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Intentional Fallacy, Wimsatt & Beardsley

Intentional Fallacy, Wimsatt & Beardsley - THE...

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THE INTENTIONAL FALLACY From The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry . W.K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954. 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." 3 "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.
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