Brooks and Formalism

“If we heard that Mr. Guest testified that he put his heart and soul into his poems, we would not be very much impressed, though I should see no reason to doubt such a statement from Mr. Guest. It would simply be critically irrelevant…[T]he reduction of a work of literature to its causes does not constitute literary criticism; nor does an estimate of its effects,” (Brooks).

This passage from Cleanth Brooks’ My Credo indicates that Brooks has a very specific definition of what form is and what formalist criticism should (or, rather, shouldn’t) entail. While he previously mentioned his belief that form and content must be inseparable when we critique literature, he is sure to note that the writer’s intentions and motivations are not included in either of the aforementioned pair of elements. Likewise, Brooks maintains that the meanings we interpret from a work and the influence or force we perceive it to have are not welcome in a true formal criticism. To ascribe to Brooks’ definition of formalism, one must analyze the work itself as a standalone piece and ignore the external forces that critics are so tempted to draw on in their criticisms. Brooks explains that so often in these criticisms we confuse the psychology and biography of a piece of literature with its form and thus distract ourselves from gaining a true understanding of the work itself. While he concedes that these explorations are compelling, ultimately his belief is that good formalist critique means that critics must analyze a piece of literature with their blinders on.

Brooks, Cleanth. “My Credo.” Kenyon Review 13, no. 1 (Winter 1951): 72–81. <>.