Structuralist Poetics and the New Criticism

Re-reading Jonathan Culler’s seminal Structuralist Poetics last summer, I was pleasantly surprised to note that in the chapter on Poetics of the Lyric, (the chapter most at the focus of my own concerns), Culler seemed to indicate that after the Structuralist groundwork, our theories could make some use of New Critical ideas of the content of literary works.

My surprise was a result of a conditioning which dates way back – when first studying literary theory in the mid-1980’s at Leeds, the New Critics were the recently-overthrown consensus – the status quo ante – and the still somewhat new-fangled approaches of Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Marxism, then in ascendancy, were often set in contrast to the old school. New Criticism was old hat, and often portrayed as intrinsically reactionary and conservative, particularly for its idea of the literary text as showing integration and reconciliation.

My surprise was pleasant, since I’ve felt for a while that this “revolutionary” rejection of the New Critics threw some precious babies out with the bathwater. This is ironic, in that the Young Turks of Structuralism and Marxism in many ways had a philosophical view of the world, or at least the human world, as oppositional, in contradiction, in tension, and dialectical. To me, irony, paradox, ambiguity and other terms of the New Critics are not a million miles away from the framework of their erstwhile opponents.

My own inclinations as a theorist are towards the formalist pole, but clearly sheer form, without what I provisionally call “human concern”, would, if scrupulously adhered to, give us fairly arid works of art, such as would only delight a thoroughgoing technician. Only within music, I think, do we find entirely successful and purely formal artworks.

Yet a complete separation of form and humanly-interesting content, as if they were two different dimensions, seems to fall short of what we would expect of an adequate aesthetics. It is here that I find the direction of Culler’s thought suggestive in indicating a bridge between the two.

Culler begins the chapter “Poetics of the Lyric” by arguing, with apt examples, that to read a poem as a poem is at least partly a matter of conventions and expectations which are in many ways external to any intrinsic features of the “poem”. Neither linguistic deviation nor formal patterns, both often considered as the two generic forms of such intrinsic features, will suffice to clarify this matter. I make much, elsewhere, of just these two forms, but here, we are stepping back to a point which analytically precedes that formalist stage.

(Note – Because I capitalize “New Criticism” and “New Critics” throughout (to identify it as a school), I usually capitalize “Structuralism” and “Structuralist”, for consistency.)

Distance and Deixis

[indexical, demonstrative, anaphora]

We read a poem with a kind of distance, taking it out of any usual circuit of communication, and taking it impersonally. Again, this is an expectation brought to the poem. This expectation alters the effects of deictics or shifters:

“for our purposes the most interesting are first and second person pronouns (whose meaning in ordinary discourse is ‘the speaker’ and ‘the person addressed’), anaphoric articles and demonstratives which refer to an external context rather than to
other elements in the discourse, adverbials of place and time whose reference depends on the situation of utterance (here, there, now, yesterday) and verb tenses, especially the non-timeless present.”

“we recognize from the outset that such deictics are not determined by an actual situation of utterance but operate at a certain distance from it.” p. 193

Culler regards these conventions of reading as operating to fulfil the demands of coherence and of thematic function.

Totality / Unity / Coherence

With his consideration of the second fundamental convention of the lyric, the expectation of totality or coherence, Culler moves closer to concerns which were also those of the New Critics. Near synonyms are unity, (organic) wholeness, harmony, and symmetry. Again, Culler emphasizes that this is a convention of reading, as much as a property of the poem.

“even if we deny the need for a poem to be a harmonious totality we make use of the notion in reading. Understanding is necessarily a teleological process and a sense of totality is the end which governs its progress.” p. 200

Culler concludes his consideration of totality by noting that its literary manifestation is a version of ideas explored in gestalt psychology, and lists six models of unity

binary opposition

dialectical resolution of a binary opposition

displacement of an opposition by a third term

four-term homology

series united by a common denominator

series with a transcendent or summarizing final term

Provisionally, I note that the first three form a group based on opposition, and the last two are based on difference (and similarity) rather than opposition.

