English 490 Midterm
Irony or Plot: Structure as a Conduit for Universals
In his landmark essay Irony as a Principle of Structure, Cleanth Brooks argues that meaning of universal significance is related through the ironies inherent in the structure of a poem. This emphasis on structure as a conduit for meaning is reflective of the importance placed on the structure of plot in Aristotelian mimesis. In the Poetics, a "treatise on the productive science"(39) of creating epic and dramatic tragedy, plot is the element of structure that creates a unity through which ideas of universal significance are expressed. Brooks and Aristotle each purport a unity of parts which creates either ironic tensions or plot, and thereby determine a poem’s value as a conduit for universals.
Brooks insists that poetry has an organic quality which produces ironies. He suggests poetry is like a plant, with a fixed and definite organization (roots, stalk, leaf), a structure which is complete and useful. A poem, like a plant, relies on all its component parts for life; there is a fundamental arrangement within a poetic creation which depends upon interrelationships. Words are the individual building blocks of a poem, and like the cells of a plant, each must be considered individually as structurally significant. Each word is understood according to the words which surround it. It is the relationship between each of these words which creates a context out of which meaning evolves. Brooks terms the relationship between the component parts of a poem the pressures of context: just as the cells of a plant rely on adjoining cells for water, nutrients and energy, so in poems, words rely on surrounding words for their meaning. It is the structural, organic unity of the parts which allows for the production of meaning, in this case through the pressures of context.
The significance of words to the structure of poetry in Brooks’ essay finds a counterpart in Aristotle’s Poetics in the importance of the elements of plot. In order to be significant, a work must "be whole", that is , it must "have a beginning, a middle and an end"(47). Thus, Aristotle divides plot into three constituent parts: beginning (something which must be first), middle (a transformation or change in fortune), and end (something which nothing else follows, a resolution). These parts are akin to the words in a poem in Brooks’ theory in that they likewise display a unity. For example, the middle stage of the plot contains a reversal of fortune, preferably through reversal and/or recognition. The change of fortune should grow naturally from the action in the beginning of the poem. The meaning of the whole depends on the unambiguous placement of each of the constituents of plot and the organic relationship between those parts.
In Irony as a Principle of Structure, Brooks claims irony is produced by the pressures of context. These pressures define the relationship between the components of a poem (the words) and the production of meaning. Irony is a tension between multiple meanings of a word, meanings which are pressured by the presence of surrounding words and the situation in which they are said. Brooks compares poetry to drama in order to describe how pressures of context produce irony: "what is said is said in a particular situation and by a particular dramatic character"(758). Because there is always a speaker who narrates a poem, and setting for that narration, words will never exist in isolation, and must be considered in relation to, as affected by, their context. For Brooks, context forces ironies, which are the key to meaning. A successful poem "comes to terms with itself"; it does not ignore the tensions produced by context but rather acknowledges them, fusing the "irrelevant and discordant"(760). It is in these fusions that harmony exists; it is in the tensions that meaning exists.
Meaning evolves out of contextual pressures in both Brooks’ New Criticism and Aristotelian mimesis. In the Poetics, the reversal and recognition which lead directly to a change in fortune in the plot "should occur through the plot itself and not by means of deus ex machina"(53), or something external to the plot as it has developed. Context, the relationship between the parts of the whole, pressures the action of plot to be a unity. The end (blossoms) of the action should grow naturally out of the beginning (roots) and middle (stalk). Integrating Brooks’ plant metaphor seems appropriate, for Aristotelian mimesis, with its emphasis on unity, affirms the organic nature of poetry.
Aristotle describes the unity of the parts of the plot (beginning, middle and end) through the action of plot. Tragedy, according to a definition in the Poetics, "is an imitation of an action; and it is, on account of this, an imitation of men acting" (47). It is the acting which forms the cohesion of the elements of a plot; it imbues them with a lifelike quality—like life, yet not life because it is a creative imitation. Aristotle hints that the imitation of life is somehow superior to life itself, in as much as the imitation is unified and meaningful. To describe the poet’s job in creating an imitation, Aristotle claims "that it is no the function of the poet to narrate events that have actually happened, but rather, events such as they might occur according to the laws of probability and necessity"(48). In the course of any day, countless occurrences seem unrelated to the events which precede and follow them. There is no apparent causality in the narrative of an ordinary day: had a bad dream, awoke very hungry, ate a donut for breakfast, experienced slight nausea after breakfast, took the garbage to the curb, attended class, forgot to meet Dad for a lunch date. If connections exist, they are unclear. Aristotelian mimesis is superior in relating meaning because it is creative; that is, it entails selection of the events of plot in order to create meaning. So, to perform selective mimesis on the above example, the character has had dream, the content of which reflects upon a harsh judgement made by her father on the issue of her career choice, thus the character experiences physical sickness as a result of anxiety, and conveniently forgets the lunch date with Dad so as to avoid an unpleasant confrontation. The causality of each action can be gleaned from its relationship to the occurrence previous. This is how successfully constructed plots act as a conduit for universals.
Brooks finds specific, concrete particulars a required form for poetry. Particulars become metaphor. Brooks claims that metaphors, even as they risk obscuring larger themes, are absolutely necessary because "direct statement lends to abstraction and threatens to take us out of poetry altogether"(758). Making a direct statement is the equivalent to performing the drama Antigone by having Creon walk onto a bare stage to pronounce "pride leads to destruction" and then make his exit. The end. But not really even an end, or it can’t be called such, for there was no beginning or middle; there was not story, no showing without telling, in other words, no metaphor. Brooks finds poetry an effective conduit for universals precisely because the concrete language used in the creation of metaphor shies away from abstraction.
As is hinted in the previous dramatic example, particulars create meaning in the Poetics as well. Character, second to plot in the Aristotelian hierarchy of structure, is the particular, or the seed out of which actions grow. The generalizations which may be reasoned from the actions of characters concern "what sort of man turns out to say or do what sort of thing according to probability or necessity"(48). Poetry takes human beings as its subject (if for no other reason than because its structural element—language—is necessarily human), and attempts to make explanation of the human condition in terms of causes and effects of human actions.
Elements of structure serve as conduits for meaning in the theories of Brooks and Aristotle. Irony and plot function similarly to create meaning through indirection; both refuse direct statement of abstract creeds. Both rely on an organic unity of parts to produce an imitation of life, which is superior in its ability to communicate universals. If nothing else, a comparison between the Brooks’ New Criticism and Aristotelian mimesis reveals them as formalist theories, concerned with meaning inherent to the structure of the artifact itself, whether it be poetry or drama.
Aristotle. Poetics. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed.
David H. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 38-64.
Brooks, Cleanth. Irony as a Principle of Structure. The Critical Tradition: Classic
Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 758-766.