ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 5

 - The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork


In this lecture, Professor Paul Fry explores the origins of formalist literary criticism. Considerable attention is paid to the rise and subsequent popularity of the New Critics and their preferred site of literary exploration, the “poem.” The idea of autonomous art is explored in the writings of, among others, Kant, Coleridge, and Wilde. Using the work of Wimsatt and Beardsley, the lecture concludes with an examination of acceptable categories of evidence in New Criticism.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 5 - The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork

Chapter 1. New Criticism and the Poem as (Miniature) World [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Okay. Moving then as quickly as possible into our subject matter for today, we begin a series of lectures on various aspects of twentieth-century formalism–a big word. At the end of our run through the varieties of twentieth-century formalism, I hope it doesn’t seem quite as big and that its many meanings–yet a finite number of meanings–have been made clear to you. That is to say, what we’re taking up this week, is as much really the history of criticism as literary theory. You remember in the first lecture I said there’s a difference between the history of criticism and theory of literature, one difference being that the history of criticism has a great deal to do with literary evaluation: that is to say, why do we care about literature and how can we find means of saying that it’s good or not good? This is an aspect of thought concerning literature that tends to fall out of literary theory but not out of the materials that we are reading this week. You can see that when Wimsatt and Beardsley talk about the “success” of the poem, they understand the whole critical enterprise, including its theoretical underpinnings–the question of what is a poem, the question of how should we best read it–to be still geared toward literary evaluation.

That makes the subject matter that we’ll be discussing this week, as I say, as much a part of the history of criticism as it is of literary theory. We’re going to be reading it with a theoretical spin. That is to say, we’re going to focus on the question of what a poem is and the question, “What criteria should we invoke in order to read it for the best and correctly?” But there are other ways of approaching this material.

In any case, then, Wimsatt. Beardsley by the way was actually a philosopher who taught at Temple University, a good friend of his. In the book in which the essay “The Intentional Fallacy” appeared, a book called The Verbal Icon, Wimsatt collaborated with Monroe Beardsley on three essays, and this is one of them. So we try to remember to say “Wimsatt and Beardsley” even though it is Wimsatt who taught at Yale. That in itself needn’t be significant except that the New Critics, the school of critics to which he belonged, have always been identified with Yale and indeed consolidated here a kind of teaching method and attitude toward literature which constituted the first wave–the first of two waves–of involvement in literary theory which amounts to the Yale English and comparative literature departments’ claims to fame. Many of those figures who belong to the New Critics did much of their important work before they arrived at Yale. Others never were at Yale, and yet at the same time it’s a movement closely associated with this institution.

When I arrived at Yale, Wimsatt was still teaching, Cleanth Brooks was still teaching, and so I feel a kind of personal continuity with these figures and understand, as we all will more fully later on, the way in which the style, and emphasis on the style, of close reading that evolved within the New Criticism meaningfully and importantly left its mark on much subsequent criticism and theory that hasn’t in fact always acknowledged the New Criticism perhaps to the extent that it might have. Much of this should be reserved for next time when I talk about Cleanth Brooks and return to the whole subject of the New Criticism and the way in which it’s viewed historically–so much of it can be reserved for next time.

But what I do want to say now is this. If it weren’t for the New Critics, none of you probably would have been able to sit patiently through any of your middle or high school English classes. When Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren published a book called Understanding Poetry, first published in 1939 and then subsequently reissued again and again and again as it swept the country, suddenly schoolteachers had a way of keeping kids in the classroom for fifty minutes. Close reading, the idea that you could take a text and do things with it–that the interpretation of a text wasn’t just a matter of saying, “Oh, yes, it’s about this and isn’t it beautiful?”–reciting the text, emoting over it, enthusing about it, and then looking around for something else to say–it was no longer a question of doing that. It was a question of constructing an elaborate formal edifice to which everybody could contribute. Students got excited about it. They saw certain patterns or certain ways of elaborating patterns that the teachers were talking about and, lo and behold, the fifty minutes was over and everybody had had a pretty good time. This had never happened in an English class before. [laughs] [laughter]

