Matthew Arnold, says Eliot, was not so much engaged in establishing a criticism as in striking at the uncritical; he was less a critic than an advocate and champion of criticism. These statements about Arnold are only partly true, but they are helpful. They are equally helpful, while again only partly true, if applied to Eliot himself. For Eliot is not only a critic of literature but also, as the subtitle of this volume suggests, a critic of criticism. In the first group of essays in THE SACRED WOOD this fact is made particularly clear.
Eliot does not really tell us, in “The Perfect Critic,” precisely what the perfect critic is. We gather that Arthur Symons, the successor, in his impressionism, to Pater and Swinburne, is less than perfect because what is not realized in Mr. Symons’ verse can be found in his critical prose. The functions of the poet and the functions of the critic should not be confused.
The critic, we are told, should look only and firmly at the literary work. His aim should be the fair exercise of comprehension, and the free comprehension is that which is completely dedicated to inquiry. Bad criticism is nothing more than an emotional response; that is, of the critic’s own feeling. A true literary critic should be void of emotions, says Eliot, except those brought about by a work of art. The end and aim of the true enjoyment of poetry is contemplation in its pure state, from which all the mishaps of personal emotion have been withdrawn.
These ideas are followed up in “Imperfect Critics,” a series of brief essays in which Eliot discusses Swinburne, George Wyndham, Charles Whibley, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, and Julien Benda as critics. Swinburne is praised before he is dismissed as a person who appreciates rather than criticizes. Literature is to him simply an ardor. Wyndham’s enthusiasm for literature fails to offset a lack of critical depth; he is the typical English Man of Letters to whom literature is but a hobby. Whibley is capable of communicating a taste for literature, but he is not a critic. All three of these English writers lack the faculty of keeping themselves separate from the work, the ability to achieve a state of contemplation freely detached from literature and to see it from all sides.
The American critics, More and Babbitt, have attempted to create a criticism free of temperament. In this respect they show the influence of French criticism, an influence lacking among English critics since Arnold. Both suffer, however, from a certain academic solemnity, a type of provincialism which tends to offset the broadening influence of French criticism. It is, in fact, a French critic, Julien Benda, who seems to rank highest in Eliot’s mind among these Imperfect Critics. He has something the American critics do not, formal beauty; but, handicapped by the age in which he writes, he is reduced to being the perfect example of a gleaner of the mediocre of the times.
In the first two essays Eliot demonstrates that the critic, as critic, must suppress his own temperament: it is irrelevant to the art he is examining. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” he says that the poet too must suppress his individual temperament: he must seek to express a certain medium, not a personality. In fact, poetry is not a releasing of emotion, but rather a flight from emotion; it is not the showing of personality, but a flight from personality. The poet can extinguish mere personality by submerging himself in the mainstream, the tradition, of literature. What makes a writer traditional is the possession of the historical sense, an insight not only into the pastness of the past but also of its continuing presence today. The poet should view the past not as something dead but as something already living—and himself as a part of that living organism.
When Eliot discusses the possibility of a poetic drama in the chapter with that title, he observes that poetic drama, as a vital form, died out when it was no longer believed in as a dramatic tradition. The...
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