W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., & Monroe C. Beardsley, ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: Kentucky UP 1954), pp.2-18.

[Source: Southern Methodist University - online; accessed 28.08.2015.]

THE CLAIM of the author’s “intention” upon the critic’s judgment has been challenged in a number of recent discussions, notably in the debate entitled The Personal Heresy, between Professors Lewis and Tillyard. But it seems doubtful if this claim and most of its romantic corollaries are as yet subject to any widespread questioning. The present writers, in a short article entitled “Intention” for a Dictionary (1) of literary criticism, raised the issue but were unable to pursue its implications at any length. We argued that 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, and it seems to us that this is a principle which goes deep into some differences in the history of critical attitudes. It is a principle which accepted or rejected points to the polar opposites of classical “imitation” and romantic expression. It entails many specific truths about inspiration, authenticity, biography, literary history and scholarship, and about some trends of contemporary poetry, especially its allusiveness. There is hardly a problem of literary criticism in which the critic’s approach will not be qualified by his view of “intention.”

“Intention,” as we shall use the term, corresponds to what he intended in a formula which more or less explicitly has had wide acceptance. “In order to judge the poet’s performance, we must know what he intended.” Intention is design or plan in the author’s mind. Intention has obvious affinities for the author’s attitude toward his work, the way he felt, what made him write.

We begin our discussion with a series of propositions summarized and abstracted to a degree where they seem to us axiomatic.

1. A poem does not come into existence by accident. The words of a poem, as Professor Stoll has remarked, come out of a head, not out of a bat. Yet to insist on the designing intellect as a cause of a poem is not to grant the design or intention as a standard by which the critic is to judge the worth of the poet’s performance.

2. One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention. How is he 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. “Only one caveat must be borne in mind,” says an eminent intentionalist (2) in a moment when his theory repudiates itself; “the poet’s aim must be judged at the moment of the creative act, that is to say, by the art of the poem itself.”

3. Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work. It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of an artificer. “A poem should not mean but be.” 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. Poetry is a feat of style by which a complex of meaning is handled all at once. Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what isirrevelant 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. They are more abstract than poetry.

4. The meaning of a poem may certainly be a personal one, in the sense that a poem expresses a personality or state of soul rather than a physical object like an apple. But even a short lyric poem is dramatic, the response of a speaker (no matter how abstractly conceived) to a situation (no matter how universalized). We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker, and if to the author at all, only by an act of biographical inference.

5. There is a sense in which an author, by revision, may better achieve his original intention. But it is a very abstract sense. He intended to write a better work, or a better work of a certain kind, and now has done it. But it follows that his former concrete intention was not his intention. “He’s the man we were in search of, that’s true,” saysHardy’s rustic constable, “and yet he’s not the man we were in search of. For the man we were in search of was not the man we wanted.”

“Is not a critic,” asks Professor Stoll, “a judge, who does not explore his own consciousness, but determines the author’s meaning or intention, as if the poem were a will, a contract, or the constitution? The poem is not the critic’s own.” He has accurately diagnosed two forms of irresponsibility, one of which he prefers. Our view is yet different. 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 public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge. What is said about the poem is subject to the same scrutiny as any statement in linguistics or in the general science of psychology.

A critic of our Dictionary article, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, has argued (3) that there are two kinds of inquiry about a work of art: (1) whether the artist achieved his intentions; (2) whether the work of art “ought ever to have been undertaken at all” and so “whether it is worth preserving.” Number (2), Coomaraswamy maintains, is not “criticism of any work of art qua work of art,” but is rather moral criticism; number (1) is artistic criticism. But we maintain that (2) need not be moral criticism: that there is another way of deciding whether works of art are worth preserving and whether, in a sense, they “ought” to have been undertaken, and this is the way of objective criticism of works of art as such, the way which enables us to distinguish between a skillful murder and a skillful poem. A skillful murder is an example which Coomaraswamy uses, and in his system the difference between the murder and the poem is simply a “moral” one, not an “artistic” one, since each if carried out according to plan is “artistically” successful. We maintain that (2) is an inquiry of more worth than (1), and since (2) and not (1) is capable of distinguishing poetry from murder, the name “artistic criticism” is properly given to (2).

