The Formalist Critics, By Cleanth Brooks

1821 words - 7 pages

Cleanth Brooks writes in his essay “The Formalist Critics” from 1951 about criticism that formalist critics encounter and tries to show these arguments from his point of view and even indicates common ground with other literary critics. Cleanth Brooks argues that we lose the intrinsically obvious points of works of literature if we view the work through the different lenses of literary theory, however we are always viewing the literary work through a subjective lens, since the author and the critic cannot subjectively separate themselves from themselves and in making these points he contradicts himself.
Cleanth Brooks starts his essay by listing “articles of faith I could subscribe to” (Brooks 19) and pointing out statements about literary criticism that might go with a formalist criticism. Yet he questions that list in its end, and seems to slate that his writings have been largely misunderstood. What his statements have to do with faith in connection with literature is up to the reader, since in one of his articles he specifically mentions, “literature is not a surrogate for religion” (Brooks 19). He seems to contradict himself on purpose to keep his central thesis hard to reach. In evaluating some of his “faith articles”, the reader can have a critical examination of his critique of his formalist criticism.
His first statement is that “Literary criticism is a description and evaluation of its object” (Brooks 19). The literary critic reports on the work that he is criticizing and picks out the meaning that he deems important, which might be different from what the next critic would pick out. To describe the work it is therefore already a subjective exercise, such as in Doctor Faustus, in the A-version of the text, some people might think Faustus being led away by devils means that they lead him into eternal hell, whereas others might think that he could go into purgatory and eventually repent. The author wants an ambiguous reading of his texts, and those are often the most challenging and enjoyable works. When Brooks writes that the next step is “evaluation of its object”, the subjective nature of literary criticism becomes apparent. Who criticizes seems to be the first step in a long subjective path and therefore one evaluation might differ from another evaluation completely. Experience in literary works seems to make those evaluations more valuable, however it might move the evaluations always into the same corner, for example, a Marxist critic may preferably tend to look at the classes and conflicts in the work. In his first sentence Brooks shows already the difficulty of providing an objective criticism of a literary work, which he calls an object, therefore a literary critic could evaluate any item.
Brooks declares that form is important; “the primary concern of criticism is with the problem of unity – the kind of whole which the literary work forms or fails to form, and the relation of the various parts to each other in building up...

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