Key Theories of Wimsatt and Beardsley

In addition to their other works, the critic Wimsatt (1907–1975) and the philosopher Beardsley (1915–1985) produced two influential and controversial papers that propounded central positions of New Criticism, “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946) and The Affective Fallacy (1949). In the first of these, they lay down certain propositions that they take to be axiomatic: while acknowledging that the cause of a poem is a “designing intellect,” they refuse to accept the notion of design or intention as a standard of literary-critical interpretation. 1 In stating their second “axiom,” they raise the question of how a critic might find out what a poet’s intention was and state what is effectively their central claim: “If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem – for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem.” The third axiom is the American poet Archibald’s MacLeish’s statement that a “poem should not mean but be.” Wimsatt and Beardsley explain this statement as follows: “A poem can be only through its meaning – since its medium is words – yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant . . . In this respect poetry differs from practical messages, which are successful if and only if we correctly infer the intention” (VI, 4–5). This is an effective restatement of a New Critical position that the poem is an autonomous verbal structure which has its end in itself, which has no purpose beyond its own existence as an aesthetic object. It is not answerable to criteria of truth, accuracy of representation or imitation, or morality. Finally, Wimsatt and Beardsley insist that the thoughts and attitudes of a poem can be imputed only to the dramatic speaker or persona of the poem, not directly to the author (VI, 5).

w_and_bThe foregoing “axioms” are merely stated rather than argued. The first argument of the essay is Horatian: a poem, once published, no longer belongs to the author but to the public: “It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge” (VI, 5). The implication here is that, as an object in public language, the poem is available to the public for interpretation; the author has no privileged claim over language and his word outside of the poem cannot be taken as somehow authoritative. They acknowledge that an author can offer useful practical advice for a would-be poet, but such advice falls under the “psychology of composition rather than criticism” (VI, 9).

What Wimsatt and Beardsley are opposing is what they take to be a Romantic intentional fallacy: the Romantic idea, expressed in ancient times by Longinus and more recently by figures such as the great German writer Goethe and the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, that a poem echoes the soul of its author, that it embodies his intentions or psychological circumstances (VI, 6). The most influential recent statement of intentionalism, according to the authors of this essay, is I. A. Richards’ fourfold characterization of meaning as “sense,” “feeling,” “tone,” and “intention.” The passwords of the intentional school are Romantic words such as “spontaneity,” “sincerity,” “authenticity,” and “originality.” These need to be replaced, say the authors, with terms of analysis such as “integrity,” “relevance,” “unity,” and “function,” terms which they claim to be more precise (VI, 9).

Like Ransom, Wimsatt and Beardsley are concerned to exclude from criticism certain related studies such as author psychology, biography, and history. They in fact make a distinction between “internal” and “external” evidence for the meaning of a poem. Internal evidence is actually public: it is evidence that is internal to the poem itself, evidence discovered through the poem’s semantics and syntax and the knowledge of how these operate within the larger context of language and culture. External evidence is private or idiosyncratic: it is evidence gleaned from outside the poem, and may include diaries, journals, letters, and reported conversations. Wimsatt and Beardsley acknowledge that there may be a third kind of evidence which is “intermediate”: evidence about an author’s character, or semi-private meanings attached to words and concepts by the author and his circle (VI, 10).

Strictly speaking, it is only internal evidence that the authors allow. They give examples of how resort to evidence of the other types can distort a poem’s meaning: if we approach John Donne’s poem A Valediction Forbidding Mourning through our prior knowledge of his interest in astronomy, we might interpret the following stanza in the poem as centered on a metaphor involving geocentric and heliocentric views of the world:

Moving of th’earth brings harmes and feares,
Men reckon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the spheares,
Though greater farre, is innocent.

But to advance such an interpretation, the authors warn, is “to disregard the English language, to prefer private evidence to public, external to internal” (VI, 14). In other words, we are reading the poem through our knowledge of Donne’s “private” interests, rather than attending to what the words themselves might signify.

One of the major problems arising in literary scholarship from the intentional fallacy, according to the authors, concerns the poetic use of allusion by writers such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, whose verse extensively alludes or refers to lines and phrases of earlier poets. Taking as an example Eliot’s inclusion of a lengthy series of notes explaining the various allusions found in his long poem The Waste Land, the authors suggest that Eliot’s use of these notes attempts to justify his poetic practice through recourse to his own intention. Yet the notes, they say, should be held up to the same scrutiny as the lines of the poem itself; if the force of the allusions is not felt by the reader through the poem itself, then recourse to the notes is superfluous (VI, 15– 16). As far as allusions are concerned, we must be able to justify their use in terms of their objectively discerned function in the poem, not by consulting the author as an oracle for his intention (VI, 18).

