During the late twenties and early thirties of the present century, New Criticism was born and cultivated. Sociological or Marxian criticism is regarded as a litterateur, who is considered as a product of the society in which he lived. Generally New Critics are opposed to the biographical, historical, sociological and comparative approach of conventional criticism. Similarly, they reject the traditional division of literature into periods and groups for the purpose of criticism.
Their criticism is Basic or Ontological, and not Extrinsic. A poem which is a piece of literature is the thing in itself, with a definite entity of its own separate both from the poet and the socio-cultural milieu in which it is produced. The music of a poem must be taken into account to arrive at its meaning. Words must be studied with reference to their sound, and their emotional and symbolic significance.
New Criticism is mainly written, and the new critics have purified valuable service to literature by their study and interpretation of literary classics. The poem is the thing, and it must be studied in itself, but he is against the ‘lemon-squeezer’ critics who press the words too closely. The term ‘new criticism’ was first used by Joel E. Spingam in his address at Columbia University, it came in general use after John Crow Ransom published his book, The New Criticism in 1941. And I. A. Richards provided the theoretical foundations.
Contribution of the New Critics: The contribution of the new critics and their concentration upon linguistic expression has benefited the study of poetry. The self-evaluation of the New Critics during the past few years, and the indications that they are increasingly ready to widen their study, are encouraging signs.
The Basic Views of the New Critics: The basic doctrines and principles view of the New Critics are summarized in the bellow:
(a) Permission: The critic must not permit himself to be hampered and narrow-minded by any literary theories.
(b) Concentration: A poem, or a work of art, is the thing in itself to the new critics. The critic must concentrate all attention on it and illuminated it.
(c) Function of the critics: The function of the critic is to analyze, understand and value a work of art. A poem is separated from the poet and his social environment; it is a certain object in itself and must be studied as such. The critic must dedicate himself to close stylistic study, free by any unnecessary concerns.
(d) Irrelevant works of literature: Moral and religious considerations, social, political and environmental conditions, the details of the poet’s biography, are all irrelevant and are all obstacles in the way of a real understanding of a work of literature. The literary critic must approach the work with an open mind, ready to study it.
(e) Form and content: A poem has both form and content. Both should be closely studied and analyzed before a true understanding of its meaning becomes possible.
(f) The form of poetry: Words, images, rhythm, metre, etc. create the form of poetry and they are to be closely studied. A poem is a living whole and these different parts are inter-connected and these inter-connections, the reaction of one upon the other, and upon the total meaning, is to be closely followed, and examined.
(g) Important elements: The study of words, their arrangement, the way in which they act and react on each other is all important. Words, besides their literal significance, also have emotional, associative, and symbolic significance, and only close application and analysis can bring out their total meaning. The new critics, in their minute scrutiny of words, and the structure of poetry, have propounded different theories.
(h) Poetic language: Poetry is considered as the communication and language is considered as the meaning of communication, so the New Critics seek to understand the full meaning of a poem through a study of poetic language. So, the words of the New Critics are all important, and their study is the only key to the poetic meaning of the poem.
(i) Different: The New Critics are opposed both to the historical and comparative methods of criticism. Historical considerations are extraneous to the work of literature, and comparison of works of art is to be resorted to with great caution. So their methods, their techniques and their forms are bound to be different.
Limitations and Shortcomings of New Criticism:
(a) Pre-occupied with textual analysis: The New Critics are too much pre-occupied with textual analysis. Their excessive pre-occupation with words, images, paradox, irony, etc., makes them forget that the poem is an organic whole. In their pre occupation with the parts they ignore the beauty of the whole.
(b) Their Approach: Their approach is dogmatic and narrow. According to them, it is through Textual study and analyses alone that truth can be arrived at. However, there are a number of other approaches—the historical, the sociological, the psychological, etc., and each has its own value and significance. All possible ways should be tried to arrive at the full truth about a poem.
(c) Functions: A work of art has two functions, artistic and moral. While the older criticism erred in its over-emphasis on the moral concern of literature, the New Critics go to the other extreme in their entire neglect of it. Art cannot be divorced entirely from life.
(d) An art-form: Literature is certainly an art-form, but it has other values also, besides the literary. Stylistic analysis can establish only the literary quality of a work, to determine its greatness. Other methods are also necessary.
(e) Documentary approach: The textual or documentary approach may work well with some categories, but it is not equally effective with all categories. There are different kinds of poetry, and different critical techniques are needed for their evaluation. The same technique cannot be effective both with the lyric and the epic.
(f) A poem is an artistic structure: A poem is certainly an artistic structure, and it must be studied as such. The understanding of the poetic meaning of a poem is essential, and textual and structural study is an effective tool for the purpose. But social and biographical factors may also determine its meaning and knowledge of them may also help the critic to brighten the work under study.
(g) Fault: The New Critics are wrong in ignoring the study of the history of literary criticism. A historical study shows that various critical tools have been used effectively in different ages and countries, and their use may be worthwhile in the present also. A historical study is the only way of understanding the comparative merits of the rival schools of criticism.