Section 1Selected 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...
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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 much for him.''
The next series of essays are evaluations of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. To Eliot, Ben Jonson is a superb poet ‘‘of the surface.’’ His characters do not have the "inner life'' of Shakespeare's, but they sophisticatedly fit in with each other and with Jonson's unique dramatic world. Jonson's "fine sense of form'' and his "deliberate'' philosophy make him very worth the trouble that it takes to understand his work as a whole.
Thomas Middleton, on the other hand, "has no point of view’’ or "personality," according to Eliot, but he does have an excellent talent for depicting the "permanent human impulse'' Eliot finds so important. Thomas Hey wood has ‘‘no imaginative humor,’’ writes Eliot. His success is in the ‘‘drama of common life’’ (Eliot thinks of his plays like soap operas); Hey wood's work does not compare with the beauty of verse and drama that Eliot finds in Shakespeare.
Cyril Tourneur, who is typically thought to have written only two plays, is described as an excellent dramatist, like Middleton. A lengthy comparison of Tourneur's two plays reveal that The Revenger's Tragedy, although it is an ‘‘isolated masterpiece’’ of seemingly greater skill than The Atheist's Tragedy, actually was written first, a fact supported by what Eliot calls the "immaturity'' of its horrific moral vision.
John Ford, meanwhile, despite having moments of great and unique style in blank verse, has no "purpose'' to his plays as a whole. Eliot believes he lacks the "soul of the poet'' that Eliot considers vital to the great masters.
Finally, after emphasizing the importance of putting Elizabethan writers into a broad scholarly context, Eliot describes Philip Massinger as a poet of ‘‘exceptionally superior... literary talent,’’ with an inclination towards the later style of the Restoration. However, Eliot notes that Massinger has a ‘‘paltry imagination’’ and no ability to capture human emotion like his predecessors.
Section 4The Divine Comedy of medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri is the subject of the next essay. The great poem has three sections, Inferno ("Hell''), Purgatorio ("Purgatory''), and Paradiso ("Heaven''), that describe Dante's descent through hell, his journey through purgatory, and his ascent through heaven until he reaches God. Eliot writes that Dante is the most "universal" of poets since the ancient Greeks and Romans, because of his visual imagination and his having lived in a time that was united under St. Thomas Aquinas's Christian philosophy.
Eliot discusses Dante's complex use of allegory, in which nearly everything is a symbol for something in the Christian philosophical universe. A reader can enjoy the poem without understanding these symbols but afterwards will probably want to explore their meaning and allegorical context. Eliot claims that Dante reaches the ‘‘complete scale of the depths and heights of human emotion'' through allegory. He closes the essay by discussing Dante's early work, the Vita Nuova (‘‘New Life’’), which clarifies a major symbol in the Divine Comedy, that of Beatrice, the Florentine woman whom Dante loves first as a human and then as a divine virtue.
Section 5 In ‘‘The Metaphysical Poets,’’ Eliot asserts that the poets in this group are too diverse and ‘‘permanently valuable’’ to be placed under the category of their title. Although these poets sometimes engage in ‘‘metaphysical conceits,’’ or complex and long metaphors that are carried ‘‘to the furthest stage to which ingenuity can carry'' them, so-called metaphysical poets wrote with more feeling than modern poets. They try ‘‘to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling,’’ writes Eliot.
An essay on Andrew Marvell elaborates on Eliot's praise for the poetry of the seventeenth century (before the Restoration of Charles II). Marvell is not one of the greatest poets, but his generation's "wit" and balance between jest and seriousness come through in his best poems. The "precious and needed and apparently extinct'' qualities that come through "minor'' poets like Marvell reveal to Eliot the poetic superiority of an age.
In ‘‘John Dryden,’’ Eliot argues that appreciation for this eighteenth-century poet has dwindled because of the poor taste of the nineteenth century, which disfavored the material of Dryden's poetry. Although Eliot believes that Dryden lacks ‘‘insight,’’ he notes that Dryden's broad range, great wit, and lyrical genius make Dryden an extremely enjoyable, influential, and important poet.
