Sunday, January 31, 2010

1946: Wimsatt and Beardsley: "The Intentional Fallacy"

The Authors:
William K. Wimsatt (see image at right)

Born in Washington, D. C. in 1907, Wimsatt graduated from Georgetown University in 1928. In 1936, he got his Ph. D. at Yale University and was appointed to the English department faculty there in 1939. He remained at Yale until his death in 1975. [After much searching, the only image I could find of the authors of “The Intentional Fallacy” is, amazingly enough, this photograph from the Yale archives showing Dr. Wimsatt in costume in a performance of “Tom Thumb”!—ed.]

Monroe C. Beardsley

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1915, Beardsley graduated from Yale in 1936 and got his Ph.D. there three years later, in 1939. He taught Philosophy at Yale before moving to Mt. Holyoke College in 1944, but spent most of his career at Swarthmore College (22 years) and Temple University (16 years) in Pennsylvania. Beardsley died in 1985.

The Text:
“The Intentional Fallacy"
First published in the Sewanee Review, “The Intentional Fallacy” is considered by some one of “the most important position papers in the history of twentieth—century criticism” (Leitch et al., 1371).

“…the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art …” (1375).

“How is [a critic] supposed to find out what the poet tried to do? 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.” (1375)

“Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it works. . . . Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what is irrelevant has been excluded, like lumps from pudding and ‘bugs’ from machinery. In this respect poetry differs from practical messages, which are successful if and only if we correctly infer the intention.” (1375)

“The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the pubic.” (1376)

In Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ towards the end, occurs the line: ‘I have heard the mermaids singing each to each,’ and this bears a certain resemblance to a line in a Song by John Donne, ‘Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,’ so that the reader acquainted to a certain degree with Donne’s poetry, the critical question arises: Is Eliot’s line an allusion to Donne’s? . . . [The biographical] critic writes to Eliot and asks what he meant …Our point is that such an answer to such an inquiry would have nothing to do with the poem ‘Prufrock;’ it would not be a critical inquiry. . . .Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle.” (1386-87).

Leitch, Vincent B, et al ed. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.

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