Wimsatt and Beardsley

Assigned: Wimsatt, William K. and Monroe C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy” (1198-1211). Also read the editors’ introduction (1195-97).

“The Intentional Fallacy” (1946)

Section I

1. On 1198 (“The claim of the author’s ‘intention’…”), how do William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley lay out the extent and significance of “the author’s intention” as a standard in past literary criticism and theory? How do they themselves define “intention” as they think it is most commonly understood in connection with literary texts?

2. On 1198-99 (“We begin our discussion with…”), what five propositions do Wimsatt and Beardsley set forth as “axiomatic” for any further discussion of literary intention? Concentrate on the most substantial of these propositions, numbers 3 and 4: with regard to proposition 3, how does the authors’ borrowing of the line from Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica,” namely, “A poem should not mean but be” (1199), help them make the necessary point about how readers may properly “judge” a poem? What is the difference between “meaning” and “being”? With regard to proposition 4, in what sense, according to the authors, is even a brief lyric poem “dramatic” rather than the direct expression of the poem’s creator?

3. On 1199-1200 (“‘Is not a critic,’ asks Professor Stoll…”) in what sense, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley, does a poem belong to the public? To whom does it not belong, and why? What basic truth about how language is able to signify or mean at all are Wimsatt and Beardsley relying on in their rejection of Professor Stoll’s claims about intentionality in literary texts—what happens to our supposed ownership of our speech or writing the moment we utter or publish it? (In responding, consider that language is a public code, not the property of any individual or small group. See Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist distinction between langue and parole, with the former meaning “a language system” and the latter “individual utterances.” Leitch 820-40.)

Section II

4. On 1200-02 (“It is not so much an empirical…”), in what sense, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley, have “Romantics” or proto-Romantics going all the way back to Longinus (first century CE) relied upon the “intentional fallacy” (1200) for their interpretations? What arguments do Wimsatt and Beardsley offer against the latter-day romantic tendencies of Benedetto Croce and the intentionalism of I. A. Richards? What ambivalences or contradictions do Wimsatt and Beardsley identify in Croce’s work, and in Allen Tate’s criticism? Explain. (1201-02)

Section III

5. On 1202-04 (“That reiterated mistrust of the poets…”), how much faith, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley, should be accorded to the poet’s own judgment of a given work, or to claims by poets regarding how their poetry is conceived? Or, or that matter, to the latest “creative writing” handbook for students? Consider some of the “expressivist” sources that our two critics give: Keats, Wordsworth, Edward Young, Thomas Carlyle, Walter Pater, S. T. Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, A. E. Housman, and Professor Curt Ducasse. On what basis do Wimsatt and Beardsley reject the Romanticism these authors promote?

Section IV

6. On 1204-07 (“There is criticism of poetry…”), what argument do Wimsatt and Beardsley set forth against literary biography, a species of “author psychology” (1204), at least when it is set forth as literary criticism? What three types of evidence do Wimsatt and Beardsley say exist for arriving at the meaning of a given poem? In what sense are the first two kinds of evidence “paradoxical” (1204) in terms of their status as either internal to the poem or external to it? How does the blending together of the second and third kind cause problems for criticism? In the authors’ view, how is Professor J. L. Lowes’ fine study of Coleridge, Road to Xanadu, an instance of this confused blending of critical evidence?

7. On 1206-07 (“It is probable that there is nothing…”), what interpretation of a stanza from John Donne’s poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” do Wimsatt and Beardsley offer to counter the kind of private-association-based interpretation they believe is too common among critics? On what grounds do they reject Charles M. Coffin’s claim that the phrase “Moving of th’earth” refers to the new astronomy’s heliocentrism as a counterpoint to the older astronomy’s notion of “trepidation of the spheares”? In sum, why, in Wimsatt and Beardsley’s view, is it illegitimate to explain a poem on the basis of an author’s private associations?

Section V                                                                                                                               

8. On 1207-10 (“If the distinction between kinds…”), how do Wimsatt and Beardsley use T. S. Eliot’s profoundly allusive poem “The Waste Land” to illustrate the pitfalls of criticism that leans toward the Romantic or “intentionalist” mode? What problem do they find with Eliot’s penchant for adding critical notes to “The Waste Land”? Even though such notes, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley, “tend to seem to justify themselves as external indexes to the author’s intention” (1209), on what principle, in their view, should a critic interpret such notes?

9. On 1210-11 (“Allusiveness in poetry is one of several…”), Wimsatt and Beardsley continue to ponder the issue of modernist allusiveness. Referring to T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” they quote the line, “I have heard the mermaids singing…” (1210), and then point to two possible ways of arriving at the significance of this line. What two ways are they talking about here? Which one amounts to “the true and objective way of criticism” (1211), and what bad results do they believe the other method would lead to? How does this conclusion underscore Wimsatt and Beardsley’s consistent support for a formalist position and their opposition to Romantic expressive or intentionalist criticism?

10. General question: In “The Intentional Fallacy,” William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley offer us a thoughtful version of formalist criticism as practiced by authors such as John Crowe Ransom (Leitch 899-911), Cleanth Brooks (Leitch 1179-95), R. P. Warren, Allen Tate, and arguably others: the New Critics of the 1930s-50s. This kind of criticism avoids trying to explain literary works by reference to the author’s supposed intentions, biography, broad “external” historical or social facts, etc. The literary text, formalists say, should be explained on its own terms: the meaning is to be derived from the words themselves and from the interconnections between the text’s word-units (lines, phrases, passages, sections, etc.). Is that how your professors generally ask you to interpret texts? Is it how they interpret them during lecture, or when they publish research papers? To what extent is New Critical formalism still operative as theory and/or practice in the schools with which you are familiar, from high school through college? Explain.

11. General question: What difficulties can you identify in the theory and critical practice you find in William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley’s essay “The Intentional Fallacy”? To what extent do you believe we can productively interpret literary works solely within the strictures imposed by the formalist New Critics? Supposing we could, in fact, produce “good formalism,” what would be the opportunity cost of producing such criticism—what would we be we leaving out of our interpretation? What knowledge and perspectives might we be depriving ourselves of? All the same, are there benefits in formalist practice that might partly (or entirely) make up for any such losses? Explain.

12. General question: The formalism promoted by William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in “The Intentional Fallacy” (and by Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and other New Critics) was in part formulated as a reaction against twentieth-century demands that the way professors and students handle literature should keep pace with that century’s expectations of productivity, practicality, and usefulness. Yet, while the New Critics resisted the notion of making criticism “useful” in what they considered a vulgar and self-defeating way (indeed, some of them—most prominently John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate—belonged to a Southern Agrarian movement that opposed northern-centered modernity; see the movement’s 1930 manifesto I’ll Take My Stand), their call for the use of efficient formalist methods in the study of literature is, in a sense, itself a response to modern demands that criticism should become more professional, more scientific in handling its “proper object.” Try to capture, in brief, the irony involved in the enormous success these rebellious, sometime “semi-agrarian” New Critics had in spreading their interpretive approach throughout America’s institutions of higher learning. What do you think may have accounted for the great popularity of New Critical formalism during the 1930s-1950s and even beyond?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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