Reading Keats Together: Cleanth Brooks and the Collegiate Public
A thing of beauty is a joy forever. But it is not improved because the student has had to tie his tongue before it.
—John Crowe Ransom ( “Criticism, Inc.” 99)
I. Overwrought Maidens and Well-wrought Urns
It’s not uncommon for readers to cite John Keats’s Grecian urn as if it were the main piece in one of modern criticism’s most consequential titles, Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn.
The confusion between Keats’s “bride of quietness” and the “well-wrought urn” of John Donne’s “The Canonization” can be chalked up to the prevalence of the conceit: urn as self-contained text-object. Brooks himself encouraged the misidentification by making “Ode on a Grecian Urn” his book’s central case study, and his self-declared goal, “to bridge the gap between metaphysical poetry and other poetries” (Postscript 698), is in keeping with just such a mix-up. Keats’s poem abets in its own way, embedding the key adjective (“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought…”) and thus suggesting Brooks’s title as an allusion to the poetic differential in which he was so heavily invested, between content (overwrought expression) and structure (well-wrought achievement), between the depiction of emotion (pictures on the side of an urn) and the complex aesthetic form that contains such depiction (the urn itself).
That Keats’s urn has become so readily identifiable with a touchstone of twentieth-century formalist criticism speaks to his exceptional status among American New Critics, who were famously—if somewhat disingenuously—dismissive of the romantics. As Frank Jordan explains in his overview of modern romantic criticism, the New Critics’ “sharpshooting was chiefly aimed at Shelley (a poet of adolescent ideas for readers of adolescent enthusiasms) and Wordsworth… Only Keats escaped their fire virtually unharmed” (62). Ernest Bernbaum’s tabular accounting of romantic scholarship in the 1940s shows that Keats was the most written-about of the romantics in that decade (73), and in 1948 J. R. MacGillivray remarks on the “almost unqualified praise” of Keats by “the ‘New Criticism’ of the thirties and forties” (still “new” enough to need quotation marks; lxxxi). Frederick Pottle, colleague and sparring-partner of Brooks at Yale, introduced his classes on Keats in the 40s and 50s by summarizing the poet’s relatively high standing among contemporary critics: ‘Probably now at the highest point of critical acclaim. Some attempt to make him out the greatest of the Romantics. Essays on positive values by Leavis, Brooks, Tate, Burke…. Basic reason for their approval: however far Keats may be from the tradition of wit or the kind of imagery exemplified by the metaphysicals and the moderns, he invariably shows a firm grasp of objective reality in the mode of common concrete dense perception. Disciplines and impersonalizes his personal emotions by developing them out of real objects. ‘Sensuous’—cf. what the Victorian critics thought ‘Adolescence.’ More dramatic than Shelley. Less direct statement than W.W. Humor. Awareness of complexity. Skepticism. Doesn’t run to easy solutions. ( “Current Developments” )’ Realistic, concrete, disciplined, impersonal, dramatic, undogmatic, ironic, skeptical, and above all—as the sum of these qualities—mature: “John Keats is not one of the villains of modern criticism,” Brooks declared in 1957, indeed he “may well prove to be one of [its] heroes” ( “Artistry” 246).
Though he came to believe that he would “be among the English poets” after his death, Keats could hardly have foreseen being a hero of academic critics. The gap between popular appeal and critical respect was an ongoing source of ambivalence for him, as his need to make money from poetry proved bewilderingly hard to separate from his grander sense of vocation. “I equally dislike the favor of the public with the love of a woman—they are both a cloying treacle to the wings of independence,” he wrote his publisher John Taylor (Letters II: 144), aligning the allure of popular approval (and the money that came with it) with the allure of beauty for the errant knight in “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (or more personally, the allure of Fanny Brawne for a young poet in need of funds to marry her while he still could). Keats played out his resistance to that allure in romances like “Isabella,” whose gross and “wormy circumstance” mocked the standard romance-reader, and “The Eve of St. Agnes,” where a sexually explicit depiction of Porphyro’s encounter with “hoodwinked” Madeline was deemed “unfit for ladies” by his friend Richard Woodhouse and frustrated Taylor by tacitly refusing a wider readership (Letters II: 163). “I feel it in my power to become a popular writer—I feel it in my strength to refuse the poisonous suffrage of a public” (Letters II: 146): Keats distinguished his ability to produce sensational, “overwrought” content from the “strength” required to assimilate that content to a rigorously wrought form. That capacity to aesthetically process and transform sensuous and complex experience would come to be seen as the hallmark of Keatsian maturity—as in his acclaimed ode, which distills the romances’ “unfit” sexual scenarios into an aesthetic encounter fit for a museum, with a male viewer who “haunts about th[e] shape” of an ancient artifact figured as an inaccessible “bride,” and a “leaf-fring’d legend” whose images of “violent love-making” (as Brooks describes) merge with the total form of a Greek vase ( “History Without Footnotes” 93).
Keats’s ambivalence about “the poisonous suffrage of the public,” which in the Keatsian narrative connotes his “maturity” as well, offers an alternative way of understanding his exceptional appeal to New Critics, who evince a similar jumble of popularizing and gatekeeping impulses. The rise of close reading in the mid-twentieth-century classroom, in Doug Mao’s words, “seemed happily timed to address the newly broad composition of collegiate student bodies, and in this sense to participate in a further democratization of American society” (246). But Mao’s judicious phrasing reflects some of the contentious assertions about readers made by the New Criticism’s leading figures—John Crowe Ransom railing against what he called the “low grade” taste of “the participating millions” (World’s Body 280); Allen Tate condemning “egalitarian superstition” (Essays 527); Brooks pitting the mature reader of poetry against the “desperately bad” taste of a “young lady … in raptures over her confessions magazine” (Well Wrought Urn 233). In Cultural Capital, John Guillory gives such assertions an institutional context, by presenting the New Criticism as an attempt to re-order the field of literary studies and, with it, American culture as a whole. “The retreat of literary culture into the university can be understood as a kind of transcendence of the cultural conditions of modernity” (165), writes Guillory: “In discovering that literature was intrinsically difficult, students also discovered at the same moment why it needed to be studied in the university” (173). Approaching the formalist turn as a disciplinary response to a looming sense of cultural disorder, Guillory argues that the withdrawal of poetry into the seminar-room made literature “more difficult to consume outside the school” (174). The blossoming of close reading as the central activity of literary studies, in this thesis, corresponds with poetry’s retreat from public culture into a mature and masculine exclusivity, with “the urn as a figure for the enclosure of literary culture in the academy” (166).
