Selected Essays, 1917-1932

by T. S. Eliot

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Historical Context

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The Renaissance and English Writers
The Renaissance refers to the extremely broad European cultural movement characterized by a flowering of art and literature. Although it began in fourteenth-century Italy, the movement did not have much influence in English literature until the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603), which marked a new sophistication and sensibility in poetry and drama. Writers such as Edmund Spencer and Philip Sidney began this revolution in poetry, while Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd were among the first pioneers in the new dramatic verse form that came to a height with the plays of William Shakespeare.

With the introduction of printing technology, lyric poetry became widely available to all classes for the first time, and this is one of the reasons that Elizabethan writing was not confined to the court. In the plays, which people of all types could see in the theaters in London's South Bank, graceful and innovative writing in iambic pentameter (a verse form in which each line has five iambs, or feet, of two syllables each) was combined with drama containing a broad range of realistic human emotions.
Poetry and drama—including Shakespeare's later tragedies—continued to develop rapidly after Elizabeth's death in 1603 and the ascension of James I of Scotland. Poets began to divide into two main new camps: the ‘‘Sons of Ben,’’ who imitated Ben Jonson's direct language intended to get closer to meaning, and the ‘‘metaphysical poets’’ (chiefly John Donne), who were characterized (unfairly, in Eliot's and others' views) by long and complex comparisons taken to the extreme. By the 1650s, Milton's technical genius to manipulate language marked the beginning of the Restoration period in 1660.

Victorian England
The other historical period of vital importance to Selected Essays, 1917-1932 is the one immediately before Eliot's own. Chiefly important to Victorian literature are three main elements: the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the British Empire, and the fierce intellectual movement stressing moral self-consciousness. These combined to form a number of like-minded writers, particularly novelists, who wrote "realist" fiction attempting to display the actual social conditions of the time, often with moral judgments about social and political issues.

Victorian literature is also characterized, however, by the growing counterculture that exploded in the 1890s. Critics such as Walter Pater argued vehemently with eminent Victorian social and critical writers such as Matthew Arnold (although Eliot argues that Pater and Arnold are of the same philosophical disposition without knowing it). But Victorian values did not completely break down until the modernist movement of the early twentieth century.

Modernism is generally considered to have coincided with World War I, which caused drastic changes to a variety of assumptions and ways of thinking. Many modernist writers, feeling that they could no longer express themselves in old forms, responded with experimental techniques that borrowed from a variety of other movements, most notably postimpressionism (which dealt with a simplification of form in the visual arts) and naturalism (which dealt with a deterministic universe involving a brutal struggle for individual survival). Most important to modernism in fiction was James Joyce's effort to deal with a multiplicity of viewpoints that lead to an "epiphany," or sudden moment of truth and understanding. In poetry, modernism was influenced by Eliot's own poetry, with modernist poems often reflecting the spiritual decadence of Eliot's ‘‘The Waste Land.’’

Eliot, with support from his friend Ezra Pound, was clearly the authoritative father figure of this movement. His theory, which guided the main current of modernist thought, desires both to experimentally break from the immediate past and to communicate closely with a dense tradition (creating a new...

(This entire section contains 930 words.)

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but classical form).Selected Essays, 1917-1932 is an effort to form a group of artists united around a common aesthetic goal. It was not entirely successful; despite Eliot's tone of voice throughout the essays that pretends he is speaking to a like-minded audience of critics and writers, modernism was not a single, united movement. Many authors were going in entirely different directions, trying different experimental forms that did not take the form of Eliot's somewhat classical and traditionalist approach. Nevertheless, everyone was influenced, one way or another, by Eliot's new aesthetic thinking.

Essays, 1917-1932. Arthur Waugh's ‘‘The New Poetry'' called his poems "un-metrical, incoherent banalities'' with "no steady current of ideas behind them.'' Waugh represents a group of critics who did not take Eliot's literary theory seriously.

But, by the time Eliot published Selected Essays, 1917-1932 in 1932, he was already an extremely well-established critic. Some resented Eliot, as an American, telling the English what to think, and Delmore Schwartz points out in his essay ‘‘The Literary Dictatorship of T. S. Eliot’’ that many found Eliot far too overbearing and authoritative. All, however, found his thinking innovative and important. Richard Shusterman points out in his introduction to T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism: ‘‘Whatever one thinks of the merit of Eliot's critical thought, its enormous influence on twentieth-century critical theory and practice cannot be denied.’’

Modern critical opinions on Eliot follow a similar formula. Recent critics, like Jean-Michel Rabaté in his essay ‘‘Tradition and T. S. Eliot,’’ discuss some of the more innovative ways to approach Eliot's idea of a constantly changing literary past. Anthony Julius famously attacks Eliot's attitude towards Jews in his book, T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form:"Of the many different kinds of anti-Semite, Eliot was the rarest kind: one who was able to place his anti-Semitism at the service of his art.’’ But, as Shusterman goes on to argue, even such sharp attacks on Eliot's critical judgments are ‘‘powerful testimony to his lasting significance.’’

Literary Style

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Circuitous ArgumentSelected Essays, 1917-1932 engages in a subtle and complex form of argument that can be called "circuitous,'' or roundabout and even indirect. Students of Eliot without a profound literary background in English literature are likely to find his essays very difficult reading material, not only because of the vast number of literary allusions but because of the complexity of the author's points that are subtly woven into the essays. Only after having read most or all of the Selected Essays, 1917-1932 is Eliot's entire theory clear; the essays are a roundabout way of making a generalized, large-scale argument.