It is not so much a historical statement as a definition to say that the intentional fallacy is a romantic one. When a rhetorician of the first century A.D. writes: “Sublimity is the echo of a great soul,” or when he tells us that “Homer enters into the sublime actions of his heroes” and “shares the full inspiration of the combat,” we shall not be surprised to find this rhetorician considered as a distant harbinger of romanticism and greeted in the warmest terms by Saintsbury. One may wish to argue whether Longinus should be called romantic, but there can hardly be a doubt that in one important way he is.

Goethe’s three questions for “constructive criticism” are “What did the author set out to do? Was his plan reasonable and sensible, and how far did he succeed in carrying it out?” If one leaves out the middle question, one has in effect the system of Croce‑the culmination and crowning philosophic expression of romanticism. The beautiful is the successful intuition‑expression, and the ugly is the unsuccessful; the intuition or private part of art is the aesthetic fact, and the medium or public part is not the subject of aesthetic at all.

The Madonna of Cimabue is still in the Church of Santa Maria Novella; but does she speak to the visitor of to‑day as to the Florentines of the thirteenth century?

Historical interpretation labours . . . to reintegrate in us the psychological conditions which have changed in the course of history. It . . . enables us to see a work of art (a physical object) as its author saw it in the moment of production. (4)

The first italics are Croce’s, the second ours. The upshot of Croce’s system is an ambiguous emphasis on history. With such passages as a point of departure a critic may write a nice analysis of the meaning or “spirit” of a play by Shakespeare or Corneille‑a process that involves close historical study but remains aesthetic criticism‑or he may, with equal plausibility, produce an essay in sociology, biography, or other kinds ofnonaesthetic history.


I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts.... I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them. . . . Will you believe me? . . . there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration.

That reiterated mistrust of the poets which we hear from Socrates may have been part of a rigorously ascetic view in which we hardly wish to participate, yet Plato’s Socrates saw a truth about the poetic mind which the world no longer commonly sees‑so much criticism, and that the most inspirational and most affectionately remembered, has proceeded from the poets themselves.

Certainly the poets have had something to say that the critic and professor could not say; their message has been more exciting: that poetry should come as naturally as leaves to a tree, that poetry is the lava of the imagination, or that it is emotion recollected intranquillity. But it is necessary that we realize the character and authority of such testimony. There is only a fine shade of difference between such expressions and a kind of earnest advice that authors often give. Thus Edward Young, Carlyle, Walter Pater:

 I know two golden rules from ethics, which are no less golden inComposition, than in life. 1. Know thyself; 2dly, Reverence thyself.
 This is the grand secret for finding readers and retaining them: let him who would move and convince others, be first moved and convinced himself. Horace’s rule, Si vis me flere, is applicable in a wider sense than the literal one. To every poet, to every writer, we might say: Be true, if you would be believed.
 Truth! there can be no merit, no craft at all, without that. And further, all beauty is in the long run only fineness of truth, or what we call expression, the finer accommodation of speech to that vision within.

And Housman’s little handbook to the poetic mind yields this illustration:

Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon‑beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life‑I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular, only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once.

This is the logical terminus of the series already quoted. Here is a confession of how poems were written which would do as a definition of poetry just as well as “emotion recollected in tranquillity” ‑ and which the young poet might equally well take to heart as a practical rule. Drink a pint of beer, relax, go walking, think on nothing in particular, look at things, surrender yourself to yourself, search for the truth in your own soul, listen to the sound of your own inside voice, discover and express the vraie verité.

It is probably true that all this is excellent advice for poets. The young imagination fired by Wordsworth and Carlyle is probably closer to the verge of producing a poem than the mind of the student who has been sobered by Aristotle or Richards. The art of inspiring poets, or at least of inciting something like poetry in young persons, has probably gone further in our day than ever before. Books of creative writing such as those issued from the Lincoln School are interesting evidence of what a child can do. (5) All this, however, would appear to belong to an art separate from criticism‑to a psychological discipline, a system of self‑development, a yoga, which the young poet perhaps does well to notice, but which is something different from the public art of evaluating poems.

Coleridge and Arnold were better critics than most poets have been, and if the critical tendency dried up the poetry in Arnold and perhaps in Coleridge, it is not inconsistent with our argument, which is that judgment of poems is different from the art of producing them. Coleridge has given us the classic “anodyne” story, and tells what he can about the genesis of a poem which he calls a “psychological curiosity,” but his definitions of poetry and of the poetic quality “imagination” are to be found elsewhere and in quite other terms.

