On the Intentional Fallacy
Many of the comments in response to my most recent post revolved around the question of authorial intention and its importance or even relevance to the reading and interpretation of a work of verbal art, so I have decided to explore the question in greater depth. This post incorporates some of my prior responses to comments on that earlier post into an extended discussion of the matter of authorial intention.
One of the greatest legacies of the much-maligned (mainly by people who haven't really read them) New Critics is the separation of the author and the text. When I read a poem, I read the poem. I have neither the desire nor the ability to discern an author's intentions. I care about what the author wrote, not what the author thought he or she was writing. Even if one thinks of a work in terms of its author, if what mattered most to a writer was what was in his or her head, there’d be no reason to write anything, since one already has access to the contents of one’s own mind. One writes because one wants to produce something separate from oneself. I can't imagine how I could fathom Shakespeare's intentions, for example, or how, if I could, that would usefully illuminate his plays. In Keats's words, the poet is no one.
To fully understand a Shakespeare play, if such a "full" understanding is ever possible, which is questionable, one must at the least understand what the words in the play meant at the time and to understand the literary, cultural, and historical allusions and references. If one doesn’t know that the phrase “chimney-sweepers” in the lyric “Golden lads and golden girls all must/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust” from Cymbeline refers to dandelions, much of the passage’s meaning will be missed, though its beauty remains even without its meaning. (Meaning isn't everything.)But that is a matter of the text, not of the author. Understanding historical context is not the same thing as understanding the author or his intentions.
Whatever the author’s intention, mine, yours, or Shakespeare’s, if it’s not manifested in the work it doesn’t exist, not for a reader, not in any literary and not merely biographical sense. The work of art is, in part, an objectification of intention, and to the extent that the intention is objectified, it’s no longer the author’s. “The problem of intention arises from the fact that the author’s declared [or private] intention as to his design or meaning are one thing, and his achieved intention—the actual intention or meaning framed within the work itself—quite another thing, even when the one and the other happen to agree or coincide” (Robert W. Stallman, “Intentions, Problem of,” Princeton Encyclopedia of Princeton and Poetics, Enlarged Edition, 399).
I rarely sit down to write with a particular intention, except to write a good poem; I almost never sit down intending to write a poem on a particular topic, theme, or subject, though I sometimes have an idea of the kind of poem I want it to be, that is, of its formal shape. But even then, the poem usually takes its own direction. Words, phrases, lines, and images come to me, though obviously I work and rework the material given to me. In many of my poems I am assembling and manipulating lines and phrases I've accumulated over a period of time that seem to go together: writing the poem is my way of figuring out how they go together.
I’m sure every writer has had the experience, sometimes frustrating, often exhilarating, of the work taking off in a completely different direction than that which he or she “intended.” As Jack Spicer said in the Vancouver lectures, you might start out wanting to write a poem about the Vietnam War and you end writing a poem about skating in Vermont. Perhaps other people’s poems do what they tell them to, but mine rarely do. In any case, I trust the poem’s intentions more than my own, because language knows better than I do, language knows more than I do. It’s certainly been around longer than I have. As William Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, coiners of the phrase “the intentional fallacy,” write in their famous essay of the same name, “The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge” (“The Intentional Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon).
“Language, which permeates our minds and obeys not the laws of things but its own laws…has an organism’s power to mutate and adapt and survive, and exacts obligations from us because no heritage is more precious” (Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, 123). There’s an intentionality to language, to the verbal work of art, because the accretion of previous writing conditions whatever new work is written, and the new work, in turn, modifies what comes before it, or at least the way that we read it. As Eliot writes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “what happens when a new work is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it…the past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, 38, 39). This also means that how and what a text speaks changes over time. But there are limits to that process, limits inherent in the text itself.
The fact that a poem doesn't embody authorial intention doesn't mean that it can't be misread, in the sense of misunderstanding the words and their relationships to one another, syntactic and semantic. When a student tells me that he thinks that Shakespeare's Sonnet 71 ("No longer mourn for me when I am dead/Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell/Give warning to the world that I am fled/From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell") is spoken by a dog, he is not misreading the author's intention but misreading the actual words of the actual poem. Again, this is a question of the text, not of the author.
