Poet's Intentions: Some Interpretive Problems

        In our discussion of texts' meanings, we have generalized that some meanings may be said to come from the text, itself, some from our own experience and interpretive rules, and some from the author. Wimsatt and Beardsley's notion of the "intentional fallacy" directly attacks the logical validity of arguments which depend on evidence which purports to come from the author's intentions. We'd all admit that sometimes authors' intentions are difficult to decide, but what about when authors publicly declare intentions, even to the extent of trying to "cancel" or "retract" or "revise" published work?

Case #1: manuscript "retraction"

        All complete manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury tales end with a manuscript unit that contains the "Parson's Tale" and Chaucer's "Retractions." In the latter document, he asks his readers to forgive him and "retracts" many of his canonical works, including the Troilus and all those Canterbury tales that would lead one to sin. Should we read them?

Case #2: manuscript "revision" and later publication

        William Wordsworth first completed the long poem later titled "The Prelude" in 1799 when he was 29. Its subject, the growth of the poet's mind, is explored in language that clearly establishes it as his claim to poetic power on a scale with Milton, the end of whose Paradise Lost is echoed in the poem's fifteenth line. In 1805, he revised it to give it to S.T. Coleridge who was about to travel on the Continent, but only manuscript fragments survive and he never published that version. However, he continued to work on the poem and in 1850, the then seventy-year-old Wordsworth published a revised version of the poem, making countless changes in its style, though only a few major passages were cut. He died before it was printed. His wife, Mary, gave it the title, "The Prelude." Of the 1850 edition, the Norton Critical Edition editors (Jonathan Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill) have this to say: "In successive revisions, Wordsworth had smoothed out what had come to seem [to WW] rough spots, clarified the syntax, elaborated the detail, and most conspicuously, had toned down, by touches of Christian piety, the poem's more radical statements of the divine sufficiency of the human mind in its interchange with Nature" (xii). Both versions are available to us. Which version should we read and what should we call it?

Case #3: publication, revision, and re-publication

        W. H. Auden was usually ranked with Eliot and Yeats as the greatest of English poets in the early twentieth century. During his youth, in the 1920s and 1930s, he published several influential collections of poems and co-wrote several dramas with Christopher Isherwood. In the 1940s, he turned increasingly to the Christian church, and in 1945 he reissued his early work, heavily re-edited, under the title "Collected Poems of W.H. Auden." At the time, he publicly renounced the earlier published versions of his poems. Which version contains the "author's intention"?

Case #4: internal denial

        Matsuo Basho (1644-94), today acknowledged as the master of the haiku, made a Zen pilgrimage late in life. He published a narrative of the journey, interspersed with many examples of haiku he wrote as he travelled, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. While traveling to Yoshino to see the cherry blossoms' brief bloom, he was astonished by the beauty of what he saw and wrote the following:

        "During my three days' stay in Yoshino, I had a chance to see the cherry blossoms at different hours of the day--at early dawn, late in the evening, or past midnight when the dying moon was in the sky. Overwhelmed by the scenes, however, I was not able to compose a single poem. My heart was heavy, for I remembered the famous poems of Sesshoko, Saigyo, Teishitsu and other ancient poets. In spite of the ambitiousness of my original purpose, I thus found the present journey utterly devoid of poetic success."

        Should we accept his judgment, or can we treat that passage as a poem?