by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren
New York: Henry Holt and Company (revised edition, 1950; Original edition, 1938)

See an excerpt from this anthology on political reference in poetry, specifically Andrew Marvell's "Horation Ode."

from the prefatory "Letter to the Teacher" (1938)

This book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry. The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering. The substitutes are various, but the most common ones are:
        1.  Paraphrase of logical and narrative content;
        2.  Study of biographical and historical materials;
        3.  Inspirational and didactic interpretation.
Of course, paraphrase may be necessary as a preliminary step in the reading of a poem, and a study of the biographical and historical background may do much to clarify interpretation; but these things should be considered as means and not as ends. And though one may consider a poem as an instance of historical or ethical documentation, the poem in itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object for study. Moreover, even if the interest is in the poem as a historical or ethical document, there is a prior consideration: one must grasp the poem as a literary construct before it can offer any real illumination as a document.


In examining the poems in this section, the reader will find special opportunities for considering some of the ways in which an idea appears in poetry. But, of course, the idea of any poem, in so far as the poem is being read as poetry, can only be considered in relation to the various other factors which we have previously discussed--narrative, meter, imagery, etc. just as the student should continually take these factors into account, he should remember that in stressing theme in these poems he is dealing with an aspect of all poetry and a topic which has often been discussed in previous pages. That is, every poem involves an idea, for a poem represents an interpretation of its materials. Obviously, the method of presenting theme will vary from poem to poem, as we have already seen. The method will vary according to the special combinations of imagery, rhythm, statement, etc. Each case must be treated on its own merits, for no poem is exactly like any other. But one may, however, offer this basic principle: the real poet in presenting his theme never depends merely on general statement. The poem itself is the dramatizing of the theme in terms of situation, character, imagery, rhythm, tone, etc.

We have said that a theme in poetry manifests itself in constantly varying ways. Among these manifestations, of course, we find the use of explicit statement as one possible means. For instance, in the "Ode to a Nightingale," which we have already analyzed (pp, 338-45), Keats makes the explicit statement,

Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain.
Certainly, the theme of the poem, the basic idea, is not the desirability of suicide. The explicit statement is being used here merely as a step in the development of the theme: man's inability to correlate finally the ideal and the actual aspects of his experience.

A further distinction that should be kept in mind is that between the subject of a poem and the theme. For instance, let us compare the following poem with "To an Athlete Dying Young," which has already been discussed:

The Lads in Their Hundreds

by A. E. HOUSMAN [1859-1936]

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair, There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold, The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there, And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old. There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart, And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave, And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart, And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave. I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern; And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell And watch them depart on the way that they will not return. But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan; And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man, The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

It should be clear that both of these have the same general theme, but the subject of the first, as the title states, is the death of a young athlete, and the subject of the other is a scene at Ludlow Fair. In the same way, a little study of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," by Keats (P. 474), will show that it has the same basic theme as the "Ode to a Nightingale." The ideal life pictured on the urn, perfect beyond change and time, is brought into contrast with the actual world where desire pushes on to its fulfillment and to the "burning forehead, and a parching tongue." But the subjects are very different, one subject being the reactions of a man to the song of the bird, and the other being the reactions of a modern man to an ancient Greek vase.

A further question may have presented itself to the student in this general regard: What is the importance of "truth" in poetry? This question has been raised earlier in the Introduction (pp. xlii-xlvi). It was there pointed out that the goodness of a poem could never be based on the mere fact that it said something true or instructive. It was also pointed out that a person can admire poems that contradict each other or express views that are not in agreement with the reader s own views. This general question of the "truth" of poetry is answered if we reflect for a moment on the impulses which take us to poetry. We do not read poetry for the scientific truth of particular statements. We do not read poetry for specific moral instructions. Statements that, taken in isolation, would seem to raise issues of scientific truth or falsity, and statements that would seem to embody specific moral judgments are not, as we have seen, to be taken by themselves, but as factors contributing to the development of the total experience and the total meaning which the poet is trying to develop for us. A reading which selects such statements out of context for either praise or blame springs from the "message-hunting" impulse. A reader should constantly remember that such detailed statements should be interpreted in the light of the total effect.

