The Irreducible Author

The Reductive Age

The Western view of intelligence implies an elegant rationality, an economy of thought. Validly reducing a complex idea to a simpler one can enhance understanding. That is the correct, welcome kind of reduction: it proceeds by applying Occam’s razor to unnecessary abstractions, and helps us see a phenomenon or entity as what it is, the thing itself. Such reductions filter out noise, bring us closer to grasping reality, things as they are. And then there is reductionism, the simplistic shrinking of a complex whole to a more simple part or aspect or relation—or in some cases to something altogether external to the thing itself. Such reductions distort the thing itself and move us farther away from seeing things as they are. There is also reductio ad absurdum, the method of rational demonstration that depends on the logically valid reduction of an idea to an obvious absurdity (a contradiction or a falsehood) that the idea necessarily entails. The 20th in many ways begs to be called the ad absurdum century, with its unprecedented theaters of the (real and imaginative) absurd. In the humanities, it was an era of heavy reductionist theorizing and political polarization.

Jokes can sometimes capture the intellectual dilemmas of an age. My maternal grandmother, professor of Marxist-Leninist philosophy and scientific atheism in a provincial Russian town, would tell a joke. Moses announced, pointing at the sky: “It’s all about this.” Plato, touching his head, declared: “It’s all about this.” Christ put his hand on his chest and said, “It’s all about this.” Marx laid his hand on his belly and argued, “It’s all about this.” Freud slid his hand still farther down and insisted, “It’s all about this.” And Einstein just shook his hand in the air and muttered, “Well, it’s all relative.” The joke has a subtle dimension that thrives on a view of “intellectual history” as a progression of reductonisms about the world to one principal idea that the human world is perceived as being “all about.” The last century discovered in full measure both the power and the danger of blanket, self-assured reductionist “discourses,” but today their combined effect seems paradoxical in retrospect. It is as if a global reduction of global reductions had been effected, the recursive fragmentation of fragments in the crooked mirror of the understanding, and no steadfastness remained wherein thought could be anchored. It is as if things were so relative to their native moment and context, and in such flux, that one could not step into the same idea twice, let alone over and over again.

Like the other humanities, the field of literary studies experimented with various forms of reductionist economy of thought. Perhaps the most influential among them, at least in the English-speaking world, has been the reduction of literature to text, the exclusion authorial intention from critical consideration. The critical attrition of the author took on various theoretical guises, opening the mental doors ever wider for the myriad projects of uncontrolled interpretation.

Hermeneutics and the Issue of Authorial Intention

The dawn of the “human sciences” (Geisteswissenschaften) in the 19th century ushered in modern hermeneutics, a general theory of textual interpretation. Historically rooted in biblical and classical exegetics, the idea of hermeneutics expanded during this period, initially due to the efforts of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who took this discipline’s scope to range over all human texts and communications, whether sacred or secular, artistic or mundane. He called this allgemeine Hermeneutik, or “general hermeneutics,” defined broadly as “the art of understanding” of linguistic expression. Schleiermacher laid down certain fundamental principles of the discipline, such as analyzing a text’s content in the light of its formal organization. He saw the work of interpretation as a dual process comprising “grammatical” (i.e. linguistic and compositional) interpretation and “technical” or “psychological” interpretation of the whole. Schleiermacher also emphasized the “divinatory” in interpretation—the moment of grasping the author’s individuality in the work. Schleiermacher’s follower Wilhelm Dilthey defined hermeneutics even more broadly as the methodological base of the human sciences, which were differentiated from the natural sciences by the fact that their object was at least partly accessible by the mind via empathy. He ruled that correct textual interpretation consisted in recovering the author’s original intention. In good German Romantic tradition, Dilthey, like Schleiermacher before him, allowed that the hermeneut might rely on privileged interpretive insight for a deeper grasp of the text, though fortified by a thorough scholarly command of historio-cultural background.

In the 20th-century hermeneutics evolved most vigorously even as many of its erstwhile assumptions were problematized. Most influentially, early Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1927) and elsewhere, while applying hermeneutics to the fundamental aspects of existence and of culture, emphasized the historical contingency of understanding. This paradigm shift in hermeneutics, started by Heidegger, culminated in 1960s, when Heidegger’s student Hans-Georg Gadamer offered his own take on “philosophical hermeneutics” in his monumental Truth and Method (Warheit und Methode, 1960) in an effort to shed light on the nature of human understanding. Like Heidegger, Gadamer emphasizes the historical contingency of interpretation and argues against the pretensions of rigorous scientism in the humanities and against the objective recoverability of authorial intention. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are, as thinkers and as interpreters, inextricably tied to a particular historical moment and are shaped by our own prior history. As Gadamer famously put it, “history does not belong to us, we belong to it.” Understanding has no way of transcending its own historicity, which creates an ineluctable “focus of subjectivity”:

Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being.i

Gadamer dismisses as naïve Romantic psychologism the Diltheyan precept that the text’s meaning is its author’s intention. Meaning is neither in the author nor in the reader but in that which they share, which constitutes the thing meant. Aware that his view raises the issue of hermeneutical validity, Gadamer clutches at a few straws by referring to interpretive tradition, to the stability of the “repeatable” written sign as factors that preserve validity, and to the possibility of fusing a past “horizon” with a present one in the understanding of a work.

Meanwhile, in parallel to philosophical hermeneutics, 20th-century critical theory developed its own reduction of literary writing to text, based on dissociating authorial intention from the meaning of literary works and banishing it from the economy of critical considerations. This tendency began with the New Critics but became especially rampant in the poststructuralism of 1960s, when Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault took on the role of pioneer sacrificers of the author to the needs of interpretive solipsism. Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, which repudiates the “metaphysics” of authorial presence and purports to demonstrate (if perhaps in a self-refuting, self-contradicting manner) a radical and insurmountable indeterminacy of all linguistic meaning, must be seen as the ultimate logical closure and crowning of both anti-intentionalist critical theory and of anti-intentionalist hermeneutics.

New Criticism and “the Poem Itself”

What is known as the New Criticism dominated literary studies in the English speaking world from the 1920s to the early 1960s, but remains broadly influential to this day. Its helpful method of “close reading” continues to form an important basis of university instruction in literature in the English speaking world. This critical school arose as an understandable reaction against the often dogmatic reliance on biography and author-psychology that was widespread in the 19th century. Whereas traditional criticism’s psycho-biographical approach often neglected or obscured the internal specifics and dynamics of the literary work, the New Critics held up “the text itself” as the proper object of critical scrutiny, to the point of rejecting any readings based on extra-textual sources, including biography.

This reorientation of critical attention from the figure of the author to the text itself necessitated a coming to terms with the issue of authorial intention in relation to textual meaning. The programmatic response to the issue was formulated by William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in their canonical though widely misunderstood essay, “The Intentional Fallacy.”ii

Wimsatt and Beardsley make two central points regarding authorial intention. First, in order to understand a literary text such as a poem correctly, one must primarily concentrate not on intention but on the text itself; not on what might have been its original, privately imagined significance, but on the publicly available meaning that is expressed by the text’s language and by its “organic structure.” Second, authorial intention is irrelevant to the critical task of making evaluative judgments about literature, about a work’s merits or demerits, success or failure.

As regards interpretation, Wimsatt and Beardsley survey three possible types of evidence that may bear upon the meaning of a text, and assess their unequal value or validity for criticism. These are:

  • “Internal” evidence, “discovered through the semantics and syntax” and through the work’s intrinsic structure. This is the best sort of evidence because language is a public medium, and hence a work’s syntax and semantics are a public affair, rendering a critic’s interpretation of a work verifiable or falsifiable by other members of the reading community.
  • “External” evidence, i.e. historical or other background information that may be available in the shape of personal journals, drafts, letters, reported conversation, etc., but is not “a part of the work as a linguistic fact” and is consequently of lesser value. Interpretations based on “external” evidence have limited validity for Wimsatt and Beardsley. Their example here is John Livingstone Lowes’ study of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and “The Ancient Mariner”—The Road to Xanadu, 1927—which purports to trace passages in the two poems to books Coleridge is known or likely to have read. Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that such possible origins are irrelevant to interpretation because they “can never be and need not be known in the verbal and hence intellectual composition which is the poem” and do not illuminate the poem’s meaning or effect. 
  • “Intermediate” evidence “about the character of an author or about private or semiprivate meanings attached to words or topics by an author.” (Let us remark parenthetically that “intermediate” is a rather infelicitous epithet here—this type of evidence is as “external” to the text as the previous type, and logically its subset.) The critics allow that the use of such evidence does not necessarily amount to committing an intentional fallacy: it may legitimately clarify the author’s linguistic usage or imagery or other objective features of a work. However, Wimsatt and Beardsley insist that such evidence is secondary to the “internal evidence” provided by text itself, and illustrate how its invocation can be misleading by discussing certain linguistic moments in John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”

Broadly put, the intentional fallacy, as defined by Wimsatt and Beardsley, stems from “confusion between the poem and its origins,” resulting in excessive emphasis on “external” information. Its roots lie in a “Romantic” obsession with the private side of literary composition, with “consulting the oracle” at the expense of carefully considering the text. Wimsatt and Beardsley do not banish intention altogether, albeit their readers and followers have often understood their argument to warrant a wholesale prohibition on intention’s use in critical discourse.