It would be convenient if the passwords of the intentional school, “sincerity,” “fidelity,” “spontaneity, I’ll authenticity,” “genuineness,” “originality,” could be equated with terms such as “integrity,” “relevance,” “unity,” “function,” “maturity,” “subtlety ... .. adequacy,” and other more precise terms of evaluation ‑in short, if “expression” always meant aesthetic achievement. But this is not so.

“Aesthetic” art, says Professor Curt Ducasse, an ingenious theorist of expression, is the conscious objectification of feelings, in which an intrinsic part is the critical moment. The artist corrects the objectification when it is not adequate. But this may mean that the earlier attempt was not successful in objectifying the self, or “it may also mean that it was a successful objectification of a self which, when it confronted us clearly, we disowned and repudiated in favor of another.” (6) What is the standard by which we disown or accept the self? Professor Ducasse does not say. Whatever it may be, however, this standard is an element in the definition of art which will not reduce to terms of objectification. The evaluation of the work of art remains public; the work is measured against something outside the author.

There is criticism of poetry and there is author psychology, which when applied to the present or future takes the form of inspirational promotion; but author psychology can be historical too, and then we have literary biography, a legitimate and attractive study in itself, one approach, as Professor Tillyard would argue, to personality, the poem being only a parallel approach. Certainly it need not be with a derogatory purpose that one points out personal studies, as distinct from poetic studies, in the realm of literary scholarship. Yet there is danger of confusing personal and poetic studies; and there is the fault of writing the personal as if it were poetic.

There is a difference between internal and external evidence for the meaning of a poem. And the paradox is only verbal and superficial that what is (1) internal is also public: it is discovered through the semantics and syntax of a poem, through our habitual knowledge of the language, through grammars, dictionaries, and all the literature which is the source of dictionaries, in general through all that makes a language and culture; while what is (2) external is private or idiosyncratic; not a part of the work as a linguistic fact: it consists of revelations (in journals, for example, or letters or reported conversations) about how or why the poet wrote the poem‑to what lady, while sitting on what lawn, or at the death of what friend or brother. There is (3) an intermediate kind of evidence about the character of the author or about private or semiprivate meanings attached to words or topics by an author or by a coterie of which he is a member. The meaning of words is the history of words, and the biography of an author, his use of a word, and the associations which the word had for him, are part of the words history and meaning. (7) But the three types of evidence, especially (2) and (3), shade into one another so subtly that it is not always easy to draw a line between examples, and hence arises the difficulty for criticism. The use of biographical evidence need not involve intentionalism, because while it may be evidence of what the author intended, it may also be evidence of the meaning of his words and the dramatic character of his utterance. On the other hand, it may not be all this. And a critic who is concerned with evidence of type (1) and moderately with that of type (3) will in the long run produce a different sort of comment from that of the critic who is concerned with (2) and with (3) where it shades into (2).

The whole glittering parade of Professor Lowes’ Road to Xanadu, for instance, runs along the border between types (2) and (3) or boldly traverses the romantic region of (2). “’KublaKhan,”’ says Professor Lowes, “is the fabric of a vision, but every image that rose up in its weaving had passed that way before. And it would seem that there is nothing haphazard or fortuitous in their return.” This is not quite clear‑not even when Professor Lowes explains that there were clusters of associations, like hooked atoms, which were drawn into complex relation with other clusters in the deep well of Coleridge’s memory, and which then coalesced and issued forth as poems. If there was nothing “haphazard or fortuitous” in the way the images returned to the surface, that may mean (1) that Coleridge could not produce what he did not have, that he was limited in his creation by what he had read or otherwise experienced, or (2) that having received certain clusters of associations, he was bound to return them in just the way he did, and that the value of the poem may be described in terms of the experiences on which he had to draw. The latter pair of propositions (a sort of Hartleyan associationism which Coleridge himself repudiated in theBiographia) may not be assented to. There were certainly other combinations, other poems, worse or better, that might have been written by men who had read Bartram and Purchasand Bruce and Milton. And this will be true no matter how many times we are able to add to the brilliant complex of Coleridge’s reading. In certain flourishes (such as the sentence we have quoted) and in chapter headings like “The Shaping Spirit,” “The Magical Synthesis,” “Imagination Creatrix,” it may be that Professor Lowes pretends to say more about the actual poems than he does. There is a certain deceptive variation in these fancy chapter titles; one expects to pass on to a new stage in the argument, and one finds‑more and more sources, more and more about “the streamy nature of association .” (8)

