THE essays brought together here deal with the relation between the writer's words and some other, non-literary experience, whether his or his rorders'. It is a a dangerous area of interest, which comes and goes in fashion according as one of two errors becomes more evident: the first, forgetting that the understanding of a poem (by the author or his readers) is an experience quite distinct from any other experiences on which its creation and understanding may depend; the second, neglecting the requirement that the poem should be anchored closely enough in comprehended sense for the writer and the reader to be relating it to the same kind of other experiences. The first error leads to an undue preoccupation with the poem's paraphrasable meaning (with a grossly oversimplified view of the way poems work), and perhaps to irrelevant biographical assumptions about the author's experience. The opposite error tempts poets to trade in sham incantation and gestures of profundity and encourages their readers to rest content with idiosyncratic interpretation or the elementary pleasures of the higher babble.
Between these two errors we all want, naturally, to keep a perfect balance--but who can? I lean towards the first, without, I hope, failing. To me it seems that criticism has still not benefited enough from I. A. Richards' striking demonstration, years ago, of the ease with which intelligent people misconstrue or fail to grasp the 'sense' of poems. Several of these essays, therefore, are attempts to understand what the poet is talking about. That sometimes means examining themes that can be seen only in a broad survey (as in the discussion of Donne's poems and Eliot's plays), and it sometimes calls for a closer study of the way the poet is using his words and statements. The