Study Guide

Selected Essays, 1917-1932

by T. S. Eliot

Selected Essays, 1917-1932 Summary

Introduction

In 1932, in London, T. S. Eliot published a selection of essays from among the prose he had written since 1917. By 1932, he was almost universally recognized as one of the most important living poets and critics of English literature, and Selected Essays, 1917-1932 provided an in-depth overview of a theory that had fundamentally changed literary thinking.

Bound with a complex argument for a new theory and laced with allusions to almost every period of literary history, Selected Essays, 1917-1932 may seem inaccessible or perhaps intended only for stuffy academics. But, it is important to remember two things while reading the book. First, Eliot was an American who had recently been baptized into the Church of England and who found it extremely important to sound civilized, learned, and authoritative in the grand role he had assigned himself. Second, since the success of Eliot's literary theory requires a vast knowledge and sweeping understanding of the whole of literature, the book needs to supply its reader with a broad variety of examples and parallels. After this is accomplished, the reader can go back and immerse him/herself in Eliot's idea of the classics of English literature.

Eliot revised and supplemented Selected Essays, 1917-1932 in 1951, but this entry deals with the original version of the book. The earlier version presented then-vibrant and new material, which represented the beginnings of a shift in Eliot's thinking and which at times may seem contradictory. It is important to treat the work as a whole, with examples supporting a grand and unified yet complex and subtle theory, to understand the book's profound influence and value.

Selected Essays, 1917-1932 Summary

Section 1
Selected Essays, 1917-1932 begins with an essay on the role of the "poet," or the author of a work of art written in English. A poet must understand his/her literary predecessors, Eliot argues, and carefully consider how his/her work of art will fit into the world of artistic tradition. Through "a continual extinction of personality" (or individual talent), a talented writer should become a translator of the emotions of his generation in a new way that adds to the poetic achievements of the past.

"The Function of Criticism'' extends the theories of the previous essay to critical literature. Here too, writes Eliot, "the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.'' Critics should make a work of art clear to the reader and guide his taste.

Eliot states that John Middleton Murry provides an example of the difference between the ‘‘outside authority’’ of classicism and ‘‘inner voice’’ of romanticism. A critic must provide a useful explanation of the work of art with the important tools of ‘‘comparison and analysis’’ to help the reader understand it without prejudice. By following this method, Eliot writes, there is "the further possibility of arriving at something outside of ourselves, which may provisionally be called truth."

Section 2
In ‘‘Rhetoric and Poetic Drama,’’ Eliot argues against the use of the term "rhetoric'' (artificially argumentative or unnatural speech) to mean bad writing. Examples from Shakespeare and Renaissance dramatists demonstrate that rhetoric is sometimes a useful and appropriate authorial technique.

The next essay explores a number of tangents and often appears to stray from logical argument, although the subject is supposed to be "the possibility of poetic drama.’’ The essay presents a discussion among seven voices, each named a letter from A to G. B begins with a speech ending in the statement that theater is essentially meant for amusement. A, C, D, and E question the place of morality in drama, and E points out that "form'' (or aesthetic beauty, such as a Russian ballet) is the future of drama. Eventually the discussion comes closer to the original topic: whether poetic drama, or drama written in verse that is both poetically beautiful and dramatically compelling, is possible at the present time. G suggests that the seven of them form their own theater of poetic drama, ‘‘by ourselves and only for ourselves,'' but F and B maintain that this is not possible. E then states that plays simply need to be shorter, a solution A ridicules.

In ‘‘Euripides and Professor Murray,’’ Eliot criticizes Professor Gilbert Murray, a popular Greek translator, and calls for translations that take into consideration the recent advances in aesthetic and scientific thought. ‘‘Seneca in Elizabethan Translation" begins with a discussion of the very influential Latin author and his plays, considering why he was so popular during both his time and the Renaissance, but became so unpopular afterwards. Seneca's characters are often unrealistic, Eliot argues, with long, contrived speeches, but the writer has great and consistent dramatic power. Seneca's ideas are a complex basis for Renaissance thought. Seneca is not responsible for the often bloody and violent nature of the period's plays, but his verse technique T. S. Eliot did serve as the foundation for the revolutionary literary forms of the Renaissance.

Section 3
Next comes a "preface to an unwritten book," titled "Four Elizabethan Dramatists." In this essay, Eliot emphasizes the need for a new "point of view toward the Elizabethan drama," because the two main critical approaches to it are both incorrect and indistinct. One approach assumes that plays should be read as literature, and the other ‘‘maintains the view that a play need not be literature at all’’; but they are both wrong to separate drama and verse. Modern critics should understand that Elizabethan failures in dramatic unity and believability, and modern playwrights' failures in rhythmic verse, are both due to the lack of a firm dramatic convention (a consistent literary style among a community of writers).

An essay on Christopher Marlowe emphasizes that Marlowe's verse is an earlier version of the blank verse in Shakespeare but that it is (like that of all successful poets) a very unique application of the newly developing style. ‘‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’’ continues the discussion of Elizabethans and their influences. Critics are forever misinterpreting Shakespeare, says Eliot, and mistakenly assume he has a conscious and consistent ideology, although Senecan "stoicism" does underlie his work. Stoicism, a philosophical attitude popular in Roman times, stresses a passive response (a"join[ing one]self with the Universe’’) to a world seen as hostile to weak and insignificant humans. Shakespeare's tragic heroes consistently try to cheer themselves up with this fatalistic philosophy that ignores one's own mistakes and blames them on an evil world.

An essay on Hamlet argues that the play must not be, as is mostly the case, a study of the main character; it must examine the dramatics of the play itself. The play is an "artistic failure'' because the primary emotion of the play is "inexpressible." Eliot notes that, since the events of the plot are not sufficient to drive the action, Shakespeare "tackled a problem that proved too...

(The entire section is 2247 words.)