Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Among the pugnacious practitioners of academic literary studies, who agree among themselves on almost nothing, there is one consensus: the New Criticism—that is, the old New Criticism associated with the names of T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks—that New Criticism is over, finished, defunct. What is more, this shift in critical fashion is widely perceived not merely as a routine scholarly development, but as a great liberation, the lifting of an onerous burden—as if literature professors had somehow been bearing the entire weight of The World’s Body upon their shoulders, or as if textbooks like Understanding Poetry and Sound and Sense constituted a form of bondage or a grand imposition on the credulity of college English teachers. Never again, they seem to proclaim in the smug tone of someone conscious of having recovered righteousness, will we submit to that unhistorical formalism or subject our students to the cultural elitism of canonical works. Everywhere the atmosphere of classrooms and library bookstack carrels thickens with an almost palpable fog of sanctimony.

Now, considered objectively, this is a very strange state of affairs. The New Criticism flourished during the thirties, forties, and fifties and remained formidably influential even through the sixties when its dominance over literary study was everywhere challenged. This was the time when the study of literature in the modern vernacular languages was established once and for all in the curriculum of American universities; English and American literature, in particular, assumed a central role in undergraduate education and became a major focus of graduate training and academic scholarship. It is not too much to say that the activities of the New Critics and their followers staked out the literary field and defined the university environment in which the revisionists now operate. If the movement known as New Criticism had never occurred, it is improbable that the position and activities of literary scholars would be of much significance in the contemporary university. Whatever shortcomings may have emerged in the New Critical program, whatever defects or excesses of method or substance may have stood in need of correction, one would expect the beneficiaries of the achievements of the New Criticism to regard it with at least an affectionate tolerance. Hence the current attitude among the denizens of English and foreign language departments, which ranges from severe disapproval to scathing repudiation, is more than a little surprising.

It is still more surprising when one realizes that the condemnation of the New Criticism is founded on misconceptions, if not outright deceptions. In The Attack on Literature Rene Wellek has demonstrated conclusively that the major accusations leveled at the New Criticism are “baseless.” Wellek lists four common allegations against the New Critics: (1) that they are “formalists” with no interest in the human content of literature, (2) that they ignore the historical context of literature, (3) that they reduce literature to an abstract science, and (4) that the “close reading” practiced by the New Critics is a mere pedagogical device, an American version of explication du texte, fit only for undergraduates in provincial colleges. These allegations “can be so convincingly refuted by an appeal to the texts,” says Wellek, “that I wonder whether current commentators have ever actually read the writings of the New Critics.”

My own experience tends to corroborate Wellek’s suspicion: more of the “current commentators” have probably read deconstructionists like Frank Lentricchia or Jonathan Culler inveighing against the “formalism” of the New Critics than have actually read the New Critics themselves. But I also doubt whether it would make any difference if they did read them: The attack on the New Critics is not a mistake; that is, it is not based on a misunderstanding that could be cleared up to the satisfaction of all parties by a candid exchange of views. The New Criticism has not been vilified because of its errors and vices, which doubtless afflict it as they do all things human, but has rather been scourged for its virtues. It is not too much to say that the New Critics have been the victims of what is called in counterespionage circles a campaign of disinformation. The charge that comes up again and again in current discussions of the New Criticism is “formalism,” “an opprobrious term,” Wellek notes, “first used by Marxists against a group of Russian scholars in the twenties.”

Now the contemporary academic scene is steeped in Marxism (albeit often unconscious), and “formalism” is the inevitable dismissive term applied to the New Criticism, meant to suggest that the New Critics were concerned about literature only as an objectified verbal configuration, devoid of human significance and cut off from the realities of history. If this were true, however, the New Criticism would be a threat to no one and would hardly provoke such hostility. The fact is that the New Criticism is condemned not because it treats the literary work as an empty form remote from history, but because it understands literary form and the relation between meaning and history in a way that undermines the Gnostic materialism characteristic of most contemporary ideologies.