Seriously, you’re English majors because of the New Criticism–I admit, especially if you went to private school. This way of teaching did not perhaps quite so much for a variety of reasons permeate public school literature teaching, but it was simply, as a result of Understanding Poetry, the way to go. It took time. If you had more than fifty minutes, you could actually make ample use of it. T.S. Eliot, who was in many ways associated with the New Criticism, one of its intellectual forebears, nevertheless took a somewhat dim view of it and called it “lemon squeezer criticism.” What this meant is it takes time. You’ve got to squeeze absolutely everything out of it, and so it was ideal from the standpoint of teaching and was, it seems to me, also wonderfully galvanizing intellectually because it really did make people think: “look how intricate what I thought was simple turns out to be.” The New Criticism, incontestably and without rival, created an atmosphere in which it was okay to notice that things were a little more difficult than they’d been supposed to be. This in itself was extraordinarily useful and constructive, not just for subsequent literary theory, I think, but for the way in which English teaching actually can help people think better. All of this the New Criticism had a great deal to do with–and when I talk next time about the way in which it’s been vilified for the last [laughs] forty or fifty years, naturally I will have this in the back of my mind.

Chapter 2. Formalism and Immanuel Kant [00:07:28]

So in any case, where did this preoccupation with form–because we’re beginning to think about the way in which theory can preoccupy itself with form–where does it come from? Well, needless to say, I’m about to say it goes back to the beginning. When Plato writes his Republic and devotes Book Ten, as I’m sure most of you know, to an argument in effect banishing the poets from the ideal republic, part of the argument is that poets are terrible imitators. They imitate reality as badly as they possibly can. They are three times removed from the ideal forms of objects in reality. They’re a hopeless mess. They get everything wrong. They think that a stick refracted in the water is therefore a crooked stick. They are subject to every conceivable kind of illusion, not to be trusted, and Socrates calls them liars.

Okay. Now when Aristotle writes his Poetics he does so–and this is true and rewards scrutiny if one thinks carefully about the Poetics–he does so very consciously in refutation of Plato’s arguments in the Republic, and perhaps the keystone of this refutation is simply this: Plato says poets imitate badly. Aristotle says this is a category mistake because poets don’t imitate reality. Poets don’t imitate, says Aristotle, things as they are. They imitate things as they should be. In other words, the business of poets is to organize, to bring form to bear, on the messiness of reality and, in so doing, to construct not an alternate reality in the sense that it has nothing to do with the real world–that is to say, it doesn’t mention anything in the real world, or it somehow or other invents human beings made out of chocolate or something like that–instead, it idealizes the elements existing in the real world such that its object is something other than reality as such. This is really the origin of formalism. Aristotle is considered the ancestor of the varying sorts of thought about form, and it’s this move, this move that he makes in the Poetics, that engenders this possibility.

Now turning to your sheet, in the early, early modern period the poet and courtier, Sir Philip Sidney, wrote an elegant, really wonderfully written defense of poetry, in one edition called The Apology for Poesie. In this edition he, while actually a fervent admirer of Plato, nevertheless develops this idea of Aristotle with remarkable rhetorical ingenuity and I think very impressively lays out the case that Aristotle first makes, here in the first passage on your sheet. Sidney’s talking about the various kinds of discourse: divinity, hymnody, science, philosophy, history–in other words, all the ways in which you can contribute to human betterment and human welfare. He says in the case of all but one of them, each discourse is a “serving science.” That is to say, it is subservient to the natural world; its importance is that it refers to that world. The first sentence of your passage: “There is no art but one delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object.” This by the way– although what they serve is not exactly a work of nature–is why even that which is incontestably better than secular poetry, in other words hymnody, and also divine knowledge or theology–even these fields, which are the supreme fields, are also serving sciences. They are subservient to an idea that they have to express, which is the idea of God, right, and God is real. There’s no sense that we’re making God up in this kind of discourse. Sidney is a devoutly religious person and there’s no semblance of doubt in his attitude, and yet he is saying something very special about the poet who is somewhere in between divinity and the other sorts of discourse with which poetry is traditionally in rivalry: science, philosophy and history. And he says this is what’s unique about poetry.

