Notes Towards the Definition of Culture

by T. S. Eliot

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Critical Context

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Eliot’s career as a poet extends from the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915 through the publication of his theological poems, Four Quartets. His career as a literary critic continued from 1917 until his death, but all of his most influential essays had been published before 1937. His five plays appeared during the years 1932 to 1958. In the life of this poet, literary and social critic, and dramatist, the 1930’s, the decade of Eliot’s forties, embrace a shift in creative activity away from poetry and literary essays toward drama. They also embrace the beginning of a preoccupation with social and cultural criticism, namely, the publication in 1934 of After Strange Gods, which is a combination of literary criticism and cultural commentary.

The sociological preoccupation was resumed at the beginning of the next decade with The Idea of a Christian Society and tapered off in 1948 with Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The triad amounts to an interjection of social and cultural criticism into the late midcareer of the poet, literary critic, and playwright. That it was a less than felicitous interjection was generally recognized. Eliot’s staunchest admirers conceded that these works were, to put it kindly, not Eliot’s best. In them the precision and insight, the perfection of phrase, and the pointed support of general observation by impeccably selected specific examples—the constant characteristics of his essays in literary criticism—give way to editorial rhetoric, unsupported generalities, and disclaimers which do more to try the patience of than effectively to disarm the reader. They are praised only by those who believed that Eliot was infallible or by those who considered that whatever Eliot wrote was worth reading. The latter may have gone astray in their praise, but they were not aberrant in their consideration. The chief value of a work such as Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, at least for students of literature and literary history, lies in the explicitness with which Eliot gives voice to his most cherished convictions.

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