Study Guide

Wimsatt and Beardsley Quotes

The meaning of a poem may certainly be a personal one, in the sense that a poem expresses a personality or state of soul rather than a physical object like an apple. But even a short lyric poem is dramatic, the response of a speaker (no matter how abstractly conceived) to a situation (no matter how universalized). We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker […] [From "The Intentional Fallacy"]

We don't want to seem like pinch-nosed, narrow-minded, finger-wagging square pegs about reading poetry. Sure, we'll allow that you may be moved by reading, say, Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress" or Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends." We'll grant you those feelings. We also concede that you may read a poem and think, Wow, that really describes how I felt when that person stomped all over my heart and then spit on the pulsating remains.

We just want to gently encourage you to read a poem as something having its own voice—and not just the author's voice. We call this voice "the dramatic speaker." If it helps, you can picture the dramatic speaker as this invisible being inside the poem who is completely different from the author.

This whole idea may rock your world, but practice reading, as one example, Emily Dickinson "My life had stood—a Loaded Gun" without dwelling on the lonely lady of Amherst up in her room hammering out that poem. Not easy. Just practice. Read that poem as an object unto itself.

The question of "allusiveness," for example, as acutely posed by the poetry of Eliot, is certainly one where a false judgment is likely to involve the intentional fallacy. The frequency and depth of literary allusion in the poetry of Eliot and others has driven so many in pursuit of full meanings to the Golden Bough and the Elizabethan drama that it has become a kind of commonplace to suppose that we do not know what a poet means unless we have traced him in his reading a supposition redolent with intentional implications. [From "The Intentional Fallacy"]

We are confident that this quotation expresses our deep frustration with how "most people" read poems. Ever since 7th-grade English, you've been told to read poems for their allusions. Maybe you learned that Shelley's "Ozymandias" is about tyrannical egos and the decline of mighty empires. But we say that there's also a lot in the poem that deserves the reader's direct attention; all those allusions can really get in the way.

We often turn to Eliot as an example because even as his poems are chock full of allusions, they are still meaningful even if you don't track down and understand all of them. What we're saying in this quotation is that you don't need to spend a bunch of time going back to the Golden Bough or some Shakespeare play to appreciate "The Waste Land." We believe that chasing down every allusion is just distracts you from the words on the page.

The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological skepticism, though usually advanced as if it had far stronger claims than the overall forms of skepticism. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. [From "The Affective Fallacy"]

We admit that we do bang on the Affective Fallacy drum quite relentlessly. But we have strong feelings about not having strong feelings about reading poetry. Like we've said before, this whole Affective Fallacy thing refers to when people confuse their reactions to a work of art with an assessment of the actual objective quality of the artwork.

By "epistemological skepticism," we're referring to the Affective Fallacy leads to a crazy, mixed-up interpretation that makes mincemeat out of knowledge and lets emotions run rampant. If you put your emotions first, all you're going to get is "impressionism and relativism"—people get all sloppy, and soon enough, it seems like one person's thoughts and ideas about a work are as important as anyone else's. Not!

The Central Argument of this essay, concerning what I shall call the "concrete universal," proceeds from the observation that literary theorists have from early times to the present persisted in making statements which in their contexts seem to mean that a work of literary art is in some peculiar sense a very individual thing or a very universal thing or both […] I shall proceed on the theory not only that men have at different times used the same terms and have meant differently, but that they sometimes used different terms and have meant the same or somewhat the same. [From "The Concrete Universal"]

I, Wimsatt, may seem like the last fellow to point the finger at people making statements about the absolute, but I just don't like a lot of the ways that critics have read poetry. Some of them get too narrow, insisting that only one poet at one time made a unique reference to one thing, and that no other poet has ever made a similar reference. I'm here to say: highly unlikely.

I also don't think that all paintings share a universal quality—except maybe canvas and paint, but even that's not true (cave paintings? papyrus and saffron?). Allow me to be direct: Shakespeare's rose is not the same as Hawthorne's rose, which has nothing to do with Gertrude Stein's rose. My larger point is that each poem must be taken on its own terms: I would hate to see an anthology of essays with a title like Tree Branches from Beowulf to Jonathan Safran Foer. Those are not the same tree branches, folks!

My present inclination is to give an answer to the question "What is art?" where this is understood to ask what distinguishes artworks from other things. My answer […] is that an artwork is an arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character—that is, an object (loosely speaking) in the fashioning of which the intention to enable it to satisfy an aesthetic interest played a significant causal part. [From Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism]

I, Beardsley, was an aesthetician—someone who studied aesthetics—which means that I spent nine lives thinking about art and what the big deal about it is. For example, what makes Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" a work of art, while the toilet down at your local Del Taco is just a toilet? Why is the Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon art and a parking meter not art?

Well, here's my unequivocal response: art is art because it has been made with the specific aesthetic intention of gratifying the reader, viewer, or listener. So, art is art because it's made to be art and made to be understood as art.