At their best the New Critics stress not “mere form,” but form as a structure of significance, an embodiment of human experience. By capturing human experience in words and isolating it from the flow of time—in other words, by creating aesthetic distance—the literary work of art furnishes unique and invaluable access to that experience. Thus, far from evincing a lack of interest in history, this view of literature strengthens the relation between the author and history by treating the literary work as a portal into the meaning of the ceaseless currents of the historical process. Precisely insofar as it transcends the particular biases and individual purposes of its author, as well as the immediate expectations and assumptions of its readers along with the political and socioeconomic conditions of its era, the work of literature is a testimony to the inherent significance and purpose of human life. In proposing such an understanding of literature, the New Critics are not aping either the mathematical or the empirical modes of scientific knowledge; they are, rather, urging us to recognize alternative ways of knowing that comprehend a broader spectrum of reality. Finally, although it seems quixotic in this day and age to stigmatize as being a mere pedagogical device a critical method that teaches students to read and write, it is also true that the New Criticism—at least when it has not been abused—provides far more than a mere repertoire of verbal techniques. In regarding the literary work of art as a subsistent structure of meaning—that is, in granting it, in some sense, an independent ontological status—the New Criticism establishes the study of literature as a principal means of handing on the culture of Western civilization. This is an educational undertaking of crucial importance.

Now all of this is anathema to the dominant ideologies of the contemporary university. If the language and tone of the current academic setting are broadly Marxist, it is helpful to think about the radical predilection of the modern world in general in terms of the Gnostic paradigm formulated by Eric Voegelin in The New Science of Politics. Gnostic dualism both despises the material creation and sees it as decisive in forming the character and conduct of human beings: The evil that men do is not attributable to the sinful will of the individual; it is rather an intrinsic and hence inevitable result of physical existence. At the same time, the Gnostics also believe that those who attain to a special knowledge, or gnosis, become part of an elite group who rise above the condition and destiny of ordinary mortals. Combine this with empirical science and technology, and the result looks very much like modern Marxism: the entirety of human reality, including the “superstructure” of culture and society, derives from the material forces and conditions of the economic “infrastructure.” Yet again, there is the elite, now comprising radical intellectuals and politicians, able somehow to escape the fateful determinism of material life and, in the wake of the industrial revolution, forge a utopia in which all aspirations are realized, all desires gratified.

Obviously only a small minority of contemporary academics would expressly subscribe to an overt Marxism, and few (at least of my acquaintance) could even identify Gnosticism with any confidence; nevertheless, a set of analogous attitudes permeates a broad range of the academic community, and the influence of Marxism and associated ideologies has become especially notable on literature faculties in recent years. It is evident in a pervasive malaise in the academic world—a discontent with the limits embedded in the actual nature of human reality—and in the concomitant, if contradictory, preoccupation with the autonomy of the individual and the exaltation of his subjective longings. The literary critic in this frame of mind will be inclined to approach a story or a poem or a play less as an imaginative rendering or revelation of the structure of reality than as an open-ended vehicle for the free play of individual fantasies.

Now it is not hard to see why the New Criticism, with its insistence on the objective integrity of the literary work, would hold little appeal for the contemporary academic ideologue. At its inception the New Criticism was, among other things, a reaction against the impressionistic “appreciations” of literature by genteel dabblers, against the late Romantic worship of the author as prophet or genius, and against a school of literary history that buried individual works under a mass of trivial details about influences and fashions while altogether eschewing the serious task of critical judgment. The New Criticism was, above all, an assertion that a piece of fiction or poetry or drama could matter, could have significance in and of itself.

Such a view of the literary work entails certain metaphysical and moral premises that are incompatible with the radicalism that now dominates academic and intellectual life. First, the New Critics almost all insist that the proper end of literary study is the work itself conceived as an independent object, and that investigations of the author’s biography, of the historical situation in which he wrote, of the work’s “reception history” and relations to other works of literature—all of this is ancillary to the interpretation and evaluation of the work itself. These premises assume that a literary work exists independently of the interests and purposes (conscious or unconscious) of the author, or of the responses to or experience of the work on the part of any particular reader or collection of readers in any given time or place. A work of literature, then, stands as a testimony to the independence of the human spirit from material necessity: A man who can in words create a structure of significance that transcends the constraints of physical causation, or who can respond to it with sympathy and understanding, is himself in that measure a transcendent being; that is, he is a free, rational agent. By the same token, the work of literature in some ways rehabilitates that very material universe: It is seen neither as the realm of sheer darkness and despair of the ancient Gnostics nor as the meaningless grinding process of their Marxist heirs, but rather as a purposive design in which mankind is, or ought to be, temporarily at home. Literature is precisely humanity’s imaginative ordering of the experience of the world.