Only the poet disdaining to be tied to any such subjection [subjection, in other words, to things as they are], lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature… . He nothing affirms and therefore never lieth.

In other words, Plato is wrong. The poet is not a liar because he’s not talking about anything that’s verifiable or falsifiable. He is simply talking about the parameters of the world he has brought into being. Sidney thinks of it as a kind of magic. He invokes, for example, the science of astrology. The poet, he says, ranges freely within the zodiac of his own wit. He also invokes the pseudoscience of alchemy when he says that the poet inhabits a brazen world, and of this–“brazen” means brass–of this brazen world, he makes a golden world. In other words, poetry is transformational. In representing not things as they are but things as they should be, it transforms reality. All right. So this is an argument which in outline, once again, justifies the idea of literature as form, as that which brings form to bear on the chaos and messiness of the real.

Now I don’t mean to say things just stood still as Sidney said they were until you get to Kant. A great deal happens, but one aspect of Kant’s famous “Copernican revolution” in the history of philosophy is his ideas about aesthetics and the beautiful and about the special faculty that he believes has to do with and mediates our aesthetic understanding of things, a faculty which he calls “the judgment”; so that in The Critique of Judgment of 1790, he outlines a philosophy of the beautiful and of the means whereby “the judgment” makes judgments of the beautiful. He does a great deal else in it, but I’m isolating this strand, which is what’s relevant to what we’re talking about. In many ways Kant, without knowing anything about Sidney, nevertheless follows from Sidney particularly in this, as you’ll see.

I’m going to look sort of with some care at these passages so all will become clear, but particularly in this: Sidney–and I didn’t exactly quote the passage in which Sidney does this but I urged you to believe that he does–Sidney actually ranks poetry somewhere between divinity and the other sciences. In other words, poetry is not the supreme thing that a person can do. Sidney believed this so much in fact that when he knew himself to be dying, having been mortally wounded in a battle, he ordered that all of his own poems be burned. From the standpoint of a devout person, he had no doubt that poetry was inferior to divinity. Now in a way that’s what Kant’s saying, too. In the passages you’ll read, you’ll see that the point is not that art and the judgment of the beautiful is the supreme thing that humanity can be engaged with. The point is only that it has a special characteristic that nothing else has. That’s the point that this whole tradition is trying to make. This is the way Kant puts it, turning first to the second passage:

The pleasant and the good both have a reference to the faculty of desire [The pleasant is the way in which our appetency, our sensuous faculty–which Kant calls “the understanding,” by the way–understands things. Things are either pleasant or unpleasant. The good, on the contrary, is the way in which our cognitive and moral faculty–which Kant calls “the reason”–understands things. Things are either to be approved of or not to be approved of, but in each case, as Kant argues, they have a reference to the faculty of desire–I want, I don’t want, I approve, I disapprove], and they bring with them the former [that is to say, the pleasant], a satisfaction pathologically conditioned; the latter a pure, practical, purposeful satisfaction which is determined not merely by the representation of the object [that is to say, by the fact that the represented object exists for me, right] but also by the represented connection of the subject with the existence of the object [in other words, by the way in which I want it or don’t want it, approve of it or don’t approve of it].

My subjective wishes, in other words, determine my attitude toward it, whereas what Kant is saying is that my attitude toward that which simply stands before us as what is neither pleasant nor good, but is rather something else, doesn’t exist for me. It exists in and for itself.

The next passage: “Taste is the faculty of the judging of an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction.” In other words, yeah, I still like it or don’t like it, but my liking has nothing to do either with desire or with approval–moral, political, or however the case may be. I just like it or I just don’t like it according to principles that can be understood as arising from the faculty of judgment and not from the faculty of the understanding, which is appetitive, and the faculty of reason, which is moral.