But suppose the reader does master the poem as a whole and does see the relation of any detailed statement in the poem to the total intention. There still remains the question of the reader's judgment of the general attitude toward life, the interpretation of life made or implied, in the poem. Suppose the reader does not agree with the interpretation involved? Can he still accept the poem?

Let us approach this question somewhat indirectly. Obviously, a silly or superficial or childish attitude cannot result in a good poem. This is true even if the writer has skill in the use of certain technical devices. For instance, we can look back to "The Indian Serenade," by Shelley, and see that the rhythms of the poem are not handled crudely and amateurishly. But, as has been pointed out, the poem as a whole is sentimental, and if we care to isolate the conception of love implied in the poem, we can see that it is very superficial and immature when contrasted with that implied in poems like [Walter Savage Landor's] "Rose Aylmer" (p. 144), W.B. Yeats's "A Deep-Sworn Vow" (p. 148), Philip Sidney's "A Litany" (p. 205), or a sonnet by Shakespeare ["Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds"] (p. 331).

Indeed, any attitude or interpretation, whether or not the reader habitually adopts it himself, will not invalidate a poem, provided that the attitude or interpretation is one that could conceivably be held by a serious and intelligent person in the dramatic situation implied or stated in the poem. (Obviously words like "serious" and "intelligent" do not mean absolutely the same thing to different people, and consequently there is a margin here for disagreement in estimating poetry. But such disagreements, taken by and large over a long period of time, after contemporary prejudices have died, are rather infrequent when really first-rate work is concerned.)

It is easy to see why a considerable difference may exist between the habitual attitudes of a reader and the attitudes inherent in poems which he, nevertheless, appreciates. No matter how strongly a person may hold certain attitudes and interpretations, he is aware, unless he is fanatical or stupid, that human experience is infinitely complicated and various. Poetry demands, on this ground, to be approached with a certain humility. And human nature is such that the reader will usually approach a poem without raising too immediately the question of his agreement or disagreement in attitude; because poetry is about human experience it appeals to his interests. This postponement of the question of agreement or disagreement--even the reader's feeling that the question may be irrelevant--arises from the fact that the attitude involved in a poem is a set of organized and controlled relations.

It is only when the attitude involved in the poem comes as an oversimplified generalization or when the response which the poem insists on seems not warranted by the dramatic situation which is presented or implied--it is only in these cases that the ordinary reader will reject a poem on the basis of his disagreement with its implied review of life. For in so far as he appreciates the poem he has a sense of the conquest over the disorder and meaninglessness of experience. Perhaps this sense of the conquest over the disorder and meaninglessness of experience. Perhaps this sense may be the very basis for his exhilaration in the poem--just as it may be the basis for the pleasure one takes in watching the clean drive of the expert golfer or the swoop of a bird in the air, as contrasted with the accidental tumbling of a stone down a hillside. It is this same sense of order and control given by a successful poem that confirms us in the faith that the experiences of life itself may have meaning.

Why are we, or why should we be, interested in how poems come about? A historian or biographer might be intensely interested in the materials that got into a poem--the personal experiences or observations of the poet, or ideas current in his time. Or a psychologist might equally well be interested in the mental process of creation that gave us the poem. But the historian or psychologist, strictly as historian or psychologist, would not be interested in the quality of the poem. For his interests the bad poem might be as useful as the good poem. But our present concern is different from that of the historian or psychologist. Now we are primarily interested in the nature of the poem and its quality: we are critics and appreciators of poetry.