Brooks’s writing, which frequently turns polemical, gives the critic of elitism plenty to work with. Even when displaying his belief in what could make poetry genuinely popular, he laments those forms of popular culture that serve as distracting alternatives. “Even people who think that they care nothing for poetry have interests which are the same as those satisfied by poetry,” he tells us; “they listen to speeches, go to church, view television programs, read magazine stories or the gossip columns of newspapers” (Brooks and Warren, Understanding Poetry 21). These distractions are associated with an urgent crisis of language and imagination: “Never has language taken such a pounding perhaps in our history,” Brooks says, citing “what happens to [it] as it is used day in and day out by the journalist, the advertising man, the Tin Pan Alley lyricist, the class B movie script writer, the politician, and the bureaucrat” ( “Literature as Paideia” ). In The Hidden God (1963), he cites “the pressure of the popular arts” as particularly damaging, noting that if Wordsworth “claimed that the imagination was being strangled by the more sensational popular arts,” then “cheap fiction, Tin Pan Alley, the movies, the radio, and now television makes what Wordsworth faced in 1800 seem very mild indeed” (3). Brooks was every bit at ease in dismissing popular culture as he was in citing Cole Porter or Alley-Oop to do so, and this rhetorical flair is part of his power as a prose stylist.
Approaching the question of access to literary culture in terms of Brooks’s cultural polemics, however, keeps us from seeing the more paradoxical aspects of a close-reading practice that would come to be widely understood as a catalyst for inclusivity.
We do better by attending to the exacting labor that most preoccupied Brooks and his colleagues: close reading itself. In this essay I turn to his central methodological demonstration, “Keats’ Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes.” Despite its starring role in The Well Wrought Urn, this study of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is known more for its broadest strokes than for its finer brushwork. But it rewards careful scrutiny. The essay shows Brooks dramatizing close reading as a collective practice that hedges against the alienation of modern life by nourishing an intimate community whose members attend, all at once, to the same thing. Indeed, in the idealized new-critical seminar, poetry becomes genuinely popular again: the modern reading public may be defined by the fact that authors no longer know the people for whom they write, but Brooksian reading turns back the clock, not only by drawing a poem near to its reader, but by drawing readers near to one another. More restrained than, say, the radical formalism of Theodor Adorno, which allowed art to float free of social instrumentality as part of a broader revolutionary program, the reading-practice Brooks articulates in his study of Keats respects the autonomy of art but is itself infused with social and moral purpose. The scene of close reading brings into being a communal formation, call it “the classroom public,” which is not easily pinned down, politically speaking, and which idealistically figures present as well as future scenes of reading as sites of social inclusion, even as it nostalgically summons some of Agrarianism’s more conservative historical fantasies.
II. ‘On a level’: Close Readers in the Ivory Tower
The idea that close reading enabled “a counter-hierarchical pedagogy” has been part of the discipline’s self-narration dating back almost to the new-critical era itself. Addressing Yale’s incoming graduate cohort in 1966, Pottle, who was then the English department’s DGS, described the vivifying effect of new-critical pedagogy. An eminent historicist and one of Brooks’s most formidable antagonists in the 1940s and 1950s, Pottle told the new arrivals that the entrenched practice of close reading had effectively lightened the weight of canonical authority. Graduate students were no longer “over-awed by previous judgments,” he said; “No doubt this has made the study of literature more exciting.” And as with canonical authority, so too with professorial authority: the student now is “on a level with the instructor, or even above him. Nobody has to be a specialist or even learned.” The result was “a sense of wide horizons, room for discovery, [and] encouragement of the combative sense” ( “Current Developments” )—this latter encouragement hinting that students were freshly empowered to wage intellectual battle with their professors.
To an extent, we discern in these words a kindly welcome meant to put an anxious clatch of doctoral candidates at ease. Don’t be nervous about your seminar with Misters Brooks, Wimsatt, or even Bloom, Pottle implies; nowadays the student is on a level with the instructor, or even above him. Pottle also reproduces a familiar image of the New Critic as pedagogue, one that was born with the 1938 publication of the teaching anthology Understanding Poetry and flourished with the democratization of higher education: Nobody has to be a specialist or even learned. But while the New Critics’ close reading techniques facilitated participation among students of varying educational backgrounds, a new academic egalitarianism was not in their purview. The odd mixture of anti-industrialist populism and aristocratic sensibility that defines the original Agrarian position in part helps to explain this split-seam within new-critical thought. At issue here are two competing notions of humanities education prominent in the emerging modern university of the 1930s and 1940s: the liberal-free and the oratorical. The liberal-free ideal, grounded in the Enlightenment, is critical in orientation, devoted to open-ended inquiry and to the production and accumulation of knowledge, as opposed to the dissemination of information (Harpham 11–13). Its concern is for students’ growth; in the liberal-free university, “maturity” is about learning how to think and is achieved through “an emphasis on freedom, especially freedom from tradition and a priori strictures and standards” (Kimball 119). Conversely, in the oratorical tradition, “maturity” is about learning what to think. Grounded in Plato and fortified by thinkers like Arnold and Newman, the oratorical approach is cultural in orientation, devoted to the passing-down of specific knowledge, “the tradition of great texts” (Kimball 238), moral values, and the preservation of an existing idea of culture (Harpham 12–13). The mainstream of new-critical practice effectively straddled these two approaches to education. It combined a potentially disruptive emphasis on criticism (versus philology, historicism, ethics) with a countervailing dedication to high culture. In this doubled thinking, the New Criticism practically wrote its own contradictory legacy as a movement that is as much praised for its progressive and egalitarian tendencies as disparaged for its consolidation of a restrictive view of the literary.
