Literary Criticism and Process Thought: Blackmur, Brooks, Sartre, and Whitehead

by C. Carter Colwell

C. Carter Colwell is Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Stetson University, DeLand, Florida.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 183-192, Vol. 2, Number 3, Fall, 1972. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


This essay shows how three quite different criteria can be reconciled within the framework of Whitehead’s thought. Blackmur is concerned with the “poet’s version of the actual.” Brooks’ thought is about the establishment of an experience that shall be structurally faithful to the complexity which is generically characteristic of reality. Sartre’s emphasis is on freedom and individual time.

Whiteheadian ontology and epistemology illuminate many areas of debate. One such area concerns critical evaluation of literature, particularly when the standards involved have differing philosophical implications. The three critics R. P. Blackmur, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Cleanth Brooks, although varying in the explicitness with which they affirm the criteria and their philosophical bases, all make value judgments that have such implications. This paper will show how three quite different criteria can be reconciled within the framework of Whitehead’s thought.

In the discussion that follows, one work by each writer is assumed to embody his respective position: Blackmur’s Form and Value in Modern Poetry (FVMP), Sartre’s Literary and Philosophical Essays (LPE), Brooks’s The Well-Wrought Urn (WWU), and Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas (AI). Our present concern with the systematic relationship of ideas rather than history or biography warrants such restriction, to set aside the question, "Did he always think thus?"

The three critics all base their evaluations upon criteria of truth. They have in common the formal criterion that literature is good insofar as it is true to reality; they differ in their specifications as to what that reality is. In fact, the three aspects of reality emphasized by Blackmur, Brooks, and Sartre, respectively, may be distinguished in terms of the three basic phases of an actual occasion as analyzed by Whitehead.

Blackmur judges the poetry of Hardy, of Wallace Stevens, of Yeats, of D. H. Lawrence, according to the following implied premise: Good poetry provides an objectification of material (i.e., preconscious experience: the impact of things upon a person, in which the person is passive) within a framework of ideas, the consequent -- not prior -- emotion resulting from apprehension of the material rather than of the ideas.1

The verdicts differ. Having identified Hardy’s pervasive ideas as "obsessions that have to do mainly with love, time, memory, death, and nature, and have to do mainly with the disloyalty, implacability, or mechanical fatality of these" (FVMP 4), Blackmur judges Hardy’s poems unfavorably: the ideas are separable because too rigid; the emotion precedes rather than follows the material. Thus Hardy "evidently preferred to assault his material with an emotion, preferably violent, and an idea, preferably distraught, in either hand" (FVMP 13). This separability is a fault not only because it violates the aesthetic principle of unity, held in some form by any theory of beauty. More particularly, separability of idea and emotion means the poems fail to objectify their material. The essay "Examples of Wallace Stevens" argues at length that the agent by which Stevens informs material is not strictly an idea, but the form of idea itself -- rhetoric, and then delivers a positive verdict: his poetry meets the criterion. The essays on Yeats differ in leaving the specific verdict to the discretion of the reader; they are intended (especially the first) to answer only the preliminary question as to what constitute Yeats’s pervading ideas. The context within which the reader is to make his judgment, however, is the same. The essay on D. H. Lawrence investigates the opposite flaw to rigidity of ideas -- the almost complete absence of form. Thus there is reference to "Lawrence’s increasing disregard of the control of rationally conceived form and his incipient indifference, in the very last poems, to the denotative functions of language" (FVMP 264). The concept of form is expanded, as it is with Stevens, to include more than idea. But the effect of Lawrence’s error is the same as that of Hardy’s, loss of objectivity. The loss comes from the same failure, although by a different excess, to maintain the proper relationship between idea, emotion, and material.