The moral implications of the New Criticism are equally repugnant to radical ideology: If a literary work is a sign of human freedom, it is also a reminder of the limits of that freedom. As a representation of reality, a literary work is a manifestation of the structure of reality that exists independently of, and sometimes in conflict with, individual expectation and desire. As an embodiment of meaning apart from author and interpreter alike, the literary work is a reminder that human beings can discover significance, but not manufacture it. The New Criticism thus responds affirmatively to what we might call the moral realism of great literature. Consider, for example, how many tragedies manifest the dignity and grandeur of human beings as morally free agents who yet can degrade and destroy themselves through the proud abuse of freedom and the refusal to respect the limitations inherent in the nature of reality. Similarly, the interpreter of the drama is free to explore the richness of the play and draw out as much as he can of its inexhaustible significance, but he must respect the integrity of the text and acknowledge its meaning as its own and not his.

Now virtually every effort to discredit the New Criticism also involves an attack upon the objective integrity of the literary work of art, along with a concomitant exaltation of the reader or interpreter. As Elaine Pagels says of the Gnostics’ relation to Christ’s message (in her work The Gnostic Gospels), what they sought—and seek—is not a true interpretation of the message, but a unique, wholly subjective self-realization. The authority of canonical scripture and apostolic tradition are set aside in favor of the individual’s interior divinity. Gnosticism provides so useful a model because the ancient Gnostic, like the modern Marxist, is preoccupied with escaping or transforming an unsatisfactory reality in the interests of personal domination or self-satisfaction. Because of its fictionality, literature can be regarded as a useful vehicle for this, but only if it is severed from reality by the denial of its status as a representation and rendered entirely responsive to the will of the interpreter.

The various debates between the New Critics and traditional literary historians and between the New Critics and the Chicago Aristotelians, back in the forties and fifties, tended to be either personal or technical—matters of tone and temperament or emphasis and degree. In principle, they were nearly all resolvable. Beginning late in the 1950s, however, with the “archetypal” criticism of Northrop Frye, the various attacks upon the New Criticism began to arise from a fundamentally incompatible understanding of the nature and purpose of literature. Frye would reduce all works of literature to a collection of variations on a few basic myths, universal in a vaguely Jungian sense, and he deprecates value judgments and hierarchical discriminations deriving from aesthetic considerations. After all, if what is distinctive about a work of literature is its embodiment of an archetypal myth, its unique features as a specific work will hardly be prized. From Frye’s quasi-religious perspective, literature constitutes a “secular scripture,” with its authority drawn not from its own inherent revelatory features, but rather conferred by the interpreter, for whom each work serves as a vehicle for his own mythic fantasies and wish-fulfillments.

This is even more the case with one of Frye’s most notable successors, Harold Bloom, who began as a champion of the revolutionary Romantics, especially Blake and Shelley, in the face of their depreciation by Eliot and the New Critics. Bloom’s animus against the New Criticism is expressly political and religious, and in recent years—in Agon, for example—he has identified himself as a “Jewish Gnostic.” He adapts Freudian concepts to the service of a visionary radicalism in which the writing and reading of poetry are a displaced version of Oedipal repression. The literary work becomes a contested site in which the egos of the author, his literary predecessors, and his readers struggle for psychic dominance.

Other critics who have come under the spell of psychoanalysis, most notably Norman Holland and David Bleich, have simply denied any substance at all to the literary work, except as it exists in the mind of the reader. This theory would seem to be a dream come true for the duller sort of undergraduate who repeatedly demands recognition in aggrieved tones for “what the story means to me.” Stanley Fish, who began his career as a proponent of the reader-response school under the rubric “affective stylistics,” soon realized that such an approach does nothing to enhance the prestige of the scholarly community, since it provides no basis for preferring the reading of a full professor to that of the most callow freshman. Fish has spent the last decade developing the concept of the “interpretive community”: according to which the very existence of a work of literature lies in the meaning conferred upon it by the members of a group defined by their common adherence to a set of criteria for reading and judging and arguing. In practice it means that a work of literature is the creature of recognized, published scholars in academic institutions. The independent existence of the work of literature fares no better in the psychoanalytic criticism influenced by the French neo-Freudian, Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s disciples in the field of literary criticism are mainly academic feminists and their allies, bent upon discomfiting what they call “patriarchy” wherever it rears its ugly head. Since the vast majority of writers in the canon of Western literature have been men, and since they have most often been so foolish as to write with an object called a pen of a most suspicious shape, there is little surprise in the discovery that most literature is “phallocentric.” In this mode of criticism, the ontological status of the literary work would seem to be largely determined by the gonads of author and reader.

