Day of the Leopards

When Professor W. K. Wimsatt of Yale University’s English Department died in December, 1975, he had, as his publishers tell us, seen this book through its final stages. Its title comes from a parable of Kafka which argues that all things sacred are forced to institutionalize their defilement: “Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry . . . repeatedly . . . finally it can be reckoned on beforehand and becomes part of the ceremony.” Many readers will think it strange that Wimsatt’s last book should derive its title from Kafka, a writer whose Dionysian vertigo and tragic absurdism seem so contrary to the neoclassical tastes and formalist aesthetics identified with Wimsatt throughout his influential life in literary scholarship.

His early studies in Samuel Johnson’s Philosophic Words (1948) stressed the interrelatedness of style and meaning. This basic concept he later pursued in further studies of Johnson and ultimately in a series of highly influential essays, written with the aesthetician Monroe Beardsley, which touched on a variety of literary periods and problems. The title of that collection, The Verbal Icon (1954), conveys the essentially formalistic bent of Wimsatt’s criticism, a predilection which fired the minting of brilliant critical formulas such as the “concrete universal,” the confluence of “vehicle and tenor” in Romantic nature imagery, and the famous war cries against biographical and sociological theories of literary criticism: the “Intentional” and “Affective Fallacies.”

His formalism, his identification with the textualist theories of the famous New Criticism of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, is certainly central to Wimsatt’s critical thought, but he never subscribed to an absolute formalism: that is, a theory of literature that ignores the relevance of all extrinsic considerations. On the contrary, he always admitted to the connections between history, religion, ethics and poetry; what concerned him was that all four maintain their identity while relating. In 1956 in an interesting “Report from America” on “Criticism Today” in the Oxford journal Essays in Criticism, Wimsatt foresaw the polemical and political drift of contemporary criticism in its effort to deal with evolving ideas of “communication.” He recognized that there was a great demand for a more substantive theory of literature: “. . . something more solid, more real, and better, than the hollow symbol, the merely phenomenal grandeur of myth.” Wimsatt was always concerned with what he believed was an unfortunate tendency in modern literature for the imagination to become its own subject: “. . . there is now more than ever tension between vehicle and tenor, but no way of telling which is which,...

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Choice. XIII, September, 1976, p. 830.

Commonweal. CIII, May 21, 1976, p. 343.

Library Journal. CI, June 15, 1976, p. 1425

New Republic. CLXXV, November 27, 1976, p. 31.

New York Times Book Review. June 13, 1976, p. 21.

Times Literary Supplement. June 25, 1976, p. 778.