T. S. Eliot

Start Free Trial

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

T(homas) S(tearns) Eliot 1888–1965

American-born British critic, poet, playwright, and editor.

Eliot is considered one of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century. Famed primarily as a poet, he wrote criticism not solely to examine literature, but also to provide an explanatory basis for his own work.

Two of Eliot's concepts are often cited as major contributions to literary analysis: "objective correlative" and "dissociation of sensibility." In his first important collection of critical essays, The Sacred Wood, Eliot defined the objective correlative as "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion" and which have the ability to evoke that emotion in the reader. Although this concept was considered important, Eliot's controversial essay on the lack of an objective correlative in Hamlet led to wide-spread rejection by scholars and critics, and caused Eliot to reassess his approach during the 1930s. "Dissociation of sensibility," as described by Eric Thompson, "is the dislocation of thought from feeling and feeling from thought that occurs when language orbits too far out from a metaphysical center." For Eliot, the dislocation of sensibility has occured in English literature since the turn of the seventeenth century.

Many of Eliot's other significant critical works stress the importance of tradition, religion, and morality in literature. In the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" Eliot argued that creative and critical writing must be able to take its place in the line of literary tradition descending from Homer. After Strange Gods still stands as Eliot's ultimate indictment of the "diabolical" in modern society and a plea for the necessity of both moral and traditional considerations in literature, even though Eliot later retracted many of its ideas.

A fairly accurate assessment of Eliot's critical career was made by F. R. Leavis, who declared: "[Eliot] is a distinguished critic only over an extremely narrow range; his good criticism bears immediately on the problems of the poetic practitioner…." However, the power of Eliot's criticism is demonstrated by the vast influence it has wielded over literary criticism in this century. New Criticism evolved out of Eliot's critical approach, yet equally important are the movements which sought to reverse his critical influence.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 10.)

Edwin Muir

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Probably no writer of our time has said more things about the art of literature which are at once new and incontrovertible than Mr. T. S. Eliot has said. He has written very little. His criticism is contained in "The Sacred Wood," a small book, and in "Homage to John Dryden," a still smaller one. With every subject he has attempted he has only made a beginning, said a few pregnant or subversive words, and stopped. His criticisms of Dante, Blake, Swinburne, and Dryden have the appearance of footnotes. The series of essays in "The Sacred Wood" on the problems of criticism end with a remarkable economy of generalization. Even in essays which are more full, in those on Ben Jonson and Marvell, Mr. Eliot seems to be filling in the few strokes needed to complete a portrait rather than drawing an original one himself.

This impression of incompleteness is largely misleading. It is only when one tries to discover what essential aspect of Jonson's talent has been left untreated in Mr. Eliot's essay that one realizes how nearly complete it is. His prose is deceptive because in it he exercises continuously the faculty, rare in our time, of always saying more than he appears to say. In his essays he...

(This entire section contains 863 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

seems most of the time to be concerned with minor points, but he is in reality concerned always with essential ones. His critical method consists in pressing a small lever and thereby lifting an unsuspectedly heavy weight. His essays are full of observations which do not appear important, but turn out to be those on which a really just generalization would be based. Accordingly his criticisms continuously grow in interest: they are among the few written in our time to which one can go back and find something which one perusal, or two, did not yield. In one way Mr. Eliot is the most complete critic of our time. What he does choose to say he says most unassailably. He rarely sets down an opinion without being conscious of all that has already been said in favor of or against it, and his final pronunciation is not only something new, of the same solidity, the same order, as what has been said already; it is at once a summing up and a revaluation. No one writing today has a stronger sense of tradition. He has written profoundly of it in his essay on "Tradition and Individual Talent," saying not merely that we are judged by tradition but that we also modify it; that by adding one new work of art to those which constitute tradition we do something which is enough to change, however slightly, its character; and that thus tradition is a thing which is forever being worked out anew and recreated by the free activity of the artist.

Admirable and profound words—yet why is it that in spite of them Mr. Eliot always appears to us to underestimate the free character of tradition …? The influence of tradition on Mr. Eliot's criticism is not to make it uniformly bold and comprehensive but more generally to make it too cautious. He often draws back where a genuinely classical writer, a writer in the full stream of tradition, knowing the dangers, seeing the raised eyebrows of all the past and hearing the warnings of the present, would have gone on. Mr. Eliot feels answerable to tradition for every judgment he makes; but this accepted responsibility, while it gives his criticism weight, sometimes makes it rashly timid. Thus, if his enthusiasms are never wild, his understatements sometimes are…. It is as easy to lose one's sense of proportion through excessive caution as to lose it through excessive rashness. In these instances Mr. Eliot's caution becomes mechanical, and functions where it is not needed and has no meaning.

But if his criticism is sometimes weighed down by his sense of tradition, it is also enriched and enlightened by it. His great gift as a critic is that of seizing the artistic source and justification of a convention, the necessity in a poem of elements which may appear artificial, the real virtue of a school, the essential law of a work of art. He makes every work live while he considers it, for he sees its articulations, the necessity for them, and their living functioning. Thus, though at times he may appear to be concerned with craftsmanship alone he is in reality concerned with the organic structure, trying to discover whether it is a living body or merely an agglomeration of dead parts. He does not show a writer's "qualities," therefore, but the principles of his art. The reward of this difficult and concentrated way of approach is that in Mr. Eliot's criticism the work of art, stripped of all incidentals, shines with its own essential light, and that in an immediate way the artistic problem is brought before us. In penetration, knowledge, intuitive apprehension of the inner laws of a poem Mr. Eliot deserves to be ranked with the chief English critics. (p. 162)

Edwin Muir, "T. S. Eliot," in The Nation (copyright 1925 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 121, No. 3135, August 5, 1925, pp. 162-64.

R. P. Blackmur

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The quality which makes Mr. Eliot almost unique as a critic is the purity of his interest in literature as literature—as art autonomous and complete. Hence the power and penetration of his essays—the fullness of his point of view—the disciplined (and thus limited) fertility of his ideas. Personal taste has its influence but is not paramount. He may or may not suffer from a romantic morality; may adhere to the tory principle in politics, and the catholic regimen in religion—or be both whig and protestant: these connexions are private and cannot much prejudice his business as a critic. This separation of interests is accomplished not by an arbitrary divorce of forms but by an honest recognition of limits. Mr. Eliot's purity of interest has been the chief taint on his reputation as both critic and poet; the accusation of sterility is common, and his very lively, even agonised mind is sometimes described as without interest in human life; whereas the right indictment will be more technical, that his choice of limits has been a little imprudent, that his essential virtue has been pushed a little beyond the extreme verge of the appropriate. (pp. 292-93)

Mr. Eliot has chosen to be a critic, and because the profession is unpopular and scantily membered, has used much of his time in emphasizing the limits of his task and in setting up a handful of principles and definitions suitable to the control of his material…. Most of his principles are ideals of form…. Most of his definitions are of distinctions and contrasts of the modifications of form. The approach is invariably technical; I mean the matters touched on are always to some degree generalised characteristics of the work in hand. No overt attack is made on the "contents" of the work directly; the marvel and permanent value of the technical method is that, when prudently and fully applied, it results in a criticism which, if its implications are taken up, provides a real and often immaculate judgment on those "contents." (pp. 293-94)

Mr. Eliot's essays are never without point to present problems in style or feeling; which is always the mark of the good critic, that the past is alive as it bears on and exists in the present. This quality arises only from the critic whose angle is technical and whose material is the facts in the work under consideration as they are relevant to literature as such—and not the same facts or others contorted to the interests of psychology, philosophy, or general good will.

Mr. Eliot has made his choice as a literary critic out of what one supposes were the necessities of his mind, of any well ordered mind. Yet he is practically alone not only today but in the past. A fragment of Arnold, a little Coleridge, a little Dryden, and now and then Dr. Johnson; and of these perhaps only Dryden's interest was serene and whole. From the rest, as they are valuable in this connexion, we have less than fragments. Hence the occasional superstition that Mr. Eliot is essentially sterile, that he is out of touch with human life. (pp. 297-98)

But the general indictment while not found true has yet a taint of cause…. It is this, that just as Eliot attacks literature proper from a technical angle, so the frame of his theory is made as abstract as possible; and for the same reason—to make it more supple, to make it inherently imply more. Interest in and connexion with human life were thereby increased, granted, even, something of the purity of the abstractions themselves. (pp. 298-99)

Eliot is a classicist and [Tradition and the Individual Talent] is simply his own most abstract statement of the classical dogma. Recourse to dogma, when the dogma is critically held, is not the sign of an opinionated or sterile mind but of an active intelligence in need of a principle of control; it may be the sign of a realistic mind, a mind interested in its object without wishing to be lost in it. (p. 299)

[Eliot's] main principle is this: that art demands more from the artist than the artist, as an individual, exacts from his art. Precisely as the poem is not able to exist aside from its connexion with other poetry, so the poet must continually surrender himself [to something greater than his own emotions]. (p. 300)

Properly understood, [Eliot's] dogmas of an impersonal and traditional art, far from divorcing poetry and life, ought rather permanently to establish the only connexion possible between them;—to make both in a high sense more germane to the mind—which is not, after all, except diminutively and pejoratively, either poetry or life. (p. 301)

The difficulty with Mr. Eliot's ideas is that they have been put rather one-sidedly. We have on one side a rigid and exquisitely formulated doctrine of method. We have a thoroughly satisfactory conception of the artist as a responsible technician, and we are told what that technique should control. But the account is always on the technical aspect of the feelings and emotions of which art is made; very little is said directly as to standards for the judgment of these feelings and emotions…. But if the present examination of Mr. Eliot's dogmas bears up I think they will be found to have stated, though indirectly, a very satisfactory scheme of values. (p. 304)

[Mr. Eliot has] aligned his method of technical approach with the moral world. The effort in this direction has been more articulate since than previous to the publication of The Sacred Wood, but it was to be found even in that volume…. (p. 305)

[Eliot's attitude] attacks chiefly the facts about the contents of art in their most concrete terms. For Mr. Eliot this array of facts has evidently generalized itself, and has enabled him to perform judgment as to the moral value of [a work of art] …, and to determine, besides, for his private self, precisely what constitutes moral value in a work of art. (p. 309)

[In the arts, according to Eliot], moral values have nothing to do with the preoccupations of professional moralists, but concern, first, a technique of language, and, second, a technique of feelings which combine in a sensibility adequate to a view of life. (pp. 311-12)

[Most] great criticism occurs in the mind of the artist at the moment of creation;… hence the fact that there is almost no permanent judgment to be found in any criticism other than that embedded in works of art…. [If] the critic has a good eye for facts, has the insight to connect them, and the intellect to arrange them, the kind of judgment we desiderate will sometimes be implied … if not expressed. Something very like ideal law would then be articulate in the back of the mind; a kind of consensus of, and prophetic instinct for experience; so that if we could not make eternal judgments, still we should know what they would be like if they did appear.

Mr. Eliot is, on his own plane, very much such a critic; both as a practising poet and in his consideration of other poets. He has a very highly developed sense for the facts pertinent to his obligations…. His most remarkable criticism and his most trivial equally carry that mysterious weight of authority—which is really only the weight of intelligence…. The rarity of such a mind will be observed in the degree that the reader is familiar with English and American criticism. Mr. Eliot's labours in the restoration of interest in literature as opposed to the interest in opinion and psychology deserve all our gratitude; his work on the theory of literature requires all our collaboration; his criticism of individual poets makes some of us feel that criticism had hardly ever been consistently written before. (pp. 316-17)

R. P. Blackmur, "T. S. Eliot," in The Hound & Horn, Vol. 1, No. 4, June, 1928, pp. 291-319.

Edmund Wilson

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

As a critic, Eliot occupies to-day a position of distinction and influence equal in importance to his position as a poet. His writings have been comparatively brief and rare—he has published only four small books of criticism—yet he has probably affected literary opinion, during the period since the War, more profoundly than any other critic writing English. Eliot's prose style has a kind of felicity different from that of his poetic style; it is almost primly precise and sober, yet with a sort of sensitive charm in its austerity—closely reasoned and making its points with the fewest possible words, yet always even, effortless and lucid. In a reaction against the impressionistic criticism which flourished at the end of the century and which has survived into our own time—the sort of criticism which, in dealing with poetry, attempts to reproduce its effect by having recourse to poetic prose—T. S. Eliot has undertaken a kind of scientific study of æsthetic values: avoiding impressionistic rhetoric and a priori æsthetic theories alike, he compares works of literature coolly and tries to distinguish between different orders of artistic effects and the different degrees of satisfaction to be derived from them.

And by this method, Eliot has done more than perhaps any other modern critic to effect a revaluation of English literature. We sometimes follow his literary criticism with the same sort of eagerness and excitement with which we follow a philosophical inquiry…. T. S. Eliot, with an infinitely sensitive apparatus for æsthetic appreciation, approaching English literature as an American, with an American's peculiar combination of avidity and detachment and with more than the ordinary English critic's reading in the literatures, ancient and modern, of the Continent, has been able to succeed as few writers have done in the excessively delicate task of estimating English, Irish and American writers in relation to one another, and writers in English in relation to writers on the Continent. The extent of Eliot's influence is amazing: these short essays, sent out without publicity as mere scattered notes on literature, yet sped with so intense a seriousness and weighted with so wide a learning, have not only had the effect of discrediting the academic clichés of the text-books, but are even by way of establishing in the minds of the generation now in college a new set of literary clichés. With the ascendancy of T. S. Eliot, the Elizabethan dramatists have come back into fashion, and the nineteenth-century poets gone out. Milton's poetic reputation has sunk, and Dryden's and Pope's have risen. It is as much as one's life is worth nowadays, among young people, to say an approving word for Shelley or a dubious one about Donne. And as for the enthusiasm for Dante—to paraphrase the man in Hemingway's novel, there's been nothing like it since the Fratellinis!

