Learning from the New Criticism

The Example of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
  • Paul Alpers


Writing about the changes in Renaissance and early modern literary studies, Leah Marcus says: “Pace T. S. Eliot and the New Critics, the lyric has lost its centrality in seventeenth-century studies and been replaced by less elitist genres such as the drama.”1 The elitism to which she objects has less to do with the status of lyric poetry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than with its status in modern criticism. It is certainly the case that modernist criticism privileged lyric poetry and that, for both the New Critics in this country and the Scrutiny group in England, poetry mattered because it implicitly resisted the forces of democracy, industrialism, and technology. Since the 1960s, there has been a widespread reaction against the values and procedures of modernist criticism, which are frequently stigmatized as formalist. Some of the main forms of current interest in Renaissance lyric—such as the attention to poetry as courtly display and maneuvering and to manuscript circulation among various coteries—are consciously antiformalist. Hence Marcus says, “It is arguable that the new work on the cultural construction of the lyric will stimulate a revival of critical and pedagogical interest in the genre, but the lyric will not be the same transcendent, serenely aloof artifact it was for earlier generations of scholars.”2 Putting the case this way simply reinscribes the problem. It brings out how much today’s historicizing interests are motivated by antagonism to yesterday’s New Criticism.


Seventeenth Century Glorious Morning Modernist Critic True Love Lyric Poetry 
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© Mark David Rasmussen 2002

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  • Paul Alpers

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