The Impact of Religious Belief on Eliot's Theory of Literature
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1592
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 attempt at subverting Shakespeare to Dante is suspicious given the amount of attention and importance given to the English Renaissance. If Eliot finds Renaissance philosophy "inferior'' to that of Dante, why do the Elizabethans excite him so much more?
One reason is that Eliot, while he does firmly believe in the superiority of Christian thinking, is very interested in the way a great poet operates in a literary world that is not unified in Christianity. Of course, Eliot (one of the most important poets of his century) sees himself in exactly this position. As Timothy Materer suggests in his essay ‘‘T. S. Eliot's Critical Program'': "Eliot saw his literary criticism as a way of improving the appreciation of his own art.’’
This critical agenda underscores the importance of Eliot's commentary on his time and guides the reader to an appreciation of it. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent,’’ Eliot argues that a poet should not (and cannot successfully) consciously formulate the philosophical or moral essence of his work; he must act as an unbiased "catalyst'':
The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.
In this view, the poet's talent lies in what he makes of the conflicted ethos of his generation. Without this talent, few readers could successfully understand Eliot's poetry or plays, and Eliot considers himself quite an important receptacle to be understood.
But Eliot's criticism is more than a tool for understanding his creative writing. His revision of the English canon developed by Matthew Arnold is still very influential over what is thought to be classic literature today. And his ‘‘correction of taste’’ is not simply a move towards works that better represent Christian values. Indeed, Eliot's most important and lasting influence over critical thought is his subtle analysis of what he considers the highest form of literature: beautiful poetic language combined with compelling drama centered on ‘‘permanent human emotion.’’
His preference is the basis for a coherent and completely secular philosophy of art; it does not depend on a Christian philosophy at all, and it provides an objective criterion for judging literature. In fact, it is probably the most important non-Christian generalization to extract from Eliot's criticism. Such an extraction, which is consistent with the idea that a poet exists as a catalyst and not a conscious thinker about philosophical problems, has had visible effects on critical thought of all religious bases. Its emphasis on a balance between verse and drama—aimed at a high goal of beauty and truth, achieved through a specific convention of common thinking among a group of artists deeply engaged with the past at the same time as they are breaking radically from it—is not a bad description of modernism, the complex literary movement for which Eliot was considered a great leader.
And this process by which Eliot analyzes the texts, regardless of his philosophical and moral judgments, is where a modern critical view finds value in his essays. Although it is difficult to define the specifics of this analysis, Eliot expresses its basis in his essay "The Function of Criticism'' by describing the use of ‘‘a very highly developed sense of fact'' and the employment of"comparison and analysis.’’ It is more helpful to look at Eliot's essays themselves, however, to understand the sophisticated technique that allows Eliot to make his decisive judgments on the quality of so many authors; it is only clear when reading through Eliot's specific and intuitive reasoning about the language and meaning of his subject. This method of analyzing a piece of literature in its proper context creates a new standard for what should be considered beautiful art, an important suggested guideline for the thinking of a generation of artists (to which many adhered and against which many revolted).
Admittedly, this method of analysis does not fully represent Eliot's comprehensive aesthetic theory. For one thing, focusing only on the secular aspects of Eliot's theory vastly oversimplifies his literary taste; despite his assertion that great authors do not "think," he admits that much of artistic creation is a conscious process and makes no effort to separate fundamental philosophical belief and meaning from a judgment about what is a great piece of literature. Many authors succeed, for Eliot, by the conscious or unconscious philosophy in their work. Also, this extracting what is of secular value assumes that Eliot took a clear stance on the issue throughout his life; and as the long span of Selected Essays, 1917-1932 shows, he changes his mind on even the most basic of his principles during the fifteen-year period (during which time, notably, Eliot becomes increasingly religious).
Nevertheless, Eliot's method of textual analysis is his most lasting critical legacy in a multicultural, secular society. And it is the most important part of his careful, thorough overview of Western literature since the ancient Greeks. It is where his theory is the most "impersonal," and therefore applicable to other theorists, and it is the place where Eliot's poetic genius and intuitive understanding of language is most apparent. Indeed, it is an objective and almost scientific side of his analysis. Despite his assertion against the profusion of ‘‘individual talent" and personality, the more religious and moral judgments of his essays contain Eliot's most subjective (and therefore, by his own criteria, his most unhelpful) views on religion and literature. His comparison and analysis, meanwhile, masterfully place English writing into its appropriate tradition, just as they place Eliot's essays into the tradition of English critical theory.
Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on Selected Essays, 1917-1932, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.
Adequation as Myth in the Design of Selected Essays
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5752
High theory and the evocation of intensely immediate experience as embodied, respectively, in Eliot's "essays of generalization (such as Tradition and the Individual Talent) and [his] appreciations of individual authors’’: the drama of Eliot's prose writings, especially of his Selected Essays is, at its most vital, to draw these poles together, to discover their mutuality, to declare them fully complementary facets of the same, common quest for adequation. At first this dramatic movement is not clearly evident. Dipping into Selected Essays at random, finding here the reassuringly familiar essay on ‘‘The Metaphysical Poets,’’ there a relatively unknown, seemingly unrelated piece on the Church of England's Lambeth Conference of 1930 (‘‘Thoughts after Lambeth’’), the essays seem more independent, more self-contained—as befits their diverse publishing history as occasional essays, journalistic reviews or belletristic polemic. They do not at first reading appear implicated in the general meaning of each other. This deceptive impression of disconnection and autonomy is enhanced by Eliot's oft-rehearsed protest that he was no ‘‘systematic thinker,'' and that any search for system or architectonic in his work, erected on a structure of ‘‘sustained, exact, and closely knit argument and reasoning,’’ must inevitably issue in failure or error.
What are we to think when at a certain moment, after sustained rereading, the argument of each essay, the conclusion, the summing up, the drawing forth of meaning from the subject at hand, begins to reveal a tell-tale similarity to each of the others? For, in almost every case, Eliot's method of procedure, his strategy of advance from premise to conclusion, is to invoke, to draw upon a highly limited repository of recurring words. These words echo and reecho themselves, catch up and pattern a multitude of disparate writers and situations into a common design, often amplifying each word's latent suggestivity in a variety of subject-matters (the comparative merit of specimens of poetry drawn from successive ages, or the contemporary dispute over humanism and religion, or disquisitions on education, sociology and the passing of the music hall era) until, almost without warning, each essay becomes but a particular, almost subordinate illustration of the more general, more critically important set of meanings, which it is Eliot's underlying aim to communicate.