Wohin der Weg?” quotes Professor Lowes for the motto of his book. “Kein Weg! InsUnbetretene.” Precisely because the way is unbetreten, we should say, it leads away from the poem. Bartram’s Travels contains a good deal of the history of certain words and of certain romantic Floridian conceptions that appear in “Kubla Khan.” And a good deal of that history has passed and was then passing into the very stuff of our language. Perhaps a person who has read Bartrarn appreciates the poem more than one who has not. Or, by looking up the vocabulary of “Kubla Khan” in the Oxford English Dictionary, or by reading some of the other books there quoted, a person may know the poem better. But it would seem to pertain little to the poem to know that Coleridge had read Bartram. There is a gross body of life, of sensory and mental experience, which lies behind and in some sense causes every poem, but can never be and need not be known in the verbal and hence intellectual composition which is the poem. For all the objects of our manifold experience, for every unity, there is an action of the mind which cuts off roots, melts away context‑or indeed we should never have objects or ideas or anything to talk about.

It is probable that there is nothing in Professor Lowes’ vast book which could detract from anyone’s appreciation of either The Ancient Mariner or “Kubla Khan.” We next present a case where preoccupation with evidence of type (3) has gone so far as to distort a critic’s view of a poem (yet a case not so obvious as those that abound in our critical journals).

In a well known poem by John Donne appears this quatrain:

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.

A recent critic in an elaborate treatment of Donne’s learning has written of this quatrain as follows:

He touches the emotional pulse of the situation by a skillful allusion to the new and the old astronomy. ... Of the new astronomy, the ,’moving of the earth” is the most radical principle; of the old, the “trepidation of the spheres” is the motion of the greatest complexity. ... The poet must exhort his love to quietness and calm upon his departure; and for this purpose the figure based upon the latter motion (trepidation), long absorbed into the traditional astronomy, fittingly suggests the tension of the moment without arousing the harmes and feares” implicit in the figure of the moving earth.

The argument is plausible and rests on a well substantiated thesis that Donne was deeply interested in the new astronomy and its repercussions in the theological realm. In various works Donne shows his familiarity with Kepler’s De Stella Nova, with Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius, with William Gilbert’s De Magnete, and with Clavius’ commentary on the De Sphaera of Sacrobosco. He refers to the new science in his Sermon at Paul’s Cross and in a letter to Sir Henry Goodyer. In The First Anniversary he says the “new philosophy calls all in doubt.’ In the Elegy on Prince Henry he says that the “least moving of the center” makes “the world to shake.”

It is difficult to answer argument like this, and impossible to answer it with evidence of like nature. There is no reason why Donne might not have written a stanza in which the two kinds of celestial motion stood for two sorts of emotion at parting. And if we become full of astronomical ideas and see Donne only against the background of the new science, we may believe that he did. But the text itself remains to be dealt with, the analyzable vehicle of a complicated metaphor. And one may observe: (1) that the movement of the earth according to the Copernican theory is a celestial motion, smooth and regular, and while it might cause religious or philosophic fears, it could not be associated with the crudity and earthiness of the kind of commotion which the speaker in the poem wishes to discourage; (2) that there is another moving of the earth, an earthquake, which has just these qualities and is to be associated with the tear‑floods and sigh‑tempests of the second stanza of the poem; (3) that “trepidation” is an appropriate opposite of earthquake, because each is a shaking or vibratory motion; and “trepidation of the spheres” is “greater far” than an earthquake, but not much greater (if two such motions can be compared as to greatness) than the annual motion of the earth; (4) that reckoning what it “did and meant” shows that the event has passed, like an earthquake, not like the incessant celestial movement of the earth. Perhapsa knowledge of Donne’s interest in the new science may add another shade of meaning, an overtone to the stanza in question, though to say even this runs against the words. To make the geocentric and heliocentric antithesis the core of the metaphor is to disregard the English language, to prefer private evidence to public, external to internal.

If the distinction between kinds of evidence has implications for the historical critic, it has them no less for the contemporary poet and his critic. Or, since every rule for a poet is but another side of a judgment by a critic, and since the past is the realm of the scholar and critic, and the future and present that of the poet and the critical leaders of taste, we may say that the problems arising in literary scholarship from the intentional fallacy are matched by others which arise in the world of progressive experiment.

