On the Meaning of a Written Work

By Tim Butler | Posted at 8:31 PM
“In every work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend”

—Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism

To continue Alexander Pope’s geometric metaphor, an initial observation might be apt. While it is easy to figure out the area of a particular plot of land, or a square on a piece of paper, it is quite difficult to figure out the area of a written work (what the author has “compassed”). While to some extent Pope may be right, it does not seem entirely evident that an author can never mean more than he or she intends. Nevertheless, Pope (and E.D. Hirsch) seems to be quite close to the mark.

To offer up an example from my own writings, I would present an article I wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 28, 2005. The op-ed in question covered a controversy in which a “lapsed Catholic” had purchased BenedictXVI.com (and several other potential future pontiff names) shortly before the death of Pope John Paul II (B7). The man then stated extortion-like demands to the new pope as the price for the Vatican to acquire the domain name. In the opinion piece, I posited that it was far too easy for someone such as this man to pick up someone else’s domain name and then make unreasonable demands to the rightful owner as a ransom for the name.

What I “compassed” in that article was simple: that it was (and is) time for reform in the domain registration system that is managed by the non-governmental organization known as ICANN. The point was simple: that it seems wrong for a so-called “cyber-squatter” to blackmail someone using that someone’s own name. Given the importance of the Internet, this practice is essentially a semi-legitimate way to steal someone’s identity and potentially do irreparable harm to him or her.

The article was merely a call for increased awareness of this serious identity and intellectual property issue that has so far remained unknown to many. Nevertheless, in the May 7, 2005 Post-Dispatch, a letter to the editor slammed the piece, asking me, “Do you harbor the same querulously anti-free-enterprise bias against people who invest in property on the premise that it will gain in value to their advantage?” (Bradshaw 33). Now, clearly, the letter writer had seen my piece as encompassing a lot more area than I did. To him, I had written a piece that attacked the very essence of American free market capitalism. A Reader Response critic would not overlook this, but a genetic critic (or a formal critic, for that matter) would surely take issue with that interpretation of my work, just as I did.

So, the question is, did I somehow “compass more” than I meant to? Well, to the extent that one could argue my article was written poorly, perhaps I would cede that it is possible. If, as Hirsch says, no “determinate verbal meaning” exists if the author has “bungled,” writing something confusing would essentially create a vacuum where the author will be rightly misconstrued (23). Conversely, Hirsch and Pope are right to assert so long as the work is properly and clearly constructed, the reader is not justified in attributing more than the author – in the example that would be me – intended in a work such as this. Attributing more opinions to me than I expressed eliminated that reader’s ability to “understand” my work and therefore his ability to actually judge my opinion (27). In somewhat of a reversed version of what Hirsch said the critic Cleanth Brooks did (25), the letter writer attributed the antithesis of his own apparent feelings to me and then responded to that projection rather than sticking to my “probable” (and, for that matter, relevant) “attitudes,” as Hirsch puts it.

Having said that, whether the historicist is correct across the board is a topic that is possible to quibble with. My op-ed was standard prose written to relay specific, factual information and then provide an opinion on the very narrow subject of that information. On the other hand, had my piece been something more art-like, such as a poem or a drama, it may, in fact, be possible for my work to exceed the area I knowingly plotted for it (or, indeed, in mediocrity, failed to fill). The reason for this distinction is that poesy is something that relays an experience and that must be actively “translated” into meaning by the reader; it is intended to evoke a sense of “having experienced thus and so” in the reader not to relay simple, cold facts. Therefore, if I write a haiku and someone gets a sense of meaning out of it beyond what I “compassed,” that is somewhat more reasonable than the above incident, for my poetry is purposely designed to have less firm boundaries.

Whereas non-fiction prose is often intended to relay a specific, objective conclusion, poesy is conversely open-ended. To ask what the meaning of a really good drama, such as Hamlet, is seems almost as absurd as to ask what the meaning of the nightly news is. Good poesy creates a bubble of experience, not a set of propositions. As such, it leaves at least some of the meaning to the one entering that experience. Yet it must be conceded that in making this argument I have “compassed” this wider swath of area, where the “meaning” is conveying an experience, within the classification of that which is poetry, even if the precise “meaning border” of a poetic work is not fixed. This is why I only hesitantly question the truth of Pope’s statement above. It still seems to be mostly true; it is just a bit more of a grey area in poetry than fact-focused prose.

In the end, it still remains that normally the author has a definite purpose, and, at the least, the reader owes it to the author not to claim the author meant more than he or she clearly did. If an objective meaning does indeed exist, Hirsch’s argument of tying that meaning to the “meaner” seems entirely appropriate (23). Whether the piece itself somehow means more in a Reader Response sort of way should be overlooked to allow proper response and judgment of the original work in sich.

Works Cited

Butler, Timothy. “Domain name games will unravel the Internet.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 28 Apr. 2005: B7.

Bradshaw, Ben. Letter. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 7 May 2005: 33.

Hirsch, E. D. Jr. “Objective Interpretation.” Contexts for Criticism. Donald Keesey Editor. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education: 2003. 17-28.

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