The truth is, this technique of verbal refrain and reprise, this repertory of recurring words and phrases stems neither from genuine architectonic nor preconceived system but from an urgent, ongoing, underlying concern on Eliot's part to explore, to make sense out of and to illustrate the implications and consequences of his myth of failed adequation: the catastrophe of dissociated sensibility. Here ‘‘adequate objects’’ are repeatedly distinguished from "inadequate" ones, and "adequacy" unfailingly counterpoints "inadequacy." Here "intellect" struggles heroically to become adequate to "sensibility'' and here "experience," "feeling," "emotion," "sensation," "enthusiasm," "passions," "emotional states," "emotional orgy," "emotional intensity and violence,’’ and inexpressible ‘‘baffled emotion'' surge over the bastion of"words,'" 'language," "meaning," "receptacle," "gesture," "form," "expression," "clear purgation’’ and, of course, ‘‘objective correlative.’’ Here the chiseled world of the ‘‘strong and simple outline,’’ the ‘‘perfectly controlled’’ expression of emotion is set over against the unfocused world of that which is "inexpressible," the ‘‘incommunicable ... vague and unformed,’’ the world of "mistiness," "fluid haze,’’ and shimmering "dream." Here swelling
Viewed from this perspective, the design of Selected Essays may be understood as a series of essays into the literary consequences of metaphysical pessimism, assays which depart from and return to this central myth. Taken in totality these assays chronicle the long, slow decline—in Eliot's eyes— of European literature from the time of Dante. Bearing directly on this point is a passage from Walter Jackson Bate's The Burden of the Past and the English Poet:
A great deal of modern literature—and criticism—is haunted, as Stephen Spender says, by the thought of a ‘‘Second Fall of Man,’’ and almost everything has been blamed: the Renaissance loss of the medieval unity of faith, Baconian science, British empiricism, Rousseau, the French Revolution, industrialism, nineteenth-century science, universities and academicism, the growing complexity of ordinary life, the spread of mass media.
At one time or another, Eliot touches upon almost all of these issues, but quickly propels each one into orbit around his own metaphysical sun. As catalogued by Eliot in the great majority of his ‘‘appreciations of individual authors,’’ the effects of this haunting Second Fall, this cosmic universal dissociation of form and feeling, group themselves into two categories.
Into the first category fall those essays which treat of the overall inadequacy of doctrinal thought— be it as dogma, theology, ideology, theory or a developed, articulated point of view—to the underlying affections in which a particular doctrine is rooted and from which it draws emotional sustenance. Under the second category are grouped those essays which illustrate the inadequacy of particular works of art—work of art being used in the broadest sense to include any poem, play, narrative, essay, image, word or even gesture—as vehicles to convey the emotions from which they spring. Both categories bear striking witness to the inexorable crumbling of form into the ruin of meaninglessness which is Eliot's starkest poetic fear.
Language, Feeling, and Emotion
Of the four ‘‘appreciations of individual authors" in which the central argument is the failure of equilibration between some structure of doctrinal thought and the feelings and emotions it once successfully conveyed, perhaps the most graphic—and famous—illustration is ‘‘Arnold and Pater.’’ Matthew Arnold, in his extensive writings on the unraveling of ties between Christianity and Culture, was engaged in waging, according to Eliot, a "religious campaign,’’ and the upshot of this succession of field operations was to "affirm that the emotions of Christianity can and must be preserved without the belief,’' an affirmation whose inevitable consequence was the "divorce'' of that special sensibility possessed by "religion," with its heights and depths of feeling and emotion, from its superstructure of doctrinal"thought.’’ One outcome of this resulting imbalance—indeed severence—between emotions and belief where dogma no longer can function adequately to channel, shape and confer meaning on feeling, is "to leave Religion to be laid waste by the anarchy of feeling.’’ With religion thus split, fragmented, open to the eddying currents of individual feeling, it becomes possible to install, in the place of dogma, either "Morals" or "Art." This substitution is accompanied by the need to translate everything either into morality—witness the ‘‘religious vapourings of Carlyle’’ or the ‘‘social fury of Ruskin’’—or into the dangerous cult of ‘‘emotion and ... sensation’’ which marks Pater's own ‘‘peculiar appropriation of religion.’’ But for Eliot there exists also a third substitute for dogmatic religion, an outgrowth and later development of the foregoing, a substitute for which Arnold's campaign to elevate culture over dogma was incontrovertibly a "forerunner," and a substitute with which Eliot found himself, often to the exclusion of almost everything else, increasingly preoccupied and distressed: the substitute of Humanism. Dealt with at length over several years in a series of articles and heated rejoinders in the Criterion by such noteworthy controversialists as Herbert Read, G. K. Chesterton, and Allen Tate, the topic surfaces, in Selected Essays, in "The Humanism of Irving Babbitt.’’ The focal difficulty with Humanism, unlike dogma, is that, although it offered itself as an ‘‘alternative to religion,’’ it could provide no clear definition of itself, no unchallengeable intellectual edifice, no anatomy of belief open to inspection and deliberative consideration. A loose amalgam of overlapping and often contradictory tenets, some drawn from religion, others from the classical tradition, and still others from the confluence of both, the generally accepted premises of Humanism—order, discipline, tradition, continuity, proportion, restraint, reason, authority, privilege, and aristocracy—might provide temporary solace for those "unable to take the religious view—that is to say ... dogma or revelation'' but would fail to provide "a view of life ... durable beyond one or two generations.’’ The reasons for this failure are not far to seek. In terms of actual operation, the Humanism of Eliot's day split irreparably into morality in the form of what Babbitt, no doubt thinking of Matthew Arnold's "best self,’’ called the ‘‘inner check,’’ a doctrine of self-control by moral restraint, and simultaneously into an attempt, equally vital if futile, to provide, in Babbitt's words, ‘‘an enthusiasm’’—an infusing or eliciting of feeling and emotion which "man" naturally "craves"—‘‘that will lift him out of his merely rational self.’’ But between an influx of amorphous "enthusiasm" and an ideally defined "inner check'' there is neither connection nor commerce: enthusiasm and inner check appear as mindless adversaries engaged in an endless tug of war, the former to inflate the ego with sporadic doses of a heady intoxicant, the latter to prick it back into place. Enthusiasm and inner check are shards of a broken whole, the fragmentary remains of Christian "theology in its last agonies.'' Isolated "morality'' must come to appear "hideous'' because it loses all touch with the "personal and real emotions . . . this morality [once] supported and into which it introduced a kind of order.’’ Religion is always ‘‘in danger of petrifaction into mere ritual and habit,’’ but lacking a central, articulated, and living framework of belief, it can never be ‘‘renewed and refreshed by" a mere "awakening of feeling'' or by the unbiased scrutiny of ‘‘critical reason.’’ Humanism is a sham because it denies the supernatural, because its elevation of reason denies the dispossession of the intellect, because it denies the primacy of the emotive, and because it denies the quest for adequation.
