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 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."
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....
(The entire section is 2,513 words.)