Wimsatt and Beardsley Introduction
Next up on the WB, Wimsatt and Beardsley, the Barnum and Bailey of New Criticism—that school of thought that said: "Forget the author—all we care about is the text, the text, and nothing but the text."
Wimsatt and Beardsley were New Critics: The Extreme Version. In two famous co-authored essays—"The Affective Fallacy" (1949) and "The Intentional Fallacy" (1954)—these American wonder critics put out the idea that if a work of art is good enough, it will stand the test of time. A good poem is a good poem—always and forever. (This does not apply to limericks.)
So what does this "always and forever" greatness mean for the almighty poet? This is where the story gets a little poignant, because W&B didn't give a hoot about the author. For them, the author wasn't exactly "dead," but he might have wished he were when these two were finished with him.
To put it bluntly, W&B believed that once the author composed a work, it became a separate being in the world, kind of like a baby bird with fluffy feathers unceremoniously kicked out of the nest by Mama Bird. Don't go to W&B with some great seminar paper explaining in painstaking detail how Shakespeare's sonnets reveal some crazy love triangle—and that this biographical tidbit is the key to his poems—because if you do, these two will promptly show you the door.
W&B think the text stands alone. They're not into the idea that the author is some kind of genius with all the answers; they think critics have important work to do, too, in helping us get through and appreciate those texts.
We know. The author sort of gets the shaft in this scenario—no celebrity authors here.
But W&B did more than get rid of the writer. They also had three important goals you should keep in mind: 1) to define the critic as a crucial interpreter of words... as in, don't try this at home, folks—leave it to the professionals; 2) to reject all of that Romantic nonsense about subjectivity, biography, and psychology; and 3) to get readers to see poems as objects with lives of their own.
Let's see how these two fought the good fight…