Blackmur’s criterion is the objectification of the preconscious impact of things upon a person. I equate the preconscious impact with the givenness of the initial datum. For Blackmur, the personal should be shunned in favor of the objective. Thus in Hardy’s best poetry, "all that was personal -- the private drive, the private grief -- is cut away and the impersonal is left bare, an old monument, mutilated or weathered as you like to call it, of that fact which the personal only hides" (FVMP 30). "The true piety here exemplified consists in the celebration of things for their own sake and not for the sake of the act of feeling" (FVMP 12). Whitehead says that "two conditions must be fulfilled in order that an entity may function as an object in a process of experiencing: (1) the entity must be antecedent, and (2) the entity must be experienced in virtue of its antecedence: it must be given" (Al 229). This is an insistence upon the independence of the object from the individuality, one might say from the distinctive personality, of the occasion whose object it is. The initial phase of the occasion is preeminently the phase of the object. In Whitehead’s terms, Blackmur’s "objectification" would be retention within consciousness, which arises as a consequence of higher phases of feeling. Blackmur is concerned with the "poet’s version of the actual" (FVMP 11), which in Whitehead’s terms is the conformation of appearance to reality.

It should be noted that Whitehead is not using "reality" as applicable to the whole of the occasion, but only to the initial phase. The objectivity of this initial phase, as it is effective within the occasion, is the physical pole of the occasion; whereas "‘appearance’ is the effect of the activity of the mental pole" (AI 270). This division into mental and physical poles is reproduced in Blackmur’s dichotomy between the ideas which grasp material and the material which is grasped. Blackmur wants ideas to include rather than to exclude material. Hardy’s work thus suffers because his "idea-patterns... were held rather as rigid frames to limit experience so far as possible, and to substitute for what they could not enclose" (FVMP 3). In contrast, "It is the certification of craft [the poetic use of ideas] that what it handles it makes actual: objective, authoritative, anonymous" (FVMP 11). Such activity -- Blackmur’s interaction of idea-patterns with objective experience -- occurs for Whitehead in the intermediate phases, in which "the initial objective content is still there. But it is overlaid by, and intermixed with, the novel hybrid prehensions derived from integration with the conceptual ferment" (AI 270). Blackmur’s concern is that the overlay be as transparent as possible, for "the celebration [of things, of material] becomes poetic when the things are so put together as to declare their own significance, when they can be taken to mean just what they are -- when the form, the meter, the various devices of poetry merely provide the motion of the meaning" (FVMP 12). Blackmur calls this transparency, which occurs in successful poetry, making actual or making objective (FVMP 11, quoted above). Whitehead would see it as the retention of what was objective to start with, as a conformation of appearance to reality.

Blackmur is concerned with fidelity to the past, to what has been given. Brooks, however, is not concerned with fidelity to any content, but with the establishment of an experience that shall be structurally faithful (see WWU 177) to the complexity which is generically characteristic of reality. "The truth which the poet utters can be approached only in terms of paradox" (WWU 3); "the common goodness which the poems share will have to be stated . . . in terms of structure" (WWU 177). In The Well-Wrought Urn, he tests this criterion by applying it to works acknowledged to be good: good poetry communicates or induces an experience that reflects the structural complexity of reality by presenting elements (emotional and/or ideational) that are in conflict with one another, and are unified by the state of tension (unique for each poem) which enables all to be affirmed and none to be denied.

Various poetic works are analyzed to show that they are in some way or other paradoxical, and that the paradoxes are central to "the total experience that is the poem." Thus, Donne’s "The Canonization" paradoxically unites the secular and the sacred, profane love and holy love; it "welds together the discordant and the contradictory" (WWU 17). In "The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness," Brooks discusses how two recurrent images define the poetic texture of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. One is apparently paradoxical, the other is genuinely paradoxical. "Certainly, the final and climactic appearance of the babe symbol merges all the contradictory elements of the symbol" (WWU 45). Since seriously meant paradox defines good poetry, it is no accident that "the babe turns out to be, as a matter of fact, perhaps the most powerful symbol in the tragedy" (WWU 37). Together, in conjunction, the two images are paradoxical and "furnish Shakespeare with his most subtle and ironically telling instruments" (WWU 47).