Two of the principal continental developments of the sixties similarly diminished the independent existence of the literary work. The so-called “Geneva School,” exemplified most notably by Georges Poulet, is generally uninterested in the particular poem, play, or novel, which is exploited, along with diaries, letters, and obiter dicta, to reconstruct and empathize, or even identify, with the total consciousness of the author. Parisian structuralism, with its close attention to details of language and form, bears a superficial methodological similarity to the New Critical approach; however, it differs sharply in its pretense to a scientific, almost mathematical rigor, and in its treatment of literature as a system, which is in turn only part of a larger system of cultural signs. Hence the study of literature is part of linguistics, linguistics part of semiotics. Although the methods of Geneva and Paris are opposed insofar as the one seems obsessed with authorial intentionality while the other utterly discounts it, they are alike in dismissing or denying the objective existence of the literary work itself.

Both of these schools have in turn been furiously assailed by the “postmodernist” theorists who have come to dominate academic literary study during the past two decades. And these latter have, if that were possible, only further diminished the status of the literary work. Deconstruction, the brainchild of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, asserts the failure of intentional presence both in the author’s consciousness and in the text. Like every other human utterance, a work of literature has neither substantial existence nor distinctive identity. In the New Historicism, of course, Marxist principles of materialist determinism become explicit: New historicist critics view a work of literature as in essence no different from any other document or text; all are products of the sociopolitical conditions attendant upon their composition.

When the various attacks upon the New Criticism in the course of the last three decades are thus considered, it is evident that they are all essentially attacks upon the ontological integrity of the literary work as such. Deconstruction and the New Historicism take the next step, making explicit that which is common to all of these theoretical perspectives, i.e., a denial of the concept of imaginative literature as a distinct category of writing. The New Criticism is the ideological enemy because imaginative literature itself—poetry, fiction, drama—is the ideological enemy. Rene Wellek, an eminent defender of the significance of the written text, quotes Roland Barthes, a fashionable deconstructor, asserting that “literature is constitutionally reactionary” and then, somewhat incredulously, proceeds to show that Barthes is mistaken, that literature and literary figures have in fact often been in the vanguard of social protest and revolution. One is reminded of E. D. Hirsch’s frustrated astonishment in Cultural Literacy at radical demands for the dismantling of the teaching of traditional humanist disciplines. Surely everyone must recognize, Hirsch argues, that it is only by mastering the verbal skills and traditional knowledge required by cultivated literacy that one will be able to effect social change and do away with injustice.

The exasperation of Wellek and Hirsch and many others is understandable, but in large measure it assumes that today’s academic radicals are interested in reforming Western society and its cultural institutions when, in fact, they are mainly interested in obliterating them. Wellek himself points out that a leveling nihilism is at the heart of the matter: “All these objections to the concept of literature,” he says, “have one trait in common: They do not recognize quality as a criterion of literature; quality that may be either aesthetic or intellectual, but which in either case sets off a specific realm of verbal expression from daily transactions in language.” Given the radical perspective of the ideologues who currently dominate the literature departments of universities, literature is a conservative force because it implies a standard of discrimination and judgment.

The old New Critics regarded the study of genuine works of imaginative literature as a powerful civilizing force because it is educative in the strict sense: it is a means of leading the student out of the narrow, self-interested realm of individual and peer group; it is a confrontation with landmarks of cultural tradition whose significance and authority persist from generation to generation and provide norms of thought, feeling, and behavior. In the New Critical scheme the work of critics and scholars is ancillary to the masterpieces that constitute this literary culture. Its task is to define and identify literary excellence and through interpretation to point out how literature represents and reveals the nature of reality.