This same decay of dogma is apparent, not surprisingly, in "Baudelaire," but the reaction of Baudelaire's self is strikingly different: it engages in a drama of positive, if agonizing, search to overcome this dogmatic vacuum. Although Baudelaire experiences a growing recognition of the "fact that no human relations are adequate to human desires,'' there is an accompanying battle to transcend this obstacle, to overcome, as Eliot sees it, the typical nineteenth-century ‘‘disbelief in any further [supernatural] object for human desires than that which, being human, fails to satisfy them.’’ With the swelling ‘‘content of [religious] feeling ... constantly bursting the receptacle'' of available dogma, Baudelaire's answer was neither to suppress such feelings, deal with them in isolation, or limit their importance through a rejection of belief, but rather to accept them, to welcome them, to crave them in the form of ‘‘Satanism’’: for such rejoicing in the emotion of evil, stripped of its inevitable trappings of flamboyance and theatricalism, "amounts to a dim intuition of a part... of Christianity,’’ an abandonment of ‘‘theological innocence’’ and religious ignorance by "discovering Christianity for himself.’’ And the part of Christianity which he investigated was the reality and meaning of '' suffering,'' the reality of Original Sin that implies, even if always beyond the farthest hope of being reached, ‘‘the possibility of a positive state of beatitude.’’ Recognizing, however imperfectly, the vast latitude of the religious sensibility, Baudelaire explored one small segment of that scale, but explored it with unmatched ferocity. Impressive for his thoroughgoing rejection of both the ‘‘naturalist’’ and "humanist" positions, Baudelaire is even more so for his positive recognition that his "business was not to practise Christianity’’—that he could never bring himself to do—"but... what was much more important for his time ... to assert its necessity.’’ Beginning with a self-intuited emotional reality, Baudelaire finds his way, if just barely, to the threshold of an intellectual reality, to the assertion of a supernatural, adequate reality.
Finding an Adequate Object
This same logic, writ large, informs the spiritual allegory that Eliot traces in "The Pensées of Pascal.’’ Pascal begins in "despair," a pocket of despair so deep and dark, a clear-cut emotion that ‘‘corresponds [so] exactly to the facts’’ of an unillumined, spiritually sere world, that it "cannot be dismissed as mental disease.’’ Because Pascal was ‘‘a man of strong passions,’’ his passions threatened, terrified, tyrannized so long as no ‘‘spiritual explanation''—no intellectual explanation adequate to his felt demon—‘‘could be found.’’ But then, by a process of logic that fills Eliot with awe, Pascal comes to recognize that ‘‘if certain emotional states ... are inherently and by inspection known to be good, then the satisfactory explanation of the world’’—the adequate explanation—‘‘must be an explanation which will admit the 'reality' of these values.’’ It follows, therefore, that if the "emotional'' state of"what in the highest sense can be called 'saintliness' ... [is] inherently and by inspection known to be good, then the satisfactory’’—the adequate—‘‘explanation of the world’’ must accommodate and give lucid expression to the existence of this value. The result of this spiritual conversion was the plan of the Pensées, a book which ‘‘was to have been a carefully constructed defence of Christianity, a true Apology and a kind of Grammar of Assent, setting forth the reasons which will convince the intellect.’’ To the right mind, Christianity is attractive precisely because of the difficulty it poses "to the disorderly mind and to the unruly passions’’—the mind turning over in an agony of doubt, the passions bottled up in unending turbulence. In healthy religion we find, as Eliot would argue over and again, not merely emotion and belief twined in ideal concord. We find, in the first place, a means of attaining that ‘‘intellectual satisfaction'' we crave and without which we "do not want [religion] at all.’’ We find, in the second, a means of ‘‘disciplin[ing] and training . . . emotion’’ by making it significant, a means ‘‘only attainable through dogmatic religion.’’ We find, finally, an object worthy of pursuit, even if unattainable, because of a permanence—a permanence of adequation—that answers to the heart's need:
I should say that it was at any rate essential for Religion that we should have the conception of an immutable object or Reality the knowledge of which shall be the final object of that will; and there can be no permanent reality if there is no permanent truth. I am of course quite ready to admit that human apprehension of truth varies, changes and perhaps develops, but that is a property of human imperfection rather than of truth. You cannot conceive of truth at all, the word has no meaning, except by conceiving of it as something permanent. And that is really assumed even by those who deny it. For you cannot even say it changes except in reference to something which does not change; the idea of change is impossible without the idea of permanence.
Composed roughly of thirteen essays, the second of the two broad categories into which Eliot's ‘‘appreciations of individual authors’’ comes to enclose themselves, focuses on individual works of art whose expressive powers, either through authorial perplexity or linguistic debility, are flawed by a practical, operative inability to transmute feeling into form. This category is itself, of necessity, divisible into two groups, depending on whether our momentary perspective or vantage point directs attention to objects large or small: those essays which explore at length the failure of language, of individual words—the smallest building block of literature—either singly or collectively, to attach themselves to reality; and those essays, dealing with complete works of art, which center on what Eliot came to call the dilemma of ‘‘baffled emotion,’’ works whose overall shortcoming Eliot described using the notion of the "objective correlative.'' On the topic of verbal insufficiency Eliot's most important commentary is to be located in ‘‘Swinburne as Poet.’’ Eliot begins by cataloguing Swinburne's highly idiosyncratic style and peculiar verbal habits— the ‘‘adjectives [which] are practically blanks,’’ the ‘‘slightly veiled and resonant abstractions’’ which are embedded in the large poem to no visible purpose, and become therefore "destitute of meaning,’’ the words chosen "merely for the tinkle,'' the general absence of lines so singular and unique that they "can never be recaptured in other words,’’ the penchant for "diffuseness'' in place of"concentration,’’ the sense of being seduced by ‘‘the most general word . .. because his [underlying] emotion . . . [is] never particular.’’ Finding here a distinct pathology of language, Eliot is driven to set forth the theoretical premise that"language in a healthy state,’’ an ideal condition unlike that to be found in Swinburne, "presents the object, is so close to the object that the two are identified.’’ Ideally, words and their objects are inseparable; to exchange one word for another is, unwittingly, to transform reality, to alter it, to dismantle it. Swinburne scants objects, relishing the word in decadent isolation.
For Eliot, words never constitute a mere aperture onto an independent reality set over against them. Eliot assumes that"the name'' of an object— be it physical, emotional, or a tangled complex of both—is never ‘‘merely a convenient means for denoting something which exists in complete independence of the name.’’ For Eliot words cannot be merely signs for an independent, preexisting reality. On the contrary, words are symbols which cannot ‘‘be ... arbitrarily amputated from the object ... [they] symbolize,’’ for ‘‘[n]o symbol ... is ever a mere symbol, but is continuous with that which it symbolizes.’’ Eliot goes further by stating that an "explicit recognition of an object as such'' cannot actually occur "without the beginnings of speech,'' and as speech develops and evolves, growing in achieved nuance and complexity, an equal and corresponding evolution of reality takes place. In more drastic terms: ‘‘without words, no objects.’’ One might successfully argue, as both Eliot and Merleau-Ponty appear to, that language is a higher form of experience, continuous with it while nurturing it into adequate form.
