“True Wit Is Nature”

“True Wit Is Nature”: Wimsatt, Pope, and the Power of Style

by Helen Deutsch

UCLA’s Helen Deutsch here puts Yale critic and cofounder of the New Criticism William K. Wimsatt into the balance with the most influential poet of eighteenth-century England, Alexander Pope. A scholar-collector with a lifelong penchant for Pope’s poetry and iconography, Wimsatt molds his influential theoretical paradoxes of abstract particularity after the uniquely embodied poet, who made himself inseparable from his art. The elusive power of style connects universal truth to worldly materiality for both writers, giving theoretical abstraction a human likeness.

The essay opens:

William K. Wimsatt with Roubiliac’s busts of Pope at the National Portrait Gallery, 1961. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.


I begin with a photo and what first appears to be a visual joke. William K. Wimsatt, New Critical patriarch of the theoretical Yale Critics, stern dispeller of the intentional and affective fallacies, and devotee of the abstract poetic object he deemed the “verbal icon,” looms over a table, upon which are precariously displayed six marble busts of the great eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope by the poet’s contemporary, the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac. The bareheaded and be-mantled neoclassical busts, each varying subtly from the next, join in a contemplatively oblique stare—into the future? the distant past? the eyes of the viewer?—while Wimsatt, modestly positioned at the left edge of the table, gazes straight into the camera. On the wall behind Wimsatt are empty picture hangers, below which are captions: it seems that an exhibit has been taken down and the curator, haunted by his doubled shadow, is preserving one last look. Wimsatt’s is the proud gaze of an avid collector—of stamps, Native American artifacts, and minerals (this last item also a penchant of Pope’s, who festooned the walls of his famous grotto at Twickenham with exotic rocks and curios)—whose convocation of busts was the prize of years of avid pursuit across England of images of the diminutive poet known for his beautiful head and curved spine. These adventures took Wimsatt into the homes of aristocratic families whose ancestors had befriended Pope, where the busts had long proclaimed the owner’s political affiliation and personal distinction. The busts themselves seem to cast white shadows beneath the table, inverting Wimsatt’s dark ones.

Scholars of English literature do not usually imagine Wimsatt, whose authority and influence are legendary for the profession, in such distinctive company. Wimsatt’s polemical essays on the affective and intentional fallacies, written in collaboration with the philosopher Monroe Beardsley, in his classic The Verbal Icon (1954) attempted to wrest poetry from the grip of the author’s biography on the one hand and the reader’s affective response on the other. Criticism for Wimsatt was a science; its mandate was meticulous textual analysis, and its goal was objectivity. His fame, late in his career, as a stern enforcer of the rules was captured in a spoof song, “Big Bad Bill” (to the tune of the popular ballad “Big Bad John”), by his former student Doug Canfield: “Let’s cut out this impressionism / And not make poetry confessionism; / Let’s make the Object the real test: / The Old New Critics are still the best.” What then to make of Wimsatt’s career-long fascination with the first self-supporting professional poet in English literature, a poet who spent his career writing about himself? In the photo’s balance of contraries, Big Bad Bill behind multiple renditions of the man who once called himself the little Alexander whom all the women laugh at, we can locate a different and equally important aspect of Wimsatt’s criticism: the idea of style.

Of all his collections, none was more personal than Wimsatt’s assemblage of images of Pope, put on display in the exhibit recorded in the photograph at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1961; Wimsatt typed out the catalog himself and included items from his own personal collection. This effort was expanded and commemorated in his monumental 1965 study The Portraits of Alexander Pope, which bears an image of a Roubiliac bust on its cover. In an homage to Wimsatt written shortly after his death in 1975, his Yale colleague René Wellek rightly observes that the Pope catalog “traces the archetypes of the portrait so meticulously that the method can serve as a model for similar investigations into the history of portrait painting and of sculpture.” A substantial addendum to the catalog’s compendium of originals and multiple imitations, which Wimsatt spent twenty-five years researching and which, like all great collections, would never be complete, was published posthumously. Wimsatt’s sustained engagement with Pope as author and image might seem from our current vantage point to contradict his work’s fundamental tenets. Yet while Wimsatt famously, if complexly, defined the work of art as an object free of both authorial intention and the reader’s affective response, he nevertheless gave that object a persistently heavy weight, linking it to the visual and material world by its very definition as icon. The balances of generality and particularity that exemplified the literary text for Wimsatt, specifically the paradoxes of the concrete universal’s detailed abstraction and the verbal icon’s dual status as object and image, are rooted in the age that gave us the professional author and inspired and epitomized by the eighteenth-century poet who made himself inseparable from his art. As ephemeral as Belinda’s lock, yet as weighty as a marble bust, Pope’s poems are at once historically particular, personal, and immediate. Concrete universals with a distinctive human voice, they give ballast to Wimsatt’s theorizing, informing his conceptions of poetry, criticism, and the thing that unites the two—style.