On the one hand, then, the new-critical emphasis on understanding poetry suited a disciplinary ideal of literature as a subject distinct from the sciences, a subject in which knowledge was a process rather than an outcome. It could not be properly understood through the dissemination of facts, or through the paraphrasing of its content, or through the appreciation of its aesthetic pleasures; it was instead a provocation, a focus for hard thinking, a basis for maturation. By engaging meaningfully with literature, adolescents learning to navigate the modern world learned how to think and act like adults. As they learned to take responsibility for their independent taste-judgments, though, they did so under the tutelage of professors who espoused and maintained a definite taste-hierarchy, in which the most difficult of literary works, which challenged readers with their ambiguities, tensions, and paradoxes, were explicitly set above the modern forms of cultural production that were so alluring to young people—radio, films, magazines, as well as the supposedly “immature” and “sentimental” poetry by writers like Shelley or Joyce Kilmer. A mature literature was touted as a difficult literature, and by providing students the tools to decipher its meanings, the New Criticism could be seen as providing access to the cultural capital that it historically represented, while securing the legitimacy of humanities study more generally.
The collegiate public was beginning to look different in the 1940s: if the public for classic poetry in America was coming to be centered in the universities, those universities were themselves becoming more representative of a wider public. Enrollments soared through the decade, as media coverage popularized the idea of common Americans “storming the ivory tower” (Clark 174). Although this expansion of opportunity did not yet extend to American minorities, who remained subject to both explicit and de facto forms of segregation, nonetheless “the college degree itself was transformed in the 1940s from a document earned primarily by members of the American upper class” (Ciabattari xix). The reading community taking shape in the American classroom during and after the second World War, drawn from a range of educational backgrounds, was thus a “fit audience though few” in the most perverse of ways, for it was precisely its uneven fitness that conditioned its receptivity to the poetry that New Critics wanted to teach.
Not all professors of poetry were at ease with this shift toward a restricted collegiate sphere. The poet Karl Shapiro, holding onto a romantic notion of the individual genius, criticized the move of creative production into institutional settings, writing that “Writers and artists have become professors, and young people of talent meet with the creative spirit in an academic world” (208). For Shapiro, the influence of Brooks and Warren, and the fact that Understanding Poetry represented “one of the most important works of the twentieth century,” was the sign of a bigger problem: ‘It is the book that took poetry off the street and put it in the laboratory. It has not only revolutionized the teaching of literature; it has practically put a stop to genius. Every composition test and anthology shows its influence; the brainless and beautiful poetry of our leading verse magazines derives from Understanding Poetry. The objectivity of such teaching tools prevents the young writer from creating standards of his own. (208)’ Shapiro’s perception of student passivity (he calls this “the Brain-Washed Generation”) is echoed by Joseph E. Baker, professor at Iowa, who grouses about the effect of close reading on “young intellectuals” who “find no message in literature and therefore as a literary generation have no message at all to give to the public.” Baker blames “a demolition squad of English professors, a small but aggressive minority within their own departments, hard at work with the efficiency of doctrinaires,” for training students to “handle a poem like a cross-word puzzle” (2). The new-critical assumption, according to Baker, was that the “general public” for poetry was “in the classroom”—“that literature is mainly to be written, and even read, in ivory towers”—but that the classroom did not allow for conversation “about human problems, about life, about ideals and eternal verities (3).
Brooks’s assumptions about the so-called Ivory Tower, though, were different; he sought to transform the concept. In a kind of urn-like chiasmus, he saw the popular as literary, and the literary as popular: “it is possible to prove that certain … poets inhabit the Ivory Tower by measuring the size of the reading public which appreciates them,” he argued, “but it would be better to say that the public is in the Ivory Tower” because of the “greater scope and breadth which the poetry of the obscure poets assimilates” (Modern Poetry 67–68). In Brooks’s view, a public composed of student-readers would encounter through poetry a totality of experience that belies the very concept of the Ivory Tower. This was in keeping with the contemporary push to view College English as a curricular space dedicated, in the words of Esther Raushenbush (who taught at Sarah Lawrence and later became its president), to “helping [students] grow out of their adolescence and become mature human beings” (v). The seminar promised a sort of coming-of-age, in which students would learn to subordinate their personal interests to a supposedly more mature and objective criticism. It also promised opportunities for moral edification—a humanist aim that formalist readers were only too happy to claim for their own approach, by suggesting the spiritual benefit that would come with practicing critical rigor.
The transformation of the collegiate public intensified after the war, when government investment contributed to a near-total makeover of the nation’s classrooms. Under the $5.5 billion GI Bill, war veterans became a prominent presence on campus, by dint of sheer numbers and by their visible maturity and academic success. Keith Olson, the leading historian of the GI Bill, reports that more than two million veterans attended university in the half-decade following the war, one million in 1947–48 alone (596, 602). Seventy percent of the class of 1949 were veterans (596). College attendance was no longer the exclusive preserve of wealthy young elites, which it had been even as late as the 1930s; it was “established as a social norm” (McGurl 66), more diverse in terms of class, ethnicity, and religion, and with so many ex-servicemen, there were even students of various age- and maturity-levels.
Marriage had been grounds for dismissal before the war (Olson 606), but one of every five veterans arrived on campus with a spouse, and many of them had babies (Frydl 314), meaning that for the first time there were students on campus who, instead of being children, were themselves parents. In this way more than others, perhaps, the GI Bill helped to unsettle the seemingly natural equivalence between college and a specific period of life, “the adolescent years.” College came into its modern identity as a mechanism or social instrument potentially applicable to all age-groups—“the essential technology,” as Mark McGurl says, “for producing American egalitarianism through meritocratic class mobility” (61).