So with that said, perhaps just to add to that, the fourth passage: “Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object so far as it is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose.” You say, “Whoa, what is this?” [laughs] [laughter] Kant makes a distinction between the purposive and the purposeful. What is the distinction? The purposeful is the purpose of the object in practical terms. What can it do? What can it do for me? How does it go to work in the world? What is its function among other objects? What bearing does it have on–in particular–my life? But the purposiveness of the object is the way in which it is sufficient unto itself. It has its own purpose, which is not a purpose that has any bearing necessarily on anything else. It has, in other words, an internal coherence. It has a dynamism of parts that is strictly with reference to its own existence. It is a form. It is a form and that form, because we can see it has structure and because we can see it has organization and complexity, is purposive. That is to say, it manifests its self-sufficiency.

So that’s Kant’s famous distinction between the purposive, which is the organization of an aesthetic object, and the purposeful, which is the organization of any object insofar as it goes to work in the world or for us. An aesthetic objectcan be purposeful; that is to say we can view it as purposeful. I see a naked body, which the art historians call a nude. Let’s say I don’t accept that it’s merely a nude. I want it or I disapprove of it and, lo and behold, it’s no longer aesthetic. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I hope you can see that that is a distinction between the purposive and the purposeful.

Chapter 3. Kant and Coleridge: the Good, the Agreeable, and the Beautiful [00:21:35]

Now just in order to reprise these important distinctions, I want to turn to a passage in Samuel Coleridge who is, at least on this occasion, a disciple of Kant and is, I think, usefully paraphrasing the arguments of Kant that we have just been engaged in. This is the fifth passage on your sheet:

The beautiful [says Coleridge] is at once distinguished both from the agreeable which is beneath it [and notice the sort of stationing of the beautiful as Sidney stations it between what’s beneath it and what’s above it]–from the agreeable which is beneath it and from the good which is above it, for both these necessarily have an interest attached to them. Both act on the will and excite a desire for the actual existence of the image or idea contemplated, while the sense of beauty rests gratified in the mere contemplation or intuition regardless whether it be a fictitious Apollo or a real Antinous.

In other words, the judgment of beauty does not depend on the existence of the object for its satisfaction.

Now Oscar Wilde, ever the wag and a person who generated more good literary theory in ways that didn’t seem like literary theory at all, perhaps, in the entire history of thinking about the subject, says in the famous series of aphorisms which constitute his “Preface” to The Picture of Dorian Gray–he concludes this series of aphorisms by winking at us and saying, “All art is quite useless.” I hope that after reading these passages and enduring the explication of them that you’ve just heard you can immediately see what Wilde means by saying all art is quite useless. He’s appropriating a term of opprobrium in the utilitarian tradition–oh, my goodness, that something would be useless, right?–he’s appropriating a term of opprobrium and pointing out that it is an extraordinarily unique thing about art that it’s useless; in other words, that it appeals to no merely appetitive or other form of subjective interest. We don’t have to have an “interest” in it in the sense of owning part of a company. We don’t have to have an interest in it in order to appreciate it. In other words, we can be objective about it. We can distance ourselves from our subjective wants and needs and likes and dislikes, and we can coexist with it in a happy and constructive way that is good for both of us, because if we recognize that there are things in the world which have intrinsic value and importance and what we call beauty, and yet are not the things that we covet or wish to banish, we recognize in ourselves the capacity for disinterestedness. We recognize in ourselves a virtue which is considered to be the cornerstone of many systems of moral understanding.

