Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Well Wrought Urn

I picked up a 1947 book of criticism from a Charity Shop called The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks the other day. I enjoyed his essay on Robert Herrick’s (1591–1674) poem, Corinna’s Going a-Maying, in which Brooks asks ‘What does poetry communicate?’

Many people complain that modern poetry doesn’t communicate in the same way as older poems did. Herrick’s poem, they claim, says that we should “enjoy youth before youth fades.” There’s a clear message being communicated by the poem, as opposed to the fuzzy ambiguities of much modern work. Brooks simply examines Herrick’s poem and exposes its subtleties. He shows how wrong it is to reduce such a poem to a neat summary as there’s so much else going on – the shifts between Christianity and Paganism, the double-edged emergence of the pagan ethic within a predominantly Christian system, the way Corinna (and other humans) seem subject to the claims of nature, the metaphors of dew and rain and what they communicate about humanity, the questions asked by the invitation to Corinna to accept the joys of the May season which are then described (dismissed?) as “the harmless follie of the time,” the poem's tone which seems at times to be playful and other times deadly serious etc. The more you look at the poem, the more strands you find, and the less you can conveniently summarise what it communicates.

Brooks concludes:

“What does this poem communicate? If we are content with the answer that the poem says that we should enjoy youth before youth fades, and if we are willing to write off everything else in the poem as ‘decoration,’ then we can properly censure [modern poets such as] Eliot or Auden or Tate for not making poems so easily tagged. But in that case we are not interested in poetry; we are interested in tags.”


Andrew Shields said...

I've posted my comment on my blog, but I'll give you the short version here: modern poetry = pre-modern poetry minus tags! Hence, readers of pre-modern poetry who dislike modern poetry must dislike the absence of tags.

Rob said...

At the end of his essay, Brooks writes:

"Actually, in a few years, when time has wrought its softening changes, and familiarity has subdued the modern poet's frightful mien, and when the tags have been obligingly supplied, we may even come to terms with our difficult moderns."

When I look at the names he quotes as modern in his time - Eliot, Auden, Tate - I can see what he means.

Andrew Shields said...

The tag as the product of the passage of time: yes, that does make sense.

I think it's great that you buy sixty-year-old books of criticism and then even read them!

Unknown said...

Sounds an interesting book... I might have to get a copy. :)

I agree pretty much with what's said.

The question I'd ask (and this applies to fiction as well...) is when can we stop calling things from the 20s and 30s "modern"? Did Eliot consider Byron "modern"?

Oh, that's what we invented the word "contemporary" for... ;)

Michael Peverett said...

You don't mention - possibly don't care - that Ron Silliman has often adopted the phrase "Well-Wrought Urn" (sarcastically) to sum up the kind of crafted, richly complex poem that close-reading specialists like Brooks tended to make a lot of - as opposed to more open-field varieties of text production that (looking at it positively) seem to require a different kind of attention, or (looking at it negatively) seem particularly unrewarding to a Brooks-style reader. Brooks is a master, as your quote demonstrates, but it is the sad fate of masters that they have just as much influence on the dull as on the dynamic, hence the subsequent fifty-year succession of well-crafted richly complex dullness that every reader has nodded over in magazines. I must say I thought Silliman's witty remarks were even more pointed so long as I believed he was writing about the Well-wought Um (UM), but this turned out to be an accident of typography.

Unknown said...

"Well-wrought-um" sounds good and relevant. :)

Rob said...

Michael, I hadn't noticed that Silliman had used the phrase, but he's clearly right that the well-crafted, complex, but dull poem doesn't deserve the plaudits it often gets. Mind you, no one has to be an post-avant poet to think that.

Brooks's methods, applied rigidly (only the poem counts, historical or cultural influences are irrelevant, paradox is the language of poetry, emotional impact on the reader must be discounted as having critical relevance, close reading is key etc), can be limiting.

However, it would be a shame if people didn't read him because his influence has been partly negative. His essay on Donne's 'The Canonization', for example, is an illuminating reading of a difficult poem.

Yes, "well-wrought um" - I bet Ron Silliman wishes he'd really thought of that one!

Anonymous said...

The Well Wrought Urn is a really interesting book, perhaps the typifying book of full-swing objective criticism. A good find! Much of it is excellent common sense -- such as what you point to here, the heresy of paraphrase -- though it does connect to some less believable ideas (cf. the affective fallacy, Wimsatt & Beardsley etc).

A poem should not mean but be! and all that.