Roland Barthes: “The Death of the Author”

The “death of the author” trope was pioneered by Roland Barthes in his famous eponymous essay of 1968, which in its own way proclaims authorial intention irrelevant to the interpretation of a text.iii As best as I can discern, Barthes argues that the author is “dead,” or ought to “die” (these options are not sharply distinguished in the essay) because

  • “Author” is not a timeless phenomenon but a “modern” social construct, a result of the post-Renaissance invention of the individual.
  • Certain French symbolist and modernist writers, such as Mallarmé, Proust and the surrealists, rely on an alleged linguistic impersonality in their poetics.
  • Various traditional metaphorical clichés, such as that of the author “nourishing” the work, can without great difficulty be found fault with and poked fun at.
  • “The modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text” (presumably meaning that modernist writing tends to construct a narrator or speaker that is incidental to its “textual” logic or dynamic, exemplifying, in Barthes’s word, the “hand” rather than the “voice.”)
  • Texts display intertextuality.
  • Texts display ambiguity.
  • A “birth of the reader” is desirable.

In logical terms all these are obvious non-sequiturs. The Barthesian style of critical discourse, a.k.a. la nouvelle critique, is, in general, programmatic rather than reflective, declarative rather than demonstrative.iv The critic lui même “scripts” (whatever that means) as an artiste à part entière by plunging himself thrilled wholesale into the pleasure, such as it may be, of his own texte, not without aesthetic ambitions that he knows he can pull off with panache. For someone so keen on dethroning and encoffining the author (la mort de l’auteur symbolically blending here with Le Morte d’Arthur), Barthes seems too reliant on the familiar canon of French writers: Mallarmé, Valéry, Balzac, Proust, the surrealists… Arguably, these writers would at best have abolished a certain conventional view or function of the literary speaker or narrator, and done so in individual works rather than “en général.” The point in Barthes is to assert a certain modernism in the sphere of aesthetic taste, to try making criticism as earth-shaking as works in the French canon of literary achievement. The critic is no longer content to bring out what’s “there” in the work or even to illuminate its “contexts”—he wants to rival the author on the creative charisma front, to show off his own paradox and flaunt his own shine of language, and to assert his own agenda. In order to do this, he requires a free hand to tie any work of literature to his own concerns and interests. The celebrated Barthesian multiplicity of text—as distinct from the very old idea that texts can possess a complex wealth of meaning—is the theoretical underpinning of self-serving critical solipsism, because “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile.” 

Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

In translation: no matters of truth are at stake in critical discussion, where Cain the Critic has slain Abel the Author so that he may argue whatever he, bloody, wants.

Michel Foucault: the Unimportance of “Who Is Speaking”

Michel Foucault has his own beef with the idea of the author.v Like Barthes, he seeks to see the author as an epiphenomenon of modern, capitalistic “individualization” which establishes “an author-function.” Foucault is a Nietzschean to whom the individual, “the subject,” is a sort of an optical illusion, a differential effect of power relations. The author is a simulacrum of the will to power. Rather than, à la Barthes, “repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared,” Foucault proceeds more subtly by historicizing the author as a constructed abstraction. His strategy is not to eliminate but to problematize the concepts, not only of “author” but, pace Barthes, also of “work” and of “writing.” In a sense Foucault has a point here: it seems unlikely to demolish the entire paradigm of “fixed meanings” in literature by pulling down only one of its antiquated pillars, the author.

The problematizing strategy works by and large as follows: problematize the idea as a whole by pointing to problematic or contingent examples, which are never in short supply. Instead of eliminating the author (which, Foucault admits, sounds silly), it is better to reduce him to an author-function which attaches to a form of property and is thus an institutional and legal relation; is not universal to all discourse or the same for various kinds of discourse; is not a “spontaneous” or “simple attribution” but a “constructed,” “rational entity” that is historically variable; may in some cases not refer to a real individual or to the right individual. That these observations are perceived as problematizing is itself symptomatic. Consider the following passage:

The third point concerning this “author-function” is that it is not formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual. It results from a complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call an author. Undoubtedly, this construction is assigned a “realistic” dimension as we speak of an individual’s “profundity” or “creative” power, his intentions or the original inspiration manifested in writing. Nevertheless, these aspects of an individual, which we designate as an author (or which comprise an individual as an author), are projections, in terms always more or less psychological, of our way of handling texts: in the comparisons we make, the traits we extract as pertinent, the continuities we assign, or the exclusions we practice. In addition, all these operations vary according to the period and the form of discourse concerned. A “philosopher” and a “poet” are not constructed in the same manner; and the author of an eighteenth-century novel was formed differently from the modern novelist.