"Corinna’s Going a-Maying" is shown to contain elements drawn from two conflicting views, the pagan hedonist and the Christian. Discussion of the last stanza, however, using such terms as "reconcilement of the conflicting claims," "viable relation," and particularly "resolution" (WWU 66) suggests that the paradox of the double attitude is to be abandoned. But Brooks denies that this is his intention by referring the reader to the poem itself for detailed understanding of the resolution (WWU 67). It is worthy of note that the reader is not referred to the last stanza alone, in which the "resolution" takes place, but rather to the entire poem. The reason is not, I take it, that the facts must be known if one is to understand the author’s choice between alternatives, but rather that the resolution is in fact the retention of both the conflicting aspects,2 and therefore exemplifies the truly paradoxical quality Brooks is seeking to establish as the generic characteristic of poetry faithful to reality.

This preservation of elements in conflict is identified by Whitehead as a primary characteristic of beauty: "its use [is] to preserve the massive qualitative variety of Reality from simplification by negative prehensions" (AI 335). But the point at issue is not the teleology of the structure, especially since Whitehead here makes fidelity to reality subordinate to the production of certain feeling-states; but whether such structure is particularly faithful to the nature of the intermediate phase of an occasion. Whitehead’s description of the intermediate phase can be paralleled with quotations from Brooks. In the following pairs of quotations, note the similarities between the roles of concept and intellect, the role of the past, the processes of integration-reintegration and mutual modification, and the resulting definition of an experience. On the roles of concept and intellect:

The intermediate stage in this transition [from the primary phase of re-enaction to the final phase of anticipation] is constituted by the acquisition of novel content. . . . This novel content is composed of positive conceptual prehensions, that is to say, of conceptual feelings. (AI 248)

Brooks quotes Coleridge, with emphatic approval:

In Shakespeare’s poems, the creative power and the intellectual energy wrestle as in a war embrace. . . At length, in the drama they were reconciled, and fought each with its shield before the breast of the other. (WWU 25)

On the role of the past (the quotations from Whitehead are consecutive):

These conceptual feelings become integrated with the physical prehensions of antecedent occasions, and thus yield propositions concerning the past. (AI 248)

Out of the experiences of many May mornings, and out of his experiences of Catullus, and possibly out of a hundred other experiences, [Herrick] fashions, probably through a process akin to exploration, the total experience which is the poem. (WWU 69)

The processes of integration-reintegration and of mutual modification:

These propositions are again integrated and re-integrated with each other and with conceptual feelings, and yield other propositions. (AI 248)

We shall expect to find the individual images . . . organically related . . . and mutually modifying each other. (WWU 26) Apparent irrelevancies.. . function in a good poem to modify, qualify, and develop the total attitude which we are to take in coming to terms with the total situation. (WWU 191)

The resulting definition of an experience:

Finally propositions emerge concerning the constitution of the immediate subject. (AI 248)

The characteristic unity of a poem . . . lies in the unification of attitudes into a hierarchy subordinated to a total and governing attitude. . . . The conclusion of the poem is the working out of the various tensions -- set up by whatever means -- by propositions, metaphors, symbols. The unity is achieved by a dramatic process, not a logical; it represents an equilibrium of forces, not a formula. (WWU 189)

The intermediate phase is preeminently the phase of prehending. It is in this phase that the structural complexity of the immediate occasion is constituted. The preceding description may seem to emphasize integration rather more than Brooks does, But, just as Brooks’s criterion necessitates some unity,3 so the multiplicity of prehensions that constitute an occasion are minimally unified in that they do in fact constitute one occasion. "Throughout the universe there reigns the union of opposites which is the ground of dualism" (AI 345). As Brooks says, "Indeed, almost any insight important enough to warrant a great poem apparently has to be stated in such terms," that is, "by means of paradox" (WWU 16).