Naturally, then, it is precisely for its insistence upon literary quality that the New Criticism is currently hated and feared. As Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier, editors of a recent collection of essays on The Historical Renaissance, aver, “New Criticism distinguished and privileged ‘literary’ language; the characteristic richness and ambiguity with which literature was associated was seen to render it a far fitter object of study than other types of texts, such as descriptions of cities or political tracts.” Now, they continue, we know better: “Today scholars of the English Renaissance are intensely concerned with the connections between literary texts and social and historical phenomena—and, indeed, with collapsing the boundaries suggested by those very distinctions.” In other words, the distinction between works of literature and what used to be called historical documents is wiped away; whatever is written is a “text,” and all texts are equal. The same strictures apply to discriminations among different levels of fiction: No distinction is allowed between serious literature of aesthetic merit, or at least aspiration to such merit, and what once would have been called subliterature, pulp fiction, or kitsch. “Scholarship” dealing with “popular” literature is an academic growth industry. For an academic, perhaps the best evidence of the power of this new industry is the number of his colleagues who seem to spend more time listening to hard rock and watching music videos than reading poetry.

There are two main consequences of all this: The reduction of literature to so much grist for the ideological mill and the concomitant total empowerment of the interpreter. In Criticism and Social Change Frank Lentricchia maintains that the effort to interpret a text objectively is merely a form of collaboration with the political status quo, since “Literature is inherently nothing; or it is a body of rhetorical stategies waiting to be seized.” His Duke colleague Stanley Fish argues that when the interpreter approaches a literary text not with the aim of demonstrating its meaning and value, but rather of persuading his audience to accept it on his terms, then the interpreter supersedes the text:

But perhaps the greatest gain that falls to us under a persuasion model is a greatly enhanced sense of the importance of our activities. (In certain quarters, of course, where the critical ideal is one of self-effacement, this will be perceived to be the greatest danger.) No longer is the critic the humble servant of texts whose glories exist independently of anything he might do; it is what he does, within the constraints embedded in the literary institution, that brings texts into being and makes them available for analysis and appreciation. The practice of literary criticism is not something one must apologize for; it is absolutely essential not only to the maintenance of, but to the very production of, the objects of its attention.

In the formulations both of Lentricchia and Fish, the critic does not seek to elucidate the vision of reality represented by a work of literature, but instead sets out to bend a “text”—so much plastic verbiage—to his own version of things, and to manipulate an audience in the process. Of course as Fish’s language reveals, this interpretive license only operates “within the constraints embedded in the literary institution,” or, as he has taken to calling it, the “interpretive community.” It turns out that maximum freedom is maximum bondage, the critic being as much a product of his socioeconomic situation as a book.

This state of affairs was anticipated by Cleanth Brooks some four decades ago. In the preface to The Well Wrought Urn, perhaps the single most important work of New Criticism, he observed, “The temper of our times is strongly relativistic,” and in the face of this, he affirms the propriety, indeed the necessity, of seeing “what residuum, if any, is left after we have referred the poem to its cultural matrix.” Brooks explicitly affirms the importance of literary history, and anyone familiar with his own critical practice will be aware of his profound knowledge of the historical context of the literary works he treats. “Yet,” he continues, “if poetry exists as poetry in any meaningful sense, the attempt must be made [to view it sub specie aeternitatis]. Otherwise the poetry of the past becomes significant merely as cultural anthropology, and the poetry of the present, merely as a political, or religious, or moral instrument.” The state of affairs about which Brooks offered this caution forty-odd years ago is now cheerfully flaunted as the New Historicism.

The first chapter of The Well Wrought Urn, titled “The Language of Paradox,” provides perhaps the most vivid clue to both the implications of the New Criticism and of ideological theories that have arisen to challenge it. It is this chapter, for instance, that has been singled out for “deconstruction” by Jonathan Culler. In it Brooks sets out to show that the language of poetry is inherently paradoxical—a blend of “irony and wonder”; that is, what distinguishes a genuine poem is that its verbal pattern, especially its various figures of speech, cannot be reduced to any set of plain prose statements—or at least that any such paraphrase is not the same as, or interchangeable with, the poem. In the language of economics, poetry is not fungible. Precisely this irreducibility is what constitutes a poem’s independent existence.