Eliot's rôle as a literary critic has been very similar to Valéry's in France: indeed, the ideas of the two men and their ways of stating them have corresponded so closely that one guesses they must influence each other a good deal. Like Valéry, Eliot believes that a work of art is not an oracular outpouring, but an object which has been constructed deliberately with the aim of producing a certain effect. He has brought back to English criticism something of that trenchant rationalism which he admires in the eighteenth century, but with a much more catholic appreciation of different styles and points of view than the eighteenth century allowed. The Romantics, of course, fare badly before this criticism. Vague sentiment vaguely expressed, rhetorical effusion disguising bad art—these Eliot's laconic scorn has nipped. (pp. 184-86)

Eliot differs from Valéry in believing that poetry should make "sense." And he elsewhere, in his essay on Dante in "The Sacred Wood," remonstrates with Valéry for asserting that philosophy has no place in poetry. Yet Eliot's point of view, though more intelligently reasoned and expressed, comes down finally to the same sort of thing as Valéry's and seems to me open to the same sort of objection. Eliot's conclusion in respect to the relation of philosophy to poetry is that, though philosophy has its place in poetry, it is only as something which we "see" among the other things with which the poet presents us, a set of ideas which penetrate his world…. [However], it becomes plainer and plainer, as time goes on, that the real effect of Eliot's, as of Valéry's, literary criticism, is to impose upon us a conception of poetry as some sort of pure and rare æsthetic essence with no relation to any of the practical human uses for which, for some reason never explained, only the technique of prose is appropriate.

Now this point of view … seems to me absolutely unhistorical—an impossible attempt to make æsthetic values independent of all the other values. Who will agree with Eliot, for example, that a poet cannot be an original thinker and that it is not possible for a poet to be a completely successful artist and yet persuade us to accept his ideas at the same time?… When we read Lucretius and Dante, we are affected by them just as we are by prose writers of eloquence and imagination—we are compelled to take their opinions seriously. And as soon as we admit that prose writing may be considered on the same basis with verse, it becomes evident that we cannot, in the case of Plato, discriminate so finely as to the capacity of his philosophy for being "expanded into pure vision" that we are able to put our finger on the point where the novelist or poet stops and the scientist or metaphysician begins; nor, with Blake any more than with Nietzsche and Emerson, distinguish the poet from the aphorist…. Nor does it follow that, because we are coming to use poetry for fewer and fewer literary purposes, our critical taste is becoming more and more refined, so that we are beginning to perceive for the first time the true, pure and exalted function of poetry: that is, simply, as Valéry says, to produce a "state"—as Eliot says, to afford a "superior amusement." It is much more likely that for some reason or other, verse as a technique of literary expression is being abandoned by humanity altogether—perhaps because it is a more primitive, and hence a more barbarous technique than prose. Is it possible to believe, for example, that Eliot's hope of having verse reinstated on the stage—even verse of the new kind which he proposes—is likely ever to be realized?

The tendency to keep verse isolated from prose and to confine it to certain highly specialized functions dates in English at least from the time of Coleridge, when, in spite of the long narrative poems which were fashionable, verse was already beginning to fall into disuse. Coleridge defined a poem as "that species of composition which is opposed to works of science by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it), it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part." Poe, who had doubtless read Coleridge on the subject, wrote thirty years later that there was no such thing as a long poem, that "no very long poem would ever be popular again," etc. Eliot and Valéry follow Coleridge and Poe in their theory as well as in their verse, and they seem to me to confuse certain questions by talking as if the whole of literature existed simultaneously in a vacuum…. It is inevitable, of course, that we should try to arrive at absolute values through the comparison of the work of different periods—I have just praised Eliot for his success at this—but it seems to me that in this particular matter a good many difficulties would be cleared up if certain literary discussions could be removed from the artificially restricted field of verse—in which it is assumed that nothing is possible or desirable but a quintessential distillation called "poetry," and that that distillation has nothing in common with anything possible to obtain through prose—to the field of literature in general. (pp. 186-88)

With all gratitude, therefore, for the salutary effect of Eliot's earlier criticism in curbing the carelessness and gush of the aftermath of Romanticism, it seems plain that the anti-Romantic reaction is leading finally into pedantry and into a futile æstheticism. "Poetry," Eliot wrote in "The Sacred Wood," "is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from them." This was valid, and even noble, in 1920 when "The Sacred Wood" was published; but to-day, after ten years of depersonalized and over-intellectualized verse, so much of it written in imitation of Eliot, the same sort of thing in the mouths of Eliot's disciples sounds like an excuse for not possessing emotion and personality.

Yet, in spite of the weaknesses of Eliot's position as he has sometimes been driven to state it dogmatically, he has himself largely succeeded in escaping the vices which it seems to encourage. The old nineteenth century criticism of Ruskin, Renan, Taine, Sainte-Beuve, was closely allied to history and novel writing, and was also the vehicle for all sorts of ideas about the purpose and destiny of human life in general. The criticism of our own day examines literature, art, ideas and specimens of human society in the past with a detached scientific interest or a detached æsthetic appreciation which seems in either case to lead nowhere…. One is supposed to have read everything and enjoyed everything and to understand exactly the reasons for one's enjoyment, but not to enjoy anything excessively nor to raise an issue of one kind of thing against another. (pp. 188-89)

Now there is a good deal in T. S. Eliot of this pedantry and sterility of his age…. [Eliot would have it that] we should have to read the whole of literature in order to appreciate a single book, and Eliot fails to supply us with a reason why we should go to the trouble of doing so. Yet against the background of the criticism of his time, Eliot has stood out unmistakably as a man passionately interested in literature. The real intensity of his enthusiasm makes us forget the primness of his tone; and his occasional dogmatism is redeemed by his ability to see beyond his own ideas, his willingness to admit the relative character of his conclusions. (p. 190)

Edmund Wilson, "T. S. Eliot," in his Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930 (copyright 1931 by Charles Scribner's Sons; renewal copyright © 1959 by Edmund Wilson; reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons), Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931 (and reprinted in T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique, edited by Leonard Unger, Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1948, pp. 170-94.)

Desmond Maccarthy

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism I encountered a circumspect sincerity that acted upon me like a challenge: I found I was forced, as I read, to consider afresh what I thought about certain poets and the criteria which at different times have been applied to poetry. (pp. 126-27)

These lectures deal directly with the criticism of poetry and indirectly with poetry itself; their subject is the relation of criticism to poetry.

Mr Eliot points out that the answers to the question, 'What is poetry?' which posits the critical function, have for the most part been answers to other questions, 'What is the use of poetry?' 'What ought poetry to do for us?' He has not attempted to define poetry himself; I think he thinks it undefinable. He has shown (and he has done it with admirable cogency and clearness) what critics at different periods have expected of poetry, and how, accordingly, the estimation of different kinds of poetry has varied….

[Some] passages suggest that Mr Eliot believes that there is an 'eternal' poetry, separable from any alloy which made it appeal to contemporaries, and that criticism (progress by the elimination of errors) in time must help us to identify it…. However, in yet another place and speaking in dissent, he also says:

People tend to believe that there is just some one essence of poetry, for which we can find the formula, and that poets can be ranged according to their possession of a greater or less quantity of this essence.

This looks like a contradiction—unless Mr Eliot means us, in the last quotation, to lay particular stress on the proviso 'for which we can find a formula'. In that case the sentence might be read, not as a contradiction, but as an admission that we could sense this 'essence' or 'permanent element' in different poets, though unable to formulate it. But the context hardly allows of that interpretation. We are therefore left in doubt how far we can agree with him, whatever our views on this point may be. (pp. 127-28)

It does not seem to me stultifying to conclude from reviewing the world's literature that there is nothing in poetry to which all ages will respond…. The very fact that Mr Eliot, who has such deep affiliations with our own time, cannot refrain from cooling our response to Keats and Coleridge, and chilling it to the bone towards Shelley and Arnold, indicates that good poets may meet with, at any rate, interims of comparative indifference.

In one passage in his criticism of Matthew Arnold (both as a poet and a critic he defines him as an example of 'false stability'), he speaks of his lack of 'auditory imagination'; and his definition of what he means by this arresting expression is particularly interesting because Mr Eliot is evidently writing about what he cares for most himself in poetry, and seeks himself when he writes as a poet…. Then he adds—he has been discussing Arnold's dictum that poetry is at bottom criticism of Life—'Arnold's notion of life does not perhaps go deep enough'. He has said this before more emphatically; and this aversion—equally marked in the case of Addison and Goethe, whom he cannot bring himself to treat with intellectual charity—from the poetry springing from what he regards as a 'false stability', leads him into actually misreading Arnold's view of the function of poetry. (pp. 129-30)

Arnold never said that life was at bottom 'criticism'; he said that 'poetry was at bottom a criticism of life'. The definition is not philosophically exact, but it is striking that Mr Eliot, throughout these lectures, uses it himself as a test of the different achievements of poets. (p. 130)

Throughout these lectures there runs a scornful denial that poetry and art are or can ever possibly be substitutes for religion. This underlies Mr Eliot's dislike of Goethe, Shelley, Arnold, whose work in different ways, though they rejected God, seemed to offer a substitute. 'Nothing in this world or the next', says Mr Eliot, 'is a substitute for anything else; and if you find you must do without something such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must do without it'. True. But poetry can help us to do one thing which religion helps us to do, to love life spiritually, that is to say, intelligently and disinterestedly. He does not discuss this, though he discusses many important things, beautifully, sincerely. (pp. 131-32)

Desmond MacCarthy, "Poetry As a Criticism of Life" (1933), in his Humanities, MacGibbon & Kee, 1953, pp. 126-32.

S. Ichiyé Hayakawa

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

S. ICHIYÉ HAYAKAWA

[It is] disconcerting for the ardent student of Eliot to find, in [After Strange Gods], no indication of a richer spiritual life as the result of his conversion [to Anglo-Catholicism]…. After Strange Gods, which announces itself as "A Primer of Modern Heresy", far from showing any enrichment of Mr. Eliot's life, indicates on the contrary an increasingly fastidious (perhaps it would be more accurate to say pernickety) disapproval of men, manners, and ideas. I would not for a moment suggest that there are not things in the modern world that ought rightly to be disapproved of; however, it is profoundly indicative of the peculiarities of Mr. Eliot's temper that he has found in Christianity a convenient platform from which to indulge his favorite pastime of deploring (to use a favorite word of his), instead of a river of life from which to irrigate and fructify his waste land. Distasteful as such an obvious line of explanation is to an admirer of Eliot, one finds difficulty in escaping the conclusion that he has inherited from his New England ancestry and background so strong a habit of disapproving that he can make no greater progress in Christianity than to advance from witch-hunting to heresy-hunting. (pp. 366-67)

Mr. Eliot's literary perceptions, which read accurately into the meanings of the authors he deals with, are extraordinarily acute, and their acuteness is sharpened by his ethical sensitivity…. Mr. Eliot, who is as richly cosmopolitan in his learning as Babbitt or Pound, has a genuinely traditional way of feeling about literature: his erudition and his sensitive reading have given him a European background, a European tradition, the lack of which has made possible the many and various heresies of the modern world which he rightly deplores. The heresies which are uttered in the name of self-expression, nationalism, romanticism, science, and society, would be impossible, if a unified "way of feeling" based upon the past experience of the race had a more lively existence. We are sadly in need of traditional men, in Mr. Eliot's sense…. Mr. Eliot demonstrates, in his own literary criticism, the advantages of a traditional literary culture as a safeguard against erratic and half-formed ideas.

Unfortunately, Mr. Eliot does not come to us in these lectures as a literary critic; he writes, "I ascended the platform of these lectures only in the rôle of moralist". Therefore the social implications of his definition of tradition become matters of great importance in his book. It is here that Eliot reveals prejudices that distinctly mark his thoughts, in some respects, "trifling and eccentric", "provincial in time and place", to use his own terms of derogation. (p. 368)

[Mr. Eliot's concept of tradition as that which demands a homogeneous population, in terms of race and religion, perhaps] gives us a clew to some of the things that have disturbed us about Mr. Eliot's work even at times when we have admired him most: his frequently stuffy archepiscopal manner, his contempt of his readers, his scorn of all contemporary authors (no matter how excellent) who have in any way achieved a wide popular acclaim. Enthusiastic as we have been about his work, there are few of us who have not ground our teeth at one time or another at some of his mannerisms. He has the irritating habit of explaining at great length things that are obvious to the reasonably cultivated reader, and the accompanying habit of saying in a subordinate clause (or in a parenthesis) things that really need further elaboration or explanation…. In After Strange Gods, his mannerisms have become accentuated (partly, perhaps, because the essays were lectures), and there is an amazing increase in the number of cautionary phrases…. There is, in the sum-total of these mannerisms which always mark Mr. Eliot's prose, an unmistakable condescension, a superciliousness toward his readers.

These stylistic eccentricities, like the eccentricities of his social and moral views just examined, are trifling and personal. If they merely trespassed momentarily upon our enjoyment of his splendid literary criticism, they would cause little concern. But they go more deeply than that. The snobbery that these eccentricities reveal explains why the negative aspects of belief, the persecution of errors and heresies, are more congenial to him than the positive aspects of belief—joy and serenity and cheerful labor in the vineyards of the Lord. It is surely not without significance that "deplore" and "deprecate" are his favorite verbs. (It is unpleasant to bring such a charge as that of snobbery to Mr. Eliot; it is done, therefore, with the greatest reluctance, and, I hope, in the true spirit of humility which he enjoins to us.) It is devoutly to be hoped therefore, that as Mr. Eliot spends more years in the fellowship of the Son, Divine Mercy will enlarge his sympathies and sweeten his temper. Mr. Eliot is a great writer; for all his eccentricities, it is not without reason that everything he says and writes commands the immediate and respectful attention of the entire English-speaking world. One looks forward, therefore, to his next book with keenest interest; the general expectation is, of course, that he will grow narrower and more disapproving in tone as he grows older. But Christ has worked miracles before. (pp. 370-71)

S. Ichiyé Hayakawa, "Mr. Eliot's Auto Da Fe," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1934 by The University of the South), Vol. XLII, No. 3, Summer, 1934, pp. 365-71.

Stephen Spender

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[Despite critical opinion to the contrary, the prose and poetry of T. S. Eliot] are very closely related. If one reads through the whole of the prose and the whole of the verse, one finds that the same process, the same search for a Tradition and for orthodox principles, combined with the same sensitivity to contemporary life, is developed through both of them. In the essays there are frequent references (they grow more open as time goes on) to problems in which the writer himself is involved in his creative work. (p. 153)

[In] Dante, Baudelaire, T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, the Elizabethans, and a half-dozen other influences, one sees the background of Eliot's poetry in Eliot's prose. The poetry and the prose together form a whole: the poetry is strengthened and given its ideals by the prose, the prose is illustrated and given foundation by the poetry. (p. 155)

His prose is not confined to criticism, and perhaps some of the most important parts of his criticism occur in his poetry. For his poetry is literary and full of quotation, and his use of the passages which he quotes implies a critical attitude. We look in the essays for criticism of the Elizabethans which concerns their ideals: in Gerontion and The Waste Land for the criticism which emphasizes their historic actuality.

