“If We Are Sufficiently Alive”: On Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn (1947)

My students and I nearly read the entirety of Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn (1947) over the last four weeks. We skipped the chapters on Milton, Pope, and Tennyson, but that still left us quite a few: eight chapters out of eleven.

No one envied us.

Brooks is boring, outdated, and conservative, right?

He writes only about men. His favorite critics are Coleridge and T.S. Eliot. He has vague theories about paradoxes and paraphrases, and his arguments confuse critical/theoretical warrants for poetic meaning.

If we read Wordsworth’s “Ode,” for example, according to the principle that poetic writing is paradoxical (since it assembles likenesses out of differences), then it becomes clear that the poem is about the paradox of the human imagination (which assembles fabricated likenesses out of discovered differences).


Each chapter thus reads like a carefully worked out solution to a mathematic proof that has already been proven. Brooks knows what a poem means (and could tell us briefly); but he wants to derive the meaning and show his work.

And for us to do likewise.

Are the interpretive results of formalism monotonous?

It might have pedagogic value (teaching close reading), but does it have scholarly value?

And if it has pedagogic value, do students need to read a whole book of formalist close readings?

Maybe not.

But then again . . .

I’ve learned a few things from reading Brooks’s book as a book (and not as an easily pull-apart-and-anthologize-able collection of essays).

img_3913After all, each essay is a distinct experiment that tests out Brooks’s general theory of poetic structure. Are poems “pattern[s] of resolves stresses”? Are they “pattern[s] of resolutions and balances and harmonizations, developed through a temporal scheme” (203)? Must they (by necessity) speak in metaphors, ambiguities, ironies, and paradoxes?

In his essay on John Donne, he wants to show that the metaphysical conceit of “The Canonization” is not simply the witty extension of an unserious metaphor.

In his essay on William Shakespeare, he wants to show that his theory also applies to dramatic verse and that, moreover, it can help differentiate Shakespeare’s metaphors from those of Donne.

In his essay on Robert Herrick, he shows that the easily communicable theme—the paraphrase that conveys what a poem is about—fails to express “the total experience”  that the poet crafts or the exploration the poet undertakes (75).

[S]o few people . . . are accustomed to reading poetry as poetry. (76)

His essay on Thomas Gray constitutes the greatest test of his theory of poetic structure. Brooks approaches a simple poem (simple in meaning, simple in form) in order to see if such poems are also complex. Does Gray also speak in the language of paradox?

In his essay on William Wordsworth, he tests his theory against writings that have “been for so long intimately connected with [the poet’s] own autobiography” (124). Indeed, so much is known about Wordsworth. Can a method that brackets out the life and intent of this writer hold up? What becomes of Wordsworth’s verse when left to account for itself?

In his essay on W.B. Yeats, the final chapter before “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” Brooks tests his theory against the “aimlessness” of a modernist poet and finds that “the very inconsequence of some of the reflection . . . [is indeed] brought to bear upon [Yeats’s] final statement” (180). Even the most sudden turn or shift or departure becomes part of the poem’s exploration, gives shape to its “dance” (191).

Brooks also seems preoccupied with things coming (back) to life:

Even the most direct and simple poet is forced into paradoxes far more often than we think, if we are sufficiently alive to what he is doing. (10, emphasis added)

Do [the personifications] weigh the poem down beneath a clutter of lifeless eighteenth-century ornament, or do they come alive as convincing metaphors which carry the poem on the tide of their energy? (108, emphasis added)

If we are alive to the context [i.e., not to the history but to the whole poem and the interrelation of its many parts] . . . (121, emphasis added)

Coleridge was certainly alive to the difficulties here. (142, emphasis added)

If we have been alive to these items, we shall not, perhaps, be too much surprised to have the urn speak once more . . . (165, emphasis added)

While the adjective “alive” can simply mean “aware or conscious of” (OED def. 4), the allusion to the urn in the final quotation, and the importance of urns for this book in general and for the Donne, Gray, and Keats essays in particular suggests that Brooks’s project—insofar as it is critical and pedagogic—seeks to establish not a blunt bracketing out of biography or history or feeling but, rather, to perform and encourage a refinement of feeling.

A sensitivity and sensibility.

An attentiveness to the ways in which a poem is not the vessel of any mere dead matter but, rather, the “well-wrought” vessel for “the ashes of a Phoenix” (21).

Brooks’s theory of poetic structure thus leans heavily on the fusion of two very common metaphors brought into a constellation of death, preservation, fire, and resurrection, and the work of the critic (which Brooks himself models ten times) amounts to accepting “the paradox of the imagination” so that we, to deploy the metaphor, might see “[t]he phoenix rise from its ashes” (21).

Which is to say that becoming a reader of poetry (as poetry) amounts to learning to feel “the power” of something that others might very well treat as dead (5, 73, 125, 150, 175, 185). A critic’s task: The poem must matter (must become matter) again.

Students: Can this project matter to you? How can these poems come alive for you?

“I see around me here,” Wordsworth’s Armytage tells us, “Things which you cannot see” (“The Ruined Cottage” 67-68). That is a matter of power, isn’t it?

Reading on . . .

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