With enrollments nearly eighty percent higher than at the start of the decade, there developed an “uncritical acceptance of largeness” (Olson 607) as a governing reality of higher education: overcrowded sections, longer teaching hours, expanded course offerings, towering dorms, and so forth (Frydl 316–18). The New Critics were alert to this aspect of modern mass education, and in their pedagogy they sought ways of containing or re-unifying its potentially disparate energies. In his 1938 essay “The Teaching of Poetry,” Ransom had predicted that the radically non-historical approach of Understanding Poetry would make the classroom a space for active critical assessment rather than for the passive reception of information—liberal-free rather than oratorical—changing the very nature of English instruction while bringing new texts into discussions long-dominated by classic ones (82–3). Ransom and his fellow Agrarians viewed lecture-style teaching as “a technique of mass-production” (Davidson 34), whereas criticism, instead, was conceived as the basis for active and inclusive “public discussion”: ‘The official Chaucer course is probably over ninety-five percent historical and linguistic, and less than five percent aesthetic or critical. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. But it is not improved because the student has had to tie his tongue before it. It is an artistic object, with a heroic human labor behind it, and on these terms it calls for public discussion. The dialectical possibilities are limitless, and when we begin to realize them we are engaged in criticism. ( “Criticism, Inc.” 102–3)’ The prevailing classroom approach, Ransom implies, was coercive. The student must “tie his tongue” in a system of instruction based on the entrenched authority of “dryasdust philology” (McGann 49) or professorial whimsy. Oratorical teaching was a form of discipline, performed by “men who do little more than read well aloud, enforcing a private act of appreciation upon the students” (99). Ransom’s antipathy to the existing curricular order is crystalized by his comparison of the literature curriculum to a previous generation’s idea of the art museum. “The professors so engaged”—that is, the professors seeking to cultivate among students an unthinking reverence for the status quo—“are properly curators,” he provocatively argues, “and the museum of which they have the care is furnished with the cherished literary masterpieces, just as another museum might be filled with paintings” (100).
Yet his idealization of the seminar’s “public discussion” nonetheless drew on other forms of scholarly authority. As Bonnie Smith has shown in The Gender of History, when the nineteenth-century concept and practice of the History Seminar traveled from Europe to the United States, it conferred scientific legitimacy on historical study (105–116; see also Mommsen 81–99 and Turner 299–310). The Johns Hopkins professor Herbert Baxter Adams said that seminars were like “laboratories where books are treated like mineralogical specimens, passed about from hand to hand examined, and tested”; at Harvard, Ephraim Everton claimed that the “scientific method” embedded in the seminary structure “would transform knowledge” (qtd. in Smith 105, 106). The seminar was egalitarian in concept, a “Gesellschaft, a society, a club,” as Everton put it, “presided over by a professor, but composed, not of subject students, but of members” (qtd. in Smith 107). It was also a specifically masculine space, as Smith argues: “From the beginning, the seminar member was considered a kind of participatory, universal citizen who was implicitly gendered male and whose autonomy was shored up by the excluded and dependent status of women” (113). Ransom’s liberal-free ideal of the new-critical seminar was a similarly legitimizing concept, which coopted the prestige and the manliness of historiography, as it merged (through the close reading of individual poems) professional training and evidentiary pursuit.
This ideal of the seminar as an egalitarian space, dedicated to “public discussion” among mature participants, is one of the enduring legacies of the American New Criticism. But this even plane was hard to actualize, particularly given the knowledge hierarchy endemic to the academy. At LSU in the 1930s, Brooks tried to foster discussion by freely incorporating popular culture in his teaching, both to help him connect with students and to help students connect with the world of poetry. Teaching metaphor, for instance, he used cigarette ads to show how the girl in an advertisement bears a merely metaphorical relationship to the taste of the cigarette, a strategy designed (as he recalls) “to pry off the museum glass” from poems. Making poems more accessible, though, hardly erased his evident authority—if anything, it enhanced it. In the 1960s, under pressure to get more popular culture into later editions of Understanding Poetry, in order to appeal more directly to the student market, Brooks and (Robert Penn) Warren set Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” alongside Cleopatra’s lament for Mark Antony. “Cole Porter is no Shakespeare,” Brooks clarified in his “Instructor’s Manual” —addressed to teachers, not students—but the comparison between Tin Pan Alley lyricist and Renaissance poet would nonetheless helpfully “remind the student that interesting metaphor can be found outside the collected poems of a renowned author.”
It was a delicate balance to strike, between appealing to students’ sensibilities and preserving the centrality of the literary work. The seminary imperative required a certain give-and-take on the part of professors, a softening of some distinctions and a reinforcement of others, and this was an even more delicate matter when it came to the choreography of the discussion. The Keats scholar Jack Stillinger describes the challenges of his own early pedagogy. Stillinger, who entered college in the late 1940s and started teaching in the mid 1950s, recalls “posing Brooks-and-Warren-like questions” to his classes but finding dialogue almost impossible to sustain: “class ‘discussion’ inevitably turned into lecture,” he writes, and “the students didn’t seem to mind”: “when it came to class discussion—Ph.D. professor in the front of the room, face to face with freshman and sophomores who had hardly any experience of life or literature or even much knowledge of the English language—some individual readers were thought to be superior to some others” (Stillinger). Anyone who has facilitated a close reading among a group of students can probably identify with Stillinger’s struggle, and it could only have been harder at mid-century, when it was so novel a classroom approach that students were unprepared to play along. When Ransom joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1914, the curriculum was organized entirely along historical lines: students were expected to remember “the names, titles, and facts of English literature” and “to memorize the five thousand or so lines that in the opinion of their instructor were most representative of their literary heritage.” Yet Ransom “almost immediately” began teaching in the mode that Brooks and Warren would later codify in Understanding Poetry, and a Kenyon undergraduate in the 1950s recalled Ransom as “very nearly incapable of giving a formal lecture”: “The effect was one of complete formlessness, but, in retrospect, it all seems to have been done with a great deal of precision” (qtd. in Young 417).
