it sub specie aeternitatis, we feel, must result in illusion.
Yet, if poetry grooks as poetry in anv Preface xi meaningful sense, the attempt must be made. Otherwise the poetry of the past becomes significant merely as cul- tural anthropology, and the poetry of the present, merely as a political, or religious, or moral instrument. If one consults the typical practice in teaching litera- ture and the behavior of the more popular critics, par- ticularly through cleajth war years, he will find plenty of evidence for the truth of this statement.
The whole matter bears very definitely on the much advertised demise of the Humanities. This book does not claim to make any special contribution to the rapidly increasing literature that demands the cleqnth tation of the Humanities and tells how that resuscita- tion is to be effected.
But the question as to whether the critic can make normative judgments does touch the heart of the matter; so too, the related question as to whether a poem represents anything more universal than the expression of the particular values of its time. The men whose poems are considered in this book evidently thought that brooos were able to transcend the limitations of their own generation. We live in an age in which miracles of all kinds are sus- pect, including the kind of miracle of which the poet speaks.
We had better begin with it, by making the closest possible examination of what the poem says as a poem. The Language of Paradox 3 2.
The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness 22 3. What Does Poetry Communicate? The Case of Miss Arabella Fermor 80 6. Wordsworth and the Paradox of the Imagination 8. History without Footnotes 9. Paradox is the language of sophistry, hard, bright, witty: We are willing to allow that paradox is a permissible weapon which a Chesterton brools on occasion exploit.
We may permit it in epigram, a special subvariety of poetry; and in satire, which though useful, we are hardly will- ing to allow to be poetry at all. Our prejudices cleatnh us to regard paradox as intellectual rather than emo- tional, clever rather than profound, rational rather than divinely irrational.
Yet there brokks a sense in which paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry. It is the scientist whose truth requires a language purged of every trace of paradox; apparently the truth which the poet utters can be approached, only in terms of paradox. I dell state the case, to be sure; it is possible that the title of this chapter is itself to be treated as merely a para- dox.
But there are reasons for thinking that the over- statement which I propose may light up some elements in the nature of poetry which tend to be overlooked. The case of William Wordsworth, for instance, is instructive on this point.
His poetry would not appear to promise many examples of the language of clenth. He usually prefers the direct attack. And yet the typical W’ordsworth poem is based upon a paradoxical situation. The poet is filled with worship, but the girl who walks beside him is not worshiping. The implication is that she should respond to the holy time, and become like the evening itself, nunlike: Yet If thou appear untouched by solemn thought, Thy nature is not therefore less divine: The underlying paradox of which the enthusiastic reader may well be unconscious is nevertheless thor- oughly necessary, even for that reader.
Why does the innocent girl worship more deeply than the self-con- scious poet who walks beside her? Because she is filled with an unconscious coeanth for all of nature, not merely the grandiose and solemn. He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small. Her unconscious sympathy is the unconscious worship.
The Well Wrought Urn
But we have not done with the paradox yet. It not only underlies the poem, but something of the paradox informs the poem, though, since this is Wordsworth, rather timidly. The compari- The Language of Paradox 5 son of the evening to the nun actually has more than one dimension. It corresponds to the trappings of the nun, visible to everyone. The attempt to account for it on the grounds of nobility of sentiment soon breaks down.
On this level, the poem merely says: The attempt to make a case for the poem in terms of the brilliance of its images also quickly breaks down: In fact, the poet simply huddles the details together: Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields.
We get a blurred impression — points of roofs and pin- nacles along the skyline, all twinkling in the morning light. More than that, the sonnet as a whole contains some very flat writing and some well-worn comparisons.
The reader may ask: Where, then, does the poem get its power? It gets it, it seems to me, from the para- doxical situation out of which the poem arises. Mount Snowden, Skid- daw, Mont Blanc — these wear it by natural right, but surely not grimy, feverish London. This is the point of the almost shocked exclamation: Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill. The river glideth at his own sweet will. The poet had never been able to regard this one as a real river — now, uncluttered by barges, the river reveals itself as a natural thing, not at all disci- plined into a rigid and mechanical pattern: The poem closes, you will remember, as follows: That is why the stale metaphor of the sleeping houses is strangely renewed.
The most exciting thing that the poet can say about the houses is that they are asleep. In the same way, the tired old metaphor which sees a great city as a pulsat- ing heart of empire becomes revivified. It is only when the poet sees the city under the semblance of brools tliat he can see it as actually alive — quick with the only life which he can accept, the organic life of “nature.
In this poem, he prefers, as is usual with him, the frontal at- tack. But the situation is paradoxical here as in so many of his poems.
Whether he thinks too little, or too much. Here, it is true, the paradoxes insist on the irony, rather than the wonder. But Pope too might have claimed that he was treating the things of everyday, man him- self, and awakening his mind so that he would view himself in a new and blinding light. Thus, there is a certain awed wonder in Pope just as there is a certain trace of irony implicit in the Wordsworth sonnets.
There is, of course, no reason why they should not occur together, and they do. Wonder and irony merge in many of the lyrics of Blake; they merge in Cole- ridge’s Ancient Mariner. The variations in emphasis are numerous. Can storied urn or animated bust Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust? And I do The Language of Paradox g not mean that the connotations are important as sup- plying some sort of frill or trimming, something ex- ternal to the real matter in hand, I mean that the poet does not use a notation at all — as the scientist may properly be said to do so.
The poet, within limits, has to make up his language as he goes.