The pervading weakness of Eliot's writing is a certain fragmentariness…. In his poetry he is an inhibited writer, exploiting in himself a tendency in his own work to break off just when the reader is expecting him to become most lucid, and making of this tendency a technical device. His prose, in spite of its logical precision, its dryness, and its fine organization, is, in its context, uneven: occasionally there are remarks of brilliant observation, of violent prejudice, or whole paragraphs of sententiousness.

The poetry and the prose to some extent bolster each other up, and are interdependent. The thought that has led the poetry on from stage to stage has been developed in the prose. The prose itself, though, has weakness: for Eliot is not very good at argument or at abstract discussion, and it is the poetry that illuminates and justifies his ideas. Without his poetry, the religious and social opinions in his last two critical works would seem ineffective, and perhaps unimportant.

Both poetry and prose combine to produce the impression of an extraordinarily conscientious writer, who is prepared to work out all the ideas which form the background of his poetry, and risk applying this 'ideology' to Church, politics and social life. (pp. 155-56)

Unfortunately, though, his explanations are not quite simple. His conscience seems to have driven him to work out every step in his development, but it has not enabled him to overcome a certain ambiguity….

The very first essay in The Sacred Wood, on "Tradition and The Individual Talent," might lead one to think that Eliot was to live contentedly among the apostles of 'art for art's sake,' brought up to date by Bloomsbury, and called 'significant form.' For he offers a neat formula to illustrate the creation of poetry: 'Consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.'

Michael Roberts has shown that what we are led to suppose happens in this experiment does not really happen at all: T. S. Eliot also darkly hints in a later passage that there is 'at least one doubtful analogy' in this essay: but nevertheless, if one has faith, in the mind's eye such scientific experiments come off. (p. 157)

The essay is in fact a vigorous attack on critics who maintain that poetry is the expression of personality, and at the same time it is a defence of tradition. Although the essay is convincingly argued there is a certain doubt left as to its intention.

Firstly, it is rather difficult to understand why Eliot is so much on the defensive about tradition. For, if he is on the defensive, if his purpose is, like Henry James's, to hold up a Continental example to the English, he over-proves his case. Because he proves that, without tradition as an element in the chemical formula, poetry cannot exist. Therefore tradition is a sine qua non, and it is difficult to see how some poetry can be 'more traditional' than other poetry, except in the sense that it is better or worse, which is, in fact, the sense in which Eliot uses the word traditional. But he does not seem quite happy at letting the reader know he is doing this.

Now, if good poetry is more traditional than bad poetry, the use of the word traditional immediately becomes very dubious, because many of the best poets are obviously not learned. This so worries Eliot that he immediately adopts the tone, on the one hand mystifying, on the other hand almost sneering, which is typical of him in moments when he is least certain of himself. The reader is sneered at for thinking that tradition is something which a really great poet, like Shakespeare, has to acquire: in case he should dispute this, he is then heavily snubbed by a remark to the effect that less great poets have to work hard to gain a sense of the traditional. (p. 158)

[But Eliot is not] making a criticism of the whole of English literature, although he leaves plenty of room for one to think that perhaps he is doing so. What he is really saying is simply that bad poetry is not traditional, and that good poetry is traditional. Further, since he admits that there is no way by which one can examine a poet and discover him to be untraditional, 'untraditional' becomes simply a term of abuse which one reserves for generally accepted poetry which one doesn't happen to like…. It seems rather an elaborate way of bolstering up one's dislikes. (p. 159)

A significant aspect of this essay is the omission of all discussion of the part played by either nature or the objective world in poetry. Eliot's view of æsthetic creation seems to be purely cerebral: the outer world of reality is viewed either as digested experience, or else as 'impressions': impressions that only seem important for what they impress on the mind, without regard for the reality which is doing the impressing. We may well wonder how this formula suits Whitman, or the D. H. Lawrence of Birds, Beasts and Flowers. It certainly does not fit Lawrence's poetry at all, and Whitman only after a straining which renders the meaning of the word 'traditional' very vague. The fact is that Eliot has quite ignored the kind of artist whose creativeness is stimulated by a perpetual tension between the objective world, the world of nature, and his own inner world: and this consciousness of the world outside is the only real impersonality. To Eliot, as to most modern writers, nature, except in the sense of Georgian nature poetry, does not seem to exist. When one notices this, one also begins to understand certain of Eliot's dislikes. (p. 160)

In Eliot's essay there seems to be little feeling that a sense of tradition can be derived from the conditions of life round the poet; that his audience, or his potential audience, is, as it were, the carrier of tradition, and that he is the one infected. Nor is there, as yet, any feeling that tradition may be found in the Church, or, as we find it in Henry James, amongst an aristocracy. It is to be found in books.

In later essays, he endeavours always to trace the line of tradition in literature, and this, of course, leads him eventually away from books, to the contemporary social environment of the writers whom he is discussing, to morals, and, lastly, to theology. A more critical and less analytic attitude to English literature is adopted. (p. 161)

The best and most renowned of Eliot's essays are those on the Elizabethans. It is when we come to the essay on Blake that we notice suddenly the sharp division of his opinion. For whilst we are told that Blake benefited from his lack of systematic education, and that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is 'naked philosophy presented,' we are told later that 'we have the same respect for Blake's philosophy … that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house.' (p. 162)

The remark that Blake's philosophy resembles a piece of home-made furniture is ingenious and unjust, nor does it explain why he was not as great an artist as Beethoven, for instance, whose philosophy was also 'home-made.' As so often happens with Eliot, he seems to diagnose with great acuteness, and then is anxious to suggest some cure: but the cure has no relation to the illness. (p. 163)

The fault with Blake is that he is 'up to twenty, decidedly a traditional.' But after twenty things started to go wrong. Here we encounter the oddest and most personal note in Eliot's criticism. This is a note of almost personal irritation with the writers whom he is criticizing, so strongly does he feel that they oughtn't to be doing something which they do, but something quite different…. One feels that he is never quite satisfied with any English writer, except some of the metaphysical poets, and Pope and Dryden. The others never quite obey all the rules, and, of course, they are never nearly 'traditional' enough.

The search for principles, the perpetual sacrifice of what he calls personality, and the study of tradition, led Eliot to the conclusion that one could make no æsthetic judgment which did not imply a moral judgment: and this same path was one perhaps of many that led him finally to theology.

His conclusions attempt to refute the charge that they are themselves home-made, or that they are individualistic, by being rigidly orthodox, and they attempt also to be practical. That is to say they broaden into a social philosophy, and in his more recent criticism he has applied that philosophy to questions outside literary criticism.

It is these practical conclusions that form the test of his traditionalism: for it is evident that no tradition is wholly valid that is not rooted in contemporary life as much as in the life of the past. (pp. 163-64)

Eliot's own opinions are not merely related to his poetry. They qualify his whole critical attitude, and they make him to some extent a preacher. His aim as a writer has been to be a traditionalist: the tradition which he has adopted, being derived from the Church, has also sociological and educative implications. It is his object to show that the application of these principles in social life is as just as it is correct to apply them to literature. He seems to feel that unless he can prove this, he is, in his work, an individualist: not a traditionalist radically connected with the historic process: but isolated, original, personal, in the sense that he is writing about his own beliefs which are 'home-made,' and so make him eccentric, and different from the people around him. (pp. 164-65)

Eliot looks to the Church, and finds it the single enduring building which survives in the chaos of our civilization…. [Its] teachings and its sacraments survive, and their real emphasis lies not on life but on death: moreover, it does offer the only surviving hope for our civilization…. (p. 165)

[Eliot] will be judged by those who read his prose, and who, perhaps seeking guides, live in the belief that there is only one thing now which is worth doing, and that is to create a new and better civilization. (p. 166)

Stephen Spender, "T. S. Eliot in His Criticism," in his The Destructive Element: A Study of Modern Writers and Beliefs, Jonathan Cape, 1935, pp. 153-75.

John Crowe Ransom

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[Eliot] uses his historical studies for the sake of literary understanding, and therefore might be called a historical critic. If the title conferred upon him seems quaint, I mean the formality to stand for the fact that he is learned in the precise learning of the scholars, a Pharisee of the Pharisees. I have not heard of any serious impeachment of his learning coming out of the universities. If the academic scholars do not recognize him as one of themselves, it is because he turns his scholarship to pointed critical uses, whatever they may do with theirs. Perhaps it is also because he writes prose of great suppleness and charm, for his criticism of literature has some of the value of literature.

It must look strange, except that we are far too used to the dullness of the official custodians of literature, that a critical achievement like Eliot's should be a phenomenon so rare, and seem so fabulous when it comes. The learning behind it is perfectly regular, and based generally on the academic sources of learning…. Eliot is a critical scholar on the order of Dryden, or Doctor Johnson; but that is a kind of scholar which our wonderfully organized Departments of Literature, offering advantages far greater than those earlier scholars ever possessed, have simply not turned out, nor dreamed of turning out. We should in the future expect better of them, I imagine, assuming that Eliot with his unvaryingly correct learning has won their respect. As for the comparative intelligence of Eliot beside Dryden or Johnson, or other famous critics in our language, I think surely he does not yield to any of them; he is "closer" and more patient than the two mentioned. It is likely that we have had no better critic than Eliot. And if Eliot is one of the most important sources of a new criticism, it is because here the new criticism is in part the recovery of old criticism. (pp. 139-40)

[What occurs to Eliot] most characteristically, and most makes him the powerful critic he is, is that it can never cease to be instructive to see a poem in the light of other comparable poems; and perhaps that a critic's fertility derives from his power and patience to observe the limits within which the like poems differentiate themselves and branch off from each other. Eliot has nothing like a formula ready in advance; he looks at the poem against its nearest background to see what sort of criticism it needs; he comes up presently with a set of judgments which are comparative in the first instance, but critical in the end. (p. 141)

Eliot does not encourage us to find sweeping critical principles in his work. He declines to be responsible for them as principles: they are remarks. In this case I should not care to answer for the fate of the remark if stiff critical theorists should pounce upon it, remove it, put it technically, and evaluate it. I do not know what would survive but I should be apprehensive. There is in Eliot's writings an immediate critical sense which is expert and infallible, but it consists with a theoretical innocence. Behind it is no great philosophical habit, nor philosophical will, to push through it to definition.

He rarely cares to theorize in set passages about poetry. He is not what we call—with a prejudice for the unadulterated article that may go along with our profound greenness—a "thinker." He does not make ultimate generalizations though he makes shrewd ones. They are half-truths, or gnomic truths sometimes. There are enough of them to have stocked the mind of a generation with his wisdom, so that young men speak up and quote Eliot pertinently on nearly any literary occasion. They give him the character of a prophet rather than the character of a philosopher.

Eliot might be said to be a practitioner of Arnold's "touchstone" method of judging poetry, though with infinite refinements; he cites, not the same handful of resounding lines for every purpose, but lines similar to the given lines, with an easy perception of which lines are best. No critic proceeds so regularly by the technique of comparative quotation, and no critic can ever have been so apt in electing the lines to quote. (pp. 145-46)

But there is something more in Eliot, something doubtful, though it probably does no harm. A historical critic in this sense is a man with touchstones, and a man who quotes; but if he has a certain strain of piety in him he may easily expend upon some inaccessible entity which he calls "the tradition" a degree of feeling that is luxurious, and cannot be translated practically into criticism. Historical sense as Eliot talks about it seems to be what makes you see your own little effort of poetry, if you are a poet, as the moment when you had the happiness of being the mouthpiece of The Great Tradition. Perhaps you have in you an excess of reverent feeling looking for what Eliot in another connection calls its "objective correlative," and what it finds is the mystery called the tradition. (p. 146)

Though a traditionalist, Eliot is obliged to concede that circumstances must alter cases, and that each new poet must after all compose a new poem which cannot be exactly what any previous poem has been. His notion of dealing with this insuperable fact is, in effect, though the action seems incredible when put in terms, to represent the tradition as looking over the new circumstances and writing its own poem, while the poet depersonalizes himself and operates in the capacity of a private secretary to the tradition. This is to pay almost superstitious honors to tradition. (p. 147)

Eliot's argument about tradition is not a theory of poetry. But he is not without a theory of poetry, and he does not write specific criticism without conscientious references to his theory. He states it in … "Tradition and the Individual Talent." I think it is one of the most unmanageable theories that a critic could profess; but it is not an unmodern kind of theory; it is equivalent to some version of Richards' psychologistic theory. I quote …:

The effect of a work of art upon the person who enjoys it is an experience different in kind from any experience not of art. It may be formed out of one emotion, or may be a combination of several; and various feelings, inhering for the writer in particular words or phrases or images, may be added to compose the final result…. The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.

                              (pp. 152-53)

[Probably] the most important thing in Eliot's statement is his recognition of big emotions as set off against little feelings; and I should say the big emotion refers to our reception of the main situation, or situation as a whole, and the little feelings refer to our reception of the heterogeneous detail of the situation. Or, the emotion attaches to the main structure, the feelings attach to the local texture. These are the terms which seem to me most practical in critical analysis. In action, as opposed to art, the situation as a whole engages us too completely; and I mean that it engages our cognitive attention too completely, just as truly as it engages our emotion. It is when this situation exists for imagination, not for action, that we are freed from its domination and can attend to its texture. But a very great effort of salvage would be required to rewrite this discourse of Eliot's into our terms, or other terms that were articulate. (pp. 155-56)

"Feelings" and "emotions" are the jargon of poetic theory with the new critics, and with the best ones it is Eliot's usage which provides the sanction. The half-communication that results is painful to the humble reader, and suggests that there is something esoteric in the vocation of criticism, and that Eliot is initiated but the humble reader is not. (p. 158)

In the essay, "Arnold and Pater," 1930, Eliot attacks Arnold for subtracting from religion its intellectual affirmations. And Arnold is the very best name available on which to make out the case of the great apostasy. Arnold knew everything, and lacked intellectual decision. To me the most resonant and tragic version of the decline of institutional religion has been Arnold's perfect statement, pointing to the vulnerable spot in the defense of the establishment by its guardians: "Our religion has materialized itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it." (p. 202)

[We] shall not find in Eliot's writings much about the fundamental truths of the theologians. I should consider that he proposes to keep religion quite tightly tied to its "fact." I have felt annoyance with Arnold for not discussing the issue of the "fact." But as between Arnold and Eliot, we have one thinker rejecting the fact, and the other affirming it, and neither contributing philosophically to the discussion.

