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2.2 The Foundations of New Criticism: An Overview

John Donne (1572–1631), the great metaphysical poet, provides a metaphor that is useful for close reading. In “The Canonization” (1633) he writes:


  We’ll build sonnets pretty rooms;

    As well a well-wrought urn becomes

  The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,

    And by these hymns, all shall approve

  Us canonized for Love.John Donne, “The Canonization,” Poetry Foundation,

Another poet returns to the same metaphor 118 years later. Thomas Gray, in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), writes:


  Can storied urn or animated bust

  Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard,” Poetry Foundation,

Both Donne and Gray use the image of the urn in their poetry. An urn, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is “an earthenware or metal vessel or vase of a rounded or ovaloid form and with a circular base, used by various peoples especially in former times…to preserve the ashes of the dead. Hence vaguely used (esp. poet.) for ‘a tomb or sepulchre, the grave.’”Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “urn.” Donne and Gray use the urn poetically, or metaphorically, for the urn is an image, a container to hold poetic meaning. To Donne, the poet can “build sonnets pretty rooms; / As well a well-wrought urn becomes”; to Gray the urn becomes “storied” or an “animated bust” capable of containing stories and meaning. As an image, then, the urn becomes symbolic: poets argue that a poem is like an urn, a container for artistic meaning.

Let’s add one final component to our urn image. Jump ahead another sixty-nine years from Gray’s poem and read John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820). At the end of this poem, Keats writes:


  When old age shall this generation waste,

  Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

  Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

  ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

  Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed. Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon, 1919;, 1999),

Donne’s “well-wrought urnAn image that reflects the central tenet of New Critical close reading—to focus solely on the literary work as a self-contained artistic object.” became the title of a book by Cleanth Brooks—The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947)Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1956).—a central manifesto of the New Criticism. New Criticism is synonymous with close reading, so the urn becomes an important symbol for the New Critics: the urn as artistic container of beauty and meaning represents the New Critical enterprise. A poem, a play, a novel, a short story is like a “storied urn” or “well-wrought urn,” capable of conveying poetic beauty and truth. Even if the poem is “Jabberwocky”!

In all likelihood, you have already practiced New CriticismThe name for the literary theory movement that developed in the 1940s that demands that a critic concentrate on the literary work itself to find the harmony and unity of the work that reflects an ultimate truth., the close reading of a poem, short story, or longer narrative that focuses on the unity of that work. When you examine a short story for its character development, a drama for its plot construction, or a poem for its imagery, you are reading as a New Critic, looking at the literary work through the lens of close reading. In a sense, New Critical close reading is at the heart of every form of literary analysis you do, regardless of the theoretical approach taken. Thus it becomes essential that you become proficient in close readings of texts, for this skill is the foundation of all forms of literary criticism. If you cannot read a text closely and analyze it, you will have difficulty reading from any critical perspective.

Your Process

  1. List the papers, if any, you have written in high school or college using the close reading approach.
  2. Describe your experience writing such papers.
  3. What challenges or questions do you remember having as you were working on these papers?
  4. On which literary work have you decided to write your paper?
  5. What are the fundamental questions you have about this work?

Focus on New Critical Strategies

The New Critics, as we discussed, regard a literary work as an urn—a well-wrought, storied urn, or a Grecian urn. As Keats writes, this urn contains not only beauty but also truth: a work of literature has some objective meaning that is integral to its artistic design. In other words, literature is the art of conveying truth about the world. Thus the New Critics view the study of literature as an inherently valuable enterprise; literary criticism, it follows, is fruitful because it clarifies art by assigning a truth value to this art. To quote the nineteenth-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold, as he writes in The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1865), literature reflects “the best that is known and thought in the world.”Matthew Arnold, Function of Criticism in the Present Time (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2010) . To the New Critics, as you can see, literature—in particular the analysis of it—was a profound activity.

A central concern of the New Critics is to understand how meaning and form interweave into a total artistic effect, the well-wrought urn. A New Critical reading assumes that the literary work has an organic structure that leads to unity or harmony in the work. An important concern for New Critics, consequently, is to show how meaning is achieved or dependent on the organic structure—the form—of the work. A New Critical reading, then, focuses on the various elements of literature that complement and create the theme.