The ability to straddle the line separating “formlessness” and “precision” was essential for teachers who brought collective close reading to the center of their classroom practice. Not everyone succeeded. Despite the mythology, New Critics were sometimes thought of as bad teachers: “the ‘new critics’ often talk over their students’ heads,” Robert Withington, a professor at Smith College, wrote in College English in 1950; “The critic is, too often, not a teacher” (282). This was rivalry, in part—the pushback of the historicist lecturer for whom facilitating critical discussion did not count as “teaching”—but the praise lavished on certain New Critics nonetheless indicates that great teaching was neither easy to come by nor often found.
One iconic new-critical pedagogue, Austin Warren, excelled by negotiating so adeptly the conflicting demands of class discussion. Though he is best known for co-authoring Theory of Literature with his Iowa colleague Renê Wellek, Warren took special pride (and found his deepest sustenance) in teaching. His new-critical style is Keatsian, predicated on empathy and an almost novelistic ability to inhabit other voices: reluctant “to argue for a position put forward as my own,” he sought instead “to exposit sympathetically the view of the author whose text was before us, or to articulate for an inarticulate student what I divined his own views to be” ( “In Search” 25). Myron Simon, a longtime UC Irvine professor who took Warren’s undergraduate American literature survey at Michigan in 1948, recalled how the teacher “promptly disturbed the mild air of the lecture room” with his care for “rebel voices” (118), seeking “to build a community in the classroom by making the relation between teacher and student a reciprocal one” (125–26). Yet Warren’s explicit deferral of authority was shadowed by an awareness of his power. He reflected that, in ceding authority to students by placing their arguments at the center of discussion, he still could call on “the seductive powers of a teacher’s personality and voice” ( “In Search” 25). In a short tract on teaching which he contributed to PMLA in 1955 (which he believed to be the very first pedagogical piece ever to appear in that journal), he wrote that “intellectual honesty” demanded “that the teacher shall not limit himself to asking the students: ‘what do you think?’,” adding: “Empathy is next to essential, but it is dangerous also.”
Brooks’s own, famously agile teaching was distinguished by the ability to manage these contradictions of the new-critical style. His reputation as an exemplary choreographer of discussion preceded him when he moved from LSU to Yale in the late 1940s. A comic poem published in The Yale Record, “Mistah Brooks – he here,” commemorated his arrival in New Haven by detailing how “carefully, intimately” he performed his role as a close reader at the head of the classroom:
The Yalemen come, the English majors, the hangers-on, the dreamy architects,Come to know the modernists, come to listen and to gaze with doubtful,
Open mouth, like old men before a bawling campaign speaker,But he does not bawl.
He suggests to them5Carefully, intimately.
And they listenCarefully, intimately.
And they understand.
What stands out here is the way the student-writer portrays Brooks’s careful calibration of professorial authority. As a teacher he meticulously stages a nearly invisible authority, the appearance of reciprocity masking the fact that authority moves in one direction only: “He suggests”; “And they listen”; “And they understand.” Whereas Stillinger in the 1950s—and many of us still today—struggled with the contradictory demands of the student-oriented classroom, Brooks displays an agility that would be unique in any case, but which is especially striking for the 1940s, when “straightaway lecturing” was the norm (Stewart 107).
Brooks no doubt would have felt the difference between teaching at a large land-grant institution and at an elite private university, no matter how much the GI Bill unsettled the cozy homogeneity of the seminar room after the war. His students in Louisiana would mostly have arrived at college with the expectation of learning a trade; the older pedagogical model in which pedantic professors dispensed facts about literature would not have roiled their expectations in the least. At Yale, though, students mostly hailed from New England boarding schools, and Brooks would have met there with a confident and cliquish sense of privilege that made student participation both easier to come by and more crucial to keep in check. While the diminished stress on learnedness contributed to leveling the relations between professor and student, we should not overstate the degree to which close reading superseded context in Brooks’s classes. Brooks took a pragmatically eclectic approach to teaching. Former students have remarked on his inclusive, outside-in classroom approach, by which he framed the work of close reading by always beginning with historical and biographical details external to the text. Susan Wolfson writes, citing the Shakespearean Lawrence Danson (a former student of Brooks), that in graduate seminars “the first half of the term was spent reading historical background, biography, and literary history, the second half reading the poetry. While the curriculum was not dialectical, it was also not exclusionary.”
This feature of Brooks’s teaching method is confirmed by the many typed-out lectures preserved among his papers, which regularly intersperse historical and biographical information with occasional close readings. In guiding students through poems, as Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan have recently shown, he “works to make his classroom as self-contained as good poems should be and guards against a referentiality that would connect his classroom to the world in nonfigural ways.” But he also freely brings biographical and cultural contexts to bear when they can be of assistance, and rather than belabor the “unity” of individual poems, he more often attends to the images, metaphors, and diction of individual passages read in isolation, often in an appreciative mode.
Still, if Brooks was more permissive of historical study in his teaching than he lets on in his criticism, among undergraduates—who could compare his approach with traditional, historical professors—he seemed downright revolutionary. In the Yale Course Critique of 1963 a student publication, a review of his course on “Contemporary Poetic Theory and Practice” praised his “informal approach” in the classroom as a consequence of his formal approach to poems: ‘Few students take notes. Aesthetic analysis in the manner of the New Critics is stressed while the historical, sociological, and psychological aspects are necessarily de-emphasized. A great deal of personal interest and initiative are necessary for the student to gain from the informal approach since Mr. Brooks emphatically does not ‘spoon-feed’ his students with factual information about the modern poets. ( “English 71” 28)’ Transcripts of this same class, preserved in Yale’s Beinecke Library, confirm this informality. At one point, when one of the students is trying to describe his boredom at Archibald Macleish’s insistence on illustrating every one of his poetic statements, the transcriber inserts a stage-direction: “as opens eye with a thumb.” This moment (the student gesturally describing his boredom) shows how easy Brooks’s students felt in class; they did not always passively follow him and apparently felt comfortable engaging with him in spite of his professorial mastery. Brooks, for his part, handles the moment with characteristic complaisance: “Quite right. I don’t think we have any basic disagreement here.” Students continue to break in on the lecture with questions and comments, and he seamlessly merges each of their points into his flow. Analogous to his work with poems, Brooks’s unifying impulse transforms haphazard classroom repartee into the coherent discussion of a community bonded by his almost imperceptible guidance.
