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My English teacher used to say that a poem can have deep meaning beyond that originally intended by its author. It's a pretty comforting and even intuitive idea, but I wonder if it can really be true. Locke, for example, said that words necessarily represent only the ideas of the speaker - does this imply that all poetry and literature necessarily entails a single, "correct" interpretation? Is it incoherent to suppose that one's personal reading of a poem has any real link to the words on the page? -andy

This is a very good quesiton, and a very hard one. My own view is that your teacher was right, but that there are limits to how far the point can be pushed. Poetry, of course, is characterized by the extensive use of metaphor and other figures of speech. So just consider metaphor. Can a particular metaphor mean something beyond what its author intended? I find the question to be somewhat ill conceived, because it seems to suppose that the author of the metaphor had some paticular interpretation of it in mind, and that's not at all obvious. In my limited experience writing poetry, that certainly hasn't been my experience; and, as is often pointed out, metaphor comes in for pretty heavy use in philosophy itself. (Thus Quine, more or less: The lore of our fathers is a dull gray cloth, black with fact and white with convention, but nowhere quite black or quite white.) It's not that there's something very specific I want to say and could just as well say prefectly literally. Rather, the metaphor itself just...