Whitehead is describing the generic properties of all actual occasions; Brooks, on the other hand, is setting forth a criterion that will distinguish between good poetry and bad poetry. There is an apparent contradiction here, which was absent in Blackmur’s case. Blackmur’s criterion required the preservation of the characteristics of one phase of an occasion within the following phase. Brooks, however, is using a characteristic of all occasions to distinguish some as better than others. The distinction depends, of course, on degree. Brooks is asking for the strongest instances of structural complexity, which will clearly introduce it into the conscious mind; not, perhaps, as an object of contemplation, but as an effective agent within the experience, whose stresses are definitely felt. "The poem, if it be a true poem, is a simulacrum of reality -- in this sense, at least, it is an ‘imitation’ -- by being an experience rather than any mere statement about experience or any mere abstraction from experience" (WWU 194).

The third critic whose poetic criterion fits Whitehead’s ontology so neatly is Sartre. In Literary and Philosophical Essays Sartre evaluates novels by François Mauriac, Albert Camus, Jean Giraudoux, and William Faulkner. Sartre’s premise: A good novel induces in the reader a sense of the free, creative, and temporally extending nature of the self.

Mauriac’s La Fin de la Nuit is judged bad because its heroine is not free. "Because Therese’s freedom has been doled out with a dropper, it no more resembles real freedom than her mind resembles a real mind" (LPE 18). She is not free partly because of the author’s omniscience: "The reader of a novel does not want to be God. In order for my duration to the transfused into the veins of Therese and Marie Desqueyroux, I must, at least once, be unaware of their fate and impatient to know it" (LPE 19).

Sartre sees Camus’ philosophy of the absurd as a philosophy of fragmentation, calling it "the analytic assumption that any reality is reducible to a sum total of elements . . ." (LPE 37). He therefore praises Camus’ appropriately fragmentary style (short sentences, use of the present perfect tense, and elimination of words signifying causal relationship or temporally extended duration). But he judges the novel negatively at the end of the essay because the apparently disconnected and random events of the book are in fact coherent: they, not free selves, are the mechanical causes which effect the book’s conclusion. It is an "orderly work, composed about the absurd and against the absurd" (LPE 41). This mechanical efficacy denies freedom, although the novel successfully uses an objective point of view (not, of course, an omniscient point of view) to make the reader infer a self behind the evidence. "The character of the protagonist thus retains a real opacity even to the absurd-conscious observer. . . . He is there before us, he exists, and we can neither understand him nor quite judge him. In a word, he is alive, and all that can justify him to us is his fictional destiny" (LPE 32).

The essay "Jean Giraudoux and the Philosophy of Aristotle" attacks Choix des Elues because it "has banished every possible element of surprise or bewilderment, including evolution, development, disorder and novelty" (LPE 50). It presents people as things. Faulkner’s Sartoris is similarly judged: "What do we see? Only gestures, no more than we could see from the outside" (LPE 74). The fault is not the external vision per se, but that there is no self behind the gestures to be inferred; the only inner essence Faulkner manages to suggest "is a thing, a spirit-thing, an opaque, solidified spirit behind consciousness" (LPE 77). The Sound and the Fury is similarly criticized because it denies to its characters an open future. The success possible to Faulkner’s "extraordinary art" is that, in describing "our suffocation and a world dying of old age" (LPE 87) he communicates his own existential attitude toward it: the self the reader may apprehend is Faulkner, freely choosing to be a determinist.

The terms on which Sartre places the greatest emphasis are freedom and the individual time.4 The first of these terms would seem to suggest an equivalence between the reality Sartre seeks in poetry and the supplemental phases of the actual occasion, which include for Whitehead both the actively creative phase (see AI quoted above) and the region of the occasion’s. "Our claim for freedom is rooted in our relationship to our contemporary environment" (AI 251). If freedom lies in contemporaneity, it should be sought neither in the first phase, which looks to the past, nor in the final phase, which looks to the future. "The mutual independence of contemporary occasions lies strictly within the sphere of their teleological self-creation. . . . The immediate activity of self-creation is separate and private, so far as contemporaries are concerned" (AI 252). The "immediate activity" is the primary characteristic of the intermediate phase of the occasion; and teleology too inheres in the intermediate phase: "the occasion arises as an effect facing its past and ends as a cause facing its future. In between there lies the teleology of the Universe" (AI 249). Furthermore, Whitehead finds the focus of an occasion’s selfhood within the intermediate rather than the final phase: "Thus a subject’s own constitution involves that its own activity in self-formation passes into its activity of other-formation" (AI 248).