The poem that Brooks cites to illustrate this view is “The Canonization” by John Donne, a brilliant, if extravagant and sometimes risqué, deployment of religious language in defense of human sexual love. The poem is by turns outrageously and defiantly witty, tender, and impassioned. What is more, there are numerous features of the poem that seem to reflect Donne’s own life—he destroyed his hopes for preferment at Court and fell into disgrace and financial ruin by eloping with a very young woman staying in his employer’s household. The poem, however, was not published until after the poet’s death, and its actual relation to events in his life is finally a matter of speculation. Brooks’ central thesis is that the seemingly contradictory tensions in “The Canonization”—the ironic, even bawdy, references to sexual intercourse jostling against the assertions of human love’s transcendence—finally converge in a unified vision of our experience of love which cannot be expressed in our ordinary, commonsense statements about it. The vision that is verbally manifest in the poem may or may not have been inspired or provoked by this or that incident or preoccupation in the life of the man John Donne, but the poem itself is distinct from the aims and experiences of the poet, and accessible to the experience of readers in a way that the actual life experience of another is not.

Consider, for example, the central stanza of “The Canonization”:

Call us what you will, wee’are made such by love;
Call her one, mee another flye,
We’are Tapers too, and at our owne cost die,
And wee in us finde the’Eagle and the dove.
The Phoenix ridle hath more wit
By us, we two being one, are it.
So, to one neutrall thing both sexes fit.
Wee dye and rise the same,
and prove Mysterious by this love.

There are more puzzles and obscurities and complex tonal layers than I can begin to unravel here (that, after all, is the point), but I do wish to call attention to the closing couplet. Christ’s Resurrection from death, one of the mysteries of the Christian faith, is evoked here at the same time and in the same words as a bawdy Renaissance pun on “dying” as the attainment of sexual climax. One could choose to regard this as mere blasphemy, but the tone of the poem as a whole seems to preclude such a simplification; yet the lines do gain much of their force from the suggestion of blasphemy. This passage, and finally the poem as a whole, sets out to acknowledge, and so far as possible embrace, our entire equivocal experience of human sexuality, which is funny, embarrassing, obscene, “dirty”; exciting and pleasurable and yet repugnant; tender, exalted, sacred. Marriage is, after all, regarded by some Christian communions as a sacrament and by all as a holy and honorable estate, and it is only consummated by sexual intercourse. Brooks’ comment on the passage is instructive: “The lovers after the act are the same. Their love is not exhausted in mere lust. This is their title to canonization. Their love is like the phoenix . . . . Most important of all, the sexual submeaning of ‘die’ does not contradict the other meanings.”

It is not my purpose here to defend every aspect of Brooks’ reading of “The Canonization” (I myself find the poem less solemn and more boisterous than he); what is at stake, however, is his view of this poem—or any effective poem—as a triumph over the inadequacies of our ordinary language. The heart of the New Critical account of poetry, of literature generally, is the discovery of how the work of imaginative writers pushes back the limitations of human language, yet at the same time, in the very act of challenging them, reminds us of the ineluctable presence of such limitations by the extraordinary literary devices required for the confrontation.

The enemies Brooks and his generation were accustomed to were likely to attack from the direction of positivism or a quasi-scientific rationalism: Literature was dismissed as merely “emotive,” inaccurate, not “empirically verifiable.” Hence the New Critics were at pains to stress that the language of imaginative literature and of proper literary criticism was, in its own way, as precise as the language of science, that if the knowledge embodied in literature lacked the mathematical certitude of physics, it was nevertheless objective. From the deconstructivist perspective, however, no discourse can boast precision or objectivity; no signifier can make the signified fully present or available to the mind. Everything, then, is “literature,” but this is not an honorific term. Scientific and philosophic discourse, legal documents, and pastoral elegies are all chains of signifiers that never terminate in the signified: Textuality is our prison from which there is no escape.

