Selected Essays, 1917-1932

by T. S. Eliot

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Dante Alighieri
Alighieri (1265-1321) is one of the most revered poets of the Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy, written in the common language of Florence, Italy, is a masterpiece of Catholic philosophy and poetry. His earlier work, Vita Nuova, describes Dante's idealized youthful love for a Florentine woman named Beatrice. Eliot calls Dante the most "universal'' of poets because his poetry has "peculiar lucidity'' (a clear and transparent beauty) and his philosophy has the benefit of a united cultural belief (influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas). Born in 1265 and raised in Florence, Dante was exiled in 1301 because of fighting between political factions in the Guelph family.

St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) was the most important religious philosopher of medieval Europe. By reconciling Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology in Summa theologica, he created the extremely influential system of thought apparent in the work of Dante Alighieri.

William Archer
Archer (1856-1924) was an important critic who argued that modern plays were much more appropriate for the stage than earlier works and should be performed more often. Eliot argues with this view throughout section VII.

Matthew Arnold
Arnold (1822-1888) was one of the most important critics and advocates for"culture'' (arts and humanities, particularly literature) in Victorian England. Champion of ‘‘disinterested criticism,’’ he argued for a standard of critical taste that is not influenced by one's subjective perception of a work. He was not widely thought to be sacrilegious—in fact, he emphasized the importance of studying the Bible—but Eliot argues (particularly in section VII) that Arnold takes morality from culture when instead he should take it from religion. Arnold, like Eliot, wrote poetry in addition to criticism and was central in establishing the literary taste of his generation.

Irving Babbitt
Babbitt (1865-1933), who was Eliot's professor at Harvard, greatly influenced Eliot's philosophy. Babbitt is best known as the father of American ‘‘new humanism,’’ which resisted the self-expressionist and romantic philosophies of the time. Instead, Babbitt advocated a return to classical modes of thought by studying traditional works of literature.

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes
Andrewes (1555-1626) held a number of important positions in the Anglican Church between 1589 and 1626. Eliot revived an interest in this distinguished scholar and linguist—whose sermons are inaccessible to most people because of their dense classical allusions—by calling him ‘‘second to none in the history of the formation of the English Church.’’

Charles-Pierre Baudelaire
A French poet, critic, and translator, Baudelaire (1821-1867) is mainly famous for his lyrical and truly felt (sometimes sordid) poetry. As a young man in Paris, he had affairs with prostitutes, went to prison, and contracted large debts. Eliot discusses Baudelaire's philosophy and tendency towards form in the first essay of section VII, implying that Baudelaire was a latent Christian despite the blasphemy in some of his poetry.

William Blake
Blake (1757-1827) was a poet and an artist of the romantic period. He never went to school but read widely and was taught by his mother until he became an engraver by trade. He crafted all of his poetic works into ornate plates of his own unique design. Songs of Innocence and of Experience is one of his earliest and perhaps best-known works, but he went on to create poems about mythological worlds and philosophical systems he invented.

Francis Herbert Bradley
An English philosopher about whom Eliot wrote his doctoral thesis, Bradley (1846-1924) was interested in ethics, logic, and metaphysics (a branch of philosophy that deals with the origins of the universe). In section VII, Eliot discusses Bradley's moral philosophy, its connection with religion, and its superiority to the philosophy of Matthew Arnold.


(This entire section contains 1786 words.)

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John Bramhall
Bramhall (1594-1663) was a British-Irish theologian who increased the revenue of the Irish church and wrote various Royalist and Anglican treatises.

Wilkie Collins
Collins (1824—1889) was an extremely popular Victorian novelist who, as Eliot points out in section VII, mastered the art of suspenseful storytelling. He co-wrote various plays and stories with Dickens but lost some of his influence when he began commenting on social issues. In the 1860s, Collins was thought to be the most skillful writer of "sensation fiction’’ (melodramatic and engaging novels that were often mysteries).

Charles Dickens
Dickens (1812-1870) was a vastly influential Victorian novelist, editor, and social critic. Like Wilkie Collins, though more permanently regarded as a profoundly talented novelist, he was a master of suspense and drama in his serialized novels. Almost all of his books take place in Victorian social contexts, often featuring desperately poor circumstances.

John Dryden
Poet, playwright, and critic of the English Restoration, Dryden (1631-1700) frequently changed his mode of expression and his opinion about historical or literary events, but nearly everything he wrote is considered important English literature. He formed a tradition of satirical verse and had an unsurpassed capacity for controlling language. Eliot discusses his recent unpopularity and explains that this is mainly due to the subject, as opposed to the quality, of his work.

Ancient Greek dramatist Euripides (c. 480–406 B.C.) was one of the first pioneers in dramatic form. A master of surprise, he was famous for representing gods and heroes as real people in his tragedies. Eliot discusses the merits of various translations of Euripides, calling for new and better ones.

John Ford
Ford (c. 1586-1640) wrote plays and some poetry, mainly involving moral paradoxes. Eliot does not hold him in high esteem and writes that he has "an absence of purpose'' despite his unique style.

Ben Jonson
Jonson (1572-1637) was a poet, critic, and playwright. Although some of his individual poems and plays are considered of the highest quality, Jonson is more famous for his influence on his contemporaries than for his own work. He led a group of writers called the ‘‘Sons of Ben,’’ whose aims included getting closer to meaning through language. Eliot attempts to revive an interest in Jonson's plays, which, Eliot writes, are of the intellectual "surface" but nevertheless have a unique and engaging "form."

Marie Lloyd
Lloyd (1870-1922) was a popular actress and singer in London, known as "Our Marie'' or "The Queen of the Music Hall'' to her many fans.

Christopher Marlowe
Marlowe (1564-1593) was a playwright and poet. Possibly involved in the secret service of Elizabeth I, he is better known for the striking plays he wrote before his murder in a London pub. His uniquely defiant heroes and use of blank verse changed English drama and had a character all its own. Eliot provides a textual analysis of Marlowe in order to show the complex influence of his writing over later playwrights.

Andrew Marvell
Marvell (1621-1678) was a ‘‘metaphysical poet,’’ a term Ben Jonson used to describe seventeenth-century poets who used long, complex comparisons (a characterization Eliot discusses at length and argues is useless). As well as writing ambiguous and subtle poetry, Marvell was involved in various government positions before and after the Restoration of Charles II. Eliot praises his "wit'' in section V, although he argues that Marvell lacks the individuality of a poet like Dryden.

Philip Massinger
There is much scholarly debate on which plays writer Massinger (1583-1640) actually wrote, as there is with many of his contemporaries. However, his talent with language and gift for satire are clear in the plays that are attributed to him.

Thomas Middleton
Middleton (1580-1627) was an unsentimental playwright who, Eliot notes, flatly depicted human relations without making judgements on them. Middleton collaborated on many of his plays and probably wrote passages in some of Shakespeare's plays, including Macbeth.

John Middleton Murry
John Middleton Murry (1889-1957) was a modernist critic. Eliot discusses him because of his dependence on the "inner voice'' of criticism, which Eliot finds non-authoritative, insubstantial, and unreliable as a basis for critical thought.

Walter Pater
A Victorian critic, Pater (1839-1894) was the spokesperson for the aesthetic movement, best known for its creed ‘‘art for art's sake.’’ A master prose stylist, Pater argued that art can only be experienced by an individual on a subjective basis. Eliot writes that Pater's literary theory, which is the opposite of Eliot's own authoritative and classical theory, lacks a permanent moral and philosophical basis.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Seneca (c. 4-65 A.D.) was a Roman philosopher and dramatist born in Corduba, Spain (present-day Cordoba). Seneca's father was a teacher of rhetoric (the ancient Greek word for ‘‘formal argument’’). Seneca became a politician and, after an eight-year banishment, the tutor to Emperor Nero. He wrote nine tragedies that are generally considered to be intended for recitation, not performance; they contain no naturalistic or realistic speech but engage in rhetoric, about which Eliot has qualified reservations.

Eliot discusses Seneca's stoic philosophy at length, which he describes as a ‘‘join[ing one] self with the Universe’’). Stoicism was a philosophical attitude popular in Roman times, stressing a passive response to a world seen as hostile to weak and insignificant humans. Section III stresses that stoicism underlies Shakespeare as well as Renaissance writers; and since for Eliot it is an inferior philosophy to Christianity, it poses a problem for the moral and aesthetic quality of Renaissance plays. Seneca did not create stoicism, but he wrote about it and supposedly practiced it (although his pupil Nero was famous for excesses directly violating stoic belief).

William Shakespeare
Strikingly little is known about Shakespeare's life (1564-1616), given that he is probably the most famous English writer ever. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a town in the English midlands, and by 1592 had moved to London to act and write plays. He wrote poetry, including his famous sonnets, in addition to dramatic comedies, histories, and tragedies. His writing is revered for a variety of contradictory reasons. Many critics, like Eliot, praise him for his lyrical and poetical genius in addition to, in Eliot's words, the ‘‘permanent human emotion’’ displayed by his characters. No collected editions of Shakespeare's plays were published until 1623, when two members of his company collected the versions they considered authentic into the ‘‘first folio.’’

Algernon Charles Swinburne
Swinburne (1837-1909) was a prolific poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He was known as a fierce opponent of mainstream Victorian morals, and his poems of 1866 made him both famous and hated because of their rebellious and even perverted themes. Swinburne had a superb capacity for imagination; he both experimented with old forms and created new ones, but Eliot points out that it is difficult to find "meaning'' or consistency of thought in his works.

Cyril Tourneur
An Elizabethan playwright, Tourneur (c. 1575-1626) was probably involved in military and diplomatic work aside from writing at least two plays, but historians know very little about his life. Eliot praises his play The Revenger's Tragedy as a "masterpiece" but argues that it has a more ‘‘immature moral vision'' than the other play attributed to Tourneur.




Critical Essays