“Four-term homology” is explored by Culler more thoroughly elsewhere in Structuralist Poetics. It is the pattern that a is to b as c is to d. This is generally regarded as a parallelism indicated or sought between two pairs of oppositions. It is not clear to me that a and b need be opposites, but again, we encounter the pervasiveness of opposition within human thought. Four-term homology seems to be very closely related to analogy and metaphor, though perhaps of the type whereby the network of some of the concepts in the poem indicates an anatomization of each of the source and target terms. I would regard it as somewhere between opposition and similarity / difference, perhaps a fusion of the two.


Regarding significance, once again Culler treats this as a matter of the conventions we bring to a poem as much as a feature of the poem.

To put this matter in my own terms, rather than Culler’s, the situation or message of the poem is read as having a general significance – thus metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, etc., are interpreted, even identified, in accordance with a strategy aimed at the sort of generalization which enables a larger significance. Koestler deals with this as a bisociation of the particular and the general, and it is a large part of what we mean by literary symbolism.

Three Conventions of Interpretation

Culler now proposes three general conventions of interpretation: a poem should be –


thematically significant

can take the form of a reflection on poetry

Regarding the last of these, I ought to deal with an aspect of Culler’s approach which runs through this and other chapters of his book, and which I have so far stepped aside from, running the risk of misrepresentation. Culler is very interested in the idea, important to much Structuralist literary theory, that literature can be taken as being “about” language, or “about” literature itself – a kind of self-referring or reflexive form of discourse. There is something to be said for this, but feel that, at least for now, I need to bracket such considerations out, perhaps for another time. Note, though, that even Culler qualifies this convention with “can”, unlike his first two, which fall directly under “should”.

Distance and deixis have gone missing from this threesome  – they seem to be part of achieving a level of generality, so perhaps fall under “thematically significant” in the list above, and are related to the 3rd in the list below. Earlier, Culler treated distance as a convention of reading operating to fulfil the demands of coherence and of thematic function, but coherence and thematic function are then defined as conventions of interpretation. There is clearly an unnecessary doubling up of terms here; I think it is best to regard distance as a sub-convention serving both coherence and thematic function.

Culler then defines four interpretive operations

1 establishment of binary relations of opposition or equivalence

2 integration of puns and ambiguities

3 reading of items as synecdoches, metaphors, etc. to attain generality

4 relating the poem to the fact that it is a poem

1 relates most closely to totality.

2 I regard as closely related to 3, but lack a thorough analysis of that relationship as yet.

3 relates most closely to significance (as I think also does the earlier category of distance and deixis). It privileges synecdoche (understandably in the context of the need for generalisation to achieve significance) but also broadly encompasses the traditional category of deviation, which for the Russian Formalist school was central to literariness. However, we should note that unlike the Russian Formalists, for whom deviation was an end in itself, here, it is subordinated to the purpose of attaining generality and significance – and perhaps we could add facilitating totality.

4 I will again bracket out for the reasons given above.


I conclude this exposition with a diagram of my own interpretation of Culler’s Structuralist poetics of the lyric, before moving on to his hints of a qualified appropriation of New Critical ideas. Click on the image to view. The vertices fall into three genera, and I have taken the liberty of adding “Distance” close to “Conventions of Interpretation”. The edges indicate what are for me the most salient relations, but it may be that all relations, at least between vertices of different genera, are satisfied by significant aspects of poetry within a thoroughly realized theoretical poetics.


The New Criticism

After very briefly mentioning conventions of reading associated with other particular schools (biographical, psychoanalytical, sociological), Culler spends more time on the New Criticism.

For the New Critics, the idea of balanced, resolved, or reconciled tensions within a poem was important.

Ambivalence, tension, irony and paradox were deployed in the analysis of a poem towards a set of reduction terms, oppositions which R. S. Crane, in “The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry”, lists as –

life and death

good and evil

love and hate

harmony and strife

order and disorder

eternity and time

reality and appearance

truth and falsity


emotion and reason

complexity and simplicity

nature and art

Unfortunately, I cannot get hold of the original text by Crane, so cannot tell if the list is complete, or what status the elision has. It is not that I think any such list could be complete in an objective sense; all can only be treated as provisional, but I think some can be better than others. I will refrain from a temptation to structure the list my own way, and restrict myself to this observation: some of these oppositions lean more towards being matters of form (e.g. order and disorder), some can be matters of both form and content (e.g. harmony and strife), and some lean more towards being matters of content (e.g. good and evil).