To realize that we’re not interested in everything and merely because we’re interested take a view of things, but that there are things that we don’t have to have that kind of interest in and can nevertheless recognize as self-sufficient and valuable, is important. Wilde’s suggestion, but I think also Kant’s suggestion before him, is important for our recognition of our own value. By the same token, all this harping on the autonomy of art–that is to say, the self-sufficiency of art, the way in which it’s not dependent on anything, or as Sidney says, the way in which it’s not a serving science existing merely to represent things other than itself, right?–the way in which this is possible for art is, as also our own capacity to be disinterested is, a way of acknowledging that freedom exists: that I am free, that things are free from my instrumental interest in them, so that in general what’s implicit in this view of art and this view of human judgment, and what makes it so important in the history of thought, is that once again–and this is not the first time we’ve brought this up in these lectures and won’t be the last–it’s a way of recognizing that in addition to all the other things that we are, some of them wonderful, we are also free. There is in us at least an element that is free, independent, serving nothing, autonomous. This idea of our freedom, and by implication of the freedom of other things, from our instrumental interests is what sustains the formalist tradition, and against various kinds of criticism and objection that we’ll be taking up in turn as the case arises, sustains and keeps bringing back into the history of thought on these subjects the notion that form simply for its own sake–as the notorious Aestheticism movement at the end of the nineteenth century put it–is valuable.

Chapter 4. Wimsatt and Beardsley: the Anatomy of the “Poem” [00:28:21]

All right. Now John Crowe Ransom, who was never at Yale but is nevertheless one of the founders or first members of a self-identified school of figures who called themselves the New Critics, published a book called The New Criticism, and that’s [laughs] where the term “the New Critics” comes from. You may have noticed in your Wimsatt essay that there is a footnote to somebody named Joel Spingarn who wrote an essay called “The New Criticism” in 1924. Not to worry. That has nothing to do with the New Criticism. That just means criticism which is recent, [laughs] a different matter altogether. By the same token, there is the work of Roland Barthes and some of his contemporaries–Poulet, whom I mentioned, Jean Starobinski and others–that was called in the French press La Nouvelle Critique. That, too then is an instance of the New Criticism being used as a term, but that too has nothing to do with our subject.

The New Critics, the American New Critics as they are sometimes identified, were a school–and I use that term advisedly because they are self-identified as a group–a school of people who evolved this idea of the independent status–Ransom calls it a “discrete ontological object”–of the work of art and the means whereby it can be appreciated as independent in all of its complexity. Our first foray into the thinking of this school will be our reading of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy, which I’ll get to in a minute; but, simply as a reprise, take a look at the two passages from Ransom which complete what’s on your sheet and which, I think you can see, create a link between the sort of thinking you’ve encountered in reading “The Intentional Fallacy” and the tradition that I’ve been trying to describe.

Passage seven ought to be completely transparent to you now because it is simply a paraphrase of the passages I have given you from Kant and Coleridge: “The experience [says Ransom] called beauty is beyond the powerful ethical will precisely as it is beyond the animal passion. Indeed, these last two are competitive and coordinate.” In other words, what they have in common with each other, ethical will and animal passion, is that they’re both grounded in interest. Right? That’s the point of Sir Kenneth Clark’s word, “the nude.” [pronounced “nyewd”] For the naked human being, as viewed both by the appetites and by moral reason, as a common term from the standpoint both of what Kant calls “the understanding” and from what Kant calls “the reason,” the expression “naked body” is just fine; but if we do believe there is another category, the aesthetic, viewed by an independent faculty called “the judgment,” we need another word for what we’re looking at–modern painters like Philip Pearlstein and Lucian Freud would strongly disagree, but in a way that’s the point. When we’re looking at a painting of a naked body we don’t say, “Oh, that’s a naked body.” We say, “That’s a nyewd,” and that distinction is what, as it were, bears out the implicit way, the semiconscious way, in which all of us acknowledge there to be a category that we call the aesthetic judgment.

