The Birth of New Criticism

The Birth of New Criticism: Conflict and Conciliation in the Early Work of William Empson, I.A. Richards, Robert Graves, and Laura Riding

DONALD J. CHILDS
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 384
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32b76w
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  • Book Info
    The Birth of New Criticism
    Book Description:

    Amid competing claims about who first developed the theories and practices that became known as New Criticism - the critical method that rose alongside Modernism - literary historians have generally given the lion's share of credit to William Empson and I.A. Richards. In The Birth of New Criticism Donald Childs challenges this consensus and provides a new and authoritative narrative of the movement's origins. At the centre stand Robert Graves and Laura Riding, two poet-critics who have been written out of the history of New Criticism. Childs brings to light the long-forgotten early criticism of Graves to detail the ways in which his interpretive methods and ideas evolved into the practice of "close reading," demonstrating that Graves played such a fundamental part in forming both Empson's and Richards's critical thinking that the story of twentieth-century literary criticism must be re-evaluated and re-told. Childs also examines the important influence that Riding's work had on Graves, Empson, and Richards, establishing the importance of this long-neglected thinker and critic. A provocative and cogently argued work, The Birth of New Criticism is both an important intellectual history of the movement and a sharply observed account of the cultural politics of its beginnings and legacy.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8923-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-33)

    The story of the origins of New Criticism is fairly well known and fairly well agreed upon, yet it is not accurate: it leaves out Robert Graves. The story really ought to begin with Graves, if for no other reason than that he was the first to practise what we now recognize as close reading. As we shall see, directly from his practice of close reading – and from his early attempts to explain, recommend, and justify this approach to reading poetry – descend a number of New Criticism’s most famous and most fundamental aspects. As we shall also see, the line...

  5. 1 An Old Anxiety about Influence
    (pp. 34-55)

    WhenSeven Types of Ambiguitywas published in the United States in 1931 it was hardly noticed, purchased by just eight people; it sold steadily from the moment it was published the year before in Britain, however, where it was also widely reviewed.¹ It was certainly noticed by Riding. Empson’s Dedication (or Preface or Acknowledgments; it is difficult to say how he regarded these sentences) reads: “Mr. I.A. Richards, then my supervisor for the first part of the English Tripos, told me to write this essay, and various things to put in it; my indebtedness to him is as great...

  6. 2 A Question of Conflict
    (pp. 56-73)

    Empson was correct in foregrounding the importance of Graves’s influence upon him and accurate in belatedly acknowledging that this influence began not withA Survey of Modernist Poetry(1927) but rather with Graves’s earlier books:On English Poetry(1922),The Meaning of Dreams(1924),Poetic Unreason(1925),andImpenetrability, or The Proper Habit of English(1926). Graves’s claim to have suffered scant acknowledgment by Empson – had he ever been moved to make it – is much greater than Riding’s. Of course, before his assertion to the editor of theModern Language Quarterlyin 1966 that he was the author of the analysis of...

  7. 3 Mediating The Poetic Mind: “as many meanings as possible”
    (pp. 74-84)

    In collaboration, Riding and Graves influenced certain aspects of the development of Empson’s method; on his own, Graves influenced others. Before proceeding further in making the case for Graves’s claim to have been the most important influence on Empson’sSeven Types of Ambiguity, I must explain that Riding and Graves are both inaccurate in their accounts of who was responsible for what in their close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. Certain of the principles and certain aspects of the method that they apply are original to neither of them. It is clear that they misremembered the experience of composing their...

  8. 4 The Limits of Poetic Consciousness
    (pp. 85-105)

    It is clear, then, that Empson knows Graves’s pre-Riding work very well before meeting with Richards and discussing with him the method of the “‘Robert Graves’ school of criticism,” and we can see that he has paid particular attention to Graves’s theories about the conflicted nature of human consciousness in general and of poetic consciousness in particular. One of Graves’s main interests in his early work is to explain the limits of conscious control in the creation of poetry, as it is for Empson in many parts ofSeven Types of Ambiguity, and in Chapter Three especially. For Graves, of...

  9. 5 Models of Practically Ambiguous Criticism
    (pp. 106-122)

    For Graves, then, the necessary and inevitable discrepancy between the consciousness of the poet and the subsequent, and always larger, non-conscious experience of writing the poem (which may include the poet’s intention but also inevitably exceeds it) guarantees ambiguity. The reader (and indeed the poet himself) is left to give an account after the fact of the “invisible property-shifting” that constitutes the simultaneously continuous and non-identical nature of the relationship between the poet’s experience, the words of the poem, and the reader’s experience of the poem. In many ways,Seven Types of Ambiguityis Empson’s anatomy of this poetic property-shifting....