Basic Philosophy of Close Reading

A New Critic’s toolbox will hold those elements of literature that allow for the discussion of form and technique as it applies to meaning. Since New Critics perform a close reading of the text to illustrate how structure and theme are inseparable, they are eager to tell us both how to read and how not to read. They identify various fallacies of reading that must be avoided:

The Intentional Fallacy

The intentional fallacyFallacy committed when readers equate meaning with the author’s intended meaning. New Critics argue that since a literary work belongs to the readers, to the public, the work must be isolated from what the author may have intended in the work. occurs when readers claim to understand an author’s intended meaning for a work of literature. The New Critics believed that a literary work belongs to the readers, to the public, which suggests that we should read the work isolated from what the author may have said about the work. In other words, the critic never knows specifically what the author intended. Indeed, an author may have conveyed meanings he or she did not intend at all, but those meanings are still present in their work. The literary critic, then, must concentrate solely on the extrinsic formal qualities of the poem, play, short story, or novel.

The Biographical Fallacy

Related to the intentional fallacy is the biographical fallacyInterpretation error committed when a critic uses an author’s life as a frame of reference to interpret a work of literature., which, as you might suspect, is committed when you use an author’s life as a frame of reference to interpret a work of art. The New Critics took painstaking measures to keep the focus on the work of art itself.

The Affective Fallacy

The affective fallacyA reading fallacy produced when a critic brings in his or her personal feelings about how a literary work moves them. Reader-response theory, covered in Chapter 6 "Writing about Readers: Applying Reader-Response Theory" of this book, is a direct challenge to this tenet of New Criticism. is produced when the critic brings in his or her personal feelings about how a literary work moves them. While New Critics were aware that many readers found meaning in the emotional impact of literature, they were careful to distinguish between subjective emotional responses and objective critical statements about a literary work. Critics, then, should stick closely to the work of art, eliminating the author’s intention from consideration, and they should also eliminate their emotional involvement in the reading experience. We discover later in our study that many critical theories—psychoanalytic and reader-response theories, in particular—are diametrically opposed to New Criticism: both psychoanalytic and reader-response theories highlight the way a literary work affects a reader’s emotional and intellectual responses.

The Heresy of Paraphrase

Finally, the New Critics warned against the heresy of paraphraseAn interpretive error that happens when readers artificially separate meaning from the structure or form of the literary work., which happens when readers artificially separate meaning from structure or form. You have probably fallen into this trap once or twice when you concentrated on summarizing a work’s plot rather than analyzing its meaning. New Criticism teaches us not to assign a meaning to a literary work unless that meaning can be supported by a close examination of the artistic elements of the text. To say that Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is about the death of a migrant worker fails to acknowledge that the poem does not support such a reading. Humpty Dumpty, in fact, could be accused of the heresy of paraphrase, as Amy Chisnell explores in her student paper later in the chapter.

In review, a close reading, as defined by the New Critics, focuses narrowly on the literary work as a well-wrought urn. All we need for our interpretation is the literary work itself, where we examine how the artistry of the work leads to a larger theme that reflects the truth value of the work. Easy to state, more difficult to do! So let’s now turn to see how a close reading can be connected to the writing process itself.

Your Process

  1. How do you react to such rules that define the philosophy of New Critical close reading?
  2. What do you see as the strengths to such an approach?
  3. What do you see as some of the limits to this approach?