III. ‘The poem is to be read’: The Critic’s Role
“Brooks the critic emerged from Brooks the pedagogue,” Jewel Spears Brooker appreciatively wrote in a 1995 review of his final, posthumous essays (131). But it works the other way around, for Brooks, as well. The critic is a pedagogue, whose prose models the work of teaching and thematizes the teacher’s orchestration of a reading undertaken by many people at once.
The gently wielded authority of the pedagogue and expert close reader features in Brooks’s essay on Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a landmark in the history of romantic criticism and his signature study “in the structure of poetry.” First published in the 1944 Sewanee Review as “History without Footnotes: An Account of Keats’s Ode,” the piece reappeared as chapter 7 of The Well Wrought Urn, title slightly modified: “Keats’ Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes.” (In both titles, Brooks playfully linked the essay’s lone footnote to that word.) In it, Brooks answers the criticisms of T. S. Eliot, John Middleton Murry, and H. W. Garrod, by accounting for the speech of the urn at the poem’s conclusion, what Eliot had called “a serious blemish on a beautiful poem.” Brooks observes that “some critics have felt that the unravished bride protests too much,” and he catalogs the complaints, noting that the lines have been cast as “an intrusion on the poem,” as a descent into messaging that “injures the poem” because it “does not grow out of it” organically (89–90).
This language of violation and injury was part of the new-critical playbook. Allen Tate called the last stanza “an illicit commentary” and a “radical violation” ( “Reading” 195–6), and Earl Wasserman later observed that New Critics tended to figure the crossing from one disciplinary mode or discourse into another as a sexual “transgression,” with the act of “reaching outside the text for information” akin to straying beyond the marital bond between text and reader. “Most explicators are sensible men,” Wasserman writes, who “wish the work of art were so self-sufficient it could not tempt them to sin” (3).
This question of formal “violation” is precisely what Brooks claims as his special interest in the ode. It is “as neat an instance as one could wish” (92) of “the problem of belief” (90), as I. A. Richards termed the relation between a poem’s aesthetic quality and the verity of its assertions. Exploring this instance, Brooks recasts the urn’s speech as a problem not of content (the closing statement’s “truth or falsity”) but of context (whether the statement “was properly prepared for”). “The very ambiguity of the statement, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ ought to warn us against insisting very much on the statement in isolation,” he argues, “and to drive us back to a consideration of the context in which the statement is set” (90). The poem’s most celebrated lines, in other words, should matter less than the structure in which they appear. Brooks thus pursues his account of Keats’s ode as what he calls a “test”—an endeavor to see whether those lines are indeed a “blemish,” or whether they are “dramatically appropriate” (91).
Brooks begins his essay by casting aside extra-poetic materials (“Keats’ reading, his conversation, his letters”), leaving a reader face-to-face with the poem itself (91). The effect is both personalizing and de-personalizing. On the one hand, the reader is enfranchised to make judgments; on the other hand, those judgments are to be based on an empirical procedure. Accordingly, Brooks relinquishes his own speaking “I,” writing in the passive voice: “The poem is to be read in order to see whether the last lines of the poem are not, after all, dramatically prepared for” (92). What Brooks calls “the paradox of the speaking urn” (100)—the notion, quoting Archibald Macleish, that “poems should not mean / But be” (89)—morphs into a matching paradox, that of the speaking critic. Just as poems should avoid making direct statements, so critics should demonstrate like scientists. The poem is to be read.
This distancing of the reader, however, is followed by a minor crisis in the identity of that reader, who Brooks exhorts: ‘Yet there are some claims to be made upon the reader too, claims which he, for his part, will have to be prepared to honor. He must not be allowed to dismiss the early characterizations of the urn as merely so much vaguely beautiful description. He must not be too much surprised if ‘mere decoration’ turns out to be meaningful symbolism—or if ironies develop where he has been taught to expect only sensuous pictures. Most of all, if the teasing riddle spoken finally by the urn is not to strike him as bewildering break in tone, he must not be too much disturbed to have the element of paradox latent in the poem emphasized, even in those parts of the poem which have none of the energetic crackle of wit with which he usually associates paradox. This is surely not too much to ask of the reader—namely to assume that Keats meant what he said and that he chose his words with care. (92) ’ While there’s some risk in over-reading Brooks’s characteristically qualified idiom, it is not at all clear just who this “reader” is—whether Brooks is describing, in the third-person, his own task in the essay, or whether he is simply dramatizing a reading-practice that he expects his readers to imitate. Helen Vendler writes that “lyric is a role offered to a reader” (181); for Brooks, criticism is a role offered to a reader, with detailed stage directions. The refrain “He must not be,” repeated three times, catalogs the trained responses to Keats’s ode that readers should resist. With the flatly ironic “This is surely not too much to ask,” Brooks admits that to pay strict attention to the words on the page is, in fact, a lot to ask for readers accustomed to seeking out messages or history. Even beyond these echoing musts, a subtle air of coercion haunts the essay’s vocabulary—readers are “forced to conclude” (90), or “forced to accept” (94)—suggesting that good close reading means repeatedly resisting one’s scholarly conditioning. This recurrent idiom of force suggests that it’s not the artwork that awaits ravishment by a reader, but readers who are always potentially ravished by conventional disciplinary practices.
