WHAT IS the meaning of a poem? Assuredly no age has developed such scrupulosity concerning the reply as ours. Like other questions unasked by common sense but, if raised, innocently answered, this question has produced, among contemporary critics, difficulty amounting to scepticism. The solipsist answer, "As many meanings as there are readers," is the simplest and is, as a description of normal experience, the most accurate; but that is simply to reduce the poem to an "event" and its meaning to the natural associations it arouses in the consciousness and subconsciousness of the reader; it is, in effect, to reduce the poem to its subject, or supposed subject (e.g., God, trees, the death of a beautiful woman), upon which, started off by a few rhythmic chords from the poet's lyre, the reader allows himself an agreeable reverie. Yet whatever else it may offer, the special virtue of poetry must be attached to words, its medium, so that if one gains from the reading of a poem no more than that incitation to ruminate provided by a photograph or a tune, one is -- to say the least -- failing to make efficient use of the special art. The fundamental value or "absolute"