Formalism, Irony, and

“Ozymandias” and Irony
Formalist Criticism
Critical "Lens:" Formalism
Formalism assumes that all that is needed in order to
interpret a poem or a work of literature is contained
within the poem itself.
Formalist critics…
• are mostly unconcerned about historical/cultural
context and biographical information about the
• are very concerned with sound, form, word choice,
literary effects, and "close reading." ("Close reading"
is a detailed analysis of the literary effects produced
by a work without referring to outside influences.)
• Formalism began in the 1920's as a reaction
against the current literary criticism that
Formalists thought focused only on the life of
the author and concerns outside of the
literature itself.
Three Influential Formalist Critics:
• T.S. Elliot
• Robert Penn Warren
• Cleanth Brooks
Questions formalists might ask:
• What are the effects produced by this work? (Formalists
differentiate between effects and feelings.) For example, they
might be drawn to the way Robert Browning cleverly unfolds
the story of "My Last Duchess" or the use of irony in
• How do individual word choices, sound patterns, and other
literary devices combine to create this effect?
• What are some of the tensions in this work (between ideas,
between forces, between people…)? How do the things
discussed above (rhyme, sound patterns, imagery, etc) create,
then heighten or lessen those tensions?
• Is this work internally consistent? How does it maintain that
• If the work contains literary allusions, how do those allusions
function within the confines of the poem?
Introduction to Irony
• Irony occurs when "a discrepancy exists
between two levels of meaning and
– Dramatic irony: The reader knows something the
characters don’t.
– Situational Irony: The outcome of a situation
drastically upsets readers’ expectations.
– Verbal Irony: Saying one thing and meaning another.
(Sarcasm is an example of this.)
• The section on irony is on p. 499 of your
"Ozymandias" by Percy Shelley p. 501
• A couple of difficult words before we start:
– Trunkless: In this case, a body lacking a torso
– Visage: Face
• How does the author create irony here? What
specific words does he use that make the poem
particularly ironic? Be sure to tell me how the
words you choose answer this question.
• Why did Ozymandias (the guy who the statue is
of) want people to "despair"?
• Why might people still "despair" when they see
the statue, but for different reasons?
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