What is underhandedly annihilated here is the entire “historically contingent” understanding of literature in individualist, “always more or less psychological terms.” In Foucault’s world it is laughably impossible for an author really to posses such outmoded qualities as “profundity” or “‘creative’ power” that one might respect her for. Poststructuralist criticism leaves no place for respecting writers as persons outside scare quotes. Foucault takes it for granted that our “projections” and “complex operations” of “construction” necessarily rule out any truthful or useful conception of what authors really might be like. Instead of “literature,” an individualist activity, we now have “discourse,” a sort of impersonal, authorless epic of the ages (or, might we add, a heinous howling of disembodied, depersonalized voices).

The reasons for this insistence are stated in the concluding part of Foucault’s essay, where he intimates the reasons for attaching “a certain importance” to his considerations against the personhood of the author. Some of these reasons seem irrelevant: surely it is possible, in spite of Foucault, to conceive of a “typology of discourse” and a “historical analysis of discourse” (should one strongly desire to have those things), and to examine how the subject is specifically “constructed” within a text, while at the same time recognizing that texts are deliberately made by their authors. But Foucault’s own discourse quickly moves to other, weightier reasons:

Second, there are reasons dealing with the “ideological” status of the author. The question then becomes: How can one reduce the great peril, the great danger with which fiction threatens our world? The answer is: one can reduce it with the author. The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s resources and riches, but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result, we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author. We are accustomed, as we have seen earlier, to saying that the author is the genial creator of a work in which he deposits, with infinite wealth and generosity, an inexhaustible world of significations. We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.

“We are accustomed, as we have seen earlier…”—that fabulous deus ex machina of the strawman argument! “We” are, just maybe, “accustomed” to no such thing; yet Foucault needs “us” to perceive ourselves as infinite fetishizers of the author and sponsors of the tyranny of the author’s absolute authority (like that, presumably, of Aristotle during the Middle Ages), so that “we” too share in this paranoid fear of a world-threatening literature. It has not been sufficiently appreciated that Foucault is writing here, explicitly, as a great hater of literature: what “we” (God forbid) might perceive as the “infinite wealth and generosity” (hear the implied chuckle!) of Shakespeare or Proust are to Foucault mere additions to the “cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations,” for which he has neither gratitude nor patience. “One can reduce it with the author…” The notion that not all “significations” are “fictions” and that truth too might be at play does not begin to enter into the picture: let’s turn it all into a faceless anarchy of meaningless fictions pretty please, by “reducing” the author as the guarantor of meaning. 

Foucault’s essay begins by mentioning Beckett: “Beckett nicely formulates the theme with which I would like to begin: ‘“What does it matter who is speaking,” someone said, “what does it matter who is speaking”’”—and the Foucault’s argument concludes:

All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?

…Hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference…” The concluding yawn of poststructuralism: we don’t need no education. Beckett asks his question de profundis, but Foucault, whose indifference literature can barely stir, answers it ex cathedra, appropriating it as if it were a question of “theory.” Let us not care about who is speaking! The blasé philosopher-critic is bored out of his mind with literature.

E. D. Hirsh’s Validity in Interpretation

In 1967, a year before Roland Barthes’s trenchant essay on “The Death of the Author,” Yale University Press published Validity in Interpretation, a methodical response to anti-intentionalism by the American E. D. Hirsch, an English professor at the University of Virginia. In the indefinite future, when postmodern-style theorizing loses its grip the critical imagination, Hirsch’s book may well hold up as the 20th century’s greatest work of critical theory. For what it is worth, I hold it in the highest regard. Hirsch argues with refreshing elegance and compelling logic that in the absence of authorial intention as the standard of meaning, it is theoretically impossible to choose among interpretations, and literary works turn out to mean “nothing in particular at all” because there is no resisting the infinite regress of subjectivism and relativism.