  10. 6 Defence of Poetic Analysis
    (pp. 123-134)

    One of the most interesting ways that Empson follows Graves inSeven Types of Ambiguityis his defence of the kind of detailed poetic analysis that he offers throughout the book. BeforeSeven Types of Ambiguity,he had published only poems and reviews inGrantaand two essays carved out of the book inExperiment, so he was not answering criticism of his own practices when he took up this defence. Instead, he implicitly declares solidarity with critics who have preceded him and upon whom abuse had been heaped. He launches a pre-emptive strike against the reaction to his own work...

  11. 7 The Ambiguous Grammar of Romantic Psychology
    (pp. 135-156)

    So thoroughly does Empson absorb Graves’s early work that this influence can even be found complicating his account of the failings of nineteenth-century poetry. According to Eliot, whereas the metaphysical poets were “constantly amalgamating disparate experience,” “trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling,” for a “thought to Donne was an experience,” it seems “something … happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne … and the time of Tennyson and Browning,” for the latter “do not feel their thought.”¹ Following Eliot’s lead, Empson initially tries to explain why “the poets of the...

  12. 8 Associations
    (pp. 157-172)

    Another important way Graves influenced Empson was that he emphasized the special power that resides in the English language and that English poetry flaunts so spectacularly: the multiple, contradictory, supplementary, historical, and dynamically developing associations amongst the meanings of words. Empson concludesSeven Types of Ambiguitywith a consideration of “the conditions under which ambiguity is proper,” and in doing so he foregrounds the word “associations”: “The methods I have been using seem to assume that all poetical language is debauched into associations to any required degree.”¹ He introduces the word via a passage by W.H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis in...

  13. 9 Taxonomies of Types
    (pp. 173-177)

    Finally, one can see that Empson found in Graves’s early work the model for his taxonomical strategy of systematically classifying as seven types the dynamic of multiple significations. Such significations are multiple not only because of meanings that historical research recalls from the past, but also because of meanings that new ways of interpreting literature make available in the present and will continue to make available in the future.

    In his essay on “Classical and Romantic” sensibilities inPoetic Unreason, Graves shows how “we can catalogue a number of distinguishable psychological forms in which poetry can occur.”¹ He proposes to...

  14. 10 Remembering Graves in Revision
    (pp. 178-189)

    Between Riding’s protests that he failed to acknowledge her influence onSeven Types of Ambiguityand their lengthy, angry, and inconclusive correspondence on this topic in 1970 and 1971, Empson revised the book for the publication of a second edition. Should the reference toA Survey of Modernist Poetryremain, supplemented by the correct attribution of authorship to both Riding and Graves (as on the erratum slip)? Or should the original acknowledgment of Graves as the sole source of his method stand, with the reference toA Survey of Modernist Poetryquietly dropped? Addressing these questions involved reflecting on whether...

  15. 11 Richards and the Graves(t) Danger
    (pp. 190-205)

    Unlike William Empson, I.A. Richards had nothing good to say about Robert Graves – at least, not in print. Which is rather curious, for Graves exercised a demonstrably positive influence upon his work throughout the 1920s. As we shall see, Graves developed a psychological method of criticism that Richards would in many ways appropriate, even while attacking it; he listed topics for theorizing that Richards would accept by addressing, sometimes rather extensively; and he modelled a manner of close reading that Richards would adopt by adapting it to his ostensibly more scientific purposes. In the end, then, one might read Richards’s...

  16. 12 How Graves Shapes Richards’s Principles
    (pp. 206-233)

    Perhaps the energy invested by Richards to distance himself so publicly from Graves is explicable by a sense of rivalry that he felt with Graves. Or perhaps the cavalier methodology by which Graves proposed to join psychology and literary criticism really did call for just such a sharply dismissive response as the more scientific Richards gave it. Or perhaps Richards writes in anxious misprision of the precursor critic: Graves was first upon the scene and therefore must be misread if Richards himself is to be a strong critic and theorist. Whatever the case, Richards’s dismissal of Graves belies significant similarities...

  17. 13 Conflict Theory in Science and Poetry
    (pp. 234-241)

    If the imprint that Graves’s early work left in Richards’s imagination is clear inPrinciples of Literary Criticism, it is even clearer inScience and Poetry(1926), where Richards presents the salient points ofPrinciples of Literary Criticismin a more accessible and popular form. Richards adopts here what Graves calls inThe Meaning of Dreamsthe “Theory of the Double Self” and adapts it to the more behaviourist, functionalist terms of his own literary theory. He is thereby put on the road to an appreciation of the overdetermination of meaning in poetry and an increasingly sophisticated appreciation of poetry’s systematic reconciliation of...

