Study Guide

Wimsatt and Beardsley Influences

"Kubla Kahn"

We have spent many sleepless nights worrying about how critics have (mis)interpreted this poem. We know everyone loves to talk about how Samuel Taylor Coleridge hammered this beauty out under the influence of opium, but we have concerns other than the Romantic poet's substance use and abuse. One critic even goes so far as to suggest that there is not a single original allusion in the poem, as if it's just a medley of allusions thrown together in a narcotic haze.

We would like to offer a gentle suggestion: sure, Coleridge probably drew on work he had read when he composed that poem—and you might even want to go back and read some of those works that presumably influenced him. But we say: do not let all of those allusions cloud the way you read the poem. The poem itself has something to say—forget that it alludes to other works and listen up to what it has to say. Focus.

"A Valediction Forbidding Mourning"

That John Donne sure was interested in astronomy, and he wasn't afraid to show off his smarts about the moon and the stars in this poem about two lovers who have to spend some time apart without cell service, or something like that.

Anyway, when Donne wasn't poetizing, he was thinking about astronomy and theology—the guy knew his Kepler and Galileo. Oops… we're already getting into dangerous biographical territory. But guess what? You don't need biographical information here, because everything you need to know is already in the poem. All that astronomical terminology? It's already built in.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

You know we love T.S. Eliot, so he gets a bit of a "get out of jail free" card for his allusions since there is so much more to his poems than a cluster of overly intellectual references. (That Ezra Pound is another story.) Tom was a well-read fellow, so you can be sure that he used his deep understanding of, for example, John Donne or Gerard de Nerval to craft some fresh verse.

It's all well and good if you want to entertain that idea. But please don't go writing a letter to Eliot or any other author asking him or her to confirm your theories. Most writers will either deny that they meant whatever you are proposing or ignore your queries altogether. Save yourself the heartache.

"Maud"

We could go on all day about all of the creative ways that Alfred, Lord Tennyson (and Chaucer, and Milton, and Pope, and Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, for that matter) use meter (the way words and syllables are arranged and accented in the lines of a poem). We have a special fondness for "Maud" because this poem uses meter to express the mood of the dramatic speaker—not of Tennyson himself, okay?

Now, we do reserve the right to draw comparisons between Tennyson and Eliot, but our big fixation in "Maud" is the speaker's frustrations, delusions, and dreamlike expressions. What we're interested in is what the dramatic speaker says and how he says it, both in terms of word choice and in terms of the way syllables are emphasized.

You didn't think we were interested in Tennyson himself, did you? LOL.

Macbeth

We don't want to seem like a bunch of unfeeling stoics; in all fairness, we admit that art often expresses feeling through similes and metaphors. In Wuthering Heights, for example, the fact that it's all stormy outside (metaphor alert) obviously has to do with that wildly codependent relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff.

And then there's Macbeth. Talk about emotions, are we right? But even as you read this play and find yourself all stirred up by the witches and cauldrons and shadowy behavior and fine allusions, indulge in a few minutes of engaging with the lines of the play as formal objects. The words. That's right, try for a second not to feel, as unnatural as that may feel. Does it change how you see this play?

Aristotle's Poetics

As important as we are, we don't assume we are the first to say a lot of these things about emotions and authorial intention and all of that. Way back in the 4th century BCE, Aristotle himself had a few things to say about it. Ever hear of a little book called Aristotle's Poetics

Well, in that book, the big A makes all of these unprecedented remarks about how an audience should respond emotionally to a work of art—in this case a play—and about how the quality and success of a play should be measured by the emotions it elicits.

Aristotle's really into the idea of catharsis, which is an upheaval of feeling that occurs when you see something super dramatic and gives you, in the end, a feeling of relief; it's sort of like emotional vomiting. Aristotle thinks that viewing carefully structured violence and calamity helped you get it all out of your system.

In other words, Aristotle thinks you won't need to reenact what you've seen, because you've purged it all by watching it. We don't agree with everything he says, but anyone commenting on media influence before media influence really existed deserves out respect.

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