For those of you who know me, you also know it has always been a dream of mine to study and write. Undertaking studies for the MA is the first major step I've taken in this direction since leaving the seminary. Literature has always been a special love for me. This semester, I'll be concentrating on Shakespeare and Joyce -- two polar opposites except in their shared difficulty. I'm also taking courses in research methods and pedagogy, which makes for a pretty full graduate course load. ...And planning for a wedding on top of all that!
In any case, I'll do my best to keep writing, and perhaps even to incorporate some of my academic ventures in this blog. For today I'll leave you with the first homework assignment I've written since spring of 2006. It feels good to be back in school!!!
Professor Jane Carducci
1 September, 2007
Based on "A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature" (Wilfred L. Guerin et al., Oxford: 2005)
According to the formalist critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Warren, “…it is only when we speak of the achieved content, the form, the work of art as a work of art, that we speak as critics” (qtd. in Guerin 104). Thus do Brooks and Warren succinctly characterize the formalist approach as that which starts with a close reading of a work’s own organic form. As understood here, form is far more expansive than simply the work’s structural components – its sentence patterns, stanzas and their requisite parts, etc. Rather, “[i]t becomes the tone or mood that the text builds, and possibly the shifting and alternating of moods. It becomes the relationship between the teller of the narrative and the hearer, possibly the ambiguity of the teller’s version of the story” (94). Thus the formalist critic begins solely with the text itself, in a sense tearing it apart – recognizing its point-of-view, internal imagery, texture, tension and symbolism – and putting it back together again through his or her close, analytical reading. In fact, only in its examination of symbolism does formalist criticism extend occasionally beyond the work proper, and, then, only as far “as suggested by its symbols” (106).
Millennia earlier, Aristotle had argued for aesthetic order in poetry. In the history of modern scholarship, however, the New Critics of the mid-nineteenth century, following the lead of Samuel Coleridge and philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, were the first to concentrate on form – on “the work of art as an object” (97). Specifically, they taught that literature, like art or music, contains a “consistency and an internal vitality that we should look for and appreciate. In doing so, we would appropriate the work to ourselves…” (96). In addition to the seventeenth century Metaphysical Poets, New Criticism profited immensely from such writers as T.S. Eliot, whose poetry lent itself well to a solely internal analysis. Eliot additionally articulated the idea of an “objective correlative,” a sort of bridge between the text and the reader, “such that when the external facts are given, the emotion is immediately invoked” (100). In its heyday, New Criticism was the standard approach to works of literature. By mid-century, however, scholars were accusing formalist critics of “a pronounced elitism, if not more sinister rightist tendencies” (149). They failed to make the same advances in the novel and drama as for poetry, detractors argued; and, even there the method lent itself better to some forms than others. According to Robert Langbaum, the formalist approach took criticism out of the mainstream and gave it new tools that should be kept; but now “we should return, with the tools of explication and analysis given us by the New Critics, to that mainstream” (150).
In presenting an experience that the reader can recreate, Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” lends itself well to formalist criticism. Within the context of a man talking to a woman is a “philosophical consideration of time, of eternity, of pleasure (hedonism), and of salvation in an afterlife (traditional Christianity)” (112). Without referring to anything outside the text of the poem, the reader can see how space and time are related: “Had we but World enough, and Time” (“Coy Mistress” 1). Additionally related to the secondary, sexual motif, the carpe diem theme present throughout gives the poem an “overbearing sense of cold, calculated drive to use the pleasures of sex to counterbalance the threats of empty eternity” (114). Overall, a formalist study of Marvel’s poem would begin with the temporal, spatial and sexual motifs contained therein, and proceed to analyze how the poem’s imagery allows the reader to appropriate the work to him or herself – to ask “whether love and even existence itself can extend beyond the time we know…” (116).