Within “Keats’ Sylvan Historian,” Brooks reveals his own coercive streak as an integral part of the drama of reading. For all his probity and care to anchor statements in the evidence supplied by the poem, he also has a penchant for drawing attention to those moments when probity fails him. A seemingly minor instance occurs early in the essay, when he somewhat misleadingly quotes from stanza five: “…the urn, like the ‘leaf-fring’d legend’ which it tells, is covered with emblems of the fields and forests: ‘Overwrought / With forest branches and the trodden weed’” (92). Is it the urn that is overwrought with natural emblems, as Brooks here suggests, or the maidens pictured on its side who are overwrought with emotion? We can read it either way; the ambiguity lies in the enjambment. This movement of poetry in time, the way its meanings shift with the turn of the line, is an important feature of a poem that in Brooks’s own account pits the nominal against the participial and verbal—“frozen, fixed, arrested” figures against “flesh-and-blood men and women,” a world “beyond time” against “our time-ridden minds” (99). But Brooks does not acknowledge this other way of reading “overwrought”; indeed by capitalizing the word he actively dismisses any other reading, giving the impression that the reference moves only forward. Can he have missed the ambiguity? It’s not likely—and later in the essay he quotes the very same passage from the other side: “…the rich, almost breathing world which the poet has conjured up for us contracts and hardens into the decorated motifs on the urn itself: ‘with brede / Of marble men and maidens over-wrought’” (99). Here “over-wrought”—now hyphenated, but neither capitalized nor enjambed—is presented (again unambiguously) as a postpositive adjective. In pointing this out, I don’t mean to catch Brooks out in a bit of expository duplicity, or to suggest a lack of care for words that Keats “chose … with care,” but simply to show how peculiar, even playful, his reading practice can be. It is possible that he’s making, or more properly dramatizing, a point, namely that poetic evidence is never entirely stable. The figure of the “well wrought urn,” often misread as a figure for radically internalist understandings of the autonomous aesthetic object, allows room for deviance. The poet chooses his words with care—but so does the critic. The notion of an impartial reader who dutifully extricates and explicates the truth of the text itself is something of a fiction, and as much as we think of Brooks as a careful reader always faithful to the text itself, here is a counter-instance in which he proves liberal, careless, mischievous with the text (readers can decide which it is). And, for an even more striking example of this, I turn in closing to what I consider the essay’s strangest moment: when Brooks considers the “little town” and “green altar” of stanza four.
IV. ‘A poignance beyond anything else’: Brooks’s Stranger
William Empson complained of Brooks’s “anti-emotional bias” ( “Darling” 697), but there is none of that in Brooks’s admiring consideration of stanza four. Drawn to its “poignance beyond anything else in the poem” (97–98), Brooks is especially taken with the way that the fancied town in this stanza embodies his notion of rural “communal life” (96), its “strange emptiness” implying a vanishing world whose culture was rural and organic, rather than urban and commercial. Though Keats “goes out of his way to leave us the widest possible option in locating” the town—“It may be a mountain town, or a river town, or a tiny seaport”—its “essential character” is clear enough to him: ‘it is small, it is quiet, its people are knit together as an organic whole, and on a ‘pious morn’ such as this, its whole population has turned out to take part in the ritual…. [T]here is the suggestion that the little town is caught in a curve of the seashore, or nestled in a fold of the mountains—at any rate, is something secluded and something naturally related to its terrain. (97) ’ Brooks’s description of this notional town, whose “people are knit together as an organic whole,” brings to mind the fading agricultural communities of the deep South, which the Agrarian polemics of I’ll Take My Stand (1930) had idealized. He once argued that Light in August could not survive a transplant “to the east side of Manhattan Island” because “community, in Faulkner’s sense, does not exist” there ( “Southern” 250). But it exists here in stanza four.
Something quietly troubles Brooks about this stanza, though, and in an odd parenthesis, he admits to being puzzled by one of its lines, the line addressed to the abandoned town: “and not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can ere return.” He solves his confusion by devising an anonymous stranger, a future visitor who has stumbled into the abandoned town, to stand in as the object of the line’s address: “(I can see no other interpretation of the line, ‘and not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate can ere return’)” (98). William Empson would solve it differently, paraphrasing the line, instead, as addressed to the members of the procession: “none of them will ever go home again, so that their town will be mysteriously desolate” (Structure 369). Oddly, neither of these exemplary close readers, Brooks nor Empson, can abide an apostrophe to a merely hypothetical, empty locale; both are compelled to read the address as directed to somebody. But Brooks, unlike Empson, invents his human addressee, casually inserting the stray detail of this “stranger” into the poem: ‘The little town which has been merely implied by the procession portrayed on the urn is endowed with a poignance beyond anything else in the poem. Its streets will ‘for evermore be silent,’ its desolation forever shrouded in a mystery. No one in the figured procession will ever be able to go back to the town to break the silence there, not even one to tell the stranger there why the town remains desolate. (97–98; emphasis added)’ Who is “the stranger there,” and where did he come from? However one reads the ode, there is no stranger there. Practically winking at his reader, Brooks adds: “If one attends closely to what Keats is doing here, he may easily come to feel that the poet is indulging himself in an ingenious fancy” (98).
Of course it is the critic “indulging himself in an ingenious fancy,” inventing a human figure who mediates the affect, the “poignance,” of the town for the community of readers attending closely to Keats’s poem: ‘The poet, by pretending to take the town as real—so real that he can imagine the effect of its silent streets upon the stranger who chances to come into it—has suggested in the most powerful way that he can its essential reality for him—and for us. It is a case of the doctor’s taking his own medicine: the poet is prepared to stand by the illusion of his own making. (101; emphasis added)’ Analysis has brought Brooks so far into the poem’s world, has made him so alive to its conjurings, that he and his fellow readers (now generously included in the consensual “us”) encounter this enigmatic wanderer on the little town’s silent streets as a real being, and enter into a “mythic history” of this fictional town that he calls “richer and more interesting than the history of actual cities” (98). Why does Brooks insert this stranger, an “illusion of his own making” (101)? Why insist on a human recipient of the speaker’s address, a human witness to the town’s poignancy, a human wonderer at its incomprehensible emptiness? Might the stranger be a figure for Brooks himself—the professional critic gazing longingly upon the Agrarian origins that he has since abandoned on the procession toward the green institutional altars of academe?
