As I prepare to discuss the first three chapters of Literary Theory: The Basics with my beloved friend, I thought to include a new idea that I gleaned from my third reading of the first chapter of this brilliantly terse and distilled text:

Both T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold felt as though society’s loss of values–due to their undermining by Darwinian theory, industrialization, the rise of a self-concerned, philistine middle class, and other such cultural horrors–could be palliated by the intense study and appreciation of literature. They assumed that spiritual values and the proper and healthy ways of being were somehow inherent in good writing, and that literature held a universal appeal for all humanity.

The undergirding assumption for all of this is that the human condition is relatively stable and fixed across all times and spaces. Thus, the anonymous author of Beowulf, though writing in Old English and living in a culture bereft of microwaves, television, and Lady Gaga, still shares with me and my contemporaries a human condition, making him (or, perhaps, her) just as likely to produce quality literature of sound morals as someone who understands my postmodern existence in a more intimate way. 

The idea is a compelling one that fascinates me but which, at least at this point of my intellectual and philosophical life, I reject. Even two human beings living in the same year and functioning as denizens of the same country seem to me as though they could share nothing in common, making the idea of the “human condition” completely bunk. Does an ascetic Buddhist monk, even if he lives in the USA in 2010, share any of the same experiences or values as a hedonistic rock star? Does a child with Down’s Syndrome share a common condition with, say, a psychopath awaiting death in a prison? I am inclined to say that each individual is so bound to her own situation–her own unique combination of genetics and environment–that we collectively, as a human species, have no one value or condition in common. Even biological processes seem mutable. Sex drives can be eliminated by castration. Hunger can be curtailed by ideological hypnosis or a destroyed hypothalamus. We all live lives too discrete one from another for me to claim, at this point, any unifying human experience.


Although he published a short work of literary “criticism” in the advertisement for the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth reached the apogee of his theories on poetry and the poet in the various prefaces that he published in subsequent editions of that form-shattering collection.

The preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads contains the majority of Wordsworth’s criticism and theory, although he tells us that he wrote it only at Coleridge’s bidding. At this point, he also acknowledges that the poems did not originate from a sole author, and Coleridge’s poems are pointed out. This preface is rife with fascinating ideas and myriad contradictions. Wordsworth speaks about an almost implicit contract between the poet and his audience, and he wonders if he has violated it by publishing in the vernacular of the common man, a very important component of the entire work, Wordsworth tells us. Nevertheless, Wordsworth believes that we can all be culled into a poetic taste for his diction and subject matter, novel though it may be. He goes on to express an extreme cultural primitivism, stating that the “low and rustic life” is one in which the emotions are less hindered and the imagination clearer. It is for this reason, Wordsworth tells us, that he chose both a common tongue (bereft of poetic diction) and the lowly subjects of the pedestrian.

In perhaps the most famous and quoted lines from the document, Wordsworth calls poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” a statement that he qualifies in the proceeding sentence by stating that these powerful feelings must emit from a highly sensible man who has contemplated deeply about life.

Wordsworth decries, momentarily, the degradation of art as he sees it in his day. Gothic novels and German tragedies, he believes, are distracting people from the genius of Milton and Shakespeare. In their pursuit for the intensity of feeling that good art can produce, people have turned to cheap entertainment to incite the same fervor.

Lastly of note in this particular preface, Wordsworth expounds on the relationship of poetry and prose, although his conclusions are not what I would have expected. Essentially, Wordsworth sees the two as very similar, sharing the same substance and blood. He states that poetry has much “prose” in it, just as good prose is highly poetic. Because of his elimination of poetic diction and the general novelty of his endeavor, Wordsworth implores critics to not give in to a conformist, majority opinion but instead judge the work as autonomous individuals open to its revolutionary conception.

In the notes that Wordsworth wrote about a couple of his poems, he explains their function in the larger work and expounds on his poetic theories further. In a note on “The Thorn,” Wordsworth says that “poetry is passion: it is the history or science of feelings.” In a note on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Wordsworth apologizes for the poem and lists its defects, a brazen and cold move that ended up (possibly) being the reason for the separation that began to occur between Coleridge and Wordsworth.

In the preface to the 1802 edition of the poems, Wordsworth expands his ideas of poetic diction, how it arose, and why he chose to eliminate it in his work. Wordsworth believes that artificial poetic language arose when people attempted to imitate the power of the sincere words spoken by poets who wrote about real life. Because these words had influence and effect, they were replicated unnecessarily in all poetry. In this same preface, Wordsworth attempts to define the role of the poet. For Wordsworth, the poet is a man of comprehensive capacity and deep sensibility who provides pleasure and explores the possibilities of mankind. Wordsworth echoes Aristotle in his regard of poetry as the most philosophical of all writing.

Lastly, in two extracts entitled the Fenwick Notes, we see glimpses of the reality of Wordsworth’s life behind the poetry. For one, he notes that he was terrified as a child of the extinguishing of his soul, and thus do we see much of his poetry concerned with death and immortality. Additionally, Wordsworth takes credit for inciting Coleridge to include the shooting of the albatross as the condemning, opprobrious act in the narrative of the “Ancient Mariner.”