The issue of the fact is as much a problem for poetic criticism as it is for religion, and in the two contexts it is the same issue. The kind of fact in question is the "supernatural" fact; it appears constitutionally in every religious discipline, but it appears luridly and with the greatest frequency in poetry. (pp. 203-04)

An issue of fact rather than emotion. Not only Arnold but Richards, and not only Richards but Eliot himself, are agreed that poetry in some manner is exempted from having to furnish a real factuality for its so-called facts or objects, since it only wants to offer emotional experiences, and these can feed on fictions and fancies as well as on facts. Arnold, and Richards too, though he has not advertised his religious difficulties, consider that the general formula will do for religion as well; that religion is a special kind of emotional experience, indifferent to the standing of its facts. Eliot does not draw the line much more than they between fact and fiction in poetry, but he draws it firmly in religion; he requires the fact. (p. 204)

I should approve both the conclusions that Eliot finds men drawing from their own experience of religion: "(1) that Religion is Morals, (2) that Religion is Art." Orthodox religious dogma is closely comparable with some body of Platonic or poetic "myth"; it is poetry, or at least it once was poetry; and again and again it is poetically experienced afresh, in the official pageantry and ritual of the public occasions. But it differs radically from the merely poetic myth in the bard and systematic practical use intended for it: it supports the popular morality, which is the general economy of the will impelling people to realize the destinies held out to them in the high dogma.

To Eliot dogma is just dogma, and it is unarguable. It is "revealed" or "divine" truth. (p. 205)

Had Mr. Eliot only served his "literature" with half the zeal he served his "religion"! He believes in believing the religious dogmas, not the affirmations of poetry. I can see no necessity for waiving the intellectual standards on behalf of poets. If Dante's beliefs cannot be accepted by his reader, it is the worse for Dante with that reader, not a matter of indifference as Eliot has argued. If Shelley's argument is foolish, it makes his poetry foolish. In my mind Dante's beliefs are very bold speculations at which the accusing finger has pointed steadily for a long time now, but substantively are better grounded, and methodologically far more consistent, than Shelley's beliefs. That consideration would enter into my preference of Dante over Shelley.

Other considerations would enter in, which can easily be surmised; they would not be far from Eliot's own considerations. Thus, the two poetries, technically regarded; that is, the provisions of texture, and not only the speculative structures; the propriety of the structural-textural relations. All such considerations would be for the more specific and professional act of criticism. (pp. 207-08)

John Crowe Ransom, "T. S. Eliot: The Historical Critic," in his The New Criticism (copyright 1941 by New Directions Publishing Corporation; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1941 (and reprinted by Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1979), pp. 135-208.

Delmore Schwartz

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

When we think of the character of literary dictators in the past, it is easy to see that since 1922, at least, Eliot has occupied a position in the English-speaking world analogous to that occupied by Ben Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold. It is noticeable that each of these dictators has been a critic as well as a poet, and we may infer from this the fact that it is necessary for them to practice both poetry and criticism.

Another characteristic is that each of these literary dictators has in some way reversed the judgments of his immediate predecessor. (p. 119)

When we come to Eliot's reign, we find that something has really been added: we have virtually two dictatorships from one literary dictator. Between 1922 and 1933 Eliot, in a series of unprecedented essays which were initially disguised as book reviews, revaluated the history of English poetry in one set of terms; between 1933 and 1946 he gradually reversed his whole evaluation…. Thus it is almost possible to say of Eliot, "The dictator has abdicated. Long live the dictator!" This is the only instance I know where anyone has abdicated and immediately succeeded to his own throne.

We can take 1922 as the approximate beginning of the first period, for in that year Eliot began to edit The Criterion, and "The Waste Land" was published in the first number, although it was in 1921 that Eliot published the reviews in the London Times Literary Supplement which were later collected as Three Essays in Homage to John Dryden. In the most famous of these essays, "Metaphysical Poets," Eliot declared that English poetry had not been the same since the death of John Donne…. Since the time of Donne, according to this essay, there have been no poets in English who really enjoyed a unity of sensibility. What Eliot means by "unity of sensibility," a dubious psychological phrase, is difficult to make clear, but can perhaps best be stated by paraphrasing Eliot's remark that Donne felt his thoughts at the tips of his senses. All poets since Donne, with a few exceptional moments of unity, have permitted their thoughts and their emotions to be separated. (pp. 119-20)

By 1934 Eliot had fruitfully contradicted, modified or qualified practically all the literary and critical judgments implicit in this essay…. In 1937, when questioned during a radio interview on the British Broadcasting Company about what he regarded as great poetry, he replied that Wordsworth's "Independence and Resolution" and Coleridge's "Ode on Dejection" were probably "touchstones of greatness." This is a far cry from what Eliot said in 1922….

I do not mean to imply in the least that Eliot is merely contradictory. It is true that no one could have guessed, by reading his essay on the "Metaphysical Poets" in 1922, that by 1937 he would admire Wordsworth and Coleridge very much and cite them, rather than Donne, as "touchstones of greatness."… But on the other hand, there is a real unity in back of all of these seemingly contradictory judgments. One basis of this unity is the admiration for Dante which obviously began when Eliot was still an undergraduate. If we understand Eliot's gradual and profound re-reading of Dante, then we can see how at one point, fascinated by one aspect of Dante, he would be likely to salute Donne, while at a later stage it would be natural for him to admire the characteristic directness and clarity of the poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge which he cited as touchstones of what is great in poetry. If we examine these poems carefully, we can see that in the most direct way they resemble the very beginning of The Divine Comedy. (p. 121)

[We should also consider the five standards which were] involved in Eliot's initial evaluation of the history of English poetry and his subsequent revaluation.

They can be named in a summary and incomplete way as follows: first, actuality; second, honesty …; third, the purification and maintenance of the English language; fourth, the dramatic sense …; fifth, the quality of the versification. (p. 124)

Eliot makes it clear that a sense of the actual is really incomplete and warped without a sense of the past…. But we must be careful not to misunderstand Eliot's concern with a sense of the past as mere nostalgia for the days when knighthood was in flower. It is the past as actual, as an actual part of the present, which concerns Eliot. And one must have a strong sense of actuality in order to know just what of the past is alive in the present and what is merely a monument or a souvenir. Without a sense of the past, one's sense of the actual is likely to be confused with an obsessive pursuit of what is degraded, or idiosyncratic, or transitory, or brand-new. This is the dead-end of the naturalistic novelist who supposes that the slum is somehow more real than the library. Conversely, a sense of the actual enables one to understand the past itself as something which was not by any means Arcadian. Perhaps one can go so far as to say that one cannot have much of a sense of the past without a sense of the actual or much of a sense of the actual without a sense of the past. Thus, to use an example which can stand for much that is characteristic of Eliot, if one looks at a church, one does not really see very much of what one is looking at if one does not have both a sense of the actual, a sense of the past, and a sense of the past as actual in the present.

Let me turn now to a few instances of how Eliot uses the criterion of actuality in his criticism. Blake is praised because one of his poems expresses "the naked observation" and another "the naked insight."… In the same essay, which was written in 1920, Blake is praised because he possesses the peculiar honesty, which according to Eliot, is peculiar to all great poetry, an honesty which is to be found, Eliot says, in Homer, Aeschylus, and Dante, and an honesty which is, he adds, in a world too frightened to be honest, curiously terrifying, an honesty against which the whole world conspires because it is unpleasant. Here we can see how closely connected in Eliot's mind are the sense of the actual and the ability of a poet to be honest. (pp. 125-26)

There is [an] important negative instance. Eliot speaks of the images in the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher as "cut and slightly withered flowers stuck in the sand" in comparison with the images of Shakespeare, Donne, Webster, and Middleton, which have, he says, "tentacular roots" which reach down to "the deepest terrors and desires." In the same way. Tennyson is praised for his great technical skill but the quotations which Eliot cites, in 1936, when he reverses his judgment of Tennyson are praised because they are descriptions of a particular time and place. (p. 126)

[We] can see here the underlying unity which is involved in Eliot's revision of his first evaluation of English poetry. For in praising Blake as one who was unpleasantly honest and full of naked observations and insights, Eliot said that such honesty could not exist apart from great technical skill. In his first revaluation Eliot had praised Tennyson for his technical skill but dismissed him as one who merely ruminated. When Eliot came to revise his judgment of Tennyson in 1936, his revision was consequent upon a study of Tennyson's versification, which led him to see how that poet's great technical skill did in fact, at times, enable him to render the actual and not merely ruminate upon it. Thus, in a sense, Eliot is consistent throughout; the reason that a revision has been necessary is that Eliot was burdened by preconceptions which belonged to the period in which he was writing, and he had simply not read sufficiently in some of the poets he dismissed.

So too with the poetry of Milton, although I do not think that here it is a question of insufficient reading. When Eliot says in depreciation of some of Milton's poems that they are conventional, artificial, and enamelled, he is complaining again about the absence of the actual…. It seems to me likely enough that by now Eliot has perceived beneath the perhaps artificial and certainly grandiloquent surface of Milton's language precisely that peculiar honesty about the essential strength or sickness of the human soul, which he found in Dante, Shakespeare, Blake, and other of the very greatest poets. I should think that this desirable revision of opinion may also have come about as a result of the development of Eliot's own writing during recent years. (pp. 126-27)

Let us return now to the other touchstones, or criteria, of poetic genuineness.

Honesty is perhaps a shorthand term for a willingness to face the reality of one's emotions…. [A] poet's honesty is, in fact, very often a concern with morality, with the actuality of morality. Yet this moralism must be distinguished carefully from that overt didacticism which has spoiled the work of many great artists such as Tolstoy and resulted in the censorship of more than one masterpiece. Notice I have said the actuality of morality rather than simply morality as such…. [An] elucidation is to be found in Eliot's discussion of Hamlet…. To conclude that Hamlet is a failure, as Eliot does, though it is the most read, performed, and studied of all plays, seems to me to have a curious notion of success. To inquire as to why he wrote the play at all is incomprehensible in view of the remarks Eliot makes about the artist's effort to deal with emotions which are ecstatic, terrible, and inexpressibly horrifying. But I am not concerned so much with the wrongness of Eliot's judgment in an essay written as early as 1919 as I am concerned with the relation of these remarks to the honesty of the poet and the actuality of moral existence, to which these remarks point. The poet's honesty, and thus his morality, consists in his ability to face the ecstasy and the terror of his emotions, his desires, his fears, his aspirations, and his failure to realize his and other human beings' moral allegiances. Thus the morality of the poet consists not in teaching other human beings how to behave, but in facing the deepest emotional and moral realities in his poems, and in this way making it possible for his readers to confront the total reality of their existence, physical, emotional, moral and religious. (pp. 128-29)

[Eliot] looks always for those qualities in a poem which are likely to help the reader to see reality, if not to bear it. (p. 129)

The third of the standards with which Eliot has criticized poetry is language as such….

In English poetry,… Eliot finds that two of the greatest masters of diction are Milton and Dryden and they triumph, he says, "by a dazzling disregard of the human soul." Here again there is an underlying consistency in the operation of Eliot's mind, for what he is saying of Dryden and Milton is close to what he had said in 1920 of Swinburne as being purely verbal, of using language really divorced from any reference to objects. And it should be noted that only by a very strong sense of the actual can we distinguish between poetry which explores the human soul and poetry which is largely verbal. There is an intermediate mode: poetry whose chief aim is that of incantation, of inducing a certain state of emotion. (p. 131)

If we take this concern with language in isolation it might seem that the chief purpose of poetry was to maintain and purify the language, and indeed Eliot's praise of Dryden often seems to be bestowed on that poet merely because he effected a reformation in the use of language, rather than for his intrinsic qualities. Throughout Eliot's own poetry there are references to the difficulties and trials of anyone who attempts to use language carefully…. [Throughout] Eliot's criticism the quality of the poet's language and its effect upon the future of the English language has always concerned Eliot very much. I think we can say that never before has criticism been so conscious of all that can happen to language, how easily it can be debased, and how marvelously it can be elevated and made to illuminate the most difficult and delicate areas of experience.

The fourth criterion is the dramatic sense, and Eliot maintains that all great poetry is dramatic. However, there is perhaps some confusion here, since Eliot means by dramatic the attitudes and emotions of a human being in a given situation. But when he comes to apply this broad definition, he is often influenced by his own love of Elizabethan drama, where the term, dramatic, narrows itself to the specific theatrical sense of the word, a sense in which it must be distinguished from meaning any human being's attitudes in any situation…. Eliot sometimes uses this criterion of the dramatic to enforce prejudices about poetry which he does not like for other reasons.