But Sartre is not concerned with the self-creativity of occasions: he is concerned with the self-creativity of persons. "Do you want your characters to live? See to it that they are free" (LPE 7). He refers constantly to the time of the individual person, and is concerned with the intimate relationship between freedom and duration.5 There is no time within an actual occasion: time for Whitehead lies between occasions, not within them. Therefore, if Sartre’s criterion can be understood with reference to some aspect of Whitehead’s ontology, it must be with reference to an aspect of the occasion that involves it beyond itself.

The nature of consciousness implies . . . that it project itself into the future. . . . You will not recognize within yourself Faulkner’s man, a creature bereft of possibilities and explicable only in terms of what he has been. . . . Man is not the sum of what he has, but the totality of what he does not yet have, of what he might have. (LPE 86)

Among the phases of an occasion, choice is clearly limited to the initial and the final. The first is obviously inappropriate, because the initial phase is preeminently determined, not free; passive, not creative. This immanence of the past in the present is "according to the mode of efficient causality" (AI 254).

Whitehead must, of course, indicate how distinction is to be made between persons and things, for although he has denied a radical dualism, there are obvious empirical differences. The whole of Sartre’s argument rests on this distinction between persons and things. (Note the contrast, cited above, which Sartre makes between the selves Faulkner does not create and the things he does create.) Whitehead makes the distinction in terms that involve the relationship of the present to the future, as he distinguishes two kinds of societies of occasions.

If the mental activity involves no introduction of ideal novelty, then the supplemental phase is not significantly a modification of the first phase, and there is a reign of acquiescence. In this way, a region of such occasions [such as a stone] assumes the aspect of passive submission to imposed laws of nature. But when there is conceptual novelty made effective by its re-iteration and by the added emphasis on it throughout a chain of co-ordinated occasions, we have the aspect of an enduring person with a sustained purpose originated by that person and made effective in the person’s environment. Thus in this case the anticipation of kinship with the future assumes the form of purpose to transform concept into fact. (AI 249f)

This is an expression of what Whitehead calls the "Doctrine of Conformation of Feeling" (AI 235) as it may be elaborated when the string of occasions considered is a personally ordered society. It is Whitehead’s explanation of the unity and continuity that each man intuits as characteristic of himself. The unity and continuity are not the distinctively creative aspect of a single occasion; they are rather the impetus of a significantly creative occasion toward the future. They depend, of course, upon the creativity supremely manifest within the intermediate phases. But they are not characteristics of an occasion’s selfhood. Unity and continuity of purpose are rather the distinctive characteristics of a personal self; they are the occasion’s creativity in the mode of anticipation of the future. This is the final phase. White-head’s chapter on ‘The Grouping of Occasions" in which he is specifically concerned with the characteristics of humanity, concludes: "the very essence of life . . . is conformation of purpose." "Purpose is the word for which Sartre would substitute "freedom and duration." The reality to which Sartre would have novels be true6 is therefore the final phase of an actual occasion in its role of anticipation towards a relevant future.

Discussion of Sartre has entailed an attention to time that was unnecessary with respect to Blackmur and Brooks. It may need to be explicitly recognized that none of the three critics is thinking in terms of aesthetic experiences of the temporal magnitude -- a tenth of a second -- that Whitehead estimates for a human occasion. Criticisms against the identifications we have made between the three criteria and the three phases of an occasion, based on such temporal considerations, would take us too far afield, but two observations might be in order. First, the appropriateness of Whitehead to Blackmur’s criterion is even stronger if one understands the former to assert that even occasions in the distant past may be prehended directly, particularly occasions in one’s own personal society. Second, it seems to me that Brooks tends to think of poems as essentially nondevelopmental. The most obvious expression of this attitude is his frequent reference to the reading of a poem as an experience.