The typical procedure of deconstruction is to grasp a loose thread in the textual weave of a discourse and to proceed with the unraveling. Jonathan Culler seizes upon Brooks’ comment on the fourth stanza of “The Canonization,” where the “sonnets” and “hymnes” celebrating the passion of the lovers are compared to a “well wrought urne.” “The poem is an instance of the doctrine which it asserts,” Brooks says; “it is both the assertion and the realization of the assertion. The poet has actually before our eyes built within the song the ‘pretty room’ with which he says the lovers can be content. The poem itself is the well-wrought urn which can hold the lovers’ ashes and which will not suffer in comparison with the prince’s ‘halfe-acre tombe.’” According to Culler, in On Deconstruction, Brooks is attributing to the poem a “self-reference”—a “self-reflexivity . . . seen as self-knowledge, self-possession, a self-understanding or presence of the poem to itself.” But, he assures us, “Under exegetical pressure, self-reference demonstrates the impossibility of self-possession.” Culler proceeds to insist that “The Canonization” is “not so much a self-contained urn as a chain of discourses and representations”; for “if the poem is the urn, then one of the principal features of the urn is that it portrays people responding to the urn.” It turns out that Cleanth Brooks himself becomes part of the poem “he thought he was analyzing from the outside”:

This self-referential element in Donne’s poem does not produce or induce a closure in which the poem harmoniously is the thing it describes. In celebrating itself as urn the poem incorporates a celebration of the urn and thus becomes something other than the urn; and if the urn is taken to include the response to the urn, then the responses it anticipates, such as Brooks’, become a part of it and prevent it from closing. Self-reference does not close it in upon itself but leads to a proliferation of representations, a series of invocations and urns, including Brooks’ The Well Wrought Urn.

There are two important points to notice here. First, “self-referentiality” is not Brooks’ term, nor his concept; Culler imposes it with no justification. For a poem to be “both the assertion and the realization of the assertion” does not entail “self-reference” or “self-reflexivity.” “The Canonization” refers not to itself, but to what it represents: the speech of a fictive character, whose attitudes and ideas doubtless had their origin in the consciousness of John Donne, but who is certainly not identical with that poet. (The “speaker” or “persona” is as “present” as he ever was; Donne is long since dead.) Second, when Brooks says, “The poem itself is the well wrought urn,” this is a statement of a different order than, say, “The poem comprises forty-five lines.” Brooks uses “well wrought urn” metaphorically, much as Donne does; and so the urn was “something other than an urn” long before Culler noticed. He might as well require Brooks to produce an enameled clay vessel decorated with “Countries, Townes, Courts”; or Keats to account for the deserted village on his “Grecian Urn.” The deconstructionists are quite the cleverest people around the English department these days, but occasionally they resemble the dullest undergraduates in their inability to distinguish between figurative and literal language—or between poetry and pottery.

To be sure, a major goal of the deconstructive project is to put in question such binary oppositions as literal/figurative and literary/scientific; but as the example of Jonathan Culler suggests, we usually get question-begging rather than argument. His deconstruction of Brooks’ reading of “The Canonization” begins by assuming that the notion of self-referentiality applies to a poem in the same fashion as it applies to, say, a legal document that defines itself. Likewise, he assumes that the nature of signification renders nugatory any real distinction between fact and fiction, between literal statement and metaphor. Of course these are the very points that the deconstructionist is supposed to prove. But in fact deconstruction can, finally, prove nothing, for by denying the efficacy of discourse it undermines the significance of proof. Deconstruction is typical of contemporary literary theory in hating the word as an embodiment or manifestation of truth. Hence it attacks the integrity of the fictive world of imaginative literature precisely because literature defines itself in terms of the truth which it is not, but which it represents.

A poem cannot exhaust reality, but it can arrest it: by manifesting a vision of experience available in no other way. This is only possible because, like a physical urn, it is a distinct substantial object: Only by its difference from human experience can a poem represent that experience, even as the urn can be a metaphor for a poem only if it is not itself a poem. The alternative to “crystalline closure” is not, then, an endless and chaotic “repetition and proliferation,” but a structured relationship of significance.

Literature helps us to know life precisely in the way that the postmodernists deny: Literature dramatizes experience by establishing a vantage point outside it. It is just because “The Canonization” occupies a different existential space from John Donne, Cleanth Brooks, and flesh-and-blood love affairs that we are able to learn so much from it about Donne, Brooks, and love—and ourselves.

R. V. Young is Professor of English at North Carolina State University and coeditor of the John Donne Journal.