…The enduring presence of Pope across Wimsatt’s scholarly oeuvre thus shadows the assessment of Wimsatt’s own reputation as a foundational icon of criticism, making his universals personally concrete. While at the time of his death in 1975, Wellek could state with confidence that “Wimsatt will be remembered mainly as a theorist of literature,” the headline of his New York Times obituary memorialized him as “Yale expert on 1700’s authors.” The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson (1941), based on Wimsatt’s dissertation, began with a chapter on style and meaning. In his second book, Philosophic Words: A Study of Style and Meaning in the Rambler and Dictionary of Samuel Johnson (1948), Wimsatt described his endeavor, one worthy of a literary-critical James Boswell, as a “history of Johnson’s mind” rooted in the unique properties of Johnson’s scientific language, words that do the metaphorical work of connecting body to mind and the world to the text. While Johnson served as Wimsatt’s exemplary test case for stylistic analysis, Pope, in all his embodied uniqueness, informed Wimsatt’s attempts to conceive of style in the abstract. Style for Wimsatt was always inseparable from meaning, just as, and perhaps because, the author was never fully absent from the text. That Pope should get two essays to himself in The Verbal Icon and is the only author to make top billing in an essay title in that volume drives this point home. That Wimsatt named his own son Alexander makes it personal.

Wimsatt’s lifelong preoccupation with Pope and the successfully realized intentions of eighteenth-century authors reminds us that he practiced theory as part of a group of scholars who studied the poet whose spine, so his contemporaries speculated, was bent by excessive devotion to literature. For Wimsatt and his fellow scholar-collectors at Yale, Pope embodied the ways in which art is inseparable from the material world it represents. Yet by 1975 Wimsatt himself, with all his eccentricities and eighteenth-century preoccupations, his “towering figure” of nearly seven feet sublimated into disembodied monumental status, had taken his place in Yale’s history, a history at the heart of our profession, by disappearing into the theoretical ether. We can see an alternative trajectory in the evolution of cover choices for Wimsatt’s Rinehart edition of the poetry and prose of Alexander Pope, part of a series used in many undergraduate classrooms. Wimsatt noted in a talk given to Yale undergraduates in 1959 that his obsession with Pope’s iconography began with his search for a proper cover image. First published with a plain generic cover in 1951, the 1972 edition published shortly before Wimsatt’s death shows William Hoare’s red crayon drawing, a rare full-length image of Pope, an “original taken without his knowledge,” curved spine and all (fig. 2). When we view the verbal icon through the lens of Wimsatt’s fascination with Pope, its author seems to kick it, like Johnson famously did the stone in response to Bishop Berkeley’s assertion of the nonexistence of matter, to refute it thus. The timeless abstraction of Wimsatt’s theory, in other words, is haunted by the distinctively embodied and loquacious ghost of the poet who complained in Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot that “ev’ry Coxcomb knows me by my Style.” If personification, as Marc Redfield has suggested, is the key to understanding theory at Yale—Harold Bloom standing for aesthetics, Paul de Man standing for theory—what does Wimsatt, behind the busts of Pope, stand for? Perhaps he is standing for style. Resisting autobiography as Romantic de-facement, he pursues the multiple versions of the face of the particular author in which the animate and inanimate forces of language unite, grounding his militant objectivity in embodied particularity in the style of Pope. Continue reading …

HELEN DEUTSCH is Professor of English and Director of the Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies and William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA. She has been writing about Alexander Pope for the entirety of her adult life and is now at work on a book on Jonathan Swift and Edward Said.

The Origins of Modern Prose

Mercury’s Words: The End of Rhetoric and the Beginning of Prose

by John Guillory

The essay begins:

The origin of modern prose style was the subject of much scholarly debate in the first half of the twentieth century, but interest in the subject waned thereafter. Today, few scholars other than Restoration specialists or historians of rhetoric are likely to recall the terms of the debate between Morris W. Croll and Richard Foster Jones or their successors. And yet prose style has once again become an important locus of work in literary study, most conspicuously in the new field of digital analysis, which has returned scholarship to some very old concerns of literary history. After decades in which literary study has been dominated by contextual hermeneutics, it seems possible once again to think about literary change in formal terms, as Franco Moretti has notably argued: “For me, formal analysis is the great accomplishment of literary study, and is therefore also what any new approach—quantitative, digital, evolutionary, whatever—must prove itself against.” I would endorse this provocation, and indeed I want to raise the stakes of formal analysis in this essay by taking a step back from the computational project and from the favored object of Moretti’s project—the novel—and look instead at prose itself as the perennial subject of discourse about style. The aim of my argument is to recover a crucial episode in the historical conceptualization of style and thus to restore the emergence of modern prose to its key position in our understanding of English literary history.

