The Renaissance and English Writers
The Renaissance refers to the extremely broad European cultural movement characterized by a flowering of art and literature. Although it began in fourteenth-century Italy, the movement did not have much influence in English literature until the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603), which marked a new sophistication and sensibility in poetry and drama. Writers such as Edmund Spencer and Philip Sidney began this revolution in poetry, while Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd were among the first pioneers in the new dramatic verse form that came to a height with the plays of William Shakespeare.
With the introduction of printing technology, lyric poetry became widely available to all classes for the first time, and this is one of the reasons that Elizabethan writing was not confined to the court. In the plays, which people of all types could see in the theaters in London's South Bank, graceful and innovative writing in iambic pentameter (a verse form in which each line has five iambs, or feet, of two syllables each) was combined with drama containing a broad range of realistic human emotions.
Poetry and drama—including Shakespeare's later tragedies—continued to develop rapidly after Elizabeth's death in 1603 and the ascension of James I of Scotland. Poets began to divide into two main new camps: the ‘‘Sons of Ben,’’ who imitated Ben Jonson's direct language intended to get closer to meaning, and the ‘‘metaphysical poets’’ (chiefly John Donne), who were characterized (unfairly, in Eliot's and others' views) by long and complex comparisons taken to the extreme. By the 1650s, Milton's technical genius to manipulate language marked the beginning of the Restoration period in 1660.
The other historical period of vital importance to Selected Essays, 1917-1932 is the one immediately before Eliot's own. Chiefly important to Victorian literature are three main elements: the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the British Empire, and the fierce intellectual movement stressing moral self-consciousness. These combined to form a number of like-minded writers, particularly novelists, who wrote "realist" fiction attempting to display the actual social...
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Selected Essays, 1917-1932 engages in a subtle and complex form of argument that can be called "circuitous,'' or roundabout and even indirect. Students of Eliot without a profound literary background in English literature are likely to find his essays very difficult reading material, not only because of the vast number of literary allusions but because of the complexity of the author's points that are subtly woven into the essays. Only after having read most or all of the Selected Essays, 1917-1932 is Eliot's entire theory clear; the essays are a roundabout way of making a generalized, large-scale argument.
This does not mean that the argument is unspecific; as critic John Chalker writes in his essay ‘‘Authority and Personality in Eliot's Criticism’’: ‘‘Most of the Selected Essays were book reviews, yet, because of the precision with which he has established his theory, Eliot is able to present a continuing argument.’’ Eliot's theory of literature often seems to contradict itself, and there are many places where it does so overtly (see "Christianity'' above). Yet the entire collection, despite its indirect approach, is best seen as a thorough and subtle argument, using generalizations from nearly the entire history of literature as examples to support a theory.
The basis for Eliot's circuitous argument about the function and value of literature is in section I, but the brief...
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Compare and Contrast
1590s: The British Empire is just beginning. With the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the seas are open to British trade and exploration, and British culture is showing the beginnings of racism towards future colonies.
1920s: The British Empire is still strong, and Britain is still pervaded by imperialist thinking that emphasizes the superiority of British culture.
Today: The British Empire has crumbled, and the British public is far more skeptical of notions of cultural superiority.
1590s: Although Elizabeth I shows a greater degree of religious tolerance than the previous ruler, all British subjects are required to be members of the Church of England. In practice, a significant number of Puritans and Catholics retain their own beliefs. Atheism is taboo and very uncommon.
1920s: The Church of England is building up to a crisis, with its authorities of very different minds about how to approach a developing lack of religious conviction in the British public.
Today: Some bishops in the Church of England are acknowledged atheists. Although much of the British public remains devout, the general population has become significantly less religious in the past eighty years.
1590s: English writing is flowering, but the respected literary canon is composed almost entirely of male, ancient Greek and Roman writers.
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Topics for Further Study
Listen to some classical music by Igor Stravinsky and others, written between 1917 and 1932. Describe its form using the criteria of Selected Essays, 1917-1932. How does Eliot's artistic theory apply to it? What do you think he would say about it? Then, listen to some music from the same time period by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Write a comparative review in Eliot's style, describing the artistic merits of the two types of music and how each fits into the tradition of Western music.
Some critics (most notably Anthony Julius in his book T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form) have accused Eliot of being anti-Semitic, and others have accused him of being a fascist. Research the history of this response to Eliot's work and his personal life and write an essay in which you discuss these theories and whether or not they are well founded. If these findings are true, do you think students should therefore not be reading Eliot's works?
Read Eliot's Collected Poems. How does his critical theory relate to his poetry, and how would he fare under his own standards?
Read one of the works that Eliot discusses at length in Selected Essays, 1917-1932 and research other criticism on the work you choose. Does Eliot have a unique viewpoint? Do other critics follow a similar method of analysis? Do you agree with what Eliot says about the work?
Eliot discusses philosophy and theology at length,...
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What Do I Read Next?
The Divine Comedy (1321), by Dante Alighieri, describes the poet's descent into hell and eventual rise through purgatory to heaven. Although it is full of complex symbols and allusions, it is an extremely readable and exciting poem, not to mention its unequalled formal beauty.
Eliot's Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (1963) contains the definitive collection of the author's best poetry. It provides a superb overview of his long and varied poetic efforts, with some of the most important poems of the century.
W. H. Auden's The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (1962) contains a helpful alternative view to Eliot's literary philosophy. A collection of critical essays by a poet with a sophisticated critical eye, Auden's work combines a personal touch with a great breadth of observation.
The Riverside Shakespeare (1974) is one of the best editions of Shakespeare's collected works. Alternatively, when beginning to explore Shakespeare' s plays, it may be more economical to use the respected individual editions from Oxford University Press.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Chalker, John, "Authority and Personality in Eliot's Criticism,’’ in T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism, edited by Richard Shusterman, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1988, pp. 195-208.
Eliot, T. S., For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, Haskell House, 1965.
Hynes, Samuel, ‘‘The Trials of a Christian Critic,’’ in The Literary Criticism of T. S. Eliot, edited by David Newton-de Molina, Athlone Press, 1977, pp. 64-65, 71, 87.
Julius, Anthony, T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Materer, Timothy, ‘‘T. S. Eliot's Critical Program,’’ in The Cambridge...
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