There are many possible objections to Wimsatt and Beardsley’s argument. To begin with, it presupposes that we can treat the poem as an isolated artifact, torn from all of its contexts, including the circumstances of its reading or reception. Clearly, the distinction between internal and external evidence cannot be absolute and will vary according to the reader’s knowledge and literary education. Moreover, many interpretative disputes arise not from questions of content but rather from questions of form and tone: we may agree on the most basic meaning of a poem but disagree on the significance we attach to this meaning. For example, Horace’s famous Ode to Pyrrha could be translated in a tone of polite urbanity or one of crude sarcasm. Broad considerations of the intention behind the poem may legitimately help us clarify such issues. Many poems, such as satires or mock-heroic poems, presuppose a reader’s prior acquaintance with certain literary traditions and conventions: it is important to acknowledge, for example, that Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is intended to employ epic conventions for the purpose of satire. Recourse to intention can yield necessary insight into the relations between form and content, as well as relations between an artist and his audience. Moreover, given that the same statement made by different speakers in differing contexts could have vastly divergent meanings, it seems implausible to attribute autonomy to any statement or group of words, whether embodied in poetic language or not. As Frank Cioffi has remarked, to refute the intentionalist, Wimsatt and Beardsley should have shown that our response to a poem is not altered by reference to intentional information; but all they have shown is that this does not always or need not happen.

Wimsatt and Beardsley’s later essay The Affective Fallacy is motivated by the same presupposition, namely, that literature or poetry is an autonomous object, independent not only of author psychology, biography, and history but also of the reader or audience that consumes it. The word “affection” is used by philosophers to refer to emotion, mental state, or disposition. Hence, the affective fallacy occurs, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley, when we attempt to explicate or interpret a poem through recourse to the emotions or mental state produced in the reader or hearer. As these authors put it, just as the intentional fallacy “is a confusion between the poem and its origins,” so the affective fallacy “is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does).”2 Again, part of their problem with using the reader’s response as a criterion of interpretation is that it makes criticism a subjective rather than objective activity, a discourse about the subject (the reader) rather than the object (the text). An affective reading of a poem “begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear” (VI, 21).

Wimsatt and Beardsley reject the attempts of critics such as I. A. Richards and philosophers such as Charles L. Stevenson to separate emotive from referential meaning, to distinguish what a word suggests and what it means. There is no evidence, they argue, that what a word does to a person is to be ascribed to anything except what it means, or what it suggests (VI, 22, 26). In other words, describing the effect of a poem is tantamount to describing its meaning. Wimsatt and Beardsley fear that the doctrine of emotive meaning, as separated from cognitive meaning, results in affective relativism and potentially endless license: on reading a given line of poetry, a reader could feel a certain emotion regardless of the cognitive quality of the line’s context; there is no linguistic rule to stabilize or systematize emotional responses, and therefore there can be no parallel between cognitive meaning and emotional suggestion (VI, 27–28). Certain schools of anthropology, the authors observe, have promoted affective relativism of a historical or cultural kind by using as the criterion of poetic value “the degree of feeling felt by the readers of a given era” (VI, 27).

Wimsatt and Beardsley trace various manifestations of affective theory back to Plato’s view of poetry as inciting the passions, Aristotle’s conception of katharsis whereby certain emotions were purged by tragedy, through Longinus’ notion of sublimity as a state of the reader’s soul, through Romantic conceptions of the imagination to modern impressionist critics (VI, 28–31). They even see the affective fallacy operating in the neoclassical unities of place and time: the idea that a drama should span one day and occur only in one location is designed to have a hallucinatory effect on the audience, convincing it that the action is realistic or probable (VI, 30). The most impressive recent champion of psychologistic or affective theory, in their eyes, is I. A. Richards, whose own critical practice, however, somewhat undermines his theories, given his demonstration that the suggestive aspects of poetic rhythm and form are actually connected with “other and more precise parts of poetic meaning” (VI, 32).

In general, Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that when readers report that a poem or story induces in them “vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness,” such statements are too vague to be refuted or to be used by the objective critic. Indeed, an accurate account of what a poem does to the reader will ipso facto be a description of the poem itself, of its meaning (VI, 32–33). The critic, they insist, is not a reporter of his own affective and subjective states, not even a creator or facilitator of intersubjective consensus: he is “not a contributor to statistically countable reports about the poem, but a teacher or explicator of meanings.” His report will only speak of emotions as stable and as “dependent upon a precise object” (VI, 34). The authors deny that there is a poetry of “pure emotion.” Poetry, they say, “is characteristically a discourse about both emotions and objects, or about the emotive quality of objects, and this through its preoccupation with symbol and metaphor.” The point is that even emotions are treated objectively, as part of the poetic subject matter (VI, 38). Indeed, for Wimsatt and Beardsley, “Poetry is a way of fixing emotions or making them more permanently perceptible when objects have undergone a functional change from culture to culture” (VI, 38). Rejecting, then, all models of reader-response or affective theory, whether these be highly subjective or intersubjective historical models, the authors affirm that criticism should not lose sight of its specifically literary objects of inquiry, that it should not become dependent on social history or of anthropology: “though cultures have changed and will change, poems remain and explain” (VI, 39).

The arguments of this essay are subject to many of the same criticisms that have been leveled against their positions in The Intentional Fallacy. Perhaps the most fundamental objection is the impossibility and artificiality of treating literature as a self-contained object, an object which is not somehow realized in its performance, in interaction with readers who legitimately bring to the texts their own cultural backgrounds, interests, and assumptions. Moreover, the insistence on the text as an isolated object in itself effectively represents a philosophical regression to a world atomistically conceived as composed of separate and independent objects; despite its persistence on many levels of ideology and politics, it is a view that has been discredited by many thinkers, from Hegel and Marx, through Bergson, Sartre, and Derrida.



1 W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” in W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., The Verbal Icon (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967), p. 4. Hereafter cited as VI.
2 W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Affective Fallacy,” in VI, p. 21.

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