Different forms of discourse follow different sets of rules. In an essay (this essay, for example), a grant proposal, an instruction manual, or a love letter, intention is indeed crucial if not paramount: it’s my intention to convey information or a point of view to a reader, and if I fail to do so, then the piece fails as writing. (This leaves aside the possibility of an audience misreading or misunderstanding the text.) Such writing is purposive, meant to achieve some goal—it is a means to an end. But to what end is a poem the means? Of course there are didactic and even polemical poems, but a poem is hardly the most efficacious way to inform or persuade. The primary purpose of poems isn’t to convey information, at least in that instrumental sense.
This extended passage from “The Intentional Fallacy” (from which I have quoted more briefly above) sums up very well the central questions of interpretation and intention:
“There is a difference between internal and external evidence for the meaning of a poem. And the paradox is only verbal and superficial that what is (1) internal is also public: it is discovered through the semantics and syntax of a poem, through our habitual knowledge of the language, through grammars, dictionaries, and all the literature which is the source of dictionaries, in general through all that makes a language and culture; while what is (2) external is private or idiosyncratic; not a part of the work as a linguistic fact: it consists of revelations (in journals, for example, or letters or reported conversations) about how or why the poet wrote the poem—to what lady, while sitting on what lawn, or at the death of what friend or brother. There is (3) an intermediate kind of evidence about the character of the author or about private or semiprivate meanings attached to words or topics by an author or by a coterie of which he is a member. The meaning of words is the history of words, and the biography of an author, his use of a word, and the associations which the word had for him, are part of the word’s history and meaning. But the three types of evidence, especially (2) and (3), shade into one another so subtly that it is not always easy to draw a line between examples, and hence arises the difficulty for criticism. The use of biographical evidence need not involve intentionalism, because while it may be evidence of what the author intended, it may also be evidence of the meaning of his words and the dramatic character of his utterance. On the other hand, it may not be all this.”
If it were the case that one’s primary goal in reading is to discern the author’s intentions, one could and should simply bypass the text and go ask the author, if possible. But presumably the author writes in order to create things that are not himself or herself. “The evaluation of the work of art remains public; the work is measured against something outside the author” (Wimsatt and Beardsley, op. cit.). I obsess over my poems in order to make them as close to perfect aesthetic objects as I can, not in order to make my “intentions” clear. A lot of writing for me is about swerving away from myself (a version of Eliot’s escape from personality), about trying to connect to something outside of and beyond myself. I want my poems to exist independently of me, to be new objects in the world, like paintings or sculptures, not expressions of myself or my intentions. Obviously my self, my feelings, my thoughts, and, yes, my intentions are part of the material that makes up those objects. But if the poem is successful, they are just that: artistic material. If the poem is not successful, then it becomes a mere personal document. In that case, perhaps, authorial intention is the main interest, but that is the worst case scenario. “Once the work is produced, it possesses objective status—it exists independently of the author and of his declared intention. It contains, insofar as it is a work of art, the reason why it is thus and not otherwise. The difference between art and its germinal event is absolute” (Stallman, 399).
My interest in a poem isn’t in the author (though certainly some authors have led lives that were interesting in themselves, sometimes more interesting than the work, in general we only care about an author’s life because we care about the author’s work), and an author’s biography won’t explain his or her work. If it does, that indicates a failure in the work: it’s not fully realized if it needs to be completed by biography. In work that lasts, what lasts is what remains after things like the author’s intentions have faded away. It’s hard to fathom the intentions of the author(s) of The Epic of Gilgamesh, yet we can still read it, historical and textual lacanue and all.
The importance of intention for the author and the significance of intention for the reader are two entirely different things. However important his or her intention may be to the writer (it may be the whole reason he or she wrote the poem), that doesn't mean that it's important for a reader. What the reader has is the text, nothing more, nothing less. However one conceives of the text's relationship to its author, in relation to the reader the text must do all the work, has to give the reader everything he or she needs for a complete experience. If it needs to be supplemented by biographical information, it is to that extent a failed text. As Wimsatt and Beardsley write, “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” (op. cit.). The text is, or should be, a work of art, and it must be able to stand on its own in the world without the crutch of the author to support it, like a painting or a statue. To close with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s words, “Judging a poem is like judging…a machine. [RS: William Carlos Williams called the poem a machine made out of words.] One demands that it work. It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of the artificer.”
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...