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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

Chapter Six - The Meaning of a Poem


A poem means what the poet meant. That is the briefest way to state a widely held belief, taken as indisputable common sense by most ordinary readers and many literary critics. We understand and interpret a poem by inferring the intention of the poet who wrote it. That is how we understand ordinary speech-acts – people communicate what is in their minds to other people – and that is how we understand the speech-act we call a poem. Without the anchor of the poet’s intention, we go adrift, subject to any passing wind or wave, and there is no other anchor. It is true that we often have no external evidence of a poet’s purposes. We know little of any consequence about William Shakespeare, for example – so little that many otherwise intelligent scholars have convinced themselves that somebody else wrote his works. About Homer, we know nothing at all: he may not even have existed, being only a name attached to a long tradition of oral bards. In these cases, the anchor is merely notional, and its chain weak, but when we meet difficult passages, we nonetheless do our best to imagine what Shakespeare and “Homer” must have intended in order to rule out our own subjective associations and limit our susceptibility to the currents and tides of voguish literary theory.