We come, finally, to the question of versification. It is here that Eliot has been most influenced by his own poetic practice. For at one time or another he has enunciated practically every possible theory of what the nature of versification is. In a late essay on the poetry of Yeats he says that blank verse cannot be written in the 20th century because it still retains its period quality. The period presumably is the Elizabethan one, and such a statement is belied by the fact that not only has some of Eliot's best poetry been written in blank verse, but such a statement disregards the triumphs of blank verse, the inexhaustible variety of this form of versification to be found in Milton, Wordsworth, in Keats' "Hyperion," in certain poems of Tennyson which Eliot himself has praised precisely for their technical mastery of blank verse, and in Browning; many other instances could be mentioned. Eliot's fundamental concern has been, however, with what he calls the "auditory imagination," "the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back; seeking the beginning and the end." This should suggest that underneath the contradictory statements about the possibilities of versification which run throughout Eliot's criticism, there is a powerful intuition of how various, unpredictable, and profound are the possibilities of language when it is versified. (pp. 131-33)

If we examine Eliot's scrutiny of English versification from the time of Marlowe to the time of Hardy and Yeats, and are not seduced into glib and futile logic-chopping, we come upon a theory of the nature of versification which seems to do justice to the many different things that Eliot has said about it. Namely, the theory that the essence of metre and thus of versification is any repetitive pattern of words, and the endless arguments about versification from Campion to Amy Lowell and the Free Verse movement are caused by the curious feeling that some one repetitive pattern, or kind of pattern, is the only true method of versification. (p. 134)

Let me now try to place Eliot's criticism in terms of a classification which was first suggested by the late Irving Babbitt, and I believe misused by him. Babbitt speaks of impressionistic criticism, scientific criticism, neo-classic criticism, and a fourth kind to which he gives no name …: a kind of criticism which is sometimes called the test of time or the verdict of posterity. This fourth kind presents many difficulties, including the fact that the posterity of the past, the only posterity we know about, has changed its mind so often…. (pp. 134-35)

Babbitt's other three kinds of criticism are also, I think, inadequate classifications. For example, when Babbitt speaks of scientific criticism, what he really means is historical criticism, since he cites Taine as its leading exponent. What we ought to distinguish and emphasize is the purpose which each kind of critic has in mind when he takes hold of a literary work. The neo-classic critic looks in the new literary work for the specific characteristics which he has found in masterpieces of the past…. The historical critic is interested in the causes, social and biographical, of the literary work rather than in the work itself. The impressionistic critic is interested in the effects of the literary work upon himself as a delicate and rare sensibility rather than in the work as an objective and social phenomenon. The historical critic goes in back of the work to its causes; the impressionistic critic is concerned with himself rather than with the work itself…. Eliot's criticism fits none of these classifications, although it is to be regretted that there has not been more of the historical critic in him. He has proceeded, as I have said, by intuition and by seeking out what most interested him from time to time. Yet, at his best he has been what I would like to call the classic kind of critic, the critic who is expert precisely because he depends upon the quality of his own experience, while, at the same time being aware that the more experience of literature he has, the more expert he becomes. There are no substitutes for experience, a platitude which is ignored invariably by the neo-classic critic, whose essential effort is to deduce from classics of the past a ready-made formula for judging any new work. Eliot's classicism at its best is illustrated when he says that if a truly classic work were written in our time, it would not be recognized as such by most of us. It would seem so monstrous, so queer and horrifying…. [The] truly classical critic, the true expert, depends upon experience, and permits experience to correct his errors in appreciation. Experience is thus for the expert, or classical critic, not only the great teacher but the best text book. Eliot, in revising his initial revaluation of English poetry, has permitted experience to teach him as no theory and no authority possibly could.

Having reviewed this long and complex critical career, we come finally to the question of what conclusions we can draw and what lessons we can gain from it. It seems to me that we have reached a point in our knowledge of the history of taste, the history of literary reputation, and literary judgment, where we can clearly mark out some of the most important dangers and pitfalls involved in any kind of literary criticism. Is it not clear that the kind of action and reaction which characterizes so good a critic as Eliot may very well be the expense of spirit in a waste of false discrimination? Is it necessary, in order to praise poets A, B, and C, to condemn poets D, E, F, G, H, and the rest of the alphabet? Perhaps it is necessary, but if we think concretely of the really shocking blunders in taste which prevail throughout literary history, then perhaps the very consciousness of these blunders can help us to arrive at a point of view in which there is no mere seesaw of praise and rejection…. The point is that the more we know about the history of literary reputation and literary opinion, the more conscious we are of how unjust and how stupid even the greatest critics can be, the more likely we are to avoid such errors in our own experience of literature. The matter is not merely a question of the reader's welfare; the creative writer himself is crucially involved…. [It] does not seem to me to be claiming too much for literary criticism when one declares that upon the goodness, the consciousness, and the justice of literary criticism the very existence of great works sometimes depends…. I should add at this point that it is only by a knowledge of the literary past that contemporary critical practice can be of much use in preventing new neglect, stupidity, unjustified admiration, and unwarranted blindness. Two of the best poets of the 19th century. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, went to their graves with hardly any external recognition; it is quite possible that they did not really know that they had written good poetry…. By reviewing Eliot's critical career we can envisage a point of view which will free our scrutiny of literature from many of the sins of the past, while at the same time illuminating anew all that we have inherited from the past. And we can, I think, see how it might be desirable to have no literary dictators. (pp. 135-37)

Delmore Schwartz, "The Literary Dictatorship of T. S. Eliot" (a revision of a lecture originally delivered at Columbia University on April 6, 1947), in Partisan Review (copyright © 1949 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XVI, No. 2, February, 1949, pp. 119-37.

Ruth C. Child

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Now that some thirty years of controversy have passed, it is possible to consider the early critical work of T. S. Eliot in fair perspective and to attempt an assessment both of its values and of its limitations. Though the uncollected essays and the later collected essays have their importance, the major influence stems from the handful of essays published in 1920 as The Sacred Wood and the three critiques collected in 1924 under the title Homage to John Dryden. These two small volumes brought much that was new to English criticism and contained all of Eliot's significant contributions to critical theory. By the early thirties they had been widely read, studied, and quoted. In view of the subsequent fame of this early criticism, its limitations may appear surprising. And, in view of its limitations, its influence has been extraordinary.

When The Sacred Wood appeared in 1920, neohumanism was well under way…. Those who felt that Professor Babbitt and his confreres were applying nonliterary standards presently discovered with satisfaction Eliot's essays on "The Perfect Critic" and "Imperfect Critics." Here was a brilliant young poet of the new poetic era saying with vigorous emphasis that the critic ought to be interested primarily in art, not in morals. Nor was this the only way in which his work was refreshing. His practical criticism made use of a stimulating new approach.

For Eliot in his early days had one main preoccupation, the analysis of "tone." In some cases he meant by "tone" the special effects produced by versification and the handling of sound. More often he meant feeling-tone…. This is a much more specialized approach than has been usual with important critics and was probably inspired by Eliot's favorite critic, Remy de Gourmont, who made much use of the term sensibilité. Eliot was able to make this sort of analysis superbly well and to show a whole generation what illumination could come from a study of tone and mode of sensibility.

In all his critiques Eliot's interest in tone and sensibility was accompanied by an interest in technique which was convincingly an interest in the work of art for its own sake. And many of the analyses were buttressed by a skilful use of illustrative quotations which somehow seemed to bring the whole text before the eyes of the reader.

To be sure, this new approach to criticism was extremely narrow in scope…. [To] Eliot the author's intention was of no concern; it seemed not to enter the range of his vision at all. Nor in his early work did he ordinarily discuss theme, idea, central situation. In all this he was more narrow than that other very recent ancestor of contemporary criticism, I. A. Richards. Richards taught that in considering a poem one must consider four kinds of meaning: the "plain sense"; the emotion expressed; the tone, that is, the author's attitude toward the listener; and the author's intention or purpose. While Eliot used the word "tone" in a less specialized way, he ignored almost completely the plain sense, the emotion, and the author's intention. In short, valuable as Eliot's critical approach may be, if the modern world had no other it would be poor indeed. But the lively critical minds of the present day have learned from many, and one valuable addition to their array of interests is an interest in tone. It is true also that there is a tendency among some critics to disregard such aspects of a literary work as its plain sense and its author's intention; and for this Eliot must bear a share of the responsibility.

Eliot's handful of critiques has been widely influential in another way: in setting up a new standard of judgment for poetry. While making on the one hand a declaration of faith in the "tradition," he delivered, as even the common reader knows, a series of blows at all English poetry since John Donne. According to Eliot, English poetry reached its peak in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and has been deteriorating ever since. There are two aspects of this theory which are important here: the reasons which Eliot assigns for the change and the revision of the poetic hierarchy which resulted from his evaluations.

Elizabethan and Jacobean poets were superior to later poets, Eliot believes, because of their refined and complicated mode of sensibility. They thought through the senses, and they felt their thought. Later poets did not have that gift; their sensibility was more crude. For a "dissociation of sensibility" had set in at the time of Milton and Dryden and continued progressively through the next two centuries. Those contemporary critics who have adopted Eliot's striking phrase use "dissociation of sensibility" in a figurative rather than a literal sense, but Eliot apparently meant it literally. (pp. 269-71)

The most important aspect of Eliot's revision of literary history is in fact just here: the aesthetic standard implied by his conception of the true poetic sensibility. Elizabethan and Jacobean poets are superior, his arguments runs, because they appeal simultaneously to thought, feeling, and the senses. (p. 271)

Another aspect of Eliot's theory of literary history is the constricting effect of his verdict as to particular poets and particular periods. Though he has widened the taste of our generation considerably in one direction, he has narrowed it greatly in another. By putting the Metaphysical poets on a par with the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists and by setting forth their virtues so strikingly, he has played a considerable part in raising them to their present major status; and by brilliantly describing the wit of Andrew Marvell he has contributed to the current apotheosis of wit. But his early condemnation, later qualified, of all English poetry since John Donne has been, we may feel, immensely harmful. The disparagement of Milton started a wave of controversy which has not yet subsided, even after Eliot's "recantation," and, one may think, has caused Milton's reputation to suffer undeservedly. The Victorians, too, have suffered to an unfortunate degree from the effects of Eliot's sharp scorn. In various essays he dragged in illustrations gratuitously, choosing some of Tennyson's poorest lines, for instance, and holding them up quite irrelevantly for comparison with the Metaphysical best. But it is perhaps the Romantics who have been left in the most parlous state by the awful accusation of the decay of sensibility. For they received this attack at a time when the New Humanists had already assailed the ethical basis of their work. (pp. 272-73)

Besides these large and sweeping effects on taste and judgment, Eliot's critical theorizing has had a more specific influence in giving currency to certain aesthetic doctrines. In particular, his use of the phrase "objective correlative" has added a new term to our critical vocabulary. Eliot's own explanation of the phrase is rather difficult to follow. In the essay on Hamlet he gives us a definition:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art 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.

In other words, a particular emotion—the artist's or perhaps the dramatic character's—is to be expressed by a set of objective symbols which will evoke the same emotion in the reader…. The implication would seem to be that the author wishes to arouse in the reader the exact emotion felt by the character—which is seldom, strictly speaking, the case. (p. 273)

[Take, for instance, the case of Hamlet where the hero's extreme wretchedness arises] from the fact that there is no objective equivalence between his emotion and its cause and that there can therefore be no objective equivalence between his emotion and its expression. Hamlet's creator is said to be in the same unhappy situation. He has been gripped by some feeling which he could not understand, some "intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object." Any attempt to express such an emotion is doomed to fail; hence the play Hamlet is inevitably an artistic failure. It is not—such is the implication—the "objective correlative" to Shakespeare's obscure emotion.

Thus in one paragraph the "objective correlative" has been equated by implication with the reader's emotion, the character's emotion, the artist's emotion. As a matter of fact, these three emotions could never possibly be the same. And yet the term "objective correlative" has proved useful, for it constitutes a convenient shorthand by which to say that the artist must find the exact word, phrase, image, rhythm, situation, through which to express whatever emotion he wishes to express and to arouse whatever emotion he wishes to arouse.

Another aesthetic concept brought to our attention by Eliot is the interdependence of style and sensibility. This sounds like a romantic emphasis on art as an expression of the author's personality, but it is not so. Eliot speaks seldom of the sensibility of an individual; rather of the sensibility of an age or of a given school of poets. As the sensibility alters, so the versification, the language, alter; as the versification, the language, expand their resources, the sensibility expands in like measure…. This concept would seem to be a subtle and stimulating combination of two familiar ideas: "The style is the man" and "Form and content are one."

Another doctrine of which we often hear today bears Eliot's stamp, that of the impersonal nature of art. Here again it is hard to know exactly what Eliot meant by "this Impersonal theory," as he calls it. Is he merely putting emphasis on a universally accepted bit of aesthetic doctrine that the poet should not give us his experience raw, a mere cry from the heart, but should transmute it into a work of artistry? Or does he mean something much more stringent? From his phrasing, it would seem the latter. The theory is expounded in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," one of his earliest essays and perhaps his least logical. "The more perfect the artist," he says, "the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates." He pictures the artist as surrendering himself to the past, to the tradition…. (pp. 273-74)

How valuable may we consider Eliot's contribution to our critical thinking? Valuable, certainly. He has stimulated many critical minds and contributed markedly to the intellectual ferment of our generation. He introduced a new and illuminating emphasis on tone and sensibility. He gave us a number of brilliant insights into the work of individual authors and periods. But when more time has passed and the backward look searches more keenly, it may be seen also that his early criticism is surprisingly narrow in scope and that a good deal of his critical theorizing is confused or ambiguous. Particularly it may be seen that he has done a disservice to artistic taste by teaching the impressionable and even the less impressionable to look patronizingly on much of their literary heritage and that he has contributed most markedly to a narrowing of poetic standards by holding up all poetry to an exclusive measure of excellence. In some ways, then, his has been a fertilizing influence. In other and very important ways, he has limited and constricted the critical thinking of our time. (p. 275)

Ruth C. Child, "The Early Critical Work of T. S. Eliot: An Assessment" (copyright © 1951 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in College English, Vol. 12, No. 5, February, 1951, pp. 269-75.

F. R. Leavis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

How can a book of criticism be at once so distinguished and so unimportant? The question is the more worth asking because the author of [On Poets and Poetry] was at one time so unquestionably a major critical influence. (p. 177)

The Sacred Wood, I think, had very little influence or attention before the Hogarth Press brought out Homage to John Dryden, the pamphlet in which the title essay was accompanied by 'The Metaphysical Poets' and 'Andrew Marvell'. It was with the publication in this form of those essays … that Eliot became the important contemporary critic. It was the impact of this slender new collection that sent one back to The Sacred Wood and confirmed with decisive practical effect one's sense of the stimulus to be got from that rare thing, a fine intelligence in literary criticism—the fine intelligence so certainly present in the earlier and larger collection. And the nature of the peculiar force of the criticism—the condition of the authority with which it claimed one's attention—was now plain…. Eliot was the man of genius who, after the long post-Swinburnian arrest, altered expression. Such an achievement was possible only to a poet in whom the creative gift was a rare gift of consciousness. An intense and highly conscious work of critical intelligence necessarily preceded and accompanied the discovery of the new uses of words, the means of expressing or creating the new feelings and modes of thought, the new rhythms, the new versification. This is the critical intelligence manifested in those early essays; Eliot's best, his important, criticism has an immediate relation to his technical problems as the poet who, at that moment in history, was faced with 'altering expression'.