Hirsch’s robust philosophical argument returns us to the old view that “a text means what its author meant,” which Hirsch recognizes as a “sensible belief” and “the only compelling normative principle that [can] lend validity to an interpretation.” The New Critical principle “the text means what it says” is void because it cannot, in and of itself, tell us which of any number of incompatible but textually plausible interpretations of the same work to choose, and which to discount as false. The problem with Gadamer’s grounding of exegetical validity in tradition, repeatability of the sign, and “horizon-fusion” is exactly the same. It is hard to disagree when Hirsch remarks that, “As the foregoing makes clear, the problem of norms is crucial. If we cannot enunciate a principle for distinguishing between an interpretation that is valid and one that is not, there is little point in writing texts about books and about hermeneutic theory.”vi

Hirsch demonstrates that in the sphere of a work’s meaning, intention is the only conceivable “determinate object” that a critical analysis can focus on and hope to illuminate. He takes apart all the familiar anti-intentionalist arguments that “problematize” the knowability or relevance of intention, exposing them as resting on mistakes of logic and equivocations of language. Most helpfully, Hirsch’s analysis of meaning draws a lucid distinction between a work’s meaning (the original intention behind it, the complex idea willed by the author) and the work’s significance for a reader. The habitual conflation of the two in criticism and hermeneutics has caused great confusion, and a tremendous amount of nonsense to be published and passed around as theoretical wisdom (e.g. the idea that meaning changes over time). “Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence; it is what the signs represent. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person, or a conception, or a situation or indeed anything imaginable.”vii Hirsch accepts that a work’s significance can sometimes be a legitimate subject of critical discussion, but the proper object of critical interpretation of a work is its authorially willed meaning. “Significance always implies a relationship and one constant, unchanging pole of that relationship is what the text means.”viii It is incumbent upon the critic, intellectually and ethically, to recognize this distinction.

As of December 12, 2012, the keyword “Gadamerian” finds 30,500 hits on Google; “Barthesian” 28,200 hits; “Derridean” 104,000; “Foucauldian” 343,000. The term “Hirschian,” on the other hand, retrieves a mere 5,580 hits, of which only 395 have anything to do with “E. D. Hirsch.” So we know who has won, for now. Yet it will be a long time before the intuition dies out completely that in reading a literary or philosophical work one connects not merely with a text, whether plain, formatted, clear, copy, annotated, meta, versioned, inter, hyper, cyber, or other, but with someone who was “there,” who thought those thoughts and willed that particular arrangement of words. And while this correct intuition is still around, one might persist in believing that the true philosophical foundations of criticism might be tied to the outmoded view of textual meaning as authorial intention—and that various aspects of the author, including biography, evidence of linguistic usage and predilection, and so on, will long remain relevant to clarifying and explaining the meaning of his or her texts.ix

Andrew Marvell: the Silence of “The Garden”

Andrew Marvell’s poem, “The Garden,” upholds the ideal of a rustic vita contemplativa that requires a solitary hermitage in a garden (symbolically suggestive of the Garden of Eden). It is a distinguished example of the genre that might be termed “philosophic” verse. This text, I would argue, is well ahead of its time poetically because it

  • Articulates a certain “green” idea that insists that plants are somehow better than people: “Society is all but rude / To this delicious solitude.” 
  • Anticipates by a century Kantian aesthetic theory, with its idea of landscape gardening as the exemplary artform. (The garden, like art, is a combination of the trimmed and the wild.)
  • Anticipates Romanticism’s epiphanic contemplation of the trimmed wild, and ideas of mystical communion with nature.
  • Experiments with semantic anomaly as a device for expressing poetic subjectivity, “to a green thought in a green shade” pointing, as it were, in the general direction of Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleeping furiously.”
  • Does all that with a light and self-humorous disposition.

All these observations have a textual basis in the poem itself as a particular moment in literary history. The poem is self-coherent, and it may seem entirely unnecessary to look to its “origins” for more information.

“The Garden” speaks of Edenic peace and misanthropic withdrawal from the pursuits of society. There is a hidden dimension to it, however. Some years ago I had occasion to ask an undergraduate class that I was teaching whether it changed their perception of this poem to find out that it was composed by Marvell sometime between 1650 and 1652, at the extremely troubled time of the 3rd English Civil War—the third English civil war in a decade!—between supporters of Charles II and the forces of the Rump Parliament (whose eventual victory would soon lead to the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate); that it was composed at Nun Appleton House, the Yorkshire seat of the family of Marvell’s patron, Sir Thomas Fairfax, with whom Marvell was then staying and whose daughter he was tutoring; that Fairfax had just recently retired to the estate from public life, upon handing over his post as commander-in-chief of the Parliament’s forces over to Cromwell for reasons that had to do with Fairfax’s objection to the regicide of 1549; that Marvell himself had been a supporter of Charles I; and that in his poetry of this period the poet often confronts the dilemma of choosing between public service and a quest for personal insight. My students seemed unanimously to agree that somehow this information indeed changed their perception of the poem, although it was not necessarily easy for them immediately to identify the specific ways in which it did so.