The Writing Process and the Protocols of Close Reading

If New Critics provide us with so many strategies for not reading a text, they should present us with strategies for reading texts. And they do. They suggest protocols of reading that are the heart of traditional close readings of texts. In a nutshell, a close reading exposes a problem or issue that needs examination to bring unity to the work; a close reading demonstrates how a literary work’s meaning is unified, balanced, and harmonized by its aesthetic—or literary—structure. Your close reading, then, often identifies a tensionAn opposition or conflict within a work of literature that seems to disrupt its unity—what some might see as a potential flaw in the “well-wrought urn,” but New Critics argue is part of its complex design. A New Critic strives to find unity or harmony by relieving any perceived tension or unresolved issue that challenges the integrity of a literary work. or ambiguityThe uncertainty over meaning when a literary work seems unclear—or contradictory—about a literary element of theme. New Critics desire to harmonize any ambiguity.—the issue or problem—that can be resolved by showing that the literary work achieves unity even in the apparent tension or ambiguity. Consequently, the critic can often examine how language creates tension through paradoxA statement of perceived meaning that seems to contradict itself but after close analysis may actually not be contradictory. A New Critic finds in paradox a strategy for demonstrating the unity of the literary work that harmonizes the apparent contradiction. or ironyIrony happens when a reader recognizes a reality different from the appearance. For the New Critics, irony was a sophisticated literary technique that helped a writer bring complexity—and unity and harmony—to the work.. Paradox (when something appears contradictory or discordant, but finally proves to be actually true) and irony (when a perceived meaning or intention is eventually found not to be accurate) are a result of a writer’s use of language in a metaphorical way.

Your Process

  1. Read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (
  2. Examine the last two lines of the poem (49–50).
  3. Do you think the urn is speaking the lines at the end? Does it matter?
  4. Read Cleanth Brooks’s interpretation of the ending lines (
  5. Then read the following overview.

There is no more famous example of a professional critical reading than Cleanth Brooks’s “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes.”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, You can access the essay at

Brooks’s reading of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” begins by disagreeing with T. S. Eliot, who believed the concluding lines of the poem—“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—constituted a major flaw in the poem, for, as Brooks relates, “the troubling assertion is apparently an intrusion upon the poem—does not grow out of it—is not dramatically accommodated to it.”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, Eliot feels the urn’s speech doesn’t make much sense—and that the statement simply isn’t true. Brooks sets out to counter Eliot and prove that the poem is unified around the central paradox of the poem: “What is the relation of the beauty (the goodness, the perfection) of a poem to the truth or falsity of what it seems to assert?”

Brooks contends that the poem is “a parable on the nature of poetry, and of art in general” and that the concluding lines must be taken in the “total context of the poem.”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, When read in this manner, the urn’s speech was “‘in character,’ was dramatically appropriate, [and] was properly prepared for.”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, To support his contention, Brooks provides a stanza-by-stanza close reading in which he suggests that the paradox of the speaking urn is naturally part of each stanza and related to a key thematic concept: the poem highlights the tension between bustling life depicted on the urn and the frozen vignettes of the “Cold Pastoral.” Brooks concludes, “If the urn has been properly dramatized, if we have followed the development of the metaphors, if we have been alive to the paradoxes which work throughout the poem, perhaps then, we shall be prepared for the enigmatic, final paradox which the ‘silent form’ utters.’”Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English, In concluding his essay, Brooks warns readers not to fall into the trap of paraphrase, for we must ultimately focus on “the world-view, or ‘philosophy,’ or ‘truth’ of the poem as a whole in terms of its dramatic wholeness” (Brooks’s emphasis).Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Mr. Bauld’s English,

Brooks’s reading of Keats’s ode is an exemplar of New Critical reading. Remember, a close reading will examine a literary work and find some objective meaning (a theme) that is harmonized with structure, thus balancing theme and form.

Implementing the Reading Protocols: A Strategy

To perform a close reading, use the following strategy:

  1. Identify a tension or ambiguity in the literary work, the “problem” that needs to be solved by a close reading. In other words, your interpretation will highlight a theme or meaning that resides in the work.
  2. Demonstrate how the work sustains or achieves this meaning through its artistic “principle of composition,” which might include an examination of the following:

    • imagery
    • character
    • plot
    • symbol
    • setting
    • point of view
    • language use (i.e., denotation, connotation, metaphor, simile, personification, rhythm)

    Of course, the principle of composition is determined by the literary genre you are analyzing (i.e., short story, poetry, drama, novel). By showing that #1 is dependent on #2, you present a New Critical interpretation reflecting how meaning is integral to theme.