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“Slow Time,” “a Brooklet, Scarce Espied”: Close Reading, Cleanth Brooks, John Keats

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This chapter addresses the mid-twentieth-century intervention of close reading in literary studies, through Cleanth Brooks’s publications—from the 1930s classroom-projected Understanding Poetry (coedited with Robert Penn Warren, with four editions by the 1960s), to the public-pedagogy of the essays collected in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), to Brooks’s later, and late post-New-Critical reflections. This track is signposted by his evolving regard of Keats’s Odes, from disparagement to heroizing, and always with care for “the fate of the humanities.” Addressing attacks on close reading and Brooks in particular, this chapter concludes with careful attention to Keats’s first draft of Ode to Psyche (1819) to show a historically conscious, historically sharpened, smartly provisional literary aesthetic that amounts to a quiet intervention, of consequence to humanities today.

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  1. 1.

    Keats’s edition is the 2-volume Edinburg publication, 1807. The marks are on vol. I, p. 98. References to this edition hereafter use the form I:98. For the online site see Bibliography. References to Paradise Lost itself are from this edition and given by book and lines, in the form of the inset below.

  2. 2.

    Shelley, Frankenstein, vol. II, ch. IV; Wolfson and Levao edition, p. 190.

  3. 3.

    Brooks, “Artistry” 251.

  4. 4.

    Attridge, Moving Words, 8–9.

  5. 5.

    I draw this language from Breslin, From Modern to Contemporary, xiv, and Galperin, Historical Austen, 1.

  6. 6.

    Eagleton, “Ideology,” 114.

  7. 7.

    Jameson, Political Unconscious, 79.

  8. 8.

    The Well Wrought Urn is cited parenthetically hereafter.

  9. 9.

    North, “‘Close Reading,’” 141–42, 147–55. By the 1970s, Brooks and Warren had “moved quite far away” from the southern agrarianism (the “gallant” front for much segregationism) that Ransom and Warren championed with contributions to I’ll Take My Stand (Louisiana State University Press, 1930); Brooks and Warren took special care that their anthologies “should carry no hint of any editorial belief in a self-perpetuating old-style southern culture if the Confederacy had triumphed” (R. W. B. Lewis, “Afterword,” 419).

  10. 10.

    Brooks and Warren, Understanding Poetry, iv–v. This anthology is cited parenthetically hereafter.

  11. 11.

    The textbook is James Dow McCallum’s College Omnibus (1933); the comments cited are on 670, 826. The Omnibus was quite popular, a 4th edition by 1936, a 6th by 1947 (the year of The Well Wrought Urn).

  12. 12.

    Like Brooks and Warren, McCallum addresses college students and general readers, emphasizing the connection of poetry to their lives in the world, but unlike Brooks and Warren, situating poetic forms and themes in relation to social and political upheavals, from the French Revolution to World War I, from the advent of science and industry. Brooks’s citing Coleridge on the imagination as a force of “unity” (Well Wrought Urn 230) was preceded by McCallum (1019). McCallum’s prompt for Nightingale is only one of nine questions; others concern poetic forms, themes, and historical diction. The 1936 introduction to Keats concludes with a close reading of the first stanza of The Eve of St. Agnes to show the accumulating effects of the imagery, and the bearing on a poem in which “high passion” blends into “sensory appeals to make it not only graphic but gripping” (1021). The first edition of Omnibus (1933) had more Keats than Understanding Poetry, the 4th edition (1936) still more, a selection that held through the 6th edition.

  13. 13.

    There is no comma in the first publications, Lamia & c (116) or Annals of the Fine Arts 4.15 (January 1820), 639, nor even in any manuscript (Stillinger, “Transcripts”).

  14. 14.

    The tale of the comma is curious. It hangs on in the 2nd, 1950 edition of Understanding Poetry (476) but is gone, with scholarly-footnote fanfare, by the 1960 3rd edition (432); yet it’s still in Well Wrought Urn’s appendix of texts (263), 1947 and thereafter. My guess is that Brooks’s immediate analogue, King Lear’s “Ripeness is all.”––with this period (141, 151)––had him conjuring a similar punctuated summation for Keats’s that is all (missing the enjambment to that is all / Ye know… for which syntax a comma has no sense). In a personal correspondence, Amanda Louise Johnson reports that she’s also been on the comma-trail for an essay she’s developing on a very different subject (August 26, 2020).

  15. 15.

    May 3, 1818; Keats, Letters, 1:279. I thank Christopher Rovee for the sharp catch of overwrought design and its agonized subjects (Ode, line 42) as the embedded antonym of well wrought.

  16. 16.

    Brooks, “Wit,” 31; “Notes for a Revised History,” 238, and similar phrasing in “Artistry,” 251.