  18. 14 Riding Corrects Richards (and Graves)
    (pp. 242-257)

    As a literary theorist, Richards was increasingly a force in his own right throughout the 1920s. By the end of the decade, he was more famous and more influential than Graves – at least in academic circles. Graves must have been aware of his work. Richards’s books were being reviewed in periodicals that Graves read and in which he published his own essays and reviews. Certainly his collaborator Laura Riding knew Richards’s work. In fact, her strong reaction against Richards proved frequently to be the occasion for her explicit or implicit correction of Graves’s early work. Graves was never the same...

  19. 15 Asserting the Poem’s Autonomy contra Richards
    (pp. 258-269)

    By his criticism of H.D.’s poetry in the chapter “Badness in Poetry” inPrinciples of Literary Criticism, Richards implies a method for reading modernist poetry as a whole that Riding and Graves repudiate inA Survey of Modernist Poetry. Richards exposes the poverty of H.D.’s poetry: what results from its “tenuousness and ambiguity” “is almost independent of the author.”¹ Riding and Graves – no fans of H.D. – may be somewhat thankful for this, but Richards exposes here assumptions about the nature of what is communicated in poetry that Riding and (now) Graves vigorously reject. They imply that Richards is representative of...

  20. 16 From Slow Reading to Close Reading: Escaping the Stock Response
    (pp. 270-283)

    Although Riding seems to have had nothing good to say about Richards at this time, in collaboration with Graves inA Survey of Modernist Poetryshe responds positively to a number of the points raised inPrinciples of Literary Criticism,without acknowledging the fact. Indeed, together they adapt many of Richards’s ideas to the purposes of their apology for modernist poetry in general, and for Riding’s own poetry in particular. Of course some of these ideas were originally appropriated from early work by Graves, so this back-and-forth influence is not surprising. In fact, we shall find not only that ideas originally...

  21. 17 Taking New Stock of Stock Responses
    (pp. 284-298)

    As mentioned above, Russo argues that Richards’s early work is the most important influence on the development of New Criticism and that one can identify in the reading of Luce inPractical Criticismthe most important early example of close reading. As we have also seen, Haffenden effectively refutes the latter half of this claim. YetPractical Criticismis certainly one of the founding documents of New Criticism, if for no other reason than that it makes the case overwhelmingly, through its many examples of readings gone wrong, that a new method of reading poetry more carefully – one that attends very...

  22. 18 Poetry, Interpretation, and Education
    (pp. 299-312)

    And so pedagogy’s the thing. Does it promote the stock response, the stock feeling, the stock situation, the stock poem, or does it promote the independence and the individuality of the poem, the poet, and the reader? On these fronts, Richards’s main concern inPractical Criticismis the same as that of Riding and Graves inA Survey of Modernist Poetry: how to educate people to become better readers of poetry, for better reading of poetry has the potential to make people better citizens of a democracy. Each book, furthermore, explores this problem in terms of its implications for classroom culture,...

  23. 19 Anthology Culture, Self-Reliance, and Self-Development
    (pp. 313-328)

    Another of the “chief difficulties of criticism” that Richards identifies and explains in a way that suggests the influence of Riding and Graves concerns “the effects oftechnical presuppositions” (“whenever we attempt to judge poetry from outside by technical details”) and the effects of “general critical preconceptions(prior demands made upon poetry as a result of theories – conscious or unconscious – about its nature and values).”¹ According to Richards, these preconceptions and preconditions are a function of anthology culture, which impedes a reader’s abilities to rely on his own wit to interpret poetry and to develop himself through the reading of...

  24. 20 Slow Wit, Slow Close Reading, and Paraphrase
    (pp. 329-340)

    Finally, another significant influence of Riding and Graves is evident in Richards’s observations about the contemporary reader’s response to humour in poetry. A whole chapter ofA Survey of Modernist Poetryis devoted to the topic of “The Humorous Element in Modernist Poetry.” For the modernist poet, representing “a generation that the War came upon at its most impressionable stage and taught the necessity for a self-protective skepticism of the stability of all human relationships, particularly of all national and religious institutions, of all existing moral codes, of all sentimental formulas for future harmony,” Riding and Graves suggest that “everything...

  25. Notes
    (pp. 341-390)
  26. Index
    (pp. 391-400)