This does not mean that the argument is unspecific; as critic John Chalker writes in his essay ‘‘Authority and Personality in Eliot's Criticism’’: ‘‘Most of the Selected Essays were book reviews, yet, because of the precision with which he has established his theory, Eliot is able to present a continuing argument.’’ Eliot's theory of literature often seems to contradict itself, and there are many places where it does so overtly (see "Christianity'' above). Yet the entire collection, despite its indirect approach, is best seen as a thorough and subtle argument, using generalizations from nearly the entire history of literature as examples to support a theory.

The basis for Eliot's circuitous argument about the function and value of literature is in section I, but the brief and clear definition of art in the first two essays does not effectively sum up the gradually developing theory. "A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry'' is a more appropriate representation of the entire work's argumentative technique, since its tangents and varying unresolved opinions better represent the complex and shifting theory Eliot creates. Indeed, his circuitous argumentative technique is suited to the subtle, roundabout literary theory.

When Eliot begins section 2 by arguing that "rhetoric" is not necessarily bad writing, he is subtly defending a characteristic of his own style. "Rhetoric" refers to a method of manipulating language, often with bombastic and artificial overtones, for the purposes of argument. Eliot's vast generalizations and obscure allusions are among his most effective stylistic methods; as Chalker writes, ‘‘What strikes one particularly about [the early essays] is their strongly rhetorical manner. The tone is immediately authoritative and magisterial.’’

In his role as a trendsetter, and, as critic Delmore Schwartz calls him in T. S. Eliot, Critical Assessments, a"literary dictator,'' Eliot develops an enormously influential theory of literature. And, although he tries to separate himself from Matthew Arnold, whose wide-ranging opinions determined the mainstream aesthetic views of his time, Eliot consciously places himself in a very similar role. His rhetorical style is very important to this process; by it, he ceases to sound like one critic with an opinion and moves into the role of an authority. The necessity of a conventional authority is vital to Eliot's theory (this is the ‘‘outer voice’’ of ‘‘the function of criticism’’), and Eliot underscores his ability to provide exactly this with the rhetorical voice in his essays.

Compare and Contrast

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1590s: The British Empire is just beginning. With the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the seas are open to British trade and exploration, and British culture is showing the beginnings of racism towards future colonies.

1920s: The British Empire is still strong, and Britain is still pervaded by imperialist thinking that emphasizes the superiority of British culture.

Today: The British Empire has crumbled, and the British public is far more skeptical of notions of cultural superiority.

1590s: Although Elizabeth I shows a greater degree of religious tolerance than the previous ruler, all British subjects are required to be members of the Church of England. In practice, a significant number of Puritans and Catholics retain their own beliefs. Atheism is taboo and very uncommon.

1920s: The Church of England is building up to a crisis, with its authorities of very different minds about how to approach a developing lack of religious conviction in the British public.

Today: Some bishops in the Church of England are acknowledged atheists. Although much of the British public remains devout, the general population has become significantly less religious in the past eighty years.

1590s: English writing is flowering, but the respected literary canon is composed almost entirely of male, ancient Greek and Roman writers.

1920s: Classical English literature has a fairly clear, firm, and ancient tradition. Feminist thought is beginning to be influential, but the general public does not often question the white-male-dominated literary canon.

Today: English literature is pervaded by a multiplicity of viewpoints. Critics frequently condemn the white-male-oriented tradition and attempt to draw attention to undervalued minority writers.

1590s: The most popular forms of art are plays, which anyone can attend, and lyric poetry, which is beginning to spread around England because of the invention of the printing press.

1920s: Although poetry is becoming more important because of the revolution in style, popular forms of art are not so radically different from Victorian times, and it is the era of the novel.

Today: Together with popular music, motion pictures (especially those from America) have exploded as one of the most popular art forms in England.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Chalker, John, "Authority and Personality in Eliot's Criticism,’’ in T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism, edited by Richard Shusterman, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1988, pp. 195-208.

Eliot, T. S., For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, Haskell House, 1965.

Hynes, Samuel, ‘‘The Trials of a Christian Critic,’’ in The Literary Criticism of T. S. Eliot, edited by David Newton-de Molina, Athlone Press, 1977, pp. 64-65, 71, 87.

Julius, Anthony, T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Materer, Timothy, ‘‘T. S. Eliot's Critical Program,’’ in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by A. David Moody, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 48-59.

Rabaté, Jean-Michel, ‘‘Tradition and T. S. Eliot,’’ in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by A. David Moody, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 210-11.

Schwartz, Delmore, ‘‘The Literary Dictatorship of T. S. Eliot,’’ in T. S. Eliot: Critical Assessments, edited by Graham Clarke, Christopher Helm, 1990, pp. 178-79.

Further Reading
Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane, Modernism: 1890-1930, Viking Press, 1991.
Bradbury and McFarlane provide an insightful overview of the modernist period, and their book is a clear and readable way to begin understanding Eliot's era.

Gordon, Lyndall, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, Vintage, 1998.
Gordon provides an interesting and comprehensive biography of Eliot that includes a way to think about his poetry and prose.

Martin, Graham, Eliot in Perspective, Macmillan and Co., 1970.
This collection of essays represents an important anthology of views about Eliot from a symposium shortly after his death. It provides a useful overview of the author's impact as perceived after his illustrious career came to an end.

Moody, David A., ed., The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
The variety of essays in this book provide a good overview of modern critical stances on Eliot's works.
It is a good place to begin an in-depth analysis of various themes in Selected Essays.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide