This project responds to the polarized stances that have dominated academic discussion of authorial intention, arguing that factionalism misrecognizes the practical compromises of reading. To make this case, I investigate the formative practices of early eighteenth-century critics, as they try to carve out a public function for literary criticism, in plays, poetry, and prose essays. All of these critics—from George Villiers to Joseph Addison—avow intentionalist commitments. Why they do so, and how they depict and implement their commitments, is the focus of this project. I argue that the political and social contexts in which literary criticism develops are characterized by a hermeneutics of suspicion about intended meanings, which informs the questions that critics ask about literary meaning and form. Critics' intentionalist commitments, however, do not script their engagements with literature; in practice, early critics often demote or forget the author's intention. But they also exhibit the impossibility of shelving authorial intention altogether: when the critic's intentionalist commitment relaxes in practice, sometimes it returns as a desire for an intention that seems to elude the critic.
One peril of intentionalist criticism is the possibility that what the reader identifies as the author's intention or "spirit" is a back formation of the reader's powerful, involuntary response to a literary work. Even when it is not wholly made by the reader, authorial intention, as this project shows, is remade by reading, and in this way gains a social existence. This existence is manifest in remakes of the popular 1671 play The Rehearsal, in scenes of author and reader power in An Essay on Criticism, in excitable critical responses to A Tale of a Tub, and in the Spectator papers on Paradise Lost.
This project does not successively recount the complication of intentionalist commitments only, however. It concludes by reading the work of W. K. Wimsatt, a famous anti-intentionalist critic and also a dixhuitièmiste. I show how Wimsatt's ideal of an impersonal, public existence for poetry is shaped by his contact with eighteenth-century literature. What extends this project's moderate bias, however, are examples of Wimsatt adjusting his stance towards authorial intention: in a piece of introductory criticism written for a student and amateur public, Wimsatt invokes the author's mind in relation to form. This adjacency of poetic mind and form accommodates the intentionalist preferences of the public that Wimsatt addresses, making for a rather different public existence for poetry. It also makes for a rapprochement between Wimsatt's critical practice and the practices of recent intentionalist critics. In the end, this project imagines possible, provisional coalitions between anti-intentionalists and intentionalists. If anything, such coalitions are already underway in recent scholarship, which anticipates a different kind of social life for criticism.