William Blake, however, despite his own original genius and "considerable understanding of human nature,’’ lacked the "framework of traditional ideas’’ vital to Eliot's idea of a first-order poet. Eliot's essay on Blake describes Blake's ‘‘visionary’’ philosophy as too incomplete and ‘‘remote from the world'' since it lacks an understanding of tradition.
‘‘Swinburne As Poet’’ briefly compares this writer with examples of poetry infused with more sense and meaning than Swinburne's works. Although Eliot finds him a superb linguist, Swinburne's meaning is ‘‘merely the hallucination of meaning'' because it dwells entirely in language, as opposed to human feeling.
Section 6 ‘‘Lancelot Andrewes’’ and ‘‘John Bramhall’’ discuss two influential seventeenth-century bishops of the Church of England. Eliot observes that Bishop Andrewes, although his writings are dense and not "entertaining," wrote some of the ‘‘finest prose’’ in English. Andrewes is able to write with such excellent structure because he is unwaveringly committed to his theological subject.
Bishop Bramhall is, according to Eliot, not appreciated nearly enough for his "mastery" of logical argument. The essay on Bramhall contrasts his writings with those of Thomas Hobbes to reveal that Bishop possesses the ‘‘historical sense," "philosophical basis,’’ and vital ‘‘middle way’’ of argument that Hobbes lacks.
‘‘Thoughts after Lambeth’’ elaborates Eliot's views on the recent conflicts in the Church of England by examining the Lambeth Conference Report of 1930. The Lambeth Conference, which occurs once every ten years, is the major forum for the leaders of the Anglican Church. Despite some understandably poor "verbiage" of the report, writes Eliot, the conference marked "an important stage'' towards the reunification of Christian religious sects. Overall, it was a successful effort to clarify the theological position of the Church of England at a time of particularly pronounced division and controversy.
Section 7 The final section of Selected Essays, 1917-1932 concentrates on nineteenth-century artists, beginning with an essay on Baudelaire. In order to better understand one of the most important French poets of the nineteenth century, Eliot proposes to "affirm the importance of Baudelaire's prose works.’’ From these, it is clear that he has both a"sense of his age'' and the "inner disorder'' that is characteristic of his contemporaries. This comes out in his poetry, which has excellent"superficial form'' but lacks inner unity.
The next two essays evaluate Walter Pater and Francis Herbert Bradley, two Victorian prose writers, in comparison with Matthew Arnold, the nineteenth-century critic famous for his views on literary and social culture. "Arnold and Pater'' proposes that the ‘‘art for art's sake’’ aesthetic theory that Pater developed, a theory emphasizing that there are no grand outside principles for judging the merit of a work of art, is actually in direct line with Arnold's philosophy. Both theories represent to Eliot ‘‘the degradation of philosophy and religion'' because they substitute cultural values for theological values.
Eliot writes in his next essay that Bradley's prose, like Pater's, has fundamental similarities in theme to Matthew Arnold's. But unlike Pater, Bradley is a careful and thorough philosophical thinker who is able to provide a unified basis for Arnold's unsuccessful attempts at philosophy.
A brief essay then praises popular actress Marie Lloyd because of her "understanding of the people and sympathy with them.’’ Next, ‘‘Wilkie Collins and Dickens'' recognizes the importance of interesting and convincing drama (by which Eliot means sophisticated characterization) and good melodrama. Collins, although he could not create interesting and convincing characters like Dickens could, was a master of melodramatic novels.
The next two essays express Eliot's view on "humanism," a traditionalist philosophy stressing the importance of classic literature. As becomes clearer in ‘‘Second Thoughts About Humanism,’’ Eliot affirms what he considers ‘‘pure humanism,’’ which "makes for breadth, tolerance, equilibrium and sanity.’’ But, he argues against the type of humanism that his former professor Irving Babbitt implies because to Eliot it unsuccessfully disregards religion.
In ‘‘Charles Whibley,’’ Eliot praises his contemporary as a brilliant journalist with the ability to write with "life," as people normally speak. Whibley was also an important critic because of his vast literary knowledge and ‘‘personal gusto and curiosity.’’