A specter is haunting the Yale English department: the specter of youth in revolt. Egged on, perhaps, by the department’s more contrarian faculty members, these dissidents of the Major English Poets sequence have elevated the pitch of their din — a near-constant noise that has rarely, in past decades, risen above a dull roar. As the department meets this semester to discuss the ideological quagmire in which it finds itself, there is suddenly a very real chance that the introductory sequence — the centerpiece of the department’s curriculum since the 1920s — will be abolished as a requirement for the major. Abolishing this requirement would be a mistake. Instead, the two courses should be retooled to explicitly emphasize the critical framework through which we read these English poets’.
Opponents of the requirement claim that the sequence evinces a stodgy, conservative mentality suffusing the department and the major — a mentality unwelcome to women, people of color, LGBTQ students and other historically marginalized groups. In contrast, its defenders wearily recapitulate Matthew Arnold’s stodgy dictum: culture is “the best which has been thought and said” — and for better or worse, these poets are it.
Unfortunately, these arguments speak past each other. I propose a defense of the sequence independent of the exhausted Arnoldian tack: Major English Poets as an introduction not only to the sequence’s inarguably influential and talented writers, but also to the homegrown critical tradition that has historically staked its claims on these poets’ body of work.
As English majors at Yale, the tradition to which we owe our serious critical attention is not necessarily “the western canon” — at least, not directly. It is, rather, the tradition of literary criticism within which we are ineluctably situated. That means honoring, or at least engaging with, Yale’s greatest contribution to the field: New Criticism.
New Criticism emphasized the formal unity of a given text as the quality on which it stands or falls. It also introduced the (once radical!) practice of close reading to the American academy, offering an alternative to both the pedantry of the philologists and the hand clasping and ruminative sighing of the “appreciation” school. This took place between the 1930s and 1960s: consequently, these are no longer hip ideas. In fact, they’re pretty much de rigeur in the literary pedagogy of the American high school and university. But although most freshmen entering a Yale English classroom will have some idea of what close reading is, it’s unlikely that they’ll have a clear sense of where this practice comes from and why it’s relevant today.
The Major English Poets sequence should be taught in part as an introduction to the New Critical praxis, an explication of the hermeneutic assumptions that most students uncritically bring to the table in the early stages of their careers as English majors. Teaching students about the enormously influential critical strides made by figures such as W.K. Wimsatt GRD ’39, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren GRD ’28, all of whom taught at Yale at the peak of the movement, will give them a much stronger framework on which to build their own critiques. This would mirror how later critical schools, at Yale and elsewhere, have positioned themselves, directly or obliquely, relative to the long New Critical tradition.
Why connect this New Critical meta-analysis with the Major English Poets sequence? Well, because the New Critics did. It is irrelevant whether these scholars used canonical poets because they believed in the superiority of the canon or whether they just wanted to cite well-known material. If we’re going to do right by our critical ancestors, we need to familiarize ourselves with the poets that they used to support their criticism.
English majors at Yale should not just be readers. Reading is a pastime, a leisure activity. English majors at Yale should aspire to be critics, and criticism requires a wholehearted engagement with the critical legacy that precedes us. This, in turn, requires us to have a literary vocabulary in common with our predecessors.
You want to challenge Eliot’s reading of Donne, or Brooks’ reading of Wordsworth? You want to dip into deconstruction, wade in postcolonial theory, throw these canonical babies out with the bathwater altogether? I welcome your verve. We all should welcome it. But unless you at least acquaint yourself with the New Critics, whose theoretical framework has paved the way for so much of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most important literary criticism, the ground beneath your feet will be quite shaky. The department can help fix this problem. Keep Major English Poets as a requirement, but be clear about why we’re still reading them, at Yale, in 2016.
Christopher Cappello is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .