Selected Essays, 1917-1932 Essays and Criticism
by T. S. Eliot

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The Impact of Religious Belief on Eliot's Theory of Literature

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Eliot is a Christian critic, and his Selected Essays, 1917-1932 develops a Christian view on literature. In an indirect, subtle way, his essays assume not only that the reader is extremely well-read in the classics of Western literature, but that he/she thinks as a Christian: "It is our business, as Christians, as well as readers of literature, to know what we ought to like.’’ But Eliot's theory of literature is valuable for all critical thinking, and its influence is much broader than one religious lens. In order to gauge the impact of Selected Essays, 1917-1932, it is important to understand where Eliot's literary philosophy requires a Christian viewpoint and where it is not confined to one.

First, it is necessary to briefly discuss what a Christian viewpoint on literature entails. On the simplest and most literal level, such a viewpoint would judge a work of art by two factors: how greatly its philosophy represents underlying Christian values and how greatly the author is talented to do this. Since a genuine knowledge and complete understanding of Christianity is required to criticize art on these terms, the viewpoint would maintain that a reader cannot fully appreciate or understand ‘‘Christian art’’ without believing in Christianity. And it would also maintain, therefore, that a reader cannot truly appreciate any work of art unless he/ she believes in its religious or philosophical basis. This concept is not as simple as it sounds because it is unclear which art falls under which umbrella, and it is doubtful (even to Eliot) whether most art has this clear of a theological basis in the first place.

Samuel Hynes's essay ‘‘The Trials of a Christian Critic’’ discusses Eliot's contradictory affirmations that a critic can have an objective appreciation of a work regardless of his religion and that a critic' s religious belief is necessary to his "full understanding.’’ Although Eliot entertains the idea that ‘‘it must be possible to have full literary or poetic appreciation without sharing the beliefs of the poet,’’ he later revises this to: "It is possible, and sometimes necessary, to argue that full understanding must identify itself with full belief.’’ Hynes writes that Eliot ‘‘failed as a Christian critic’’ because, ultimately, Eliot let religion take over his literary philosophy to the point where it was merely an extension of theology and as such had little value as a coherent theory of literature.

It is perhaps true, as Hynes proposes, that the subtle and carefully chosen literary theory Eliot developed, which makes every effort to find a complex universal criterion for judging the value of art irrespective of religion, ultimately fails in consistency and relies on a religious standpoint. Nevertheless, the bulk of Eliot's criticism is not strictly Christian, and his erection of a continuous English literary tradition that constantly changes with each new work of art is not fundamentally a Christian idea. For Eliot, the only complete and unified Christian art is the work of Dante; and however much he praises Dante in section IV as the most universal of poets, Eliot by no means judges all art simply by how close it comes to the achievements of The Divine Comedy.

Shakespeare, for example, whose underlying philosophy Eliot considers more "Senecan" than Christian, is clearly Eliot's choice for the greatest poet of all time: "I believe that I have as high an estimate of the greatness of Shakespeare as a poet and dramatist as anyone living; I certainly believe that there is nothing greater.’’ And, although Eliot qualifies this praise with the assertion that the philosophy behind Shakespeare is inferior to the theology behind Dante, it seems inappropriate to apply the Christian viewpoint to Eliot's judgment of the plays; it is hard to imagine Eliot arguing that he cannot ‘‘fully appreciate’’ Shakespeare's work because its Senecan moral foundation is not Christian enough for him. Even...

(The entire section is 11,182 words.)