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New Criticism

Page history last edited by Eric Leonidas 8 years, 9 months ago

Excellent work, team.  Overall the class gave you high marks on everything but full group participation (Kaileigh, you did take us through the concepts, but most people felt that wasn't enough).  The tensions you found in the poem were terrific, as was the attention to specifics.  You seem to grasp the general point of the theory and its procedures.  My only reservation was that, though you did present a resolution to your tensions, I just didn't get a sharp enough sense of argument (don't I always say that?).  Often this is a matter of rhetoric--expressing arguments is even harder than writing them.  Nonetheless, everyone was still impressed.  The group grade is an A- (though there may small be individual adjustments).



New Criticism- "My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun-" By Emily Dickinson pg. 298 




1. How does the tension in line 17 of the poem present a problem with the poem's unresolved ending?


2. By using the metaphor of life standing as a loaded gun, what ambiguity does this present to the reader?


3. What words need to be defined in order to better understand their connotation within the line and stanza? How does the definitions of those words support the reading of the poem as a whole?


4. By examining the words that refer to the guns owner, such as "Owner" "Him" "He" "Masters Head", what can we conclude about the importance of the capitalization? What could the capitalization infer about the the owner?


5. What is significant about the last stanza of the poem and how does it differ from the rest? What figurative language is used to express the speakers ideas?


6. What is the meaning of lines 17 through 20? What is significant about the lines and why does the author use terms such as "Yellow Eye" and "emphatic Thumb?"


7. How does the contrast between each stanza set the mood for the rest of the poem? (ex. line 9 & 15)


New Criticism Theory and Concepts:


The theory of New Criticism began to be used in universities as the main form of reading analysis in the late 1930's throughout the 1960's. This form of literary analysis focuses on the poem, not the author. In no way does the analysis rely on the life of the poet but rather the peom contains everything needed to reveal the central meaning of the poem. New Criticism emphasizes the importance of specific words and their connotations or denotations. Looking at every word is important rather than looking at the text as a whole. The structure of the poem is believed to be interrelated and each part will reflect and support the main idea of the poem, which is called organic unity. This organic unity is achieved by New Criticism when poets use concepts like paradox, irony, or ambiguity. The tension in the poem is key to a good analysis under New Criticism, however, all of the tensions or ambiguities must be resolved at the end of a close reading to fully understand that authors intentions for the poem.  




Formalism- a term used to designate critics who rely on a work's form or structure to determine its meaning. The term is often applied to the Russian Formalists and New Critics who insist that the interpretation of a work of art must evolve from the work's structure, not from intrinsic elements such as the author's life or historical context. For such critics, a work of art if an object in its own right that can be analyzed without referring to any extratextural evidence or sources such as history, politics or sociology.


New Critics- Critics who use the doctrines, assumptions, and methodology of New Criticism in their literary analysis.


Close Reading- A term used by the New Critics for the kind of reader or critic who applies the principles of New Criticism to a text to arrive at an interpretation. Implied in the term is a close and detailed analysis of the text itself (its verbal qualities) to arrive at an interpretation without referring to historical, authorial, or cultural concerns. A close reading of a text became the hallmark of the New Critics' methodology. Sometimes referred to as explication de texte in French literary studies.


Paradox- A term used by the New Critics to help explain the nature and essence of poetry. The meaning of a poem is therefore built on paradox, a juxtaposition of connotations and meanings that all support the poem's central idea.


Irony- The use of words whereby a writer or speaker suggests the opposite of what is actually stated.


Ambiguity- Commonly defined as a stylistic error in everyday speech in which a word or expression has multiple meanings. New Critics believe that ambiguity becomes one of the chief tools that good poets use intentionally and effectively to demonstrate the valid meanings contained in a word or expression.


Words In Poem Defined:

Sovereign- a person or thing which excels or surpasses others of the kind. Now rare.


Doe- The female of the fallow deer; applied also to the female of allied animals, as the reindeer.


Cordial- Hearty; coming from the heart, heartfelt; sincere, genuine, warm; warm and hearty in a course of action or in behalf of a cause.

Vesuvian- 1. of, relating to, or resembling the volcano Vesuvius. 

               2. Marked by sudden or violent outbursts: a vesuvian temper.


Eider-Ducks- duck of the northern hemisphere much valued for the fine soft down of the females. 


Yellow Eye- When the gun is fired you can see yellow light coming out of the barrel.


Emphatic ThumbShowing or giving emphasis; expressing something forcibly and clearly.


Lay- To bring or cast down from an upright position (in Old English often, to strike down, slay); to cast down, abase, humble.


Straight- Direct, undeviating.  


Additional Resources:



This website provides information on what New Criticism is and how it evolved from Formalism to New Criticism.



This website provides a brief biography of the author Emily Dickinson.


Works Cited:


Bressler, Charles. Literary Criticism An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 

     4th Ed. New Jersey: Pearson, 2007. Print.


Dickinson, Emily. “My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--” The Norton Introduction to Poetry. J. Paul Hunter, Alison Booth, and Kelly J. Mays. 9th edition. New York: Norton, 2007. 298.

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