The question of “allusiveness,” for example, as acutely posed by the poetry of Eliot, is certainly one where a false judgment is likely to involve the intentional fallacy. The frequency and depth of literary allusion in the poetry of Eliot and others has driven so many in pursuit of full meanings to the Golden Bough and the Elizabethan drama that it has become a kind of commonplace to suppose that we do not know what a poet means unless we have traced him in his reading‑a supposition redolent with intentional implications. The stand taken by F. 0. Matthiessen is a sound one and partially forestalls the difficulty.

If one reads these lines with an attentive ear and is sensitive to their sudden shifts in movement, the contrast between the actual Thames and the idealized vision of it during an age before it flowed through a megalopolis is sharply conveyed by that movement itself, whether or not one recognizes the refrain to be from Spenser.

Eliot’s allusions work when we know them‑and to a great extent even when we do not know them, through their suggestive power.

But sometimes we find allusions supported by notes, and it is a nice question whether the notes function more as guides to send us where we may be educated, or more as indications in themselves about the character of the allusions. “Nearly everything of importance ... that is apposite to an appreciation of ’The Waste Land,”’ writes Matthiessenof Miss Weston’s book; “has been incorporated into the structure of the poem itself, or into Eliot’s Notes.” And with such an admission it may begin to appear that it would not much matter if Eliot invented his sources (as Sir Walter Scott invented chapter epigraphs from 11 old plays” and “anonymous” authors, or as Coleridge wrote marginal glosses for The Ancient Mariner). Allusions to Dante, Webster, Marvell, or Baudelaire doubtless gain something because these writers existed, but it is doubtful whether the same can be said for an allusion to an obscure Elizabethan:

The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.

“Cf. Day, Parliament of Bees:” says Eliot,

When of a sudden, listening, you shall hear, A noise of horns and hunting, which shall bring Actaeon to Diana in the spring, Mere all shall see her naked skin.

The irony is completed by the quotation itself; had Eliot, as is quite conceivable, composed these lines to furnish his own background, there would be no loss of validity. The conviction may grow as one reads Eliot’s next note: “I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines are taken: it was reported to me from Sydney, Australia.” The important word in this note ‑ on Mrs. Porter and her daughter who washed their feet in soda water ‑ is “ballad.” And if one should feel from the lines themselves their “ballad” quality, there would be little need for the note. Ultimately, the inquiry must focus on the integrity of such notes as parts of the poem, for where they constitute special information about the meaning of phrases in the poem, they ought to be subject to the same scrutiny as any of the other words in which it is written. Matthiessen believes the notes were the price Eliot “had to pay in order to avoid what he would have considered muffling the energy of his poem by extended connecting links in the text itself.” But it may be questioned whether the notes and the need for them are not equally muffling. F. W. Bateson has plausibly argued that Tennyson’s “The Sailor Boy” would be better if half the stanzas were omitted, and the best versions of ballads like “Sir Patrick Spens” owe their power to the very audacity with which the minstrel has taken for granted the story upon which he comments. What then if a poet finds he cannot take so much for granted in a more recondite context and rather than write informatively, supplies notes? It can be said in favor of this plan that at least the notes do not pretend to be dramatic, as they would if written in verse. On the other hand, the notes may look like unassimilated material lying loose beside the poem, necessary for the meaning of the verbal symbol, but not integrated, so that the symbol stands incomplete.

We mean to suggest by the above analysis that whereas notes tend to seem to justify themselves as external indexes to the author’s intention, yet they ought to be judged like any other parts of a composition (verbal arrangement special to a particular context), and when so judged their reality as parts of the poem, or their imaginative integration with the rest of the poem, may come into question. Mathiessen, for instance, sees that Eliot’s titles for poems and his epigraphs are informative apparatus, like the notes. But while he is worried by some of the notes and thinks that Eliot “appears to be mocking himself for writing the note at the same time that he wants to convey something by it,” Matthiessen believes that the “device” of epigraphs “is not at all open to the objection of not being sufficiently structural.” “The intention,” he says, “is to enable the poet to secure a condensed expression in the poem itself ... .. In each case the epigraph is designed to form an integral part of the effect of the poem.” And Eliot himself, in his notes, has justified his poetic practice in terms of intention.

The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus in Part V. ... The man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself.