Language and Reality
"Language," adds Eliot, is always ‘‘a development of reality as well,’’ and whenever ‘‘language shows a richness of content and intricacy of connections,’’ these ‘‘are as well an enrichment of the reality grasped. For if a symbol were to be plucked from the soil of experience, it would become ‘‘a symbol that symbolize[s] nothing’’— ceasing to ‘‘be a symbol at all’’ and becoming instead "another reality ... [consisting of] certain [idle] marks on paper.’’
Granting that ‘‘Swinburne was ... a master of words,’’ for Eliot this particular mastery consists not in a finely honed skill which renders the object more precise, more concrete, more palpable, but rather in a massive talent for obscurantism—for shrouding the object in an impenetrable verbal haze. The distinctive quality possessed by Swinburne's words is the ability to radiate "suggestions" which scatter endlessly in all directions while pinpointing nothing with "denotation." "If," as a result, ‘‘they suggest nothing, it is because they suggest too much;’’ Swinburne fell prey to the illegitimate— because autonomous—blandishments of suggestive language, its associative richness leading to irresponsibility, its profusion of possible meanings which collectively mean nothing; it was "the word that [gave] him the thrill,’’ laments Eliot, ‘‘not the object. When you take to pieces any verse of Swinburne, you find always that the object was not there—only the word.’’
Eliot's judgment of Swinburne comes from his conviction that Swinburne has abandoned pursuit of experience for escape to an aerie from which the real world has been banished: "human feelings ... in Swinburne's case do not exist.’’ His ‘‘morbidity’’ is not of feeling—these are nowhere to be found—but of "language." For Swinburne the ‘‘object’’—the felt object toward which adequation proceeds—‘‘has ceased to exist,’’ with the consequence that"meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning,’’ and ‘‘language, uprooted, had adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment.’’ Only a ‘‘man of genius’’—though the context transforms the term into a blatant misnomer— "could dwell so exclusively and consistently among words as Swinburne.’’ This genius manifests itself in that extraordinary ability of ‘‘so little material’’ to "release such an amazing number of words,’’ all of which attempt to amplify and increase ‘‘the vague associations'' they are capable of eliciting, without ever becoming anchored in a real "emotion’’ that is "particular," without ever being ‘‘focused.’’ Like the dream that fails to sustain its reality upon awakening, Swinburne's work possesses an air of dreamlike deception; like a dream, his work seems to hover tantalizingly on the brink of important meaning without ever attaining it, without ever trembling into adequate form. This is Eliot's meaning when he says that Swinburne's statements seem to counterfeit "tremendous statement[s], like statements made in our dreams.’’ In Swinburne's work the quest for adequation becomes irrelevant, since his world "does not depend upon some other world which it simulates; it has the necessary completeness and self-sufficiency for justification and permanence.’’ Perfection for Swinburne is the perfection of irrelevance, for ultimately the kind of "language which is ... important'' is language which has embarked on the task of adequation, language that finds itself "struggling to digest and express new objects, new groups of objects, new feelings, new aspects'' of the real.
With some slight variation the same charge is made in such essays as "Philip Massinger,’ ' ‘'Seneca in Elizabethan Translation," "Euripedes and Professor Murray,’’ and, in more extreme form, in ‘‘Four Elizabethan Dramatists.’’ Massinger, for example, is viewed as a poet whose ‘‘feeling for language,’’ whose sheer lust for things verbal, has ‘‘outstripped his feeling for things; ... his eye and his vocabulary were not in co-operation.’’ In Senecan drama, "the drama is all in the word, and the word has no further reality behind it,’’ unlike the Greek drama or the drama of Shakespeare, where '' [b]ehind the drama of words is the drama of action... and the particular emotion.’’ In them, ‘‘[t]he phrase, beautiful as it may be, stands for a greater beauty still.’’ In his acid, frontal attack on John Gilbert Murray's translation of Euripides' Medea from the Greek, Eliot accuses Murray of a fundamental disregard for language which betrays him into the sloppiness of employing "two words where the Greek language requires one, and where the English language will provide him with one,’’ and of ‘‘stretch[ing] . . . Greek brevity to fit the loose frame of William Morris, and .. . the fluid haze of Swinburne.’’ The problem also imbues ‘‘Four Elizabethan Dramatists,’’ where the devaluation of words is compounded and exacerbated by a parallel loss of artistic conventions—convention defined as any ‘‘selection or structure or distortion in subject matter or technique’’ which results in ‘‘form or rhythm [being] imposed upon the world of action.’’ The outcome is a loss of conventional"form[s]'' capable of ‘‘arrest[ing] ... the flow of spirit at any particular point before it expands and ends its course in the desert of exact likeness to ... reality...’’ Here the desert of reality refers to the impoverished, circumscribed territory of the individual ego, cut off from the depths and heights of the emotional reality which lies outside its own narrow pale; since a lack of conventions or forms exists to describe this alien richness, this other existence becomes a reproach to the artist, taunting him with his own impotence. When conventions do exist, an impoverishment of language may render literature improbable; but when the conventions themselves are lost, literature becomes impossible, since conventions are the norms of reality which mediate our existence and make possible art in the first place.
In only two essays,"Marie Lloyd'' and "Wilkie Collins and Dickens,’’ does Eliot discern some slight grounds for optimism. Of Marie Lloyd, the renowned music hall artist, Eliot writes that there resided in ‘‘her smallest gesture’’—her singular, theatrical vocabulary—a "perfect expressiveness'' for what she felt; in consequence, "no other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the [emotive] life of ... [her] audience ... the soul of the people.'' In the other case, that of Wilkie Collins and Dickens, Eliot seeks to draw a distinction between "pure melodrama,'' that form of art where we "accept an improbability''—a situation incapable of affording intellectual satisfaction—‘‘for the sake of seeing the thrilling situation’’—a climactic surge of raw emotion untethered to intellectual meaning—as opposed to a higher art where, instead of accepting melodramatic "coincidence, set without shame or pretence,’’ we find ‘‘fate ... which merges into character,’’ and ‘‘the melodramatic— the accidental—becomes ... the dramatic—the fatal.’’ After the momentary thrill of the melodramatic we demand a return to a higher art based on a harmonious intellectual scheme adequate not simply to the eliciting of emotions but to rendering them significant in an integrated, organic whole.
Eliot and the Objective Correlative
But Eliot's most compelling attention, as manifested in the turns, twists, and responses of his argument, is paid to that group of essays dealing with whole works of art in which the quest for adequation is mysteriously blocked, in which the endeavor to express "emotion" is "baffled." No "correlative'' in the"objective'' world of language and form can be found for the unarticulated feelings which underlie such works. In several of these essays, Eliot turns to a mode of argument that hinges on comparison and contrast, on mulling over the latent assets and hidden defects of two works set in juxtaposition or in weighing the comparative merits of two figures placed side by side, and watching as the scale balances, first this way, then that, on the point of an imaginary fulcrum.
Of those essays where a single figure alone is scrutinized, the case of Tennyson is both instructive and typical. Despite Tennyson's undisputed diversity of lyric form, Eliot delivers himself of a virtually formulaic summary of Tennyson's plight. His tragedy resides in the fact that his "real feelings ... profound and tumultuous as they are, never arrive at expression,’’ because of a paradoxical failure, despite their powerful intensity and Tennyson's own insistent poetic experimentation, to find a form adequate to their pent-up force, a form that would transform melancholia into meaning. Tennyson's long-harbored and long-submerged "emotional intensity and violence ... emotion so deeply suppressed, even from himself, as to tend rather towards the blackest melancholia than towards dramatic action’’ could ultimately achieve ‘‘no ... clear purgation.'' Tennyson committed errors which were grave to the degree that they thwarted adequation— ‘‘fundamental error[s in the choice] of form.’’ A closely parallel case is Cyril Tourneur. The emotions which rise to the surface in The Revenger's Tragedy—"cynicism," "loathing and disgust of humanity'' are held by Eliot to be "immature in the respect that they exceed the [dramatic] object,’’ they overwhelm the confines of the play because in the end the play proves a fundamentally inadequate vehicle for their full expression. Indeed, Eliot concludes that any ‘‘objective equivalents’’ for such emotions could be found only in ‘‘characters practising the grossest vices; characters which seem merely to be specters projected from the poet's inner world of nightmare, some horror beyond words.’’
The four essays which pivot on comparison and contrast—‘‘Francis Herbert Bradley’’ (to whom John Ruskin is unfavorably compared); ‘‘Lancelot Andrewes’’ (who is applauded at the expense of John Donne); and ‘‘Hamlet and His Problems’’ which must be read in immediate conjunction with the essay on ‘‘Ben Jonson’’—widen this circle of argument but scarcely alter the relentless flow of Eliot's thought. They comprise a brilliant triad whose purpose is to advance, augment, and amplify Eliot's argument. Bradley and Ruskin furnish a useful point of departure. The prose flights of Bradley, in which intellectual toil "is perfectly welded with the matter’’ to produce his ‘‘great gift of style,'' are the issue of a man whose "pleasure was the singular one of thinking.'' It is a poignant irony that Bradley's own underlying philosophic pessimism toward adequation is couched in a style which proves supremely adequate to its embodied matter. In the case of Ruskin, on the other hand, ‘‘[o]ne feels that the emotional... intensity ... is partly a deflection of something that was baffled in life, whereas Bradley, like Newman, is directly and wholly that which he is.’’ And this terse analysis points back to the comparison of Donne with Andrewes in the previous year to which, though less volubly expansive, it is the logical successor. The "emotion" found in Andrewes's sermons ‘‘is purely contemplative'' because it issues solely from a self-absorbing contemplation of an adequate object— the careful elucidation of the essential dogma of the Incarnation.
Having found an adequate object allows both for the harmonious absorption of feeling into object, and for the triumphant denotation of feeling by object, a reciprocal, self-enhancing process in which form renders feeling adequate and feeling renders form meaningful. The entirety of Andrewes's prose sermons is made "adequate"—and here Eliot is at pains to underscore his point—only by means of ‘‘his emotions [being] wholly contained in and explained by the object. But with Donne, there is always the something else, the 'baffling''' swarm of feelings which remains isolate, objectless. Donne is perpetually engaged in searching for ‘‘an object which shall be adequate to his feelings,’’ whereas ‘‘Andrewes is wholly absorbed in the object and therefore responds with the adequate emotion.’’ In Donne there is discoverable a little of the nervous ascent and descent of"the religious spellbinder, the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy,’’ ready to play to a rapt audience, to whip up and indulge quivering and taut emotions. But this theatrical bent, this rhetorical ability is purchased at the price of ‘‘spiritual discipline,’’ in that it prevents and is itself the offspring of some obstacle that hinders his ‘‘experience [from being] ... perfectly controlled,’’ perfectly ordered, made perfectly meaningful by the attainment of a satisfactory object. In consequence,\ there hovers about the edges of Donne's poetry and sermons some taint of the "incommunicable,'' feeling which is at once ‘‘the vague and unformed,’’ and "experience'' which, because imperfectly realized and therefore imperfectly understood, "is not perfectly controlled.’’ No such taint darkens the pages of Andrewes, whose overspreading mastery is everywhere grounded in an achieved harmony of ‘‘[i]ntellect and sensibility,’’ a harmonious perfection, unshadowed by tenuity or hesitation, of adequation. Indeed, the reader becomes the witness to this unfolding drama. He follows "the movement of... [Andrewes's] thought’’ as he ‘‘takes a word and derives the world from it: squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning,’’ until this ‘‘examination of words’’ and meanings which can be wrung from them terminates "in the ecstasy of [intellectual and emotional] assent.’’
By the time we reach Eliot's famous dyad of essays about ‘‘baffled emotion’’—‘‘Hamlet and His Problems’’ and ‘‘Ben Jonson’’—we are fully habituated to his speculative and generalizing terms, to the origins and central concerns of his argument. Perhaps this allows us better to perceive the imperfections beneath this dyad's notoriety, its failure to formulate an all-embracing statement whose hard-surfaced, intellectual, abstract tone would suffice to stand alone, a formula whose a priori, scientific elegance and inescapable determinism would, once and for all, interpose itself between Eliot and the dilemma of adequation.
Eliot begins his discussion of Hamlet by noting that in a wholly successful work of art,
The artistic "inevitability" lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear... Hamlet ... is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.
To the extent that Hamlet remains a play about an unrecoverable, unfathomable emotion, unlike the lucidly defined emotional motivations animating Shakespeare's other tragedies—‘‘the suspicion of Othello, the infatuation of Antony, or the pride of Coriolanus’’—our inspection of its shortcomings must commence with the "disgust... occasioned [in Hamlet] by his mother,’’ while recognizing at the same time "that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelopes and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action.’’ There is recognizable here an insidious overlapping of art and artist in which the dilemma of Hamlet and that of his creator are seen to join and become one: "Hamlet's bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem.’’ Shakespeare himself had sounded the theme of the scourge of baffled emotion as early as Titus Andronicus, his first tragedy: ‘‘Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp' d,/ Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is." Thus far Eliot's analysis is beyond reproach; but then, in the face of this dilemma of baffled emotion, Eliot, with a striking lack of elaboration in an essay of barely six pages, proceeds to erect a massive theory.
