William K. Wimsatt

Last updated

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).

Related Research Articles

Aesthetics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of art, beauty, and taste

Aesthetics, or esthetics, is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty and taste, as well as the philosophy of art. It examines aesthetic values, often expressed through judgments of taste.

Literary criticism Study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature

Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often influenced by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of literature's goals and methods. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always, and have not always been, theorists.

This article contains information about the literary events and publications of 1954.

John Crowe Ransom American writer and literary critic

John Crowe Ransom was an American educator, scholar, literary critic, poet, essayist and editor. He is considered to be a founder of the New Criticism school of literary criticism. As a faculty member at Kenyon College, he was the first editor of the widely regarded Kenyon Review. Highly respected as a teacher and mentor to a generation of accomplished students, he also was a prize-winning poet and essayist.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 1915 poem by T.S. Eliot

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", commonly known as "Prufrock", is the first professionally published poem by American-born British poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Eliot began writing "Prufrock" in February 1910, and it was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse at the instigation of Ezra Pound (1885–1972). It was later printed as part of a twelve-poem pamphlet titled Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917. At the time of its publication, Prufrock was considered outlandish, but is now seen as heralding a paradigmatic cultural shift from late 19th-century Romantic verse and Georgian lyrics to Modernism.

In literary criticism, close reading is the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of a text. A close reading emphasizes the single and the particular over the general, effected by close attention to individual words, the syntax, the order in which the sentences unfold ideas, as well as formal structures. A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight.

New Criticism was a formalist movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object. The movement derived its name from John Crowe Ransom's 1941 book The New Criticism.

I. A. Richards English literary critic and rhetorician

Ivor Armstrong Richards, known as I. A. Richards, was an English educator, literary critic, and rhetorician. His work contributed to the foundations of the New Criticism, a formalist movement in literary theory which emphasized the close reading of a literary text, especially poetry, in an effort to discover how a work of literature functions as a self-contained and self-referential æsthetic object.

Monroe Curtis Beardsley was an American philosopher of art.

Cleanth Brooks

Cleanth Brooks was an American literary critic and professor. He is best known for his contributions to New Criticism in the mid-20th century and for revolutionizing the teaching of poetry in American higher education. His best-known works, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) and Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), argue for the centrality of ambiguity and paradox as a way of understanding poetry. With his writing, Brooks helped to formulate formalist criticism, emphasizing "the interior life of a poem" and codifying the principles of close reading.

In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intent refers to an author's intent as it is encoded in their work. Authorial intentionalism is the view that an author's intentions should constrain the ways in which a text is properly interpreted. Opponents have labelled this position the intentional fallacy and count it among the informal fallacies.

"The Death of the Author" is a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes (1915–1980). Barthes's essay argues against traditional literary criticism's practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creation are unrelated. The essay's first English-language publication was in the American journal Aspen, no. 5–6 in 1967; the French debut was in the magazine Manteia, no. 5 (1968). The essay later appeared in an anthology of Barthes's essays, Image-Music-Text (1977), a book that also included his "From Work To Text".

Affective fallacy is a term from literary criticism used to refer to the supposed error of judging or evaluating a text on the basis of its emotional effects on a reader. The term was coined by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in 1949 as a principle of New Criticism which is often paired with their study of The Intentional Fallacy.

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry

"Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry" is a short essay by Alexander Pope published in 1728. The aim of the essay is to ridicule contemporary poets.

Wilbur Marshall Urban (1873–1952) was an American philosopher of language, influenced by Ernst Cassirer. He wrote also on religion, axiology, ethics and idealism.

"The Frontiers of Criticism" is a lecture given by T. S. Eliot at the University of Minnesota in 1956. It was reprinted in On Poetry and Poets, a collection of Eliot's critical essays, in 1957. The essay is an attempt by Eliot to define the boundaries of literary criticism: to say what does, and what does not, constitute truly literary criticism, as opposed to, for example, a study in history based upon a work of literature. The essay is significant because it represents Eliot's response to the New Critical perspective which had taken the academic study of literature by storm during Eliot's lifetime. It also presents an analysis of some of its author's own poetic works, an unusual characteristic for modern criticism—it has become far more usual today for poets and critics to be in separate camps, rather than united in one individual. Perhaps even more importantly, it demonstrates the progress and change in Eliot's own critical thought over the years between 1919 and 1956.

<i>The Well Wrought Urn</i> 1947 essay collection by Cleanth Brooks

The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry is a 1947 collection of essays by Cleanth Brooks. It is considered a seminal text in the New Critical school of literary criticism. The title contains an allusion to the fourth stanza of John Donne's poem, "The Canonization", which is the primary subject of the first chapter of the book.

In literature, the paradox is an anomalous juxtaposition of incongruous ideas for the sake of striking exposition or unexpected insight. It functions as a method of literary composition and analysis that involves examining apparently contradictory statements and drawing conclusions either to reconcile them or to explain their presence.

References

Notes
  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.
Sources
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.
NationalityAmerican
Academic background