The unresolved inquiry begun by Croll and Jones set out from the manifest difference of modern prose from its Renaissance and medieval antecedents. As a subset of language change, the development of prose style has its own set of complex determinations. All prose, let us stipulate, is the sum of stylistic features determined by a familiar set of conceptual operators: form, genre, author, period, literary fashion, and perhaps others as yet unspecified. But prose as such is a purely conceptual entity; it functions as a kind of raw material for composition, seemingly undetermined with regard to content and yet constrained by conventions of grammar and usage. The components of style further limit prose, however difficult these elements are to specify. Croll argued that the emergence of modern English prose style in the later seventeenth century was a result of the anti-Ciceronian movement, which was correlated with a reorientation of the genre system that privileged the forms of essay and treatise over the form of oratory. Jones, by contrast, traced modern prose to a series of polemics emanating from the Royal Society on behalf of the “plain style,” which he saw as directly influencing composition in prose. Although both Croll and Jones grasped aspects of the transformation of prose, their causal hypotheses failed to demonstrate a definitive mechanism of change that would explain the syntax and diction we recognize as modern. I remain agnostic about causal arguments and propose here a different kind of historical hypothesis: New developments in the discourse of prose style betray the recognition of prose avant la lettre as a medium. This recognition was more precisely a misrecognition, in the sense that the “plain style” was understood as a new kind of prose rather than an intuition about the nature of prose itself. Nevertheless, this misrecognition had the perhaps unintended effect of dislodging prose from its immemorial subordination to the system of rhetoric and severing its link to the preeminent genre of oratory. Prose changed when this regulatory regime was lifted, though not necessarily in ways prescribed by the advocates of anti-Ciceronianism or the plain style. Further, composition in prose continued for some time to be described in rhetorical terms, because no other technical lexicon was yet available. The importance of this lexical overhang is a part of the story I mean to tell, and has consequences that extend into the present.

In this story, oratory is more important than narrative. The fact that we never encounter any prose that is not generically or formally marked means that prose is always somewhere behind its manifestations, of which narrative is only one. For this reason, I do not offer here a “prosaics” based on the instance of narrative, which has been the premise of most efforts to construct a theory of prose, from Viktor Shklovsky onwards. Prose was understood in antiquity rather as the complement of verse, which long predated it as a kind of marked speech. If poetry has an obvious signal in the aural form of meter, prose has been strangely harder to define, often yielding to Monsieur Jourdain’s naive apprehension: prose is any speech or writing that is not verse. Yet prose first appeared in ancient Greece in the rarified form of an art—rhetoric—complementary to the art of poetry. The first rhetoricians called the object of their art “persuasive speech.” This speech was obviously different from poetry, but such was the oddity of it that the Greeks could only name it “bare” or “naked” speech (logos gymnos), to indicate the absence of meter. Although the sophists elaborated this bare speech into complex syntactic schemes and figurative modes of expression, it somehow still remained nominally bare speech. The Romans struggled with the same paradox in what they called prosa oratio, “straightforward speech.” Prosa, which gives us our vernacular word prose, is a contraction of pro + vertere, to turn straight forward; prose means speaking “right on,” to quote Shakespeare’s Marc Antony (who, as it happens, is speaking neither forthrightly nor in prose). Eventually the umbilicus to oratory was severed, and prose came to be associated in a special way with the kind of writing that is visually distinct from verse, or written to the margin of the page. But it is not easy to say exactly when this break with oratory was accomplished. Writing in early modernity continued to exhibit what Walter Ong calls an “oral residue” for as long as oratory occupied the highest place in the hierarchy of prose genres.

Scholars have identified several beginnings of prose even after its inception with Greek rhetoric, for example, the one advanced by Jeffrey Kittay and Wlad Godzich in their study, The Emergence of Prose, which locates an origin of prose in the transition to French vernacular writing of the later middle ages. Kittay and Godzich see in this prose an irreversible movement away from the deictic situation of the French jongleurs, who recited (or sang) their vernacular verses, thus rooting their compositions in a single time and place of performance. French narrative prose, by contrast, whether chronicle or fiction, displaced this deixis to a purely “textual space” (116), in which Kittay and Godzich see the appearance of a new “signifying practice” that is highly versatile and pulls together any number of discourses in its web—in short, “the birth of modern prose” (195). That this moment of transition, which is linked to the privileged instance of narrative, fully comprehends the possibilities of prose in modernity seems unlikely to me, although where one stands on this question depends on how one defines modernity. In any correlation of prose with modernity, these two terms will define each other. Still, we can safely say that each emergence of prose enables what follows, and this is the explanatory framework I adopt in this essay. The emergence of prose in the seventeenth century is possibly the last of a series beginning in Greek antiquity—that is, if we are not now on the cusp of a new digital prose. Continue reading …

This essay offers a new interpretation of a longstanding and unresolved controversy concerning the origins of modern prose style. Setting aside causal explanations proposed for the marked changes in prose style during the later seventeenth century, I argue that what emerges in urgent polemics for the “plain style” is a recognition of prose itself as a medium of composition. This intuition about the nature of prose had the unintended effect of liberating prose from its immemorial subordination to the system of rhetoric and opening up new possibilities for its exploitation as a means of communication.

JOHN GUILLORY is Professor of English at New York University. His current work includes a book on the figure of philosophy in Renaissance writing and a study of close reading as “cultural technique.”