Never had criticism a more decisive influence. The poetry would without its aid in any case have compelled recognition; it was the poetry that won attention for the criticism, rather than the other way round. What the criticism did was to insure that recognition of the poetry should be accompanied by a general decisive change, not only of taste, but of critical idea and idiom, of critical approach to questions of 'poetic', and of the sense of the past of English poetry, and of the relation of the past to the present.

It was an impressive achievement. What was not at once apparent to all those impressed was that some of the ideas, attitudes, and valuations put into currency by Eliot were arbitrary: some of the most distinctive and influential neither followed from his best critical insights nor drew any valid authority from the creative successes that seemed to lend them force. The attribution of 'consciousness' to Eliot should not be allowed to mislead. The radically distinctive thing about him, in fact, is that he should have fallen so short of achieving the consciousness that one thinks of as necessary to the great creative writer. The limitation, the disability—it is a case challenging a diagnostic approach—has its ominous document in a famous early essay: 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'. It was on this essay pre-eminently that was based Eliot's reputation as a thinker, a disciplined intelligence notably capable of rigorous, penetrating, and sustained thought.

Actually the trenchancy and vigour are illusory and the essay is notable for its ambiguities, its logical inconsequences, its pseudo-precisions, its fallaciousness, and the aplomb of its equivocations and its specious cogency. Its offered compression and its technique in general for generating awed confusion help to explain why it should not have been found easy to deal with. Yet the falsity and gratuitousness of its doctrine of impersonality are surely plain enough. (pp. 177-79)

It clearly is a most significant defeat of intelligence that presents itself to us in Eliot's essay. What pressure, what need, we ask, explains this earnestness of intellectual subtlety devoted in so strenuous a play of trenchancy, confusion, and inconsequence, to absolving the artist from the need to have lived—the need to be a fully living individual wholly committed to life, in whom the impulsion of the lived experience and the courage of responsibility towards it appear as the 'intensity of the artistic process'? We can't help seeing the answer in the co-presence in The Sacred Wood of the essay on Hamlet, which in so odd, confident, and arbitrary a way reduces that tragedy to a matter of an inexpressible emotional state, one of disgust, occasioned in Hamlet by his mother. It isn't that the play doesn't face us with problems. But to assert with so little argument so drastically simplifying an account of it, while relying as for support that makes even the show of first-hand analysis unnecessary on J. M. Robertson, the ironclad Scottish rationalist, and Professor E. E. Stoll—is this, we ask, a manifestation of critically poised and disinterested intelligence? (pp. 181-82)

[Eliot's] work in general as critic has its value in spite of the fact that what one is apt to think of as an essential function of an important critic either hardly comes into the question, or is performed in a way that is far from exemplifying the critic's strength. There is, of course, value-judgment (though not an appraisal of, say, Donne or Marvell or Dryden) entailed in the very effectively directed critical observations by which he established a general taste for the Metaphysicals and a general understanding of its relevance to the appreciation of his own creative achievement. But the force and justice of the limiting suggestions I am making become very plain when we consider his critical dealings with the dramatists. He made some stimulating observations about dramatic verse and the conventions of poetic drama, but no radically intelligent—no truly critical—appraisal of any of the Elizabethans or Jacobeans; he has done, in fact, nothing to disturb at all seriously, where Elizabethan-Jacobean drama is in question, the institutional valuation coming down from Lamb and Swinburne; rather, he has confirmed its inflationary habit.

Eliot's standing as a distinguished critic, then, depends as little on his penetration and sureness in the more important kinds of value-judgment as on his powers of sustained coherent and trenchant thought. His performance as a judge of his contemporaries has been consistently disastrous. It is represented at its most respectable by his backing Joyce—the significance of which election, all the same, is given in his dismissal of Lawrence. The author of The Waste Land … did naturally prefer to the great creative writer of his time, fertile in works that have an irresistible living wholeness, the writer whose ingenuities and pedantries of constructive will are signals of the default of organic life, betraying the failure of imaginative creativity. And I don't doubt, though this seems to me a severe thing to have to say, that his lifelong backing of Wyndham Lewis has represented a genuine taste. Yet I can't believe that he could have committed himself to such extravagant appraisal of this last as a creative writer and a thinker if he hadn't known him personally (one tries to give Eliot credit for a kind of loyalty that isn't at all a virtue in a critic as such), and belonged to a dominant literary-social milieu in which such appraisals were current. What in fact I have come to is the radical conventionality of judgment that contradicts Eliot's distinction as a critic and so disconcertingly qualifies his intelligence. (pp. 184-85)

When in [On Poets and Poetry Eliot] refers to the responsibilities of reviewing and the importance of having literary reviews, or explicitly discusses the characteristics and limitations of contemporary criticism, he gives no sign of recognizing our actual plight: the impossibility of maintaining an intelligent critical journal; the absence of an educated public (the 'small audience') coherent and influential enough to be able to insist on the maintenance of serious standards in the places where the function of criticism is supposed to be nowadays mainly performed—the weeklies and the middle-class Sunday papers. It is hardly conceivable that the criticism of a mind that, for all its distinction, is capable of such a default should have the strength and importance that the distinction at best seems to promise. (p. 194)

I must not, however, be taken to suggest that the defect is no more than a matter of what most directly and obviously relates to his 'conventionality'. We have it, as a characteristic weakness of critical thought, here, where he is writing about 'Johnson as Critic and Poet'.

In our own day, the influence of psychology and sociology upon literary criticism has been very noticeable. On the one hand, these influences of social discipline have enlarged the field of the critic and have affirmed, in a world which otherwise is inclined to depreciate the importance of literature, the relations of literature to life. But from another point of view this enrichment has also been an impoverishment, for the purely literary values, the appreciation of good writing for its own sake, have become submerged when literature is judged in the light of other considerations.

What are 'purely literary values'? I myself am firmly convinced that literature must be judged 'as literature and not as another thing'. Only when it is so judged can sociology and psychology learn from it what they have to learn. But to believe this is not, so far as I can see, to believe in 'purely literary values'…. The quoted passage, in fact, reminds us that the critic is he who wrote 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', with its astonishingly untenable account of the importance of literature and the relations of literature to life. That is, it is the critic whom some radical inner condition makes peculiarly weak in value-judgment.

The manifestation of that weakness in his critical thinking is especially apparent when, in this volume, he discusses his own plays. He says a good deal about the faults of Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party, but gives no sign at all that he is aware of the profounder, the essential, criticisms these works invite—the criticisms that express one's sharpened sense of the importance of literature, and therefore of the relation of literature to life. The discussion of drama in general suffers from the same weakness; the examination of the possibility and the practical problem of poetic drama comes from a mind in which the thinking about matters of form and technique hasn't the life, grapple, and force that critical thought cannot have apart from the habit of full engagement—the habit that manifests itself in the kind of preoccupation with value, significance, and responsibility to life that makes it impossible to talk about 'purely literary values'.

In fact, one cannot escape the sense that Eliot's discussion of his themes is at bottom an insidious way of not really facing the essential responsibility of a critic. And perhaps enough has now been said about the effect of such characteristic things as 'What Is a Classic?': the curious sense one has of a strenuous academic quality; the sense of an intensity of intellectual energy, devoted by the critic and exacted of the reader, incommensurate with any upshot of defined, organized, and profitable thought. (pp. 195-96)

F. R. Leavis, "T. S. Eliot As Critic" (originally published in Commentary, Vol. XXVI, No. 5, November, 1958), in his Anna Karenina and Other Essays (© F. R. Leavis 1933, 1944, 1947, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1967), Chatto & Windus, 1967, pp. 177-96.

Eric Thompson

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

To do justice to Eliot's early criticism is hard work because of the number of considerations that have to be kept in mind simultaneously. We have, first, to think of that early criticism in the context of all of Eliot's work, prose and poetry. We have, second, to see it intervening between his doctoral dissertation ["Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley"] (1916) and The Waste Land (1922). We have, third, to read all of it, or just about all of it, for some is not easy to obtain. We receive a different impression from such essays as "Tradition and the Individual Talent," "Hamlet," and "The Metaphysical Poets" when we see them in sequence with a hundred or so other articles that Eliot wrote between January, 1916, and November, 1923. Moreover, in speaking about Eliot's work, as in thinking about any literary criticism, we have to spell out his critical presuppositions in advance and avoid, when exasperated, interpreting his utterances in a frame that is pseudoclassical (literature is the presentation of sound ideas in an attractive emotional context) or pseudoromantic (poetry is the overflow of emotion in a noninhibiting intellectual context). In addition, since literary criticism is probably like theology in that the basic statements are figurative, we have to avoid taking Eliot literally. His criticism is not about literary "things," for a poem is not a thing the way a carrot is a carrot; criticism is about acts fundamentally mysterious since they are not acts in the ordinary sense…. Still further, in considering what Eliot says we have frequently to suspend judgment on the rightness or wrongness of his individual judgments, or their specific importance or unimportance, in order to concentrate on the concept of the literary act that his ideas are pointing at. His practical criticism is, perhaps, theoretical criticism, an instrument, mainly, for elucidating literary principles. Finally, we have to know something of the epistemological system, the terms of which control the terms of Eliot's literary criticism; we have, in short, to be sensitive to the philosophical nuances of words like "object," "feeling," "ideas," "point of view" as Eliot uses them. (pp. 51-2)

If Eliot's beginning as a poet is a metaphysical standpoint, it is tempting to see his early, and most influential criticism as the application of a philosophy to literature. Because it is fragmentary although voluminous, it is exasperating; and yet because it is the response of a young poet schooled in philosophy to a problem at once personal and cultural, it is significant and emotionally charged to a degree unusual in criticism. To ask what this criticism means is to ask two questions. What did the poet write it for? and what "idea" explains and reconciles puzzling and seemingly discrepant utterances?

The answers here proposed (but proposed more as useful hypotheses than as theses literally true) are that Eliot wrote his early criticism to keep himself persuaded that poetry could be written in an unpoetic age by a poet from whom the muse had departed, and to persuade others that though the poetry business was, indeed, in a bankrupt state, it was so because of the misapplication of reason and could be restored by reviving an old line of goods—"intellectual," or philosophic poetry—which, however difficult, and dry, and prosaic, not only was intensely poetic but was the one right poetry for an age of unbelief. (p. 53)

The idea that Eliot's early criticism is exciting because it has an emotional charge on it, and that this charge is due to the fact that he is responding to a personal as well as a cultural predicament is a supposition on my part. But certain facts seem to support it. Eliot does seem to have been one whom … the muse visited early and then abandoned, leaving him a person who might have made something of his life, but for the muse. His philosophical studies do appear to have coincided with a period of poetic nonactivity and may have been undertaken to redeem the time, to assist a man who had been a poet at twenty-one to be a poet after twenty-five. His early critical activities, moreover, do coincide with a period of pump-priming; when incapable of versifying in English, he began to compose in French, with fruitful results. One might guess, therefore, that though Eliot may have written to convert others, he wrote also to cheer himself up, to preserve the conviction that it was possible to construct something poetic on which to rejoice.

Starting, however, from the supposition that there is a central motive in Eliot's early criticism, and the assumption that there is a controlling idea, I must inevitably see more pattern in Eliot's random critical utterances than the poet himself perhaps saw (I doubt this) or professes to see now, and certainly more than many of his critics have observed. As is well known, the critical Eliot has been charged with contradicting himself on every important issue he took up, betraying inherent incapacity for theoretical thought…. Anyone who has tried to read straight through the Selected Essays will sympathize with these adverse criticisms. If, as Eliot declared in his dissertation, the aim of the critic should be to avoid public formulae, he succeeded in his aim beyond expectation. But what Eliot once remarked about Pascal's Pensées is probably the truth about his criticism: "He who reads this … will observe at once its fragmentary nature, but only after some study will perceive the fragmentariness lies in the expression more than in the thought." (p. 54)

To follow Eliot's dealings with the question [of how to be a poet in a world from which the element of depth has vanished,] I shall attempt to provide two formulas—one for the concept of the poetic act that seems to underlie Eliot's early criticism and one for the four dimensions of that act that we need to take account of if we are to follow Eliot's diagnostic treatment of the literary ailments of his own and earlier ages. Only after these are out of the way can we come to the real point of the essay—Eliot's prescription of a kind of poetry appropriate to an "Alexandrian" culture. (p. 55)

There are many partial observations in Eliot's early criticism of how poets work, but these usually terminate just at the point where a philosophic point of view is involved. It is as though Eliot either knew his over-all position so well that he had no need to place literature in a total framework, or that he was sensitive to the difficulty of talking metaphysics in a poetry session…. But anyone who wants to think through Eliot's criticism must see it in conjunction with a philosophy. Here the difficulties arise that force me to supply two formulas seemingly out of thin air.

Eliot's practical criticism implies a poetics, but that poetics is hard to describe in complete terms because somewhere between Eliot's dissertation (which is a fact) and Eliot's criticism (which is a fact), a third linking fact is missing. We could say that what is missing is an anthropology, a theory of man. Eliot's dissertation is a theory of knowing without a knower, just as his criticism is a theory of writing without a writer. (p. 56)

[We could say] that the missing element is a theory of language which the dissertation points to but does not supply and the criticism takes for granted but does not provide…. [Eliot's] entire dissertation might be interpreted as a discourse on language, language regarded not as a set of things called words, but a set of acts whereby an organism which is part of the universe becomes sufficiently social to contemplate that universe of which it is an organ. When, in The Sacred Wood Eliot says that "permanent literature" is always a "presentation," either a "presentation of thought" as in Aristotle, who strips thought to its essential structure, or a "presentation of feeling by a statement of events in human action or objects in the external world," as in the Agamemnon or Macbeth, revealing "the essential sickness or strength of the human soul," he is making a basic statement about the two rhythms that govern language. By one the organism fixes a world (glimpses the mysterious order of the concepts), by another it takes possession of a self—sees who the person is who has been constituted by his choices.

