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Thursday, November 10, 2022

The Language of Paradox-Summary-Cleanth Brooks | Litgalaxy2019

In his essay, “The Language of ParadoxCleanth Brooks, one of the renowned American New Critics, has shown how the poet conveys his thoughts and ideas by using a literary device like paradox without employing a direct statement in poetry. Cleanth Brooks was influenced by the modern critics like, T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards and William Empson. 

According to Cleanth Brooks, paradox covers all shocking deviations and digressions from common opinions and perceptions. It is not merely a literary device. So he states that ‘the language of poetry is the language of paradox’.

The Language of Paradox-Summary
The Language of Paradox-Summary


The critic has employed two diverse examples from English poetry. He has given examples of John Donne’s famous poem “The Canonization” and William Wordsworth’s poem “Composed upon West Minister Bridge” in order to prove his point of view. 

Before studying Cleanth Brooks’ essay, “The Language of Paradox” is important to take into consideration the meaning of a term ‘paradox’. According to Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, paradox is a statement or expression so surprisingly self-contradictory as to provoke us into seeking another sense or context in which it would be true.


The Language of Paradox: Critical Analysis

The 20th century critics have imparted it a higher importance as a mode of comprehending by which poetry challenges our habits of thought. Brooks has exhibited the connotative meaning achieved by the poet by using a paradox. The readers know that paradox is not a literary device for conveying the inner and warm thoughts and emotion; it is not a language of soul. Paradox is often used in a language of refinement and sophistry. It is quite unnatural. Hence, no one would agree with the view that language of poetry is the language of paradox. 

As a literary device, paradox can be deemed as intellectual rather than emotional aspect. But Cleanth Brooks asserts that paradox is the most appropriate and ideal device to poetry in order to convey thoughts as well as emotion. Cleanth Brooks thinks that the language employed in science is refined and clear; and it is free from paradoxical statements. 

But Brooks opines that paradox is a fittest means in poetry, even the language of William Wordsworth is the language of paradox. As a romantic poet, William Wordsworth emphasized simplicity of thought and lucidity of expression in poetry. But Cleanth Brooks thinks that Wordsworth’s poem “It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free” is pregnant with paradoxical statement. The poem begins with lines: 

“It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

Breathless with adoration.” 

Here the poet has compared a beauteous evening to a nun but it actually has more than one meaning. The poet is filled with a feeling of worship at that holy time of evening but the girl who walks beside him is not in that frame of mind of worship. The lines suggest that she should respond to the holy time of prayers and become like the evening itself.

The serene and calm surrounding of evening means worship and it corresponds to clothing of the man. But the girl is filled with an unconscious adoration and sympathy for the surroundings {Nature}. His unconscious adoration and sympathy is just like her unconscious worship of nature. 

It is paradoxical statement. How is it possible to worship somebody or something unconsciously; or secretly. It is paradoxical situation. It is implied here that the girl is more religious than the poet. The calmness and serenity of evening fall short as compared to her holiness and sincerity. 

According to Cleanth Brooks, Wordsworth’s sonnet “Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge” has literary significance and beauty only because of paradoxical situation. The poem holds richness not due to the poet’s skillful handling of images and nobility of emotion but because of the paradoxical situation. It conveys a wide variety of thoughts to the reader. In the poem Wordsworth says: 

“Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor, valley, rock or hill;”

The poet finds the city of London clad in beauty in the morning than Mount Snowdon; or Mont Blanc. The Thames River flows freely through London without any obstacles in her path. It appears to the poet as a part of Nature and so it is a natural thing. It is like the beautiful daffodils or the mountain brooks. In the concluding lines of the poem, Wordsworth says: 

“Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

The poet sees the city of London as an organic part; it is not an inanimate or mechanical, thing. The poet has employed the word ‘asleep’ as if the houses are living things. They are alive and contribute in the life of nature as if they are part of Nature; and not different things form her. It is important to note that the word ‘asleep’ {life} implies death at the same time when the poet observes London in the garb of death. But it is actually alive- the organic life of nature.

Thus, Wordsworth’s has employed paradoxical situation in these lines. In his famous work, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”, Wordsworth has expressed his views that his primary goal was to choose incidents and situations from the life of the rural rustics and common life. What Wordsworth wants to convey to the readers is that what is considered as common and ordinary is actually uncommon. 

Coleridge comments, “Wordsworth gives the charm and novelty to the everyday things and excites a feeling of analogous to the supernatural by awaking the mind’s attention and directing it to the business and wonders of the world before us.” 

Brooks finds in Wordsworth’s poem “Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge” both ‘awe and wonder’ of the English Romanticism. According to Brooks, they are the fantastic paradoxes employed by Wordsworth. 

