William K. Wimsatt

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Perhaps Wimsatt’s most influential theories come from the essays “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy” (both are published in Verbal Icon) which he wrote with Monroe Beardsley. Each of these texts “codifies a crucial tenet of New Critical formalist orthodoxy,” making them both very important to twentieth-century criticism (Leitch et al. 1371).

The Intentional Fallacy, according to Wimsatt, derives from “confusion between the poem and its origins” (Verbal Icon 21) – essentially, it occurs when a critic puts too much emphasis on personal, biographical, or what he calls “external” information when analyzing a work (they note that this is essentially the same as the “Genetic fallacy” in philosophical studies; 21). Wimsatt and Beardsley consider this strategy a fallacy partly because it is impossible to determine the intention of the author — indeed, authors themselves are often unable to determine the “intention” of a poem — and partly because a poem, as an act that takes place between a poet and an audience, has an existence outside of both and thus its meaning can not be evaluated simply based on the intentions of or the effect on either the writer or the audience (see the section of this article entitled “The Affective Fallacy" for a discussion of the latter; 5). For Wimsatt and Beardsley, intentional criticism becomes subjective criticism, and so ceases to be criticism at all. For them, critical inquiries are resolved through evidence in and of the text — not “by consulting the oracle” (18).

Affective fallacy

The Affective fallacy (identified in the essay of the same name, which Wimsatt co-authored with Monroe Beardsley, as above) refers to “confusion between the poem and its results” (Verbal Icon 21; italics in original). It refers to the error of placing too much emphasis on the effect that a poem has on its audience when analyzing it.

Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that the effect of poetic language alone is an unreliable way to analyze poetry because, they contend, words have no effect in and of themselves, independent of their meaning. It is impossible, then, for a poem to be “pure emotion” (38), which means that a poem’s meaning is not “equivalent to its effects, especially its emotional impact, on the reader” (Leitch et al. 1371).

As with the Intentional fallacy, engaging in affective criticism is too subjective an exercise to really warrant the label “criticism” at all — thus, for Wimsatt and Beardsley, it is a fallacy of analysis.

Concrete Universal

In “The Concrete Universal,” Wimsatt attempts to determine how specific or general (i.e., concrete or universal) a verbal representation must be in order to achieve a particular effect. What is the difference, for example, between referring to a “purple cow” and a “tan cow with a broken horn” (Verbal Icon 74)? In addressing such questions, Wimsatt attempts to resolve what it is that makes poetry different from other forms of communication, concluding that “what distinguishes poetry from scientific or logical discourse is a degree of concreteness which does not contribute anything to the argument but is somehow enjoyable or valuable for its own sake.” For Wimsatt, poetry is “the vehicle of a metaphor which one boards heedless of where it runs, whether cross-town or downtown — just for the ride” (76).

The Domain of Criticism

In “The Domain of Criticism,” Wimsatt “[defends] the domain of poetry and poetics from the encircling (if friendly) arm of the general aesthetician" (Verbal Icon 221) – that is, he discusses the problems with discussing poetry in purely aesthetic terms. Wimsatt questions the ability of a poem to function aesthetically in the same way as a painting or sculpture. For one, visual modes such as sculpture or painting are undertaken using materials that directly correlate with the object they represent — at least in terms of their “beauty.” A beautiful painting of an apple, for example, is done with beautiful paint.

Verbal expression, however, does not function this way — as Wimsatt points out, there is no such thing as a “beautiful” or “ugly” word (or, at least, there is no general consensus as to how to apply such concepts in such a context; 228). There is no correlation between words and their subject, at least in terms of aesthetics — “the example of the dunghill (or equivalent object) beautifully described is one of the oldest in literary discussion” (228).

More importantly, language does not function merely on the level of its effects on the senses, as (for example) visual modes do. A poem does not just derive its meaning from its rhyme and meter, but these are the domains of aesthetics (231) — to analyse poetry on the basis of its aesthetics, then, is insufficient in one is to adequately explore its meaning.

Major works

The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry

Written as a series of independent essays between 1941 and 1952, The Verbal Icon was finally published as a cohesive work (after Wimsatt revised some of the original versions) in 1954. Probably his most influential work, The Verbal Icon contains two of Wimsatt's most important essays, “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy” (co-authored with Monroe Beardsley). Paul de Man offers a significant critique of Wimsatt's text, taken as an example of the understanding of the notion of 'autonomy' in New Criticism, in Blindness and Insight.

Hateful Contraries: Studies in Literature and Criticism

Apparently concerned with the (admittedly lessened) influence of what he calls “Amateur Criticism,” Wimsatt published Hateful Contraries in 1965 as a way to “distinguish what [he] consider[s] an inevitable and proper literary interest in the contraries” (Hateful Contraries xviii). Through studies of works by T. S. Eliot as well as discussions of topics such as “The Augustan Mode in English Poetry” and “The Criticism of Comedy” (xi), Wimsatt attempts to add to the efforts to justify and improve literary criticism (xix).

Literary Criticism: A Short History

Written with Cleanth Brooks in 1957, Literary Criticism: A Short History is intended as “a history of ideas about verbal art and about its elucidation and criticism” (Wimsatt and Brooks ix). The authors attempt to contribute to the “intelligibility in the history of literary argument” as well as “contributes to a distinct point of view,” which, they argue, is a necessary part of any historical literary studies (vii).

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  1. Wimsatt, William K. and Monroe C. Beardsley. "The Intentional Fallacy." Sewanee Review, vol. 54 (1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, U of Kentucky P, 1954: 3-18.
William Kurtz Wimsatt Jr.
Born(1907-11-17)November 17, 1907
Washington, D.C., U.S.
DiedDecember 17, 1975(1975-12-17) (aged 68)
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
Academic background