And perhaps he is to be taken more seriously here, when off guard in a note, than when in his Norton Lectures he comments on the difficulty of saying what a poem means and adds playfully that he thinks of prefixing to a second edition of Ash Wednesday some lines from Don Juan:

I don’t pretend that I quite understand My own meaning when I would be very fine; But the fact is that I have nothing planned Unless it were to be a moment merry.

If Eliot and other contemporary poets have any characteristic fault, it may be in planning too much.

Allusiveness in poetry is one of several critical issues by which we have illustrated the more abstract issue of intentionalism, but it may be for today the most important illustration. As a poetic practice allusiveness would appear to be in some recent poems an extreme corollary of the romantic intentionalist assumption, and as a critical issue it challenges and brings to light in a special way the basic premise of intentionalism. The following instance from the poetry of Eliot may serve to epitomize the practical implications of what we have been saying. In Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” toward 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 for the reader acquainted to a certain degree with Donne’s poetry, the critical question arises: Is Eliot’s line an allusion to Donne’s? Is Prufrock thinking about Donne? Is Eliot thinking about Donne? We suggest that there are two radically different ways of looking for an answer to this question. There is (1) the way of poetic analysis and exegesis, which inquires whether it makes any sense if Eliot‑Prufrock is thinking about Donne. In an earlier part of the poem, when Prufrock asks, “Would it have been worth while, . . . To have squeezed the universe into a ball,” his words take half their sadness and irony from certain energetic and passionate lines of Marvel “To His Coy Mistress.” But the exegetical inquirer may wonder whether mermaids considered as “strange sights” (to hear them is in Donne’s poem analogous to getting with child a mandrake root) have much to do with Prufrock’s mermaids, which seem to be symbols of romance and dynamism, and which incidentally have literary authentication, if they need it, in a line of a sonnet by Gerard de Nerval. This method of inquiry may lead to the conclusion that the given resemblance between Eliot and Donne is without significance and is better not thought of, or the method may have the disadvantage of providing no certain conclusion. Nevertheless, we submit that this is the true and objective way of criticism, as contrasted to what the very uncertainty of exegesis might tempt a second kind of critic to undertake: (2) the way of biographical or genetic inquiry, in which, taking advantage of the fact that Eliot is still alive, and in the spirit of a man who would settle a bet, the critic writes to Eliot and asks what he meant, or if he had Donne in mind We shall not here weigh the probabilities‑whether Eliot would answer that he meant nothing at all, had nothing at all in mind ‑a sufficiently good answer to such a question‑or in an unguarded moment might furnish a clear and, within its limit, irrefutable answer. 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, unlike bets, are not settled in this way. Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle.


1. Dictionary of World Literature, Joseph T. Shipley, ed. (New York, 1942), 326-29.

2. J. E. Spingarn, “The New Criticism,” in Criticism in America(New York, 1924), 24-25.

3..Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, “Intention,” in American Bookman, I (1944), 41-48.

4. It is true that Croce himself in his Ariosto, Shakespeare and Corneille (London, 1920), chap. VII, “The Practical Personality and the Poetical Personality,” and in his Defenceof Poetry (Oxford, 1933), 24, and elsewhere, early and late, delivered telling attacks on emotive geneticism, but the main drive of the Aestheticis surely toward a kind of cognitiveintentionalism.

5. See Hughes Mearns, Creative Youth (Garden City, 1925), esp. 10, 27‑29. The technique of inspiring poems has apparently been outdone more recently by the study of inspiration in successful poets and other artists. See, for instance, Rosamond E. M. Harding, An Anatomy of Inspiration (Cambridge, 1940); Julius Portnoy, A Psychology of Art Creation (Philadelphia, 1942); Rudolf Arnheim and others, Poets at Work (New York, 1947); Phyllis Bartlett,Poems in Process (New York, 1951); Brewster Chiselin (ed.),The Creative Process: Symposium (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1952).


6. Curt Ducasse, The Philosophy of Art (New York, 1929), 116.

7 And the history of words after a poem is written may contribute meanings which if relevant to the original pattern should not be ruled out by a scruple about intention.

8. Chaps. VIII, “The Pattern,” and XVI, “The Known and Familiar Land” will be found of most help to the student of the poem.

9. Charles M. Coffin, John Donne and the New Philosophy(New York, 1927), 8.

[ close ]
[ top ]
[ next ]