It is to be noted that the neo-classic writer like Alexander Pope has also made a fine use of paradoxes along with irony; the paradoxical expressions convey a wide range of ideas to the reader. In his famous work, “Essay on Man”, Pope has handled the subject matter in a novel fashion. 

According to Cleanth Brooks, the paradoxes and irony are cradled in the poet’s language in which both connotation and denotation play a vital role. It is important to note that there is a fine blending of irony and paradoxes in some of William Wordsworth’s poems also. The works of William Blake and Thomas Gray are also no exception.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem “The Ancient Mariner” has dexterously used these poetical devices. 


Differentiation between Language of Poetry and Science:

Cleanth Brooks further differentiates between Science and Poetry. He thinks that it is the tendency of science to make terms lifeless and direct with the help of denotations. In poetry, the poet brings novelty in terms by deviating from the denotative meaning of terms and their dictionary meaning. 

Science makes use of direct expressions which are quite rigid whereas poets hint at the message and meaning of his work by employing poetical devices like paradoxes and irony, the language of poetry cannot be direct. John Donne in his poems employed many novel images, paradoxes and irony which appeal to the readers’ heart and mind. Books states that directness of language is of no use in poetry. 

Cleanth Brooks elucidates his idea with the examination of John Donne’s poem “Canonization”. The whole poem is teemed with a fine handling of paradoxes. John Donne has skillfully treated profane love as if it is platonic and divine love. The poet has implied union of bodies of lovers who seek shelter in each other’s body

According to Cleanth Brooks, John Donne deems both religion and love seriously and the paradox is his effective instrument which shocks and surprises the readers. Some critics opined that John Donne had little faith in love; he was merely sharpening his wit as a mechanical exercise. 

In the poem, “Canonization”, the speaker addresses a silent listener who may be deemed as a sign of practical world which considers love as a useless and meaningless affair. The two lovers in the poem escape from the convention, rules and bindings of the secular world. The poet says: 

“Or chide my palsie, or my gout,

My five gray haires, or ruin ‘d fortune flout.”

The lover, in these lines, tells the listener that he should not consider his love as disease and immoral and asks him to confine himself to his other flaws, his palsy and his approaching old age. The secular friend should not find faults in his love affair because no one is affected by the love affair. 

In brief, the love does no harm to anybody though it appears absurd and immoral to the world. By renouncing the physical world, the lovers get their reward by acquiring a much better position in the other world. The poet further says: 

“Call us what you will, we are made such by love

Call her one, me another fly,

We’re Tapers too, and at our own cost die.”

John Donne has employed such comparisons to the love affair. The lovers have been compared to tapers which melt when they are hold to the fire of love. The opening lines of the concluding stanza achieve great effect. The poet says: 

“We can die by it, if not live by love,

And if unfit for tombs or hearse

Our legend be, it will be fit for verse.” 

The poet has expressed commitment of the two lovers who are ready to die for love even if their love is considered immoral and absurd and the whole world goes against them. 

It is to be noted that the word ‘legend’ denotes ‘life of a saint’ here. Even if their love is not recorded in the chronicle, they would be happy to get noticed and remembered in the insignificant sonnets. John Donne has intensified the paradox by employing a metaphor of a phoenix. 

The lover was a hermitage for the beloved and she was a hermitage for him. Thus, they were one; and their love can be regarded love is perfect. The whole world could be seen reflected in their eyes in miniature. 

The poet has also compared the lovers to eagle and dove along with a phoenix. The eagle is a symbol of strength, and dove is a symbol of sobriety and tenderness. Thus the lovers hold both masculine and feminine qualities. The phoenix combines both sexes in itself. The lovers are one and they thus combine both sexes. In the fire of their passion for each other, their love is revived and regenerated and continue to become fresh and new like a phoenix. The poet says:  

“We’re Tapers too, and at our own cost die,

And we in us fined the Eagle and the Dove;

The Phoenix riddle hath more wit

By us, we two being one, are it

So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.

We die and rise the same, and prove

Mysterious by this love.”

It is important to note that the term ‘die’ meant to consummation of life or love to full extent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their love is not fully exhausted but it is regenerated and revived after consummation. Their love is like a phoenix which rises anew from its own ashes after 500 years. 

Cleanth Brooks in the concluding part of the essay states, “I submit that the only way by which the poet could say what “The Canonization” says, is by paradox.” Brooks asserts that direct expressions distort what is to be said in poetry. 


Cleanth Brooks developed a method of analyzing a literary work by embracing T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards’ methods in New Criticism. His works “Understanding Poetry” produced in collaboration with R.P. Warren established the vogue of New Criticism which emphasized close reading of the text and organic unity in the work of art. In brief, Cleanth Brooks regarded paradox as a virtue of poetry, he has shown how the literary devices like paradox, irony etc. play vital role in the meaning of the literary text by examining the works of William Wordsworth and John Donne .  

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