Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755
Selected Essays, 1917-1932 begins with what is probably the most important theme of the collection: tradition. Eliot has a complex and personal idea of tradition, but mainly he refers to the vast canon of literature written by great authors of the past. He does not specifically mean literature written in English, but he does mean "Western classical’’ literature, from the ancient Greeks to Seneca, Dante, Chaucer, the Renaissance writers, Dryden, and Pope, through the romantics and the Victorians. In other words, tradition in Selected Essays, 1917-1932 is literature that Eliot considers of the highest order, literature he deems important for modern English writers and critics to have read.
Eliot is one among many famous critics to have established such an idea of tradition; even in selecting and revising the list of important works, he heavily relies on such writers as Matthew Arnold, who is famous for identifying the classical literary canon in Victorian times. This seems somewhat
ironic, since modernism, the literary movement of which Eliot is considered a great leader, is generally thought to break from the past. Eliot makes clear in his description of the importance of tradition, however, that writers of his time should only break with the very recent past, the age immediately before theirs, which Eliot considers to have gone astray in artistic principles. Indeed, Eliot finds art meaningless unless it is placed within the broad context of literary history. Literature finds its value in the way it communicates with the past. Eliot writes:
Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
Although this sounds like a simple idea, it has very subtle and complicated results; it is the reason for Eliot's constant and difficult allusions and comparisons to so many different works, authors, and literary movements. Because of his concept of tradition, Eliot analyzes each single work only as a single part of the grand, shifting meaning of literature. In fact, it is difficult to appreciate Eliot's criticism of a single work without understanding his greater concept of the purpose of Western literature. Although it begins with the concept of ‘‘a continual extinction of personality'' on the part of the poet in order to fit in with tradition, this concept changes and gradually develops Selected Essays, 1917-1932.
Eliot is interested throughout his essays in the merging of poetry and dramatics. He continually stresses the aesthetic ideal of beautiful verse and sophisticated use of language merged with realistic characters in compelling situations. The essays in section 2, especially, point out that a literary form, or convention, established by like-minded artists of a generation is necessary for great dramatic poetry to succeed. Often, Eliot judges writers almost entirely by how well they accomplish this feat; for Eliot, the two must coexist in all great pieces of literature. Essays on novelists like Dickens or poets like Marvell are few and tend not to place their subjects on the same level as a dramatic poet like Shakespeare.
Eliot's reasoning for the superiority of dramatic poetry had profound influence on the public taste of the day, including public opinion on his own creative writing. His plays, particularly Murder in the Cathedral, are meant to form the convention of dramatic poetry for which he argued in his essays.
Christianity plays an increasingly important role in Eliot's critical thinking. Although section 1 provides an approach to literature that is not dependent on any religious belief, the philosophy underlying various authors and movements begins to be a criterion for judgment, especially in sections 4, 6, and 7. To Eliot, religion is absolutely vital to any discussion of philosophy or ethics: ‘‘If you remove the word 'human' and all that the belief in the supernatural has given to man, you can view him finally as no more than an extremely clever, adaptable, and mischievous little animal.’’
This quote emphasizes that Christianity is vital to Eliot's literary theory; his view of great writers is that they are "more" than animals and therefore require supernatural belief to create great literature. Eliot changes his idea, however, of whether a writer "thinks" and believes in a particular theology; he begins by denying this but later recognizes (as in the essay on William Blake) that theology is often a conscious effort that strongly influences the greatness of a work. Eventually, Christian thought is strongly present in Eliot's aesthetics as well as in his philosophy.
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