Test Your New Critical Methods

        Before you begin, clear your mind of all non-New-Critical interpretive baggage, no matter how familiar and cozy.  Remember that your goal is not merely to describe the poem, and it certainly is not to "react to the poem" or "discover the author's intentions"!  You are analyzing a verbal object whose denotative and connotative meanings form certain kinds of structures which make the poem better or worse.  Consider this a "data gathering strategy" that should precede your attempt to write an analysis of the poem.  For complex works like novels or plays, such data gathering can involve extensive preparation to enable the critic to see big patterns of evidence.

0)  Before the first interpretive step, properly construe the poem's meaning (Hirsch).

1)  First, determine what tensions are operating in the poem by pointing out their occurrence in the poem's language.  Quote the poem--paraphrase only with great caution.  Resist the urge to substitute paraphrase for objective interpretation (i.e., the heresy of paraphrase).  Tensions can be caused by actions, concepts, and entities opposed to each other, especially in connotation as well as in denotation. They may show up in the tropes of literary language, images, similes, metaphors, and symbols, as well as in denotative content.  Do not ignore these figures of speech!  Look for thematic repetition and variations on themes to indicate formal (vs. accidental) structure in the work.  Read very closely! 

2)  If the "verbal artifact" really is a poem, you also should talk about the way the poem's rhyme and/or rhythm, as well as typographical structure, like capitalization, punctuation, line-breaks and stanza structure, help to support the operation of those tensions.  In a really good poem, form and content should be inseparable.  Rhymes should emphasize thematic terms, images or symbols should contain irony, ambiguity or paradox, and format should help shape readers' detection of those patterns.

3)  Does the poem achieve unity by means of a single theme using literary language which resolves the tensions in the topic it describesExplain how it does so.  That's the New Critical "thesis."  Ideally it should express some understanding you could claim was relevant to understanding human experience.  That begins to address the significance of the poem's meaning for you and your readers (Hirsch).

4)  You will judge the goodness of the poem by the degree to which its dominant theme  resolves the thematic tensions you have discovered, usually with some poetic use of figurative language (irony, ambiguity, paradox), and incorporates the poem's complex, multiple views of the topic into an organically unified whole.  That is, a great poem will say several wise things simultaneously, and their relationship to each others' truths will take a long, long time for humanity to understand and explain.  This helps New Critics to explain why some literary works remain powerfully important to our culture centuries or even millennia after their creation.

Review of the NC methods at work in Cleanth Brooks, "The Motivation of Tennyson's Weeper," The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic, 1947, rpt. 1975).

Poem 1

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Banana who?
Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Banana who?
Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn’t say “banana”?

Poem 2

"Sir Penny"

Poem 3

"Cat in the Rain"

Poem 4

Catullus #85 

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
      Nescio, sed fieri sentio, et excrucior.

Which of these facts are legal, according to E.D. Hirsch, as a way to establish a "horizon of interpretation" for Catullus #85?  Why?

1)  Catullus' poems survive in a single collection that the poet apparently ordered and that dates from the reign of Julius Caesar.

2)  In several of the poems, the speaker tells of his love for a woman he calls "Lesbia," and uses poetic styles that appear to be borrowed from followers of the Greek poet, Sappho of Lesbos.

3)  Historians believe Catullus became infatuated with a woman named Clodia Metelli, wife of a wealthy Roman aristocrat.

4)  Crucifixion was a common Roman form of punishment for criminals--it involves spreading the limbs and attaching them to a cross by binding or nailing, and letting the victim hang until death occurs.

5)  Catullus once insulted Julius Caesar in a poem.

6)  Catullus represents himself as bisexual.

Poem 5  Sylvia Plath, "Cut"  (Which version of the text would be the best for a New Critical analysis?)

Poem 6  Shakespeare, Sonnet 87

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gavest it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
  Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
  In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.