"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art,’’ says Eliot,"is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.'' The first clause of this ill-begotten formulation merely repeats that emotion must attain to the nobility of form to find expression and achieve meaning. Eliot then engrafts a second formula, bedecked with scientific ostentation, that is both contradictory to the sense of his initial premise and erroneous in its own right. He posits nothing less than the existence of a fixed hierarchy of emotions whose existence would be reflected and confirmed by a corresponding hierarchy of"formula[s]. . . for [each] ... particular emotion,’’ such that when a particular formula—a word, a phrase, a situation, a chain of events, an adequate vehicle of whatever description—is supplied, the emotion is automatically elicited. This latter formulation rings with automatism, and is steeped in the logic of stimulus and response. It comes across as wholly invalid in a universe of process, and untrue to the underlying drift of Eliot's thought as we have followed it thus far.
Pessimism Inherent in the Quest for Adequation
For if such a project of fitting together hierarchies of emotion and adequate vehicles of form could be undertaken and achieved once and for all, adequation would cease to be a dilemma and the very task and endeavor of art—"the fight to recover what has been lost/And found and lost again and again’’ would at a stroke be subverted, indeed disappear forever. In the midst of a cosmos in process, as Eliot sadly concludes elsewhere, the attainment of such final certitude, either in life or art, is impossible.. .
Source: Alan Weinblatt,"Adequation as Myth in the Design of Selected Essays," in T. S. Eliot and the Myth of Adequation, UMI Research Press, 1984, pp. 15-36.
T. S. Eliot the Critic
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1481
Mr. Eliot's volume of Selected Essays, just now published as he leaves us for America, represents in four hundred and fifty pages fifteen successive years of work. Here are essays from the early Sacred Wood, which first made its appearance in 1920; here, too, is a large part of For Lancelot Andrewes. The brilliant trilogy, entitled Homage to John Dryden, re-emerges next to the little book on Dante. Thoughts after Lambeth also recur. Two essays reproving Professor Babbitt, and generally setting about the neo-Humanists, are neighboured by a brief encomium on Marie Lloyd. A sympathetic portrait of Charles Whibley brings this various procession to a close.
The last choice was particularly apt. Mr. Eliot ends the survey of his own criticism by a study of a very different type of critic, precisely—even dramatically—opposed to himself. All that Whibley was not, Eliot is. All the qualities that the older critic possessed—and the modern writer is not behindhand in appreciation; he pays a generous tribute to Whibley's talents—are qualities he himself has never displayed. How far this abstention has been deliberate is a problem both fascinating and hard to solve. Whibley was a 'man of the world' in literature. I do not suggest that Mr. Eliot's critical work shows any lack of worldly knowledge, but his knowledge is of a specialised and rarified kind, accumulated by a special sort of experience. He is analytical rather than discursive. It is the peculiar strength of such critics as Charles Whibley that the enthusiasm they have derived from their private reading should be reflected on the surface of their critical style, and that they should charm us by a warmth of reflected enjoyment. Pleasure is made the basis of understanding, while analysis provides a subsidiary means of approach.
Enjoy, begs the critic, as I enjoy! True, every critic worth the title must have appreciated before he can expound; but then appreciation may assume conflicting guises. Whibley's appreciation of English literature was that of a cultivated and scholarly man of the world, an epicurean in the purest and oldest sense, honnête homme, like Saint Evremond or Sir William Temple. His prose has a Cyrenaic smoothness; and Mr. Eliot practises literature as a form of asceticism. Though we read his critical work for our own pleasure, we can't help feeling that it was often written from a sense of duty.
Not that he seems to toil against the grain. No reader of Homage to John Dryden and the Elizabethan essays in The Sacred Wood can doubt that he is capable of deep enjoyment and thinks pedagogy a poor substitute for true delight. He has said as much himself in the former study. My point is that, since puritan and epicure are both preoccupied in the last resort by the pursuit of happiness, Mr. Eliot has chosen the puritanical method. He analyses in order that we may enjoy; he sacrifices immediate charm to ultimate clarity.
And so one feature distinguishes all his criticism—an avoidance, carried to strict lengths, of what he considers vain and superfluous ornament. Let the critic, he implies, remain a critic. He has expressed his distrust of the common type of writer whose critical efforts are a secondary form of creation, a consolation-prize in the race he has failed to win. Hence a marked absence of phrases and redundant imagery. He never starts a campaign with a display of fireworks, never marches around a citadel to the blast of trumpets. It has become, one feels, a rigid code of honour to observe the courtesy of a scientific siege.
These preferences must be accepted by his readers: few phrases, no brilliant and lively discursions, a prose style intentionally cold and colourless which throws his subject into clear if chilly relief—a style, in short, consistently self-effacing. It is an impersonal style, and when prejudice emerges—as it is apt to do, even here, from time to time—and he speaks of the Arch-Fiend in Paradise Lost as 'Milton's curly-headed Byronic hero.' the effect is not infrequently a trifle awkward. Whether his rare phrases are awkward through want of interest, or whether he eschews them from lack of facility, we can only conjecture.
I mean facility of the pyrotechnic kind. At all events, they are unimportant in his critical essays where words for the sake of words seldom figure. Some writers begin by blindfolding us with verbal eloquence, lead us up a steep and difficult path, snatch off the bandage and show us the view. Eliot starts by removing the scales from our eyes. An operation for cataract is always painful; and many fellow critics confronted by an opening paragraph which states—oh, so simply and oh, so coldly! albeit with a certain underlying benevolence—that if they admire this they are not likely to admire that and had much better return to their false gods, have been known to snort indignantly in the surgeon's face and argue that they prefer their original dimness.
Mr. F.L. Lucas is one of these. Unfortunately, whereas critics of the type of Whibley are as uncommon as critics of the type of Eliot, Mr. Lucas belongs to a large school. He is the literary, or pseudo, 'man of the world,' who enjoys tremendously writing about literature—we men of the world know what is good!—but, although his cheerful enthusiasm is sometimes infectious, it never crystallises in a distinct point of view.
And a distinct point of view Eliot has. Mr. Lucas once arrayed against the critic some of his more startling literary judgments—that Hamlet is unsuccessful as a work of art, that Crashaw is a finer poet than Shelley—and asked us to draw our own conclusions. Well, we don't go to a critic for absolute truth; that is to say, we can't measure a critic's usefulness by totting up a balance-sheet of right and wrong. Literary excellence is comparative at the best of times; and, whatever may be our opinion of Crashaw's merits—and he had some merits which to Shelley were quite unknown—there is little doubt that, as expressed by Mr. Eliot, the contrast was provocative and stimulating.
