In The Language of Paradox Cleanth Brooks takes on the language of poetry, stating that at its core poetry is the language of paradox. Brooks bases his position on the contradictions that are inherent in poetry and his feelings that if those contradictions didn't exist then neither would some of the best poetry we have today Using works from Wordsworth to Shakespeare Brooks shows how the only way some ideas can be expressed is through paradox. His best example of this idea is from Coleridge’s description of imagination: “Reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete;”
Wordsworth himself, Brooks points out, let the intention of paradox be read in his poetry, when he admitted that his purpose was “to choose incidents and situations from common life”, but to handle them in such a way that “ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect”. Wordsworth, who is entirely simple and pure as a poet, is also a paradoxical poet in his typical poems such as “It is a Beauteous Evening” where evening is compared to a nun:
“It is a beauteous evening calm and free
The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration.”
Brooks says, if paradox was the basis of romanticism, it was amply used by the neo—classicists in their poetry. The romantics used it to arouse wonder and to awaken the mind to the new beauties which were ignored as commonplace and trivial but the new classical poets used it in ironical way. We find such irony throughout in Pope’s Essay on Man:
“Created half to rise, and half to fall
Great lord of things, yet a pray to all
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurdled,
The glory, the jest and riddle of the world.”
However paradoxes, which arouse both wonder and irony are more clearly mixed in the poetry of Blake, Coleridge and Gray. Paradox is a fusion or the union if the opposites and the discordant. This fusion is brought about by the imagination of the poet. This imagination is creative and it creates ever new combinations of discordant and the unconceivable. Donne had this quality in abundance. Here are some examples quoted and illustrated by Brooks in essay:
“Or the King’s real, or his stamped face.”
“What merchant ships have my sigh drowned?”
“We can die by it, if not live by love.”
Every poem has to be in The Language of Paradox, using the word in the sense that Cleanth Brooks uses it. It is all right for a critic to draw attention to this, but there is no need to take p so many pages doing it. The Language of Paradox lays out Brooks' argument for the centrality of paradox by demonstrating that paradox is: “the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry." The argument is based on the contention that referential language is too vague for the specific message a poet expresses; he must “make up his language as he goes."
R.S. Crane, in his essay "The Critical Monism of Cleanth Brooks," argues strongly against Brooks’ centrality of paradox. For one, Brooks believes that the very structure of poetry is paradox, and ignores the other subtleties of imagination and power that poets bring to their poems. Brooks simply believed: “’Imagination’ reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.”
Brooks, in leaning on the crutch of paradox, only discusses the truth which poetry can reveal, and speaks nothing about the pleasure it can give. (231) Also, by defining poetry as uniquely having a structure of paradox, Brooks ignores the power of paradox in everyday conversation and discourse, including scientific discourse, which Brooks claimed was opposed to poetry. Crane claims that, using Brooks’ definition of poetry, the most powerful paradoxical poem in modern history is Einstein’s formula E = mc2, which is a profound paradox in that matter and energy are the same thing. The argument for the centrality of paradox (and irony) becomes a reduction as absurdum and is therefore void (or at least ineffective) for literary analysis.
In The Language of Paradox Brooks proposed a New Critical concept of “paradox” as the distinguishing feature of literary language, though this concept is not much different from the concept of “tension” by Allen Tate, or even the idea of “defamiliarization” of the Russian Formalists.