In Marvell, when he is at his most subtle, much can depend of very little. For example, in “Bermudas,” another poem of the early 1650s, and one also concerned with the Edenic peace topos, the meaning of the whole hangs to my mind on the line “Safe from the storms, and prelate’s rage.” The oblique, deniable allusion to the king as the head of the Church of England, turns a text that is ostensibly a praise of the English participation in New World explorations into a political poem of sympathy with Puritan refugees from persecution. It seems to me that “The Garden”’s biographical and historical circumstances present an opportunity for legitimate critical reflection on the poem’s meaning. In this particular instance the silence of the poem, what it does not say, allows the poet to achieve a tone of much rarer quality, and that is the most interesting thing of all about “The Garden.” However, it is precisely this sort of reflection that a New Critical positivism about “the poem itself” (let alone a wholesale reduction of “the author”) will nip in the bud.

John Donne and Spiritual Love

There is a time-honored orthodoxy of opinion regarding John Donne, that especially in his early poetry the speaker appears under various “Renaissance personas” that enact attitudes and opinions by way of a rhetorical display in “metaphysical conceits.” This thinking arose as a response to the wide disparity of attitude or affect that one encounters, for example, in Donne’s posthumous collection Songs and Sonnets. Critics have had trouble “reconciling” images of the poet as cynical seducer, promiscuous womanizer, frustrated misogynist, with images of the poet as a “saintly,” spiritual lover. The order of the poems in the two earliest editions—1633 and 1635 of the volume—appears in both cases to be chronologically arbitrary and not Donne’s own, which creates a peculiar optical effect: the collection appears to be a randomly mixed soup of contradictory amorous attitudes. The standard approach to explaining (away) this bizarreness is by emphasizing Donne’s love of paradox, of “contraries,” and by reading his poetry as a play of “wit” in which feeling is merely an aspect of the “intellectual” rhetorical construction. Sincerity, it is said, is an invention of the Romantic “homo seriosus,” while the Renaissance “homo rhetoricus” is a sort of affective flake, or, in Richard Lanham’s phrase, a “shifting and perpetually uneasy combination.”x

New Criticism loves rhetoric because it is there in “the text itself.” This approach to Donne would have us believe that, for all we know (as the saying goes), when Donne says “I” in a poem he needn’t refer to himself at all: all we need to see is a “constructed” persona. It is curious to note that this insistence is in fact, positivistically speaking, less “verifiable” than the more natural assumption that by “I” Donne means none other but himself, or at any rate some aspect of himself. The “rhetorical attitudes” of the love poems readily find parallels in Donne’s life.xi As a young man John Donne was a bit of a rake who spent heavily on his obsessions of the period: women, books, theatre, and travel. It does not require a great stretch of the imagination to associate (thought not identify!) the “rakish” verses with this period of his life. There is another, stunningly distinct, group of poems—the “spiritual love” poems, such as “The Good-Morrow,” “The Sun Rising,” “The Canonization,” “Song” (“Sweetest love, I do not go…”), “A Valediction: Forbidding Morning,” “The Ecstasy” and others, that seem all to refer to a single transformative discovery of true love as an astonishing spiritual experience. One has to be quite blind, as a critic and as a human being, not to see that these poems refer to Donne’s very real love for Anne More, whom he secretly married in 1601 and with whom he lived in harmonious and happy monogamy (in spite of the hardships caused by their marriage) until her untimely death in childbirth in 1617.

It would be legitimate to ask what actual insights the knowledge of such a fact can afford into the workings of an individual poem, a “text itself.” For one thing, it can sometimes reveal certain of the text’s motivations. Consider the opening of Donne’s “The Canonization”:

For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love;
    Or chide my palsy, or my gout;
    My five gray hairs, or ruin’d fortune flout;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve;
        Take you a course, get you a place, 
        Observe his Honour, or his Grace;
Or the king’s real, or his stampèd face 
    Contemplate; what you will, approve, 
    So you will let me love.

Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love? 
    What merchant’s ships have my sighs drown’d?
    Who says my tears have overflow’d his ground? 
When did my colds a forward spring remove? 
        When did the heats which my veins fill 
        Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still 
    Litigious men, which quarrels move,
    Though she and I do love.

