Objective Features of New Criticism: Analyzing the Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson

Topics: Literary criticism, New Criticism, Poetry Pages: 10 (3329 words) Published: October 26, 2006
The focus of this essay, to determine what seem to be 'objective' features of 'New Criticism', will be based on three poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The first poem in this study ' "Over the dark world flies the wind" ' and the one which I shall pay particular attention to, is a poem of ten lines and is purportedly the type of lyric which David Buchbinder like Graham Martin suggests lends itself best to this type of literary theory:

Though the new critics were careful always to signal that their use of the term 'poetry' included all literature, in fact much of their important work neglected fictional and dramatic texts...The principal reasons for this are first, that lyric poetry is typically easier to work with, because such poems are generally shorter...This then, is a reason of expedience: in wishing to demonstrate their theory in practice, the New Critics were concerned to provide examples that could be grasped easily and in whole form. The other two poems are 'Ulysses' and 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' both of which have a definite historical context and include authorial intention. It is my aim however, to apply the principle features of a New Critical reading to both of these poems assessing each in turn to discover whether or not New Criticism may be applied effectively and objectively: showing also, that meaning is vested in the text and not myself as reader.

Tennyson's poem " 'Over the dark world flies the wind' " is one in which it is possible to apply what the New Critics deem essential elements to the objective reading of a poem. One of several assumptions made by New Criticism is the text's independence from the author thus freeing the text from historical or biographical elements which are likely to affect the objective reading of the poem. In The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks expresses the New Critics concern with the strongly historical approach by which the reader might 'identify the "poetry" with certain doctrines or with certain emotional effects which automatically proceed from a certain historical conditioning' (236). Therefore, for the New Critics, there should be no intrusion of authorial intention which is likely to create a gap between the reader and the text: in this way the poem maintains its autonomy through the combination of structure and meaning denoted by the words and in this case the punctuation of the poem. In Tennyson's poem the 'I' is considered to be a fictional character whose sole existence is contained within the poem, thus we are divorced from any considerations about the author. Irony is expressed through the sense of unrest and search which is echoed throughout this poem: the imagery, language and structure thus showing the poem as a metaphor for the speaker's state of mind.

The first four lines of the poem present an image of chaos evoked by the unleashed elements and an emptiness which is filled only by the sound of the wind and the sea. This image of emptiness is created by the particular choice of words 'dark', 'clatters', 'sapless' and 'darkness blind' :

Over the dark world flies the wind
And clatters in the sapless trees,
From cloud to cloud thro' darkness blind
Quick stars scud o'er the sounding seas:

A close reading of these lines shows that the wind 'flies': it does not blow through, but 'Over the dark world': furthermore, it 'clatters' almost as if searching for something in the trees. In line three, 'From cloud to cloud' continues the image of search and unrest as do 'Quick', 'scud' and 'o'er' in line four. These first lines are linked to the last lines of the poem which have moved from the enormous compass of the universe to 'I', the one individual and a more explicit pronunciation of search and unrest:

I muse - I wander from my peace,
And still divide the rapid mind
This way and that in...

Bibliography: Alfred Lord Tennyson Selected Poems ed. by Aidan Day, (London: Penguin Group, 1991), p.64. Henceforth, all references are from this collection.
Alfred Lord Tennyson Selected Poems ed. by Aidan Day, (London: Penguin Group, 1991), pp.94-96. Henceforth, all references are from this collection.
Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1947), p236.
Ann Jefferson and David Robey, Modern Literary Theory; A Comparitive Introduction (London: B.T Batsford Ltd, 1993), 'The New Critics also insisted on its [literature] connections with the 'real ' world, and on the contributions it can make to coping with the problems of everyday human existence '.(p.74).
Author, Longman Dictionary of the English Language (Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Ltd, 1985), p244. Henceforth, all references are from this dictionary. 'charge 6 an accusation or indictment, or statement of complaint 7 a violent rush forwards(eg to attack) '.
Ibid: p.1726 '3 adv in a wild manner: eg a without regulation or control '.
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