At the start of this article I indicated an interest in moving as seamlessly as possible between form and content, and it is here that I find things suggestive: opposition, important within the earlier exposition of Structuralist poetics (throughout the whole discussion, but note additionally that puns and ambiguities are oppositional, and seem as much New Critical as Structuralist) and here for the New Criticism (ambivalence, tension, irony and paradox are all essentially oppositional concepts), moves over quite naturally from the formal to key oppositions which are perennially of human concern, (as well as to oppositions which may be of a more limited and historically-bound concern). If I’m being “liberal humanist” here, then so be it.

Why is the New Criticism held to be reprehensible?

Something radical critics dislike about New Critical attitudes is the idea of poetry as bringing about reconciliation. New Criticism seems to be held guilty of some sort of literary version of ideas in the behaviourist psychology and functionalist sociology mid-twentieth century, of adjustment, whereby, by the therapeutic means of poetry, contradictions are reconciled. One of the formative influences on the New Criticism, I. A. Richards, certainly did think about the psychological function of poetry in such terms.

However, the idea of oppositions within a totality is to me quite clearly a general orientation which would include more specific forms, one of which would be Structuralism, another Dialectics, whether Hegelian, Marxist, or any offshoot, and a third, the New Criticism. There may be more, and they may all be irreconcilable, but you’ve got to admit, there’s a bit of a family resemblance.

Perhaps the worry is that the poem is taken as a totality, rather than one’s own life, or the social process as a trans-personal historical working-out and overcoming of contradictions. So the poem, or a general orientation towards poetry, art, or culture as providing reconciliation, would be the acceptance of a sop, by its nature conservative and supine.

[Levi-Strauss – “imaginary resolution of real contradictions” – Adorno – objection to the consolations of art and literature rather than a particular school of criticism]

But then one should perhaps take up one’s arguments not with the theory of a particular critical school, but with artworks (including poems, songs and films) themselves, for often attempting to resolve unresolvable contradictions.

[differences and binary oppositions within Structuralism – Eco on opposites]


I detect in Culler a sort of closet New Criticism; a symptomatic reading of the chapter under consideration indicates a closeness to New Criticism which its surface manoeuvres distance, perhaps because Culler’s purpose at that time, quite reasonably, was to explain what was new and productive about Structuralism, rather than to build an argument for a rapprochement between Structuralism and New Criticism. In an interview with Jonathan Culler published in the Minnesota Review in 2008, he indicates that his attraction to literary theory predated his involvement with Structuralism, and that he was to some extent already trained in New Critical modes of thought prior to Structuralism’s rise; see

I, of course, writing many years later than Culler’s formative book, am precisely interested in such a rapprochement. By way of conclusion, I would like the reader to witness Culler’s ambivalence with three quotations –

Regarding the oppositions identified by R. S. Crane –

“These oppositions function as rudimentary models of the kind of thematic significance that the reader attempts to find in poems. A structuralist criticism, on the other hand, as opposed to a structuralist poetics which does not aim at interpretation, tends to use as models of significance notions of language, of literature itself, and of the sign. The successful critical act will show what the poem implies about the status of the sign and the poetic act itself. There is, of course, no way to escape from such models altogether, for the simple reason that one must have a sense, however undefined, of what one is reading towards.” p. 208 – 209

In the conclusion to the chapter under consideration –

“Structuralists have done relatively little work on poetry … One is therefore bound to take from structuralism a theoretical framework and to fill it in by drawing on the writings of critics from other traditions who have worked to greater purpose on the lyric.” p. 220

And, finally, Culler is presently working on a book about lyric poetry. From the aforementioned interview, much more recent than the book I have been analyzing –

“Recently, I have been working primarily on the lyric, and that’s the project that I have underway at the moment, a book called Theory of the Lyric, partly because there isn’t really such a thing, and there should be.”



About David Ruaune

My main interests are philosophy, psychology and semiotics.
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