Why does the poem set up an antagonism between the experience of love and the ambitions of careerism: is it not possible to both be in love and have a prosperous career? Why does the poem defend love against a presumed accusation of injury, with suggestion of quarrels and legal complication? While “text itself” is silent on the issue, illumination may be drawn from Donne’s biography. The seventeen year old Anne More, whom the twenty-nine year old Donne secretly married in 1601 (“…her whom I tender much more than my fortunes or life…”), was the niece of the powerful Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, in whose office Donne had been pursuing a successful legal career since 1598 in the capacity of a private secretary. The marriage caused a tremendous scandal, resulting in Donne’s temporary arrest and in the permanent termination of his secular career. Donne himself summed up the situation in a letter to his wife: “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” The couple had to escape to Pyrford, Surrey, where they led a difficult and anxious life together, aided by faithful friends and relatives. It was not until 1609 that a reconciliation between Donne and the More family was finally reached and Anne’s dowry paid. The explanatory power of this “external” evidence with respect to Donne’s poem should be obvious.

In Lieu of a Conclusion: Mandelshtam’s “Providential” Reader

Literary meaning is not often handed down to us with exhaustive and immediate clarity. This is especially true of lyric poetry, which is the most private and the most anthropomorphic of all the verbal artforms. The unit of poetry is the poet. The lyric may stem, and is at any rate allowed and even expected to stem, from the poet’s life experience and personal reflections and sentiments. The poem’s meaning is what the poet means. Although the poem exists in the “public” medium of language and rhetoric, the poet’s relationship to his language, rhetoric and subject-matter is personal, intimate. It can at times be controlled, planned, transparent, and at other times whimsical, compulsive or wild. Facts of the poet’s “private” thought and history can shed precious light on his meaning. There can never be too much of this kind of information for the serious study of any poet. The critic of poetry, properly understood, is the historian and biographer (interviewer, where possible) of poetic meaning as much as its interpreter.

The New Critics tend to assume that the poem’s “expression” is communicative: the poet renders his meaning public by couching it in a public language, and that’s all the introduction the public needs to the poem, the text. The thinking here goes something like this: the poem is in a language, and the primary purpose of any language is communication, therefore the primary purpose of a poem is to communicate. After all, poets publish their works, presumably thereby addressing, if only in the abstract, a public. In the longer run, once postmodern criticism “empowered” the solipsist professor, who has become the model reader, the important empirical question of the primary “addressee” for whom the poet wrote no longer seemed to arise.

By contrast, any serious poet strives to understand who he or she really writes for. And who better to ask than the poets themselves? Naturally, a variety of responses are likely, but few will claim that they are for everyone, for society, for the people, for no one in particular. The man in the street, yes, but which man and in which street? Even those writers who write primarily to satisfy themselves wish to give most readers a reasonable chance. Yet the first circle of the poet’s intended readers, whether real or wished for, will typically be much more narrow and specific than any “reading public” broadly understood. The poet’s life would turn rather dry without readers, reader friends, without some appreciation and encouragement from them. They are vital to us. Some of us wait so long for our readers that we become yogis at waiting, at dreaming our readers into being. It is a necessary part of our maturing. While we await our reader—as we all do in our youth, and beyond—we take our sweet time to invent in our heads the sort of reader that we most need, would most treasure.

The poet does not write for everybody. Historically, many poets have made fun of or even expressed contempt for certain kinds of reader. Pushkin’s and Baudelaire’s poetry refers to the “rabble,” the crass “herd” or “mob” unable to understand poetry yet given to judging it. They did not mean uneducated people.

Osip Mandelshtam, in his important early essay “On the Interlocutor” (1913), tackles the puzzle of who the poet writes for.xii

Usually, when a man has something to say, he goes to the people, looking for listeners. The poet, on the contrary, runs “to the banks of deserted waves, into the broadly rustling oak groves.” xiii The abnormality of this is obvious. A suspicion of madness falls upon the poet. People would be right to brand him as a madman whose speeches are addressed to soulless objects, to nature, rather than to his living brethren. And they would be within rights to shun the poet as a lunatic, if his words were not addressed to anyone at all. Yet this is not so.


To whom does the poet speak? The question is painful and always contemporary. Leaving aside the purely juridical relation that accompanies an act of speech (I am speaking, therefore I am being listened to, not out of politeness but out of obligation), let us suppose that someone set his attention exclusively on acoustics. He throws a sound into the soul’s architecture and, with the self-love so typical of him, follows its wanderings under the vaults of another’s psyche. He takes into account the sound’s accretion resulting from the fine acoustics, and calls this calculation magic. In this regard, he will be much like the “prestre Martin” [Father Martin] of medieval French proverb who serves the Mass alone to himself, his only listener. The poet is not only a musician, he is also the Stradivari, the great master violin-maker, preoccupied with calculating the proportions of that acoustic box, the listener’s psyche. Depending on these proportions, the strike of the bow either takes on a regal fullness or sounds pathetic, uncertain of itself.  But, my friends, does not a musical piece exist independently of those who perform it, of the concert hall in which, of the violin on which it is performed? Why is the poet expected to show so much foresight and care? And where, lastly, is that supplier of live violins for the poet’s need, of listeners whose psyche is of a quality equivalent to that of a violin crafted by Stradivari? We do not know, we never know, where those listeners are…