The opinion was at least consistent with his attitude. To appreciate Mr. Eliot at his critical worth, it is not necessary to accept his every paragraph or regard him as the Rhadamanthus of Russell Square. One may regret, for example, his sponsorship of Lancelot Andrewes and consider that the Bishop's quaintly allusive pietism is inferior to the baroque eloquence of John Donne. One may even hold aloof from Mother Church.... The fact remains that, granted his point of view, Mr. Eliot cannot be charged with inconsistency. A cenobite in the waterless landscape of The Waste Land, he has now adapted himself to a more regular monastic life.
Objections, of course, can be raised. We are accustomed to envisage the perfect critic as being suspended in the void—preferably in the void of mild agnosticism—who surveys the world with disabused detachment. We are offended by any touch of parti pris. True, all criticism enshrines French poet, critic, and translator Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, the subject of an essay in the collection
some prejudice; but we hate to think that such prejudice as we may encounter is imposed on us by an orthodox religious system. Mr. Eliot is now essentially orthodox. As long as the point of view, to which I have referred, continues to assimilate these beliefs—they are foreshadowed even in The Waste Land it seems impertinent to quarrel with private convictions. Puritanism is a dominant mode in English literature, and Mr. Eliot is a puritan of American ancestry.
It is a Puritan intelligence he brings to bear. Critics naturally less ascetic have proved less sensitive to the beauties of language and added less to our understanding of its spell. Mr. Eliot writes as a poet but not poetically. Looking through this volume of Selected Essays, it is very hard to find a chapter or a single line in which the desire to make an effect or round a paragraph predominates over a Spartan sense of fitness. No metaphor, flown with syllabic intoxication, breaks into the strenuous hush of the critic's dissecting-room.
There he labours, and on subjects very diverse. Mr. Eliot is not temperamentally expansive, but his interests are sympathetic and range wide. He treats of Swinburne as sensibly as of Andrew Marvell, of Blake, Jonson, Baudelaire and many others, always with an experienced and odd touch like an artist investigating a foreign studio. It is perhaps one of his greatest critical virtues that he should have done his best to redeem modern criticism from its tendency to slovenly picturesqueness. We may agree with him, or violently disagree. The austerity of his professional attitude commands respect.
Source: Peter Quennel, ‘‘T. S. Eliot the Critic,’’ in New Statesman, No. 4, October 1, 1932, pp. 377-78.
The Universe of T. S. Eliot
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2357
The collected essays of Mr. Eliot provide a portrait of a mind that for the past twelve years has prominently played on the American literary scene. The volume contains theoretical chapters from The Sacred Wood eleven papers on the Elizabethan dramatists, the entire brochure on Dante, essays on the Metaphysical Poets and on Dryden, Blake, Baudelaire, Swinburne. It represents Mr. Eliot's social and theological position in the studies of Lancelot Andrewes, in Thoughts After Lambeth, and in the two essays on Babbitt et al., which did so much more to discomfit the new humanists than the lunges of their foes. And finally, it reveals the more casual man—delightfully—on topics like poetry in drama, Wilkie Collins, Dickens and Marie Lloyd. The book portrays a sensitive, finely endowed person. Itself an accumulation of comments on many matters, it suggests a review of like nature: one is tempted to pass from page to page detailing, comparing, dissenting. But the place of Mr. Eliot as a literary influence in our time, and the cultural crisis of our time, make this method inadvisable. It is important to employ the book as a means for seeing the man whole; and, having done so, to deduce a measure of his values as a leader and thereby a measure of the time which took him as a leader.
The first revelation is of a man with an exquisite, almost infallible, taste for the stuffs of literary art. Whether he touches a line of Dante or of Swinburne, a melodrama of Cyril Tourneur or of Wilkie Collins, the prosody of Baudelaire or of Blake, Mr. Eliot evinces an esthetic delight which implies true contact with his subject. This first trait is particularly distinguished in an age in which the field of literary discussion has been almost monopolized by writers who may know something of baseball or economics but who ignore the nature of literary art. The second trait of Mr. Eliot, not less pervasive but more subtly entextured in his book, his moral sense; and this, coupled with his first, is even more rare. We have had plenty of moralists— More, Mencken, Lewisohn, are examples—writing on literature and totally insensitive to literary esthetics; we have had a few 'estheticians' disclaiming the moral sense (as if esthetic form were some kind of insubstantial absolute and not an organic configuration of ordinary human experience and motive), and therefore writing with even worse futility on books. When Mr. Eliot compares lines in Massinger and Shakespeare, contrasts tropes in Dryden and Milton, draws a prosodic sequence from Donne to Shelley, he reveals, in his taste and judgement, the moral integer: he knows the human nature of esthetics. This moral sense is organic in the man; it is no mere acceptance of rules, it is not moralistic. Being the permeation, within his specific literary experience, of his general view of life, the moral quality in Mr. Eliot is religious. Everywhere, although he may be discussing merely a choice of verbs in Middleton. he reveals a general and definite attitude toward existence taken as a whole: and this attitude, when logically formed, becomes religion.
T.S. Eliot, then, is portrayed by this book as a man with a sense of the whole, with a conviction of his place in the whole, as a man engaged in an activity (literature) for which he is fitted and to which he gives his entire equipment. Such a crystallization comes close to what Nietzsche meant by a cultural act; and in an epoch whose literary critics have been insensitive and incompetent men, it makes Mr. Eliot an exceedingly welcome figure. If, however, we turn from those contemporaries in contrast with whose nullity he looms, and measure him rather by his own subjects and by the literary exigencies of our epoch, Mr. Eliot dwindles. No single major essay in this book, for instance, can be said to be organic either as a presentation of its subject or as a literary essay. Consider the 'Dante' in whose study he is at his best: every observation is exact, many a phrase stands forth a luminous gem; but the observations merely mount arithmetically into so many pages of running comment. Dante and his work are never objectified, never dimensionally re-created either in the world of Dante or in the world of T.S. Eliot. Or consider the justly admired pages on the Elizabethans: they contain glimpses both precise and profound into the art of the theatre, into the poets and their world. But none of the plays, none of the dramatists, is made to stand whole, either in the epoch, in the drama, or in some total conception of the critic.
If, then, as I have stated, there is wholeness in Mr. Eliot, we are led to question what kind of wholeness it must be that can focus so superbly on details in a dozen poets and a dozen epochs, and yet fail to envelop any one of them. It is true that this failure is not always complete. In the 'Baudelaire,' for instance, or the 'Swinburne,' we obtain a kind of two-dimensional cross section, built from the pro-sodic study, which we can place for ourselves in the organic milieu of the nineteenth century. But in the essays on the more cosmic men there are no dimensions beyond mere points of light. And in the studies of dynamic but little-discussed figures, the failure is disastrous. The pages on Bradley, for example, proceed without the faintest evocation of the two ideological worlds—Hegelianism and English individualism—which Bradley sought to synthesize. The chapter on Lancelot Andrewes is a mere ringing of personal responses to the old priest's music, which become sentimental and pretentious, since there is no effort to place this music in the symphony of Roman Catholic, Jewish and Arabic exegesis, from which it was never truly independent.