What is striking about Eliot's description of the second type of permanent literature is that it leaves an impression (encouraged elsewhere) that Eliot's poetics is basically Aristotelian. Poetry for him is an "imitation of an action." But Aristotle's famous formula, having been affixed to Eliot, needs to be clarified. Could we say that poetry is an imitation of an action (men feeling and doing something) in order to create an imitation Action (man recognizing and affirming his destiny by re-enactment), we would be approaching the concept of literature that lurks behind Eliot's early criticism. (pp. 56-8)

Eliot's problem as poet-critic may … be formulated several ways, all of which eventually add up to the same thing. We could say that the problem was metaphysical: the loss of a community of interpretation was due to the decay of metaphysical sensibility. Or we could say that the problem was literary. The decay of metaphysical sensibility was due to the weakening of a valid poetic tradition. Or we could say that the problem was educational. The abandonment of the poetic tradition was due to the rise of science. Or we could say that the problem was cultural: the rise of an urban industrialized world created an environment that seemed to deny human community.

But if we are to talk about Eliot's literary criticism, we need to restrict attention to the language act, and yet to stratify our initial general impression of that act so as to see its four-sided character…. I am going to suggest that the language act—taking it from the poet's point of view—be thought of as like Aristotle's cosmic process, involving four "causes." There is the material cause, which, in Aristotle's terms, is something to be moved…. There is the efficient cause, something in Aristotle's terms, to do the moving…. There is the formal cause, which, in Aristotle, is the path toward the goal…. There is the final cause, which, in Aristotle, is the point where the process comes to rest. (pp. 62-3)

We must begin with the final cause…. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (where Eliot warns that it is not the sublimity of the felt materials that makes art great, but the intensity of the process whereby they fuse) Eliot speaks of halting at the frontier of metaphysics. No theory of literature resembling Eliot's can really do so. Thus in The Dry Salvages when Eliot speaks of hearing music so deeply that you are the music while the music lasts, he names this experience an "Incarnation." (pp. 63-4)

Elsewhere when he speaks of fusion and unity of feeling, he is back in the context of the poetic act, and using words that are misleading unless they are re-related to the miraculous. What is fused is not merely this superficial feeling with that, but the whole being of the poet and the reader with a situation. What makes the experience ecstatic is that it offers release from our sense of separateness. Since there are no novelties in literary criticism or philosophy, there is nothing original in Eliot's notion of the end of the poetic process. His fusion seems another name for that reconciliation of opposites that Coleridge speaks of as the ultimate goal of poetic imagination.

But the final cause is not a term to be comprehended apart from the material cause. (p. 64)

What is [the material cause of a poem]? It is any situation, any organization of experience that reduces a person to a thing…. Of course, poems do not necessarily start from the material cause. They may start with transport (the final cause), or with a conventional form, or an idea, as well as with a depersonalized situation. But wherever in actual practice the poem starts, the material cause will be the Caliban who is Ariel's opposite. Eliot in his early criticism does not phrase the matter just this way. He merely emphasizes that art starts with the physiological, an actual brain in an actual environment, our "personal animal feelings," "our exact and practical passions." Then he goes on to speak of the poet as seeking to transmute our practical responses to our physical environment. He stresses that what makes a poet a poet is his inability to trim his feelings to fit the "quotidian." The poet is compelled to "extend" (another recurrent Eliot term) his feelings until he finds a point from which the quotidian is transformed in a new whole. The shock of surprise that Eliot finds great poetry provides comes, I infer, from our finding the world of flesh and blood completely transfigured while remaining flesh and blood. The poet regains his personality by becoming a new person. He does so by transforming the material cause into "matter" for art.

The efficient cause in the poetic process (something to do the moving) is simply good sense, or what the Augustans would have called good sense. Eliot sometimes calls it "wit." If genius is required to see the obvious, Eliot's critical genius is best illustrated by his clear view of the role of intelligence in the poetic process. Indebted as he is to Matthew Arnold's perception that the main fault in romantic art is not lack of poetic genius but lack of wit, Eliot goes beyond Arnold by virtue of his having a theory of language. Eliot sees that the role of knowledge in art is not to furnish the artist material, but to enable him to define exactly what and how much he feels in a given situation. (pp. 64-5)

I call "wit" the efficient cause because it is the first step whereby the poet moves that organization of experience he is against.

Eliot's discussions of what I call the efficient cause in the poetic process do not necessarily recognize a difference between the efficient and formal dimensions of the process. It is profitable for us, nevertheless, to observe a distinction between the kind of attention that defines the material cause and the kind of attention which finds a way to the final cause. What I mean by the efficient cause is most clearly placed by Eliot in early essays when he observes that it is only by the exercise of intelligence that we avoid "rhetoric;" intelligence enables us to determine exactly what and how much we feel in a given situation. "Intelligence" as Eliot uses the term is a characteristic of educated consciousness. It is the ability to see from a social perspective what Josiah Royce calls "the world of description." In the essay on Marvell, Eliot calls this "wit," and speaks of it as an ability to see an experience from the point of view of other experiences. It is a quality he finds lacking in artists like Blake and D. H. Lawrence.

The formal cause in the poetic process is the hardest to talk about. It is not identifiable with external forms like blank verse, sonnet form, the five act plot, or even quantity of sounds of English words, or figuration. Although without these the formal cause cannot exist, it itself, like Henry James' "figure in the carpet" escapes public formulation. When the poet is in motion, it is the pattern that Eliot speaks of in Burnt Norton whereby the poem reaches the stillness; at the moment of flight, it is not merely certain conventions, but the readiness of a public to respond to these—what Eliot in another place calls the "temper of an age." (p. 66)

[What] is crucial in the poetic process is a community of interpretation. Without that, art seems not possible. The kind of community required, moreover, is not furnished by such naturalistic activities as a beaux art ball, or the firemen's annual Fourth of July picnic—or is not insofar as these involve the extinction of the person in a collectivity. The kind of association involved, as Josiah Royce pointed out [in The Problem of Christianity], is one where the individual finds himself realized in the group.

The formal cause of a poem, then, is a social entity of the kind Josiah Royce has in mind when he speaks of a church, or Eliot when he speaks of a literary tradition. The essence of what Eliot has to say about the formal cause is contained in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." But Eliot's determination in that piece to avoid the metaphysical, makes his declarations somewhat cryptic.

If we take Eliot's essay, however, in conjunction with the characteristics of a formal cause already illustrated we see why Eliot stresses such points as the absolute difference between an event and an art event…. We see too why Eliot insists that the most original parts of a poet's work may be those points where the dead poets, his ancestors, make their presences felt…. We understand, in addition, why Eliot judges many readers to be capable of the experience of sincere emotion in a poem … and some readers to be capable of appreciating technical excellence …, but very few to be able to see a significant emotion in a poem, an emotion having its life in the poem and not the history of the poet.

Eliot's last statement invites the interpretation that a poem does not express what a man in a situation feels, but what the man feels in that situation as a representative of a community. It is the sensibility of the community that speaks, just as in Nietzsche's interpretation of Greek tragedy, the sensibility of the audience is given back by the protagonist through the mediating vision of the chorus.

But if, having glimpsed what in the poetic process the formal cause is, we now return to Eliot's problem as a poet-critic, we do so with the impression that his problem was insoluble. (pp. 67-8)

In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot is discussing, it would appear, only half of the formal problem—the relation of the poet to his dead ancestors. What of the poet's relation to his contemporaries? A tradition not exemplified in what George Herbert Mead called "the generalized other" is not alive. Was Eliot's problem not merely that of living in an age that was "formless" but one where counterfeit forms had driven out good? He formulated the matter in these terms in 1920 in "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama." After stating that "no man can invent a form, create a taste for it, and perfect it to," and pointing out how fortunate Shakespeare was to have "given into one's hands, a crude form, capable of indefinite refinement," he concluded, "But it is now very questionable whether there are more than two or three in the present generation who are capable, the least little bit, of benefiting by such advantages were they given."

The path through Eliot's criticism is strewn with terminological mementoes of his struggle to solve the seemingly insoluble problem of how to write poetry in a formless age. His path is crooked and many of his terms do not systematize very neatly. But if we remember that Eliot was a poet with a metaphysic and a literary critic convinced that the real world is a community, then the problem seems less insoluble. Eliot's early criticism becomes an interesting three-phase therapeutic operation. In phase one, he surveys malformations occurring in the literary body when writers lose contact with a metaphysical center. "Dissociation of sensibility" is the memento of this phase of the operation. Milton, Dryden, Tennyson, and Swinburne are some of the patients. In phase two, he demonstrates some of the wrong measures intelligent poets took when confronted by loss of depth, either in themselves or in their society. "Objective correlative," "tradition" are the mementoes of this stage; Shakespeare and Blake are the subjects. In phase three, the physician prescribes a right way to write when the social atmosphere is dry. "Poetry of design" is the most memorable of his terms. Ben Jonson on the English side, Henry James on the American, are the examples.

Eliot's terminological mementoes are keys to the various phases of his literary-critical operation. None is more important than dissociation of sensibility, and none harder to treat. To interpret it we need a concept and the one I start with derives from reading Eliot's criticism against his dissertation. Dissociation of sensibility is the dislocation of thought from feeling and feeling from thought that occurs when language orbits too far out from a metaphysical center … and spurious centers are established, the center of the restrictedly objective, or of the restrictedly subjective. The cause of the dissociation is faulty metaphysical vision that leads either to the absolutizing of some specific view (some order) or some specific point of view (some means of visualizing an order) instead of the point of view which cannot be fixed in any view or specific point of view. Thus when the literary process sickens, declines, and finally breaks down, the source of the malady is some such error of philosophic judgment…. (pp. 68-70)

No one, of course, can read Eliot's scattered remarks on dissociation of sensibility without realizing that the term points in half a dozen directions at once at phenomena occurring on different planes of experience. Eliot used it to classify pathological symptoms in the language process with no intimations given that the term had a philosophical background. His readers not having enjoyed the benefit of conversion by F. H. Bradley were unaware that the "union in all perception of thought with sense, the co-presence everywhere in all appearances of fact with ideality—this is the one foundation of truth." They were unaware that unified and dissociated sensibility are matters of degree; no human mind is ever fully unified, none ever fully dissociated. Nor were they warned that when a high degree of dissociation occurs in a culture, literary men can probably not do much about it on their own hook…. But in phase one of his operation, Eliot was perhaps less interested in theorizing than in classifying the classic symptoms that crop up at every level of the literary process when metaphysical awareness evaporates. He resembled a practitioner fresh from medical school filling his office with bottled specimens of the pathological. Here, illustrative of the onset of the dissociation is John Dryden: atrophy of the final cause. Here, illustrative of the end is Charles Algernon Swinburne: atrophy of the material cause. Here exemplifying symptoms at the middle of the way is William Blake: progressive deterioration of the formal cause. Here nearing the end is Alfred Lord Tennyson: loss of the efficient cause.

Eliot's exercises in literary pathology hardly helped him, however, to deal with the sickness of language as it affected him. What could the poet do to be well? In the second phase of the operation we see him showing what measures not to take. William Blake, in the prophetic books, and Shakespeare in Hamlet are the subjects. Two more terms, "tradition" and "objective correlative" are memorials of the moment.

William Blake's predicament was to be caught in a cultural context where the final cause of the literary act had sunk from sight, and his wrong move was to attempt to remedy the situation by becoming a one-man poet, prophet, and propagandist coercing a society into seeing with his metaphysical vision. He provides Eliot an instructive example of the point where a unified sensibility turns and becomes dissociated. (pp. 71-2)

When Eliot concludes that what Blake's genius needed "was a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own, and concentrated attention upon the problems of the poet," he is writing a prescription, not for Blake, but for himself. When he looks at Blake, he is intent on analyzing the response of a man of genius to an arid cultural situation…. (p. 73)

Shakespeare's wrong movement in Hamlet might seem to illustrate the exact opposite of Blake's. Blake had so clear a vision of the end to be attained that he tried to drive his readers toward it without regard to their habitual reaction patterns. He violated the formal cause. Shakespeare was so sensible of the need to play the literary game according to the established rules that he allowed the public formulas of his profession to dominate his vision. He betrays the final cause. But the terms of Eliot's diagnostic (in "Hamlet and his Problems" …) when applied to Shakespeare's movements seemed calculated to produce a maximum of mystification. How, one wondered, if Lady Macbeth washing her hands is an "objective correlative" can Hamlet playing the buffoon before Ophelia avoid being one too? But the question shows that we are seeing the objective correlative as a material factor rather than a formal one in the artistic act. Blake's failure to be visionary enough in the prophetic books might be called a failure to find an objective correlative. For the term means the way to what has been termed the final cause. Shakespeare took a way to his vision that went in the opposite direction from his vision. His state of mind (and now I am putting together hints that Eliot drops in separate later essays) was peculiar; he was undergoing the condition of aridity that is one phase of the movement toward religious commitment. In Hamlet he was trying (unconsciously perhaps) to recreate the experience of religious doubt in its meaning by the instrumentality of a revenge play whose only principle of form was the drift toward realism unlimited. This principle, although defective, was not as defeating of artistic value as Eliot's strictures implied. (pp. 73-4)

In talking about Shakespeare, as in talking about Blake, Eliot may well have been talking to himself. If Hamlet is an artistic failure, as Eliot asserts, then so is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Prufrock's intensities of response to the coffee-spoon circuit are in excess of the facts as they appear. In [his] two essays, Eliot is pointing out two directions the poet in a dry age must be wary of taking. When the depth has departed from communal life, the artist ought not to try to convert the community. And when the poet himself is in the grip of the demon of doubt, he ought not to attempt to force a formless realism to express his emotion.