The criteria of truth used by these three critics are clearly not incompatible. Application of their criteria to the same work might, however, produce conflicting judgments. They may easily be reconciled with each other, if negative judgments are abandoned, and only positive judgments are retained. But the critics do make negative judgments. Sartre is the most emphatic in his rejection of works that do not satisfy his criterion of literary (novelistic) worth. However, what Sartre really rejects is not works that do not give any feeling of new selfhood, but works that pervert the notion of selfhood. Blackmur’s negative valuations, on the other hand, are rejections of failures to reobjectify rather than of poems that reobjectify falsely. If the three criteria are really compatible, an explanation of such negative judgments is needed. One could be constructed by means of a theory of literary genres.

If each of the criteria clearly applied to different genres, then a literary typology with ontological roots would be implicit in what has been said already. This is almost the case; Blackmur and Sartre apply their criteria to different genres in the conventional sense (poetry and fiction). Blackmur’s emphasis upon the initial phase of an actual occasion and Sartre’s emphasis upon the final phase are reflected in their criticisms’ respective emphasis upon re-objectification, and upon personal freedom (or, the openness of the future). One would therefore expect most difficulty in applying Blackmur’s and Sartre’s criteria to the same work. The blurring of the typological outlines occurs when one examines Brooks. Brooks’s criterion, fidelity to the intermediate phase of an actual occasion, lies between the other two both ontologically and in the possibilities of practical use.



FVMP -- R. P. Blackmur, Form and Value in Modern Poetry. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1957.

WWU -- Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn. New York: Cornwall, 1947.

LPE -- Jean-Paul Sartre, Literary and Philosophical Essays, trans. Annette Michelson. New York: Criterion, 1955.



1 The vocabulary is Blackmur’s (material, idea, emotion); the parenthetical definition of material, crucial to the argument of this paper, is mine. Its justification lies in such statements of Blackmur’s as those we quote.

2 "Any statement which we attempt to abstract from the whole context as the meaning’ of the poem is seen to be qualified and modified by the context of the poem taken as a whole" (WWU 174). The same point is made when Pope’s "The Rape of the Lock" is shown to embody a "total situation," not choosing between convention and economic or biological necessity, but recognizing both the seriousness and the triviality of the rape. "It is, finally, the delicate balance and reconciliation of a host of partial interpretations and attitudes" (WWU 94).

3 In L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, "Milton could not afford to exploit mere contrast. If he had, the two halves would have been driven poles apart. They would have ceased to be twin halves of one poem, for the sense of unity in variety would have been lost" (WWU 75).

4 The title of Sartre’s first essay is "Francois Mariac and Freedom." To explain the negative judgment of La Fin de la Nuit, Sate says, "We must go back to the question of freedom (LPE 9). "The book has disappointed me. Not for a moment was I taken in, never did I forget my time" (LPE 8; italics his). The connection between freedom and time (and between them and selfhood or personal identity) appears clearly in Sartre’s insistence that the good novel present a self shaping an open future, not a puppet ruled by the past whose end is contained in his beginning: "But in order for the duration of my impatience and ignorance to be caught and then moulded and finally presented to me as the flesh of these creatures of invention, the novelist must know how to draw it into the trap, how to hollow out in his book, by means of signs at his disposal, a time resembling my own, one in which the future does not exist. If I suspect that the hero’s future actions are determined in advance . . . my own time ebbs back into me; there remains only myself" (LPE 7).

5 Sartre finds in the "irreversibility of time" the unconditioned quality of freedom; the past and the future are radically different. "M. Camus calls The Stranger a ‘novel.’ The novel, however, requires continuous duration, development and the manifest presence of the irreversibility of time. I would hesitate somewhat to use the term ‘novel’ for this succession of inert present moments which allow us to see, from underneath, the mechanical economy of something deliberately staged" (LPE 41).

6 The equation of "un-novelistic" with "untrue" is but one of many indications that "novelistic" and "true" -- to the nature of selfhood as Sartre understands it -- are synonymous. "Why have Faulkner and so many other writers chosen this particular absurdity which is so unnovelistic and so untrue?" (LPE 87).