Ruminating on this stranger’s presence can help us to understand why Keats’s Ode suits Brooks’s purpose in The Well Wrought Urn. The poem may represent a free-standing aesthetic artifact, but this is finally less significant than the fact that it represents a reader, interrogating the urn to make human sense of it (see Wolfson 301–5, 317–28). By inventing this stranger, Brooks effectively duplicates the dramatic tableau of the poem as a whole. The stranger in an abandoned town—like the questioner of the urn and like the reader of the poem—wonders at a past that he cannot begin to comprehend. Moreover, that act of reading calls into existence a small community of other readers, who attend all at once to the same thing—to the urn, the pictures on its surface, and the conjurings beyond it. By becoming one of those readers ourselves, reading Brooks reading, we join this quasi-organic community.
It is a dynamic that, for Brooks, bears a clear moral and social value. This is evident in his affection for the imaginary town as the lost site of a genuinely popular form of art. There are two ways of thinking about popular art: as an art of the people, which organically expresses the will of the community from which it emanates (this is the idealized sense of a socialist art that is so well-integrated into society that one ceases even to recognize it as art); and as an art that is artificially popularized by modern means (this is the vitiated sense of mainstream media and consumable mass entertainment). Brooks might accept that a genuinely and organically popular form of culture is no longer possible in a modern world, but he locates in close, collective reading an antidote to the enervating and commercial versions of popular culture. By turning Keats’s imaginary town into a version of the Southern agricultural idyll, he also reminds us of something that’s easy to forget in our disciplinary histories: that the Agrarian ethos that helped give rise to close reading lingers on in the nostalgic practices of modern literary studies, as a residual affect of that original ethos.
V. ‘Distrust is healthy’: A Community of Readers
In its idealized recuperation of this communal rapport, Brooks’s “agrarian anticapitalism”—Frederic Jameson’s phrase for “the early New Criticism” (374)—departs from the aestheticist anticapitalism of an avant-gardist like Adorno, for whom the purposelessness of the artwork is precisely its parody of means-end capitalism. As Adorno writes in his late fragmentary work, Aesthetic Theory, the displacement of the artwork from its native soil allows for a salutary destruction of its meaningfulness. It falls “helplessly mute before the question ‘What’s it for?’”; its significance is its insignificance (121). For Adorno, it is when art is most visibly estranged from the social, paradoxically, that society most powerfully exerts itself. Brooks, on the other hand, evinces discomfort with “the strange emptiness of the little town,” insisting instead on a human “stranger” to serve as recipient for the poem’s apostrophe and as stand-in for the community of readers engaged with the poem. Where Adorno would argue that “only what exists for its own sake, without regard to those it is supposed to please, can fulfill its human end” ( “Valéry” 181), Brooksian analysis valorizes that human end. The “masochistic” project of “autonomous art,” Sianne Ngai argues in an essay on Adorno, is “an incessant, guilt-ridden meditation on its own social impotence” (843), but Brooks denies that impotence, viewing close reading as an activity imbued with social and moral value, in its potential for returning a less alienated relationship with the products of culture and, in an sense, with the community that those products stand in for.
In 1949, Brooks went on a New Haven radio program, Yale Interprets the News, to discuss “the difficulty of teaching literature to persons preoccupied by such mass information media as the movies.” He explained afterwards to a reporter: “Small wonder that the student sometimes feels that Shakespeare is dry and that modern poetry is incomprehensible—remember that he is unconsciously measuring both by popular entertainment” ( “Brooks Warns of Jeopardy to Education” ). Such moments, in which Brooks registers a cultural polemical against popular consumer culture, are among the loudest notes in his corpus, and they speak to his deeply felt sense that something substantial was at stake in the direction of literary studies and the practice of close reading. They are hardly representative, however, of a critic whose main labors were the intensive and often playful analysis of literary texts, and the genial modeling of such analysis in the literature classroom. By the 1950s Brooks could jokingly refer to himself as “the monster” when introducing himself to a new group of students, aware of the distance between his radical reputation and genial demeanor: ‘“I want to warn you, you’re in the hands of the monster now.” These words, delivered in the gentlest of border-state accents, were the first I ever heard Cleanth Brooks utter. The year was 1951, the setting was a Yale College classroom. I was a junior, and this was the opening session of Brooks’s class in modern poetry. (Gollin 257) ’ This habit of self-deprecation belies the image of the cultural radical spearheading a conservative revolution, while also indicating that the real revolution was taking place more quietly, not in inflammatory claims about the dangers of popular culture, but in the day-to-day work of a reading practice that was simultaneously public and private.
We learn more about Brooks, and more about new-critical cultural politics in general, by carefully attending to this great bulk of his professional output. Brooks’s practice as a close reader is more complex than its reputation suggests; indeed as we have seen, it is sometimes downright bemusing, though to trace that bemusement can lead us quite unexpectedly to the center of his thought. By reading Brooks reading, we learn how to read some of his more extreme judgments as forays into the sensational and too-loud world of public language—necessary advertising for a reticent practice. And we might at the same time ponder the paradox at the end of “Keats’ Sylvan Historian,” where he presents to readers (by this point a communal “we” encompassing teacher, student, and colleague), as the poem’s ultimate assertion, a “healthy” skepticism toward the free-standing statement—a “distrust” of the poem’s own words. He repeats the word four times in his essay’s final three sentences, culminating in a statement that might itself tease us out of thought: “Such a distrust is healthy. Keats’ sylvan historian, who is not above teasing us, exhibits such a distrust, and perhaps the point of what the sylvan historian ‘says’ is to confirm us in our distrust” (101). The danger, it seems, is not that students might dislike poetry, that they might find Shakespeare “dry” or Eliot “incomprehensible,” but that they might trust it, rather than training in themselves a healthy attitude of resistance—not just toward poetry, but toward all of the claims that culture, in its disparate forms, makes on us.