Organicism to New Criticism: History and Aesthetics

I. What is Organicism?
     A. Begins with Aristotle's Poetics (350 B.C.E.):
              "...[T]ragedy is a representation of an action that is whole and complete and of a certain magnitude, since a thing may be a whole and yet have no magnitude. A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.... [I]n everything that is beautiful, whether it be a living creature or any organism composed of parts, these parts must not only be orderly arranged but must also have a certain magnitude of their own; for beauty consists in magnitude and ordered arrangement." (from pt. VII)
              "...[T]he component incidents [of the work] must be so arranged that if one of them be transposed or removed, the unity of the whole is dislocated and destroyed. For if the presence or absence of a thing makes no visible difference, then it is not an integral part of the whole." (from pt. VIII)

              Aristotle contributes to organic theory the idea that a good text is one wherein each part is indispensable and works to complement the whole.

     B. Coleridge's Additions:
          1. "On the Principles of Genial Criticism" (1814)
               a. "multeity in unity": Beauty comes from a harmonious relationship between the multiple parts and the unified whole: "With what pleasure we trace the parts, and their relations to each other, and to the whole! Here is the stalk or trunk, and here the branches or sprays--sometimes even the buds or flowers.... many different images are distinctly comprehended at one glance, as forming one whole and each part in some harmonious relation to each and to all."

          2. Biographia Literaria (1817)
               a. Object and Subject: Coleridge first differentiates between the object and the subject in chapter twelve of the Biographia Literaria: The object is nature (i.e. everything existing independent of man's physical form); the subject is the self/intelligence (i.e. everything that is contained within man's physical form).

              b. Final Definition of a Poem: "A poem is [a] composition, which is...discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part." (from ch. XIV)

              Therefore, in Coleridge we get a more specific definition of Organicism, which we compile from his various works. It flows like this:

              Organicism: Nature (object) is perceived by the Intelligence (subject). The Intelligence produces an imitation/reflection of that natural object that has parts (multeity) which complement the whole (unity) and cannot be removed or rearranged without compromising the unity of the whole.

II. Literary Criticism: A Short History
     A. Criticism from Aristotle to the 19th. Century - the Major Figures:

          1. Aristotle - Poetics (350 B.C.E.)
          2. Augustine - The City of God (413-426/7 C.E.) and On Christian Doctrine (396/7, 426 C.E.)
          3. Sir Philip Sidney - The Defense of Poesy (1595)
          4. Samuel Johnson - Prefaces to Shakespeare (1779) and The Lives of the Poets (1781)
          5. William Wordsworth - Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800)
          6. S.T. Coleridge - Biographia Literaria (1817), other works
          7. Percy B. Shelley - A Defense of Poetry (1821)
          8. Matthew Arnold - Essays in Criticism (1865)

III. New Criticism: Tradition and the Organic Whole
     A. T.S. Eliot - "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919)
          1. Tradition: "[Tradition]...involves, in the first place, the historical sense...and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity. ...[T]he past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past."
              A traditional writer writes with a sense of the literary past and with a sense of his own presence in his own time simultaneously. Therefore, when he writes with the past in mind, what he does irrevocably alters the tradition (i.e. the literary past) itself while also adding to it. Example: Eliot, Chaucer, and the re-greening of spring motif.
          2. Impersonality: Treats the text as something completely separate from the life of its author. New Critics see the text as one isolated whole.

     B. Other New Critics
          1. F.R. Leavis - borrowed from Arnold a concern for the text's relationship to society: "For Leavis the crucial test is whether the work is conducive to 'life' and vitality" (Barry).
          2. I.A. Richards - the anti-New Historicist; took from Arnold the idea of Touchstones--that a text, read without any knowledge of the author or the period, contains in itself everything we need to judge it: "Richards's experiments in the 1920s of presenting students and tutors with unannotated, anonymous poems for commentary and analysis gave rise to the ideal of removing props of received opinion and knowledge and fostering a 'true judgment' based on first hand opinion" (Barry).

              Conclusion: Richards, like most New Critics, derives literary merit from the text alone. Here we have Coleridge's organic text coming back in: if a text is organic wherein every part complements the whole, then it will likely be deemed beautiful or meritorious in its own right. Richards and the New Critics tend to cut off the relationship between subject and object which produces the text itself. However, New Critics do hold art as a reflection of nature, as Coleridge did, and so they are looking for the same complementary relationship between the parts and the whole, the same multeity in unity that Coleridge wanted.

                   Aristotle                              Coleridge                          Arnold                           Eliot