English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Supplementary Remarks about Cleanth Brooks'
"Heresy of Paraphrase" and "Irony as a Principle of Structure"

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

Written for a previous class -- still contains some relevant remarks:

On "Heresy of Paraphrase," I covered what I wanted to except that I stayed so long with Brooks' "music" analogy for the inseparability of form and content in poetry (which I know from Georg Hegel generally and more specifically from the Victorian critic Walter Pater's remark that "all art constantly aspires to the condition of music") that I didn't get around to mentioning the one Brooks himself thinks is most revealing: the "drama" analogy. But since Brooks mentions that same analogy in "Irony," let's move to that essay, which we didn't have time to discuss in class.

"Irony as a Principle of Structure" is pretty straightforward and fits closely as a kind of illustration of what Brooks said about poetic language in the "Heresy" essay. A poem's structure consists in "meanings, evaluations, and interpretations, says Brooks in "Heresy," and in "Irony" he delineates irony (along with paradox, as in John Donne's cerebral poetry) as one of the main principles that informs this structure and allows it to take shape. Irony, as Brooks had already defined it in "Heresy," is "the most general term that we have for the kind of qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context" (966 bottom right column). I read you Donne's "The Canonization" in Brooksian fashion to show how it employs logical and religious statements in a paradoxical manner that warps or "connotates" them into an enshrinement of sexual love.

Now for the drama analogy. A formalist can think of a poem as something like a drama. How? Well, we don't go looking (at least while we watch the play) for anything outside the drama to explain what's happening on the stage. Rather, we relate each act and scene to the others to build up a sense of the coherent whole. Similarly, we interpret the characters' utterances, gestures, and behavior in relation to the behavior, utterances, and gestures of other characters: think of the complex interactions in Othello between Othello, Iago, Desdemona, and her father, for example. Each character's interaction with the others shapes how we see that character. It is the same with the words and phrases in a poem, Brooks would say. Meaning is relational and develops from tensions set up within the poem's linguistic structure, so for Brooks, as for the drama-watcher, it makes no sense to say that "form" is an empty container into which we pour ready-made content from outside. The "play's the thing," to borrow from Hamlet-and the poem is a thing or even a "being" in its own right. On 969, Brooks mentions King Lear's awful statement "never, never, never, never, never." The fuller passage is as follows

KING LEAR And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never!

Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,

Look there, look there!

Act V, Scene iii.

Brooks' point here is that the ordinary denotative meaning of "never" doesn't enter the picture (so I'm not playing Yvor Winters as in "Heresy"). The word's meaning stems from what has gone before it in the play: Lear's language has become progressively impoverished down to the level of single words and even silence. When Lear says "never" five times, he is using that sparseness of language in the service (perhaps; it's hard to be certain that there is such an "anagnorisis" or moment of recognition for the protagonist in King Lear) of clarifying what he has done and what his actions have done to others. The context of the scene is what makes the words meaningful.

Brooks says that the most straightforward irony amounts to "the obvious warping of a statement by the context." But since it is a principle of structure that makes poetic coherence possible, it must be capable of somewhat more subtlety. The "pressures of the context" (970 right column bottom) may not always be obvious or crude, but still, says Brooks, we are dealing with the informing principle of irony. I'll leave it for you to go over the more subtle degrees of contextual pressure Brooks analyzes in those short Wordsworth poems. In sum, "irony" (in the sense of "pressures of the context") is for Brooks the main way in which a literary object dynamically develops its own structure, its own "meanings, evaluations, and interpretations" without the need for aid from ordinary or "denotative" language, history, biography, or other outside sources of meaning.

As we move on to more contemporary kinds of criticism, of course, this formalist notion that poetic language constructs an autonomous or self-contained art object that offers a coherent structure of meaning will come to be seen as naïve and ideologically escapist. It will be seen by many, that is, as an attempt to bracket out the role of history and ideology in the making of a literary text.