To ask the question, what does the poet mean to mean? is to run foul of the Intentional Fallacy, of course. Much as this key concept of the New Criticism has been bombarded in recent years, its essential spirit remains with us, and probably always will.1 The feeling that the reasons why a poem is so-and-so and such-and-such must reside, we agree with Coleridge, inside the poem, not outside it in history or biography: we are so far right in refusing to let the poet’s otherwise expressed intentions of meaning influence our judgement of what he succeeded in saying. Yet when we inspected the word ‘meaning’, as it is applied to art-works, it was to find that it is unprofitable to ask, what is the meaning of a literary text or a painting, as if that question could be answered simply by unravelling the significations of the elements it is composed of. These elements ‘mean’ in a slightly different sense: they are meaningfull, and this may remain the irreducible quality of all art-works. They are meant, they are uttered and they matter to us. It was the fault of formalist and structuralist criticism that they assumed only a single meaning for ‘meaning’, and thus assumed that modernist works are absolutely different from classical works, since modernist texts cannot be ‘explained’ as classical ones can.
KeywordsIrreducible Quality Literary Criticism Ordinary Language Literary Text Contextualist Theory
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- 2.Umberto Eco, L’opera aperta; forma e indeterminazione nella poetica contemporanea (Milan, 1962).Google Scholar
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