On the other hand, a lot of people think it’s all hokum, and in fact the predominant view in the twentieth century has been that there’s no such thing as disinterestedness, that whatever we are looking at we have an interest in and form views of, and that this Kantian moment of dispassionate or disinterested contemplation is what the early twentieth-century critic I.A. Richards called a “phantom aesthetic state.” The predominant view is of this kind of–but, just to do it justice in passing, there is a certain sense, is there not? in which we suddenly find ourselves, without meaning to and without being simply victims of any sort of cultural tyranny, standing in front of something, clasping our hands, tilting our head and feeling somehow or another different from the way we feel when we typically look at things. And that, too, is an intuitive way of saying, “Yeah, however rigorously we can define it or defend it, something like this does seem to go on in our minds at certain kinds of moments of experience.” We just feel differently looking at a certain work of art or a certain landscape, let’s say, than we feel looking at other sorts of things. Maybe we don’t know why. Maybe we doubt that the difference is absolute in the way that Kant wants to insist it is. Nevertheless, we have in tendency feelings of this kind and we should acknowledge them because again, at least in terms of a weak understanding of these positions, it does tend to justify them. At least it explains to us why people can have had such thoughts.

Okay. Wimsatt–I keep saying Wimsatt. Again it’s Wimsatt and Beardsley, but I already explained how that is. Wimsatt right off the bat attacks what he calls “the Romantic understanding of literature.” Now what does he mean by Romantic? It’s the attitude which supposes that a “poem,” and that’s Wimsatt’s privileged word which I’ll try to explain, that a poem is an expression–that is to say, is the expression of some passion or profound genius working its way into a form, but that the important thing is the expression. This much, by the way, Wimsatt has in common with Gadamer, because Gadamer doesn’t talk much about authors either, and Gadamer is interested in what he calls meaning, the subject matter, die Sache. Right? He’s not interested in your sort of expression of that meaning or my expression of that meaning. He’s interested in the way in which a reader can come to terms with a meaning conveyed by a text, and that much, as I say, despite the profoundly different nature of their projects, Wimsatt and Gadamer have in common.

So a poem is not an expression but an independent object with a self-contained meaning, and if this meaning is not self-evident to the attentive reader then we don’t judge the poem a success. This is where evaluation comes in. The success or failure of a poem depends on the realization of meaning. It doesn’t depend on our going to the archive, finding out what the author said in his letters about it, finding out what he told his friends, or what he told the newspapers. It doesn’t involve any of that. If the meaning is not clear in the poem, we judge the poem a failure. We don’t refer–we have no reason to refer, if we respect the autonomy of the poem as such, we don’t refer–we don’t appeal to an authorial intention.

Hence, on page 811, the left-hand column, about a third of the way down:

“… [T]he design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art…”

It follows from this that even a short poem, even a short lyric poem–and here you could see Wimsatt “following” Foucault, though obviously not following but anticipating Foucault, and again they have nothing to do with each other, but there is this overlap–even a short poem doesn’t really have an author. It has a “speaker,” a figure speaking in the poem, that needs to be understood dramatically, that is to say as though the poem were one of Browning’s or T.S. Eliot’s dramatic monologues–in other words, so that the speaker of any poem on Wimsatt’s view is a speaker endowed with a certain character, a certain viewpoint, a certain argument to be put forward, and our concern about the speaker has to be a concern within the poem about the way in which this character is elaborated, and not reinforced, somehow, by biographical reference to that which is not the speaker but the author standing back there somewhere behind the poem.

Now why focus on the “poem”? Notice that we never hear about literature. We never even hear about “poetry.” The object of attention for an analysis of this kind is the poem. Well, the poem is, as John Donne puts it, a little world made cunningly. It’s a microcosm. It is a distillation or quintessence. It is a model in other words for the way in which literature can be understood as world-making–not a representation, again, of things as they are but of things as they should be; whereby “things as they should be” is not necessarily an ideal but rather that which is formal, that which is organized, and that which has a coherence and makes sense self-sufficiently and within itself. That’s why the poem, the lyric poem, is privileged among the forms of literary discourse in the New Criticism. All literature is by implication a “poem,” [laughs] but the poem is the privileged site of analysis whereby this broader statement can be made to seem reasonable, hence the emphasis on the poem. The absence of the Romantic word “poetry” is therefore not insignificant. Poetry is that which just sort of spills out of me. It’s the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. (Never mind that.) The New Criticism isn’t interested in spontaneous overflows of powerful feelings. Wimsatt has his little joke about drinking a pint of beer, taking a walk. So the New Criticism just isn’t interested in those sorts of spontaneous overflow. Sorry. [laughs] I won’t go there. [laughter]