Contrasting the reader—the ideal sort of reader—with the poet’s personal friends, Mandelshtam cites a short 1829 poem by the Russian Evgeny Baratynsky, which I here translate:

My lyric gift is weak, my voice not loud,
Yet I’m alive, and on this earth my being
Meets in some hearts with favorable feeling,
And in my verse, who knows, may too be found

By a far future kindred soul with whom
My soul will enter into a relation:
I have found friends among my generation,
And readers in posterity—will come.

To explain both his own emotional response to the poem and the nature of poetry’s “mysterious addressee,” Mandelshtam uses the metaphor of a message in a bottle, cast into the ocean by a distressed seafarer, wherefrom one who has found it learns “the dead man’s last will.”

Reading Baratynsky’s poem, I feel as if I such a bottle had come into my hands, the fulfillment of its mission assisted by the whole enormous element of the ocean. A sense of the providential grips the finder. The bottle tossed into the sea waves and Baratynsky’s poem clearly exhibit two things in common. The letter and the poem, equally, are not addressed to anyone particular. Yet each has an addressee: the letter is addressed to whoever catches sight of it in the sand, and the poem to a “reader in posterity.”


The poet is connected only with the providential interlocutor.


Albeit individual poems, in the form of epistles or dedications, may address specific persons, poetry, as a whole, always moves in the direction of that more or less distant, unknown addressee, whose existence the poet cannot doubt without doubting himself. Only a reality can bring to life another reality.

“A sense of the providential grips the finder”—how far is this sentiment from the “stirrings” of a literary postmodern’s indifference! Other opinions are possible, but Mandelshtam’s will resonate with many poets. His ideal reader is understood to be a poet, although he does not require it explicitly. And if it is true that (apart from the poet’s most careful and caring available reader, him- or herself) the poet is most deeply connected only with the providential reader, it may follow that poetry is largely a domain of great private wealth—of private wealth at times bitterly earned and dearly paid for—given to us practically for free, accepted at our own risk, entrusted to the best of our understanding.


  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd revised ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (Crossroad, 1989), pp. 276-7.
  2. First published in The Sewanee Review 54 (summer, 1946), pp. 468-88; fist collected in William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1954), pp. 3-18.
  3. Collected in English in Roland Barthes Image—Music—Text (trans. Stephen Heath, London: Fontana, 1977), pp. 142-48.
  4. See an early critique of Bartes’s critical solipsism and of his scholarship on Racine by Sorbonne professor Raymond Picard, Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture? (J. J. Pauvert, 1965).
  5. Michel Foucault, “Qu'est-ce qu’un auteur?” in Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie (April, 1969) v. LXIV, 1970, pp.73-104. In English: Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” (trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon), collected in Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 113-138.
  6. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press, ninth printing, 1979), p. 251.
  7. Ibid., p. 8.
  8. Ibid.
  9. It is interesting to notice in this connection that unlike hermeneutics and criticism, 20th-century theory of textual scholarship and scholarly editing never freed itself of its concept of intention. The most influential revisionist examination of intention, Jerome McGann’s A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 1983), merely complexifies the concept without attempting to eliminate it.
  10. Richard A. Lanham, “The Rhetorical Ideal of Life” in The Motives of Eloquence (Yale University Press, 1976), p. 6.
  11. Isaac Walton’s The Life of Dr. Donne is available online at
  12. The Russian original can be found at The English translation is my own.
  13. The last two lines of Alexander Pushkin’s poem, “The Poet” (1827).

PHILIP NIKOLAYEV is a poet and literary scholar. He is co-editor-in-chief of Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics. His latest poetry collection is Letters from Aldenderry (Salt).

Editorial Staff

Publisher and Managing Editor:
U.S. Dhuga (Toronto)
Editor: Ben Mazer (Boston)
Issue Editors: Mario Murgia (Mexico City), Flaminia Ocampo (Buenos Aires)
Associate Editor: Robert Archambeau (Chicago)
Contributing Editors:
Philip Nikolayev (Boston), Todd Swift (London), Peter Behrman de Sinéty (Paris), Ann Fallon (Dublin), Petya Ivanova (Geneva), Marcel Inhoff (Germany), Jeet Thayil (India), Dan Sociu (Romania), Angela D'Ambra (Italy)
Production Manager:
Zachary Bos (Pen & Anvil)

The Current Issue