Although I love much of what Wordsworth has to say, I cannot help but to see much hypocrisy in it all. His poetry, although not replete with inverted syntax and biddings to Greek muses, is nonetheless not written in the common dialect of mankind. Additionally, his educational training in the classics was vital to his ability to spring forth as a poet, and for him to pretend otherwise seems deceptive to me. However, I do acknowledge with him the power of everyday experience and the potential for the mundane to be possessed of the deepest truths. My verdict on Wordsworth is still out, but if for nothing other than “Tintern Abbey,” I find him a poet of the grandest sort and well worth my literary attention.

Russian Formalism

January 13, 2010

The school of formalism originated in Russia in the second and third decades of the 20th Century. As the name clearly denotes, of primary concern to formalism is the form of literary art over New Criticism’s concern for interpretation of inherent meaning. A question of much concern for formalists regards literariness and the qualities that differentiate literary from non-literary writing. In their attempt to answer this question, the formalists procured the tenable thesis that poetic language is that which defamiliarizes a word or language generally via literary devices, such as rhyme, repetition, and imagery. They also concluded that literary language derives its power from nuanced, secondary, tertiary and ambiguous meanings, whereas non-literary writing strives for lucidity and exactitude of meaning.

While formalist theories applied well to poetry, narrative fiction presented an obstacle, as rhyme and meter, among other tropes, are far less frequent among fictional writing. The answer was produced by Boris Tomashevski: narrative fiction contains a straightforward story of what happened (the fabula) that is told in a particular manner and with a distinct chronological order that thus defamiliarizes language (the syuzhet). In this manner, non-poetic forms of literature were inducted into formalist theory.

Because formalist theory attempted to systematically chart the science of literature and its creation, it sought generalizations and axioms. One such literary law was the theory that new genres develop over time in a broad means of defamiliarization. Just as a literary figure (such as an unrhymed stanza in poem of heroic couplets) calls linguistic attention to itself, so do new genres attempt to thwart the unconscious complacency that slowly builds over time within an extant genre.

Realizing that literary devices do not necessarily defamiliarize inherently, formalists came to recognize that the function of a poetic device has everything to do with its textual placement. Hyperbole is only powerful, for example, if the rest of the literature is not replete with it. The notion of literariness relating to foreground and background therefore emerged.

An ultimate notion, proposed by Roman Jakobsen in the late 1950s, proposed that the law of literariness was in fact the linguistic ability to relate various types of words. For example, where two words belong to the same category (human nouns such as “Ma” or “brother”, temperature adjectives such as “warm” or “freezing”, etc.) the poet will join the words to purposefully create unity among them. Alliteration and rhyme create phonetic unity; juxtaposition, parallelism, and inversion create the unity of idea, and so forth.

A Dose of Theory

January 13, 2010

I decided to splurge this year as I bought my books required for my semester coursework–I bought a book that is for a class I won’t take for another semester or two. The course is the only one in which undergraduates at my university are exposed to literary theory, a fact which to me is shameful and poorly planned. Loving theory and criticism as I have begun to do (not for previous lack of passion but rather lack of any form of exposure), this book has been a fascinating read. The following is a précis of the first chapter.

The book, cited in MLA format, follows:

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Chapter 1: Reading for Meaning: Practical criticism and new criticism

The chapter begins by mentioning Matthew Arnold, a British Victorian poet whose “Dover Beach” and a few others poems I read for my class with Dr. Nye in Spring 2009. Arnold believed that poetry would replace religion, that in literary works humans could strive for and reach the best that human culture and life has to offer. Bertens used this introduction to segue into a discussion of the notion of liberal humanism, that each individual is a subject relatively free to be reasonable and free to make informed, personal decisions.

From there, Bertens begins to discuss the principle tenets of Practical Criticism (the United Kingdom iteration) and New Criticism, the United States equivalent. Claiming American-born and England-residing T.S. Eliot as one of the primary exponents of this school, Bertens shows how Eliot’s ideas about the primacy of poetic meaning and the flaw of overly emotive poetry (which led to his development of the objective correlative) ultimately led Cambridge theorists I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis to found “practical criticism.” In the United States, “new criticism” was the equivalent, the principle difference being the importance the new critics placed upon the form of the literature. The most salient attribute of both schools of criticism is the interpretation of the artwork for its intrinsic meaning. A poem or piece of literature, for such theorists, is self-contained and should provide a truth universal to humankind. The poem can be interpreted independently of knowing anything about the author or the culture in which it emerged. These schools of thought led to the notion of “close reading,” a manner of scrutinizing a literary work within itself to identify the ways that its art operates (literary tropes, forms, etc.) and its meaning emerges.

The chapter concludes by explicating the link between literary studies and cultural studies/social critique, a seemingly enormous jump (especially considering the specialization of the academy). Essentially, because literary critics considered themselves the intellectual and cultural elite during the time of the Practical and New Criticisms, the jump from safeguarding civilization to interpreting and critiquing it was not a strenuous one. It is thus that both English and American literature programs include such a vast array of social and cultural commentary, education, and critique, both in their publications and pedagoguery.

This chapter has me primed and left wanting for more. As school begins, I know that my dispensable time to use in abstruse theory texts will wane. Nevertheless, the conciseness and importance of this one warrants its continual occupation in my schedule, a place where I expect it will consistently appear.