T.S. Eliot, it becomes plain, is a man of integrity in the real sense of the word; but his vision is such that it can never hold more than details; and his energy is too weak to give organic form either to his subjects or to his essays. Unlike most of his fellows, who suffer in chaos, he lives in a 'universe.' But this 'universe' of Mr. Eliot's is evidently small and minor. It is achieved by huge and deliberate exclusions. It scarcely contacts with the modern world— the world whose radical transformations in physics, psychology and economics have dissolved all the old formal values. Nor does it really embrace the past worlds with which Mr. Eliot is so sympathetic: Dantean Europe or Jacobean England. This failure of mastery even on Mr. Eliot's chosen ground is revealing. No one can understand a living past who is not actively engaged in the living present. For any past age is an integer in the creating of today, and only by conscious sharing of this creation can the past, as part of it, be understood. Fundamentally, Mr. Eliot's subjective love of the Anglo-Catholic tradition leaves him as remote from what England really was as his distaste for modern problems leaves him remote from us—and for the same reason.
That reason brings us to the heart of our portrait. Any living world, whether it be Seneca's or Shakespeare's or our own, in so far as it lives, is dynamic; and Mr. Eliot's world is static. Wherefore, in confrontation with a chaos of dynamic forces like our modern era, a chaos which our dynamic will must meet, grapple with, and mold, Mr. Eliot can only ignore; and in confrontation with dynamic worlds of the past, he can only rather sentimentally adore. His own static vision picks out details, reflects them and variates them into a kind of series, like the stills of a cinema, whose total effect may be sensitive and delightful, but cannot be organic.
This same static quality explains Mr. Eliot's loyalty to a class and a class creed. A static universe does not evolve, cannot believe in evolving. It does, however, accumulate, and its 'additions' make a quantitative change—the one kind of change and of cultural contribution which Mr. Eliot admits (see his essays on 'Tradition,"Individual Talent' and 'The Function of Criticism'). In a static universe, transfiguration and revelation, and the capacity for these, are all stratified in the past. And this is another way of saying that Mr. Eliot's spiritual experiences, from which issue his moral and esthetic taste, although they are real, have the form not of life, but of an inherited convention. Thus Mr. Eliot, with a religious sense, conceives of no religion except the orthodox Christian; with a tragic sense, conceives of man's struggle exclusively in the cant meanings of Original Sin; with a sense of the spirit's need of discipline and order—both in society and in the person—dreams of no method but that of a moneyed class ruling through church and state.
Are such views valid, in the sense of having a relationship with reality? Is there a position from which the universe is static; in which transfiguration and revelation are past; in which Good, Evil, and the given political and economic forms are absolute? The answer is Yes, in the sense that death, being real, is valid. The living world of the mind is as dynamic as the material world (they are one); there, too, the individual life must partake of the dynamism of the whole, and when it is severed from that dynamism we call it dead. The only difference is that in the world of the mind we do not commonly employ the term 'death'; we prefer to say conventional, dogmatic, static. Mr. Eliot's position is that of a man who has withdrawn from growth—in our meaning, withdrawn from life. He is static, his soul's transfiguration is past, whatever progress he conceives must be a mere consolidation of himself into forms already uttered. His intellectual, spiritual and poetic 'life' is a rationalization of this death deep within him.
We hold now, I believe, the key to T.S. Eliot. He is a man who has abdicated; but since he has been deeply sensitized to life, the articulation of his experience remains an exquisite, lingering echo. Such abdicated men have always existed, and have never been vital: even in periods of cultural stability (like that of Dante, for example), the cultural whole had constantly to be recreated by dynamic men. But in our age, where stability has foundered into chaos, and where the need for spiritual growth has become absolutely identified with the bare struggle for survival, the discrepancy between a man like Mr. Eliot and adequate leadership becomes enormous.
What we have really defined in our portrait of T.S. Eliot is a type of minor poet. He is in the tradition, neither of our major poets—Poe, Whitman, Melville—nor of the great Victorians. He is close to a cultivated and popular figure like Thomas Gray; and his 'Waste Land' is a poem as good, and of the same nature, as the 'Elegy.' Gray also was a technical innovator with an immense appeal because he foreshadowed, unconsciously, what was to become the dominant appetite of Europe: closeness to nature. From the energy of this appetite, Titans were to evolve the method for absorbing and controlling nature. But in Gray, the motion took a reactionary form: a sentimental harking back to the values of Puritanism (and to the language of Milton). The analogy with The Waste Land is complete. Here, too, is technical innovation together with a vague foreshadowing of what is now the dominant need of the world: the need of an organic, a livable Whole in which all men and all man may function. This foreshadowed need gives to the poem its pathos, its unity and its importance. But, as in Gray, it is negatively stated by an evocation of a sentimental memory and by the use of old materials—in Mr. Eliot's case, more diffused and catholic, since no strong Milton stands immediately behind him.
The questions remain: why has Mr. Eliot been a leader and what does his leadership reveal about our literary generation? The questions are swiftly answered. Even in an age of confused standards, there is recognition of literary merit. Mr. Eliot's clarity, it is true, is achieved not by integrating the chaos that has bewildered us, but by withdrawal. Yet to the men whom the cultural dissolution has frightened and weakened (the majority of men), these limitations make him only more acceptable. A long time ago, I wrote of what I called 'the comfort of limit,' and explained its appeal to many types of mind lost in our modern chaos. Only athletic souls can face a world that has become, perhaps more than any other era, an overwhelmingly open and darkened future. The temptation to limit this world, either by rationalistically charting its future (a disguised reactionism) or by merely advocating its reform in an image of the past, is great and manifold.
All the dogmatisms of our day are really such 'limits'—such simplifications of the real. There is the dogmatism of science (the comfort of limiting reality and its mastery to problems of mechanics and addition); there is the dogmatism of cynical despair (the comfort of giving up hope and therefore struggle); there is the dogmatism of a pseudo-Marxian dialectic (the comfort of explaining the human tragedy in terms solely of a simple, solvable class struggle). And, for the weakly poetic, there is the haven of an elegiac past, like Mr. Eliot's, in which great poets still sing and sure priests thunder.
The one way of life that has no limit and affords no comfort is the way ahead—into the bitter and dark and bloody dawn of a new world, wherein mankind shall integrate without loss the stormy elements that make the chaos of our day, and its Shusterman, Richard, ed., T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of
Criticism, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1988.
Source: Waldo Frank, ‘‘The 'Universe' of T. S. Eliot,’’ in New Republic, No. 72, October 1932, pp. 294-95.