IA Richards’ concept of four kinds of meaning has played a very significant role in New Criticism and modern tensional poetics. Pointing to the difficulty of all reading and of arriving at a universal meaning, Richards, in his Practical Criticism (1929) suggests that there are several kinds of meanings and that the “total meaning” is a blend of contributory meanings which, are of different types. He identified four kinds of meaning or, the total meaning of a word depends upon four factors – Sense, Feeling, Tone and Intention, where sense refers to what is said, or the ‘items’ referred to by a writer; feeling refers to the emotion, attitude, interest, will, desire, etc towards what is being said; tone is the attitude towards the audience/ reader; and intention is the writer’s conscious or unconscious aim or the effect that s/ he is trying to produce.
Richards analysed scientific treatises, political speeches, popular science and poetry, and concluded that in our use of language, one of the functions becomes predominant and that the subject and intention determines the priority and degree of the use of other functions. The principles of a writer’s language are not simple because the furtherance of her/ his intention will interfere with the other functions. For instance, the writer of a scientific treatise puts sense first, subordinates his feeling, establishes his tone by following academic convention, and clearly states his intention, whereas in a political speech intention is predominant, feeling is its instrument to express causes and policies, tone establishes the relations with the audience and sense is the representation of facts. It is in conversation that intention may completely subjugate the others, and therefore feeling. an tone may express themselves through sense. Richards suggests that the perceptive reader should be prepared to apprehend the interplay of the four meanings, which together comprise the total meaning of the poem.