Wimsatt and Beardsley on "The Affective Fallacy"

Terms for the critical methods attacked by Wimsatt and Beardsley in this essay: affective criticism; historical study of contemporary readers' response; Plato's inspirational model of poesis and reception; Aristotle's katharsis model of poetic effect; the "Sublime"; physiological and psychological response theories of Semantics scholars.

"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 [ . . .  which . . .] begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism [with the result that] the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear." [345]

" . . . a large and obvious area of emotive import depends directly upon descriptive meaning (either with or without words of explicit valuation--as when a person says and is believed: 'General X ordered the execution of 50,000 civilian hostages,' or 'General X is guilty of the murder of 50,000 civilian hostages.'"  [347]

"None of [the examples offered by the semanticists] offers any evidence, in short, that what a word does to a person is to be ascribed to anything except what it means [denotative meaning], or if this connection is not apparent, at the most, by what it suggests [connotative meaning]."  [348]

"The doctrine of emotive meaning propounded recently by the semanticists has seemed to offer a scientific basis for one kind of affective relativism in poetics--the personal . . . a reader may likely feel either 'hot' or 'cold' and report either 'bad' or 'good' on reading either 'liberty' or 'license'--either an ode by Keats or a limerick.  The sequence of licenses is endless."  [349]

 ". . . affective theory has often been less a scientific view of literature than a prerogative--that of the soul adventuring among masterpieces, the contagious teacher, the poetic radiator--a magnetic rhapsode Ion, a Saintsbury, a Quiller-Couch, a William Lyon Phelps.  Criticism on this theory has approximated the tone of . . . the revival meeting . . . The sincerity of the critic becomes an issue, as for the intentionalist the sincerity of the poet."  [351]

"The report of some readers . . . that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account."  [353]

"Certain theorists, notably [Ivor] Richards, have anticipated some difficulties of affective criticism by saying that it is not intensity of emotion that characterizes poetry . . . but the subtle quality of patterned emotions which play at the subdued level of disposition or attitude We have psychological theories of aesthetic distance, detachment, or disinterestedness.  A criticism on these principles has already taken important steps towards objectivity."  [353]

"'Tennyson's 'Tears, idle tears,' as it deals with an emotion which the speaker at first seems not to understand, might be thought to be a specifically emotive poem.  'The last stanza,' says [New Critic, Cleanth] Brooks, in his recent analysis, 'evokes an intense emotional response from the reader.'  But this statement is not really a part of Brooks' criticism of the poem--rather a witness of his fondness of it.  'The second stanza'--Brooks might have said at an earlier point in his analysis--'gives us a momentary vivid realization of past happy experiences, then makes us sad at their loss.'  But he says actually: 'The conjunction of the qualities of sadness and freshness is reinforced by the fact that the same basic symbol--the light on the sails of a ship hull down--has been employed to suggest both qualities.'  The distinction between these formulations may seem slight, and in the first example which we furnished may be practically unimportant.  Yet the difference between translatable emotive formulas and more physiological and psychologically vague ones--cognitively untranslatable--is theoretically of the greatest importance."  [353-54; my underscore, boldface, and red for emphasis, click on the hyperlink to Tennyson's "Tears..." so that you can test their argument about what the poem means]

"The critic is not a contributor to statistical countable reports about the poem, but a teacher or explicator of meanings.  His readers, if they are alert, will not be content to take what he says as testimony, but will scrutinize it as teaching.  [354]

[Paraphrasing Yvor Winters:] . . . that there is a difference between the motive, or logic of an emotion, and the surface or texture of a poem constructed to describe the emotion, and that both are important to the poem.  Winters has shown, we think, how there can be in effect "fine poems" about nothing.  There is rational progression and there is "qualitative progression," in the latter, with several subtly related modes, a characteristic of decadent poetry.  [354-55, hyperlink leads to to Rochester's "Upon Nothing"]

What we have is poetry where kings are only symbols or even a poetry of hornets and crows, rather than of human deeds.  Yet a poetry of things.  How these things are joined in patterns and with what names of emotion remains always the critical question.  "The Romance of the Rose could not, without loss," observes C. S. Lewis, "be rewritten as The Romance of the Onion.  [356]

To the relativist historian of literature falls the uncomfortable task of establishing as discrete cultural moments the past when the poem was written and first appreciated, and the present into which the poem with its clear and nicely interrelated meanings, its completeness, balance, and tension has survived.  A structure of emotive objects so complex and so reliable as to have been taken for great poetry by any past age will never . . . so wane with the waning of human culture as not to be recoverable at least by a willing student.  . ..  If the exegesis of some poems depends upon the understanding of obsolete or exotic customs, the poems themselves are the most precise emotive report on the customs.  In the poet's finely contrived objects of emotion and in other works of art the historian finds his most reliable evidence about the emotions of antiquity--and the anthropologist, about those of contemporary primitivism . . . In short, though cultures have changed, poems remain and explain.  [357, my underlining for emphasis; the hyperlink will take you to Wallace Stevens' "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm"]

Link to "concordances" list--use these, in addition to the O.E.D.,  to explore "[an author's] use of a word, and the associations which the word had for him" [Wimsatt and Beardsley, "Intentional Fallacy" 339].

    A sample student's (flawed but serviceable) New Critical "close reading" analysis of Wallace Stevens' "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm":

Aaryn Richard, "Subject v. Object: The Condition of the Relationship Between Man and the World," Parataxis Spring 2003, online at http://writing.colostate.edu/gallery/parataxis/richard.htm.  Viewed 2/22/05.

[Bonus points: can you detect in Richard's article any critical moves that Wimsatt and Beardsley would have prohibited?  If so, what are they and on what grounds are they prohibited?]