Irony and "Ironic" Poetry

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Last updated: December 9, 2019

New Criticism
An approach to literature made popular min-20th century that evolved out of formalist criticism. These critics suggest that detailed analysis of the language of a literary text can uncover important layers of meaning in that work. It consciously downplays the historical influences, authorial intentions, and social contexts that surround texts in order to focus on explication—extremely close textual analysis.

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Cleanth Brooks
An influential American literary critic and professor of English at Yale University. He is best known for his contributions to New Criticism in the mid-20th century and for revolutionizing the teaching of poetry in American higher education; author of “The Well Wrought Urn”; co-author, “Understanding Fiction”, “Understanding Poetry”, and “Understanding Drama” (Brooks 231)

Robert Penn Warren
An American poet, novelist, and literary critic and was one of the founders of New Criticism. He was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Self-Conscious Poetry
a poem concerned with poetry or a poem that displays awareness of itself as a poem.

(Mostly found in the works of major Romantic poets such as, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Blake)

Organic Relation of the Parts of a Poem
“a poem is not merely a collection of poetic images or sublime truths[…] the parts of a poem that have a closer relation to each other than do the blossoms juxtaposed in a bouquet. The parts of a poem are related as are the parts of a growing plant. The beauty of the poem is the flowering of the whole plant and needs the stalk, the leaf, and even the hidden roots” (Brooks 232)”The last figure thus seems to me to summarize the poem–to offer to almost every facet of meaning suggested in the earlier lines a concurring and resolving image which meets and accepts and reduces each item to its place in the total unity” (Brooks 236)

How is the poem like a drama?
“The total effect proceeds from all the elements in the drama; and in a good poem, as in a good drama, there is no waste motion and there are no superfluous parts”(Brooks 232)

The Importance of Context
The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea”The memorable verses in poetry –even those which seem to themselves intrinsically beautiful– show on inspection that they are “poetic” because of their relation to a particular context” (Brooks 232)”Even the “meaning” of any particular item in a poem is modified by the context, for what is said in a particular situation and by a particular dramatic character” (Brooks 232)

A literary device that uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true.

An obvious form of irony; “a complete reversal of meaning is effected,and effected by the context, and pointed, probably by the tone of voice”(Brooks 232).

Rhetorical Question
“The [ironic] form is that of a question, but the manner in which the question has been asked shows that it is no true question at all” (Brooks 232)

What are some of the different tones of irony?
“Tragic irony, self-irony, playful irony, arch, mocking, gentle irony, etc” (Brooks 233)

theoretical; impersonal (e.g. two plus two equals four… “[does] not participate in the meaningful structure of the statement”) (Brooks 233)

What is a statement?
“[M]ade in a poem bears the pressure of the context and has its meaning modified by the context. In other words, [those made] –including those which appear to be philosophical generalizations –are to be read as if they were speeches in a drama. Their relevance, their propriety, their rhetorical force, even their meaning, cannot be divorced from the context in which they are imbedded” (Brooks 233)

How are lines in a poem to be validated in the terms of the context?
“They are the words of a speaker standing beside his loved one, looking out of the window on the calm sea, listening to the long withdrawing roar of the ebbing tide, and aware of the beautiful delusion of moonlight which “blanches” the whole scene.

The truth of the statement, and of the poem itself in which it is embedded, will be validated, not by a majority report of the American Association of Sociologists, or of physical scientists, or of a congress of metaphysicians who are willing to stamp the statement as proved. How is the statement to be validated? We shall probably not be able to do better than to apply T. S. Eliot’s test: Does the statement seem to be that which the mind accept as coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience?” (Brooks 233-4).

I.A. Richards’ Poetry of Synthesis
A poetry which does not leave out what is apparently hostile to its dominant tone, and which, because it is able to fuse the irrelevant and discordant, has come to terms with itself and is invulnerable to irony” (Brooks 234)

Invulnerability to Irony
“is the stability of a context in which the internal pressures balance and mutually support each other” (Brooks 234)

Poetry that expresses personal feelings

An example of Ironical Contrast
Taken from William Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”; “This is the contrast between the ways in which the girl is insulated against the “touch of earthly years.” In the first stanza, she “could not feel / The touch of earthly years” because she seemed divine and immortal. But in the second stanza, now in her grave, she still does not “feel the touch of earthly years,” for, like the rocks and stones, she feels nothing at all. It is true Wordsworth does not repeat the verb “feels”; instead he writes “She neither hears nor sees.

” […]The statement of the first stanza has been literally realized in the second, but in the second stanza its meaning has been ironically reversed” (Brooks 236-7)

Ironic Qualification
“amounts to a significant shading and, in some cases, even to a complete reversal of the ordinary meaning [..

.] they differ not in principle, only in degree” (Brooks 237).

The Concept of Poetry
“the ultimate importance of context and the fact of contextual qualification. One should not risk allowing a quibble over a term (e.g., irony) to divert attention from what is really important” (Brooks 237)

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