Chapter 5. Wimsatt and Beardsley: Permissable Evidence [00:40:34]

But in any case, he goes on. He goes on to say, “All right. If we’re focused on the work of art in and of itself, on the poem, we obviously in thinking about what it means need to come to terms with three kinds of evidence.” That is to say, some things have a bearing on what it means and some things don’t. What does have a bearing is language–that is to say, words in the public domain which all of us share and which we can study in order to come to terms with the exact meaning of the poem. A certain word–this is, of course, what kept you in your high school classes for so long–a certain word has five or six different meanings. The New Criticism delights in showing how all five or six of those meanings do have some bearing on the meaning of the poem. That’s all legitimate evidence. That is what one uses to build up the structure of the interpretation of the poem. What is not relevant is what I’ve mentioned already: what the author said about the poem in letters to friends, to newspapers and so on. That has no relevance.

Then Wimsatt acknowledges that there’s a sort of messy third category of evidence which has to do with language and is therefore legitimate to a point, but also has to do with the author’s idiosyncrasies–that is to say, the way that author in particular used language, certain coterie words, or simply a private misunderstanding of certain words. You’ve got to know when you’re reading Whitman what he means by “camerado.” It’s not exactly [laughs] what the rest of us typically mean when we–well, we don’t use that word exactly, but it’s [laughter] [laughs] what we typically mean when we speak of comrades or comradeship. In other words, the word is loaded in ways that–Wimsatt would probably acknowledge– need to be taken into account if we’re going to understand what Whitman is up to. Now this is very tricky, and he spends the rest of his essay talking about the murky boundaries between types of evidence, type of evidence number two which is out of play and type of evidence number three which may be in play but has to be dealt with in a gingerly and careful way.

But I’m more interested, actually, in a footnote which arises from this argument about the idiosyncratic nature of language as a particular author may use it because the footnote says, you know what? That’s just one consideration we bring to bear on the function of language in a poem. This footnote, number eleven at the bottom of page 814 over to 815, is just about as devastating and counterintuitive a pronouncement as is made anywhere in our entire syllabus, the most earth-shattering pronouncement that anybody could ever possibly make in the New Criticism. Well, look at this footnote:

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.

That is bold. The great creator raised his plastic arm, right? Everybody knows Akenside didn’t mean polymers, but now we’re all into cyberborgs and we take all of this very seriously. In a way it’s a tribute to the great creator and also an acknowledgement of the fact that the great creator lives in the Eternal Moment. He’s not subject to history. The great creator knew in the eighteenth century that some day plastic would mean polymer, right? Obviously that’s one of the divine attributes. Therefore, if the great creator chooses to raise his prosthetic limb, that is simply a way of understanding what it is like to be everything, omnipotent and omniscient in the Eternal Moment. In other words, if you take Wimsatt’s eleventh footnote seriously, that is a perfectly legitimate way not to ironically undermine Akenside’s line but actually to reinforce it and to give it a kind of formal richness which it does not otherwise have.

I realize that I’m out of time, and so I’ll begin the next lecture by talking about a poem of Yeats called “Lapis Lazuli” written in 1935, in which he talks about the way in which people who build up things that have been destroyed are always “gay.” And of course, if we invoke intention, Yeats doesn’t mean that they’re always gay in our sense. He is using the English translation of the German word froehlich from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Yeats is an astute and careful reader of Nietzsche and in some ways is elaborating on what Nietzsche says in that book in his poem “Lapis Lazuli.” At the beginning of the next lecture we will do the same thing with the word “gay” that we’ve just done with the word “plastic” and then we will go ahead and consider the essay of Cleanth Brooks and other aspects of the New Criticism.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]