If the poem itself is our primary interest, we may say that there is no good reason why we should investigate the origins of the poem, that the poem is what we want in the end and that a knowledge of the materials that went into the poem or of the process by which it came to be, cannot change the nature of the poem itself. Many people take the view that we have no proper concern with the private lives of writers even if the lives do provide material for the work. Wordsworth says in a letter to James Gray, a friend of Robert Burns:

Our business is with their books,--to understand and to enjoy them. And, of poets more especially, it is true--that, if their works be good, they contain within themselves all that is necessary to their being comprehended and relished.
And Charles Lamb was shocked when he saw the manuscript of Milton's "Lycidas" and got an idea of the process of its creation. He reports his feeling in an essay on "Oxford in the Vacation":
I had thought of the Lycidas as a full-grown beauty-as springing up with all its parts absolute--till, in an evil hour, I was shown the original copy of it, together with the other minor poems of the author, in the library of Trinity, kept like some treasure to be proud of. I wish they had thrown them in the Cam, or sent them after the latter Cantos of Spenser, into the Irish Channel. How it staggered me to see the fine things in their ore! interlined, corrected as if their words were mortal, alterable, displaceable at pleasure! as if they might have been otherwise, and just as good! as if inspiration were made up of parts, and these fluctuating, successive, indifferent! I will never go into the workshop of any great artist again.
In one sense, Wordsworth is right. We must not confuse information about the life of a poet, or about his time, or about his materials, with the poem itself. And in one sense Lamb's right. What is important is the poem itself and not the psychological process whereby it was created. But in another sense both Wordsworth and Lamb are wrong. What we can learn about the origin of a poem may, if we do not confuse origin and poem, enlarge our understanding and deepen our appreciation.

In thinking of the origin of a poem we may distinguish two general aspects of the question: first, the materials of the poem, and second, the process whereby the poem is made.

The materials of a poem are various. We can, for instance, say that language itself is a material of poetry. It is one of the things the poet shapes and uses. We have to know something of the language a poet is using before we can appreciate his poem--before we can see how the poem came to be. This applies not only to poems in foreign languages but also to poems in our own tongue. The English of one time is not like the English of another. Words are born and die, and to make matters more complicated, the same word may change its meaning from one period to another. Furthermore, the poet himself may twist and wrench the language he uses so that words get new meanings. The material is plastic and he may mould it even as he uses it. But ordinarily, of course, the poet works with the language as it comes to him, exploring its possibilities, but not actually changing it.

To take another example, we may regard literary convention as a material for poetry. When Campion came to write "Blame Not My Cheeks" (p. 187) he used as one of the elements in his poem the Petrarchan convention of the lover who is abject and self-pitying before the cruel lady who despises him. Actually in . the course of the poem this convention is brought into contrast with other attitudes, and the almost whimsical irony of the last line, which yet remains serious, is anything but Petrarchan. But the convention provides the starting point. The same is true of the convention of the pastoral elegy in Milton's "Lycidas." Milton and Edward King, the drowned friend in whose honor the poem is written, had not been shepherds at all. They had been students at Cambridge University. Milton is simply using this conventional fiction which had persisted from classical times. It is a material which he adapts in his own way.

Or let us consider the ideas that are available at a given time. Those, too, are materials. Tennyson uses a foreshadowing of the theory of evolution in his "In Memoriam," and Whitman certain notions of democracy. These ideas were available in their time. On the contrary, it is nonsense to read "Sir Patrick Spence" as a statement of modern democratic ideas, for that poem came of a feudal society. A poet may, of course, do something with the ideas available to him. A poet is not a mere stenographer to his time. But his ideas are conditioned by his time.

So far we have been speaking of some of the materials that are generally available in a period: the language, conventions, the ideas. But the personal experiences of the poet are also materials. This is not to say that a poet simply reports his personal experiences. Because Shakespeare wrote a play about Macbeth, who killed a king and stole a throne, we do not have to assume that Shakespeare ever committed murder or robbery. Sometimes, very often in fact, the events in a poem are fictitious products of imagination. But the imagination is not entirely free; it is conditioned, too, by the experience of the poet. It is true, as Robert Frost says, that the poet needs only samples for the imagination to work on, but it does not work in a vacuum.

  • Modern & Contemporary American poetry site, with materials about and examples of New Criticism and poetic formalism.


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    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:35 EDT