  17. 17.

    Gallop, “Fate,” 16.

  18. 18.

    I’ve written about this in Formal Charges, especially in the Introduction. See also my fuller bibliography. M. H. Abrams provides an informative account of literary study in the era before Brooks’s interventions (“Transformation of English Studies,” 106–9).

  19. 19.

    Brooks, “New Criticism,” 81–83.

  20. 20.

    Levinson, “New Formalism?,” 559, 562. For my reply, see “Formings without Formalism.” Rigorously historicist that she is, I think she knows the signifying (political, cultural, and literary) of “New Formalist” in previous decades: a 1940s slur on academia, and an Eisenhower-era, then Reagan-era reaction against cultural license and laxness.

  21. 21.

    Understanding Poetry, 637.

  22. 22.

    “The complexity of certain words,” comments Michael Wood, “the accumulation of their many meanings and uses, defies the very notion of anything as stable as a structure” (On Empson, 21).

  23. 23.

    We know the stories from feminist and gender criticism, including my own, on Keats’s vexed and wavering anxieties and operations. See my Borderlines, 205–84. In a unit on Ode on Melancholy in An Approach to Literature, 1953, Brooks and his coeditors describe with a pang the problematic aesthetic of the speaker’s regard of his lover’s “rich anger”: “he patronizes her … does not treat her as an equal”; “her anger is … not a serious matter … merely important as [it] sets off her beauty to advantage” for “connoisseur” savoring (357).

  24. 24.

    Brooks, “Mr. Kazin’s America,” 56.

  25. 25.

    Chapter 1, 1–19.

  26. 26.

    Sperry, Keats the Poet, 242; Sperry pays exceptional attention to Psyche (249–61).

  27. 27.

    Ms. l.52, sequence 267. Hereafter cited parenthetically in text, by sequence number. I use the letter-text for its for its framing by Keats’s historically inflected headnote and postscript. Compare Letters, 2:106–8, with minor variants. All print editions—the best is Stillinger’ (364–66)—are based on the 1820 text of the ode. I apply my own line numbers.

  28. 28.

    De Man, “Literary History and Literary Modernity,” 150, 161.

  29. 29.

    Keats had Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary (1788) for Apuleius, with this entry for PSYCHE: “The word signifies the soul.” Neither psyche nor psychology is in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) but OED lists contemporaneous treatises in which psychology names a science of mind or soul.

  30. 30.

    Hartley, Observations, Part I, Section III (p. 354).

  31. 31.

    Gittings, 50–51. No dictionary has chonched; Keats’s 1820 publishers tidied to conched (shell-like). I rather like the lexical mystery that Keats preserved in his two manuscripts.

  32. 32.

    Brooks, Well Wrought Urn, 8, 192, without citing the essays of 1921 (in The Sacred Wood) and 1924 (“The Metaphysical Poets”)—history without footnotes, here, anyway.

  33. 33.

    Brooks summons Eliot’s appreciation of metaphysical poetics to read Keats as a poet for whom senses and intellect are continuous “to the very nerve ends” (“Artistry,” 246–47).

  34. 34.

    The work of Garrett Stewart is the fount of this attention, beginning with Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (1990). I’ve written a related essay on the occasion of Angela Leighton’s Hearing Things: The Work of Sound in Literature (2019).

  35. 35.

    Keats affects a retro-Middle-English spelling of adieu.

  36. 36.

    Spenser, The Faerie Queene, III.IV.5.

  37. 37.

    Spenser, Sonnet XXII: 5–8.

  38. 38.

    Wordsworth, Excursion (1814), Prospectus, xi–xii. Keats echoes the last phrase in a letter, May 3, 1819 (Letters, 1:279). Letters cited hereafter parenthetically.

  39. 39.

    Ruskin, Modern Painters, 88.

  40. 40.

    Sperry, “Romantic Irony,” 249. Miller, Surprise, 216.

  41. 41.

    Brooks, “In Search of,” 2.

  42. 42.

    Chapter 1, 1–19.

  43. 43.

    Mao’s characterization (which his essay incisively contests); Mao, “New Critics,” 227.

  44. 44.

    “Reading in Slow Motion” (1959); In Defense of Reading, ed. Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962), 5–6.

  45. 45.

    I’m very grateful to Chris Rovee and Garrett Stewart for alert conversation on my essay, and to Eta Nurulhady for timely research assistance.


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Wolfson, S.J. (2021). “Slow Time,” “a Brooklet, Scarce Espied”: Close Reading, Cleanth Brooks, John Keats. In: Sridhar, A., Hosseini, M.A., Attridge, D. (eds) The Work of Reading. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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