If these are the remedial measures that Eliot forbad himself to take, what positive measures could he endorse? In approaching the third phase of Eliot's criticism, the prescriptive, we need to grant that at the root of the literary ailment was the malfeasance of the metaphysician manqué and that the cure had to start at the ground. A poet had first to re-establish his metaphysical standpoint. Then he had to find an appropriate form for an arid period. Finally he had to find a point of contact with the contemporary mind at a place where it met the mind of the past. The essay that lets us see how Eliot attempted to do these three things is the "Lettre d'Angleterre" … where Eliot names F. H. Bradley, Henry James, and Sir James Frazer as his "masters." That essay needs to be taken in conjunction, of course, with several earlier ones, especially those on Ben Jonson, Henry James, and James Joyce. "Poetry of design" is the terminological memento of this phase of Eliot's therapy. (pp. 74-5)

Bradley's dialectic freed the poet's standpoint, recovered for him a traditional metaphysical sensibility, and left him free to do the poet's work in an uncongenial age. It provided, moreover, a hint of a poetic method. If every appearance in life points to an absolute order which is the meaning of the appearance, then we can begin to take an absorbed interest in the negative forms of human activity. A poet, incapable of anything but thinking, can record observations of the moral life of the living dead, convinced that hollow men live in the Absolute too. (pp. 75-6)

From seeing a poetic method in a philosopher's mode of thought to examining the procedures of the past for an unsuspected tradition is but a step. I see Eliot taking it in his essays on [Marlowe, Jonson, and Dryden]…. "Ben Jonson," as a matter of fact, looks like a companion piece to "Hamlet and his Problems." If "Hamlet" is a statement of what not to do when caught in the dark night of the soul, "Ben Jonson" is, perhaps, a statement of what might be done. "Poetry of design," "poetry of the surface"—a poetry that is "so very conscious and deliberate that we must look with eyes alert to the whole before we apprehend the significance of any part," a poetry which uses surface details to create worlds "which are like systems of non-Euclidean geometry," a poetry whose logic "illuminates the actual world" by giving us a "new point of view from which to inspect it"—this is Eliot's prescription for himself. In an arid period like ours—so I see Eliot's ideas going together—poetry of the surface enables us to be tough and realistic without being victims of "realism unlimited."… We thus bypass attempts to reproduce ordinary emotional responses of actual life. (pp. 76-7)

Although I may be wrong, Eliot's ideas on intellectual poetry do not always seem intelligible without the presence of a specific ontological outlook. When, using a shifting vocabulary, he describes the method without describing the outlook, he is apt to leave readers perplexed….

I seem to see what Eliot is driving at when I find him placing Henry James next to F. H. Bradley as his second "master". What Eliot says about James's fictional characters resembles what he says about Ben Jonson's. They are real, but not realistic. They derive their peculiar reality … by the way they fit together to make a total design. But here Eliot clears up what he does not clarify elsewhere, the source of the vitality in James's designs. (p. 77)

If we come now to Eliot's third "master" and inqure what he contributed to the poet's rehabilitation, we may almost guess that he redeemed, for purposes of art, the efficient cause…. The artist's problem in an arid age is how, without falsifying the material that is his given, to move that material toward art…. What Frazer does is to pin up for attention facts drawn from pre-scientific, pre-urban societies widely separated in space and time. Frazer's facts are impressively factual so that they suit contemporary ways of seeing…. What they do, Eliot says, is provide a glimpse of the human soul from a new angle, a glimpse into the abyss as valuable as that provided by Freud and perhaps in the long run more useful. What Eliot means, perhaps, is that both Frazer and Freud provide insights into the real bases of psychic life, as opposed to the apparent foundations. (pp. 77-8)

Frazer's facts suggest that archaic and contemporary behaviour are already juxtaposed in contemporary consciousness, and that a poet can further refine the juxtapositions, not necessarily to disparage the latter and glorify the former as is sometimes supposed, but to disclose a ground of identity and to reveal the presence of a third entity, a metaphysical community in all men. That Frazer himself had no such vision of an ideal society as Eliot has enhances his value. (pp. 78-9)

[Ultimately the] pragmatic test of Eliot's critical theories was The Waste Land…. Although difficult, it is a public poem, the first of a series in which the discipline that the poet had won for himself in private is brought to bear on the crises of a world. (p. 79)

Eric Thompson, "The Criticism: 1917–1923," in his T. S. Eliot: The Metaphysical Perspective (copyright © 1963 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, pp. 51-79.

Austin Warren

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Eliot's theory of poetry falls neither into didacticism nor into the opposite heresies of imagism and echolalia. The real 'purity' of poetry—to speak in terms at once paradoxical and generic—is to be constantly and richly impure: neither philosophy, nor psychology, nor imagery, nor music alone but a significant compounding of them all.

Orthodoxy is always more difficult to state than heresy, which is the development of an isolated 'truth'; but Eliot excels at copious illustration and analysis of illustration; and his conception of poetic orthodoxy and the hierarchy of poets which he has arranged according to it may be said to have supplanted Arnold's. (pp. 160-61)

His characteristic virtue lies less in perspective than in that close study of the poetic text of which he was, in English, the inaugurator, and in the extraordinary kind of critical wit by which he compares, by virtue of a special, shared quality or category, historically and sometimes stylistically dissimilar poets—for example, Mallarmé and Dryden.

The critical instruments he once named as chief—analysis and comparison—he has used with exemplary skill. If his interest has gradually shifted from intrinsic criticism, it has been a shift of emphasis rather than a repudiation. The total effect of consecutively rereading Eliot's remarkable criticism—written over a considerable time, and chiefly 'occasional'—is to be surprised far less by disjunction than by continuity and development.

The conversion of Eliot to Christianity, and specifically Anglicanism, did not interrupt the continuity of his work either in criticism or in poetry. But it did introduce a new element, or concretize an old one, which required time for appropriation and assimilation. (p. 161)

Probably Pascal's Pensées was, more than any other single book, the instrument of the conversion; certainly the introduction to the Thoughts which Eliot wrote for 'Everyman's Library' (1931) remains not only the finest single religious essay he ever wrote but the nearest to that statement which … he was never willing to offer of his 'grounds' for the adoption of an intellectual position distancing him from so many former allies. (pp. 162-63)

The immediate effect of his conversion on Eliot as a prose writer was strong, and marked, for something like the next ten years…. [Thoughts after Lambeth] has its technical interest to the ecclesiastical and the social historian, and does much to define Eliot's particular, carefully thought out and by no means extravagant brand of Catholic ('High Church') Anglicanism; but in the company of the other pieces in his 460 page Selected Essays, it seems rather grotesquely out of place—both sectarian and provincial.

The same cannot be said of the paper on "Religion and Literature" … called The Faith That Illuminates (1935). The first paragraph contains the propositional statements that "Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint."… And "The greatness" of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by "literary standards." (There are two questions, one of the genuineness of literature, a matter for aesthetic judgment, and another, that of rank, which requires the addition of ethical and theological judgments.) At least, this must be the case with "all Christians."

This essay attempts the work of a treatise, raises more questions than it answers, and seems at many points in contradiction to Eliot's statements elsewhere. For example, it seems to divide literature into form and style on the one hand and content and philosophy on the other. And of the two rival views, that art is an imitation which 'catharsizes' and that art is an imitation which incites to imitation, that art is propaganda, Eliot here comes down heavily on the latter side. His strongest point (not original, of course, though he seems to make it as though it were) is that it is popular novels—read passively and for amusement, which may have "the greatest and least suspected influence upon us" (with its corollary, implied not stated, that it is people who read and have read little, the relatively uneducated, who are most affected by the books they chance to read, making, as they do, the least distinction between 'life' and art). (pp. 164-65)

[Notes towards a Definition of Culture] is probably the most considered and reasonable defense of Conservatism now available. It proposes a state in which an elite of intellect and talent, necessarily uncontinuous, is counterbalanced by a hereditary aristocracy, representing both continuity and character, such social responsibility as is approximately transmissible. It sensibly holds that the highest kind of education cannot be given to all, that the degree as well as kind of education will have to be determined by class, both social and intellectual: equality is not justice. And it maintains that a community is bound together by its culture (which is the incarnation in customs and sensibility of its real as distinct from its avowed religion): popular culture (culture in the anthropological sense) is continuous with and finds intellectual articulation in the culture of the upper classes. And, finally, the Notes best exposits the view, long implicit in Eliot's writings, that the modern National State represents but one stage in the ordered series which extends from the village to the region…. Large grandiose 'universals' (in which principles unite) and governments which are 'representative' must be balanced against local and regional governments with direct participation and corresponding regional cultures. The book includes no practical suggestions as to how to bring about such a State. It is the presentation of an Idea of Society still partially exemplified by England …; it is a plea to save and preserve what remains of an everywhere threatened order, and an attempt intellectually to define the principles which, however imperfectly, such an order exemplifies.

This book, which has had intellectual commendation even from those in little sympathy with its ideas, is probably the best of Eliot's writings on subjects outside the range of his professional competences. (pp. 168-69)

In 1957 Eliot published On Poetry and Poets, a collection of literary-critical essays written subsequently to those in Selected Essays, originally published in 1932. Like its predecessor, this book is the author's own selection; and another critic may regret both inclusions and omissions….

But with this puzzlement over inclusions and exclusions one is familiar. The impressive and reassuring thing about On Poetry is its evidence that, though his sense of social responsibility—what might be called his assumption of the full Arnoldian role—had increased, Eliot showed himself continuingly capable of literary judgment and discernment. (p. 170)

In the essay on "Johnson as a Critic and Poet," Eliot has provided a really superior piece of literary-historical criticism, so exemplary in method that one wishes he had written more such studies…. The method consists of applying to a group of 'period' poems the critical theory and standards of the great critic of the period…. The attempt is to understand Johnson's praise, together with its reserves, and to apply both to a poem, or a passage from a poem, by the poet at hand. Such an exercise, like studies in 'sources and influences' which transcend the mechanical, is work not for apprentices but for the most sensitive and mature scholar-critic. (pp. 171-72)

Three more essays in On Poetry require special attention. They are distinctly 'later' essays; lack the brilliance and audacity of the early masterpieces, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," "The Metaphysical Poets," and "Andrew Marvell." They develop and bring to fulfillment another side of Eliot, present from the start in that first book of essays, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, with its critical essays on poets and its critical essays on critics. Eliot was a criticizer of the critics from the beginning; and he learned the art of criticism from the critics as he learned the art of poetry from the poets. The three 'later essays' are "What Is Minor Poetry?" and "What Is a Classic?"—both of 1944, and "The Frontiers of Criticism" (1956). I. A. Richards might well have illustrated by these essays the fine remark he made in a memorial characterization of Eliot: "Few minds have more enjoyed the process of pondering a discrimination: pondering it rather than formulating it or maintaining it…." These essays are such ponderings.

The 1944 essays form a kind of pair, and complement each other, both having to do with both order and hierarchy. They complement, but there is no neat matching or correspondence; for 'major,' and not 'classic,' is the strict antonym of 'minor.' There hovers the distinction between genuine literature, whatever its rank, and 'great' literature, a distinction which is never quite precipitated: we may infer that all classics must be great literature though not all great books are classics. (pp. 172-73)

It is much to be doubted that, even when Eliot called himself a "classicist in literature," he meant by classicism anything more specific than 'critical perspective.' He certainly never called his own poetry 'classical.'… To be a 'classical' poet in an unclassical age (i.e., an age which has no "common style" because it has no coherent culture) is necessarily different from being a classical poet in a classical age.

Of the dictionary senses of 'classic,' Eliot certainly intends, in ["What Is a Classic?"], the primary—of the first class, that excellence in whatever sphere which gives the standard from which all other classes derive their degree of subordination. But, assuming that, he offers as the one word which suggests the maximum meaning of the term for him, the word maturity; and this is so ultimate a concept that it cannot be defined except circularly: we have to assume that 'mature' hearers already know what maturity means. Its concrete primary meaning is organic, agricultural, biological, psychological; then, by natural extension, it is applied to civilization, to language, to literature—perhaps to philosophy as 'view of life.'… Eliot recognizes that "to make the meaning of maturity really apprehensible—indeed, even to make it acceptable—to the immature, is perhaps impossible."

These are understatements. In the world Eliot lived in, and we live in, even should there by any general agreement on what persons and cultures, and what works of art, are 'mature,' there are many barbarians, and some art connoisseurs, who clearly and expressly prefer primitivism and the archaic or the decadent, the underripe or the overripe. What argument against, or with, such? What argument, indeed, can there be about 'first principles'? And it is with first principles that Eliot is concerned in this essay—the first principles of theory, or of conviction, which lie behind or beneath all profitable practical criticism.

This essay is Eliot's most seriously felt and coherently thought out attempt at latter-day statement of his total position—the widest in scope and the least sectarian. It covers, and brings together, the aesthetic and the ethical, manners and language, tradition and the individual poetic talent as he had not succeeded in doing since that first famous and 'classic' essay with which he began his career. (pp. 174-75)

["The Frontiers of Criticism"] did not, at least upon first reading, please Eliot's fellow critics. It appeared a lowering of the seriousness with which their common pursuit had been followed in The Sacred Wood; Eliot, who had done so much to inaugurate and dignify literary criticism, appeared now trying to demote it. The 'close reading' of poems, which his own poetry required, and which his own criticism of poetry had exemplified, was now called, at least as practiced by the younger academics, "the lemon-squeezer school of criticism." Further, he appeared to dismiss his theoretical essays like "Tradition and the Individual Talent" by the reference to "a few notorious phrases which have had a truly embarrassing success in the world," and he limited the best of his "literary criticism" to essays on poets and poetic dramatists who had influenced him, the by-products of his "private poetry-workshop." The old dogmatism and audacity are absent from this lecture as well as the close writing of "The Metaphysical Poets." Eliot has become so tolerant, even appreciative, of the varieties of literary criticism, so willing to extend the "frontiers" … that we may forget (what comes out clearly in the pendant "To Criticize the Critic") that for him the center of the country, the farthest from frontier peril, remains the criticism of poetry written by a poet. (p. 176)

Perhaps the real surprise of the [essay] lies in its assertion … that a literary critic need not be "purely" literary…. Like the poet himself, he must have other interests; "for the literary critic is not merely a technical expert …: the critic must be the whole man, a man with convictions and principles, and knowledge and experience of life"—a definition with which no humanist can disagree. Such a man would indeed be what Eliot desiderated in the opening essay of The Sacred Wood….

["To Criticize the Critic"] reviews Eliot's own literary criticism, both practical and theoretical, his essays on particular poets and poet-dramatists and those on theory of poetry and theory of criticism. (p. 177)

Eliot clearly asserts that he does not think of himself as the "philosophical critic" like Richards, or "the Critic as Moralist" like Dr. Leavis, or the "Professional Critic" like his friend P. E. More, but as the poet-critic whose criticism is a "by-product of his creative activity." In his opinion, indeed, his own criticism has not had, and could not have had, "any influence whatever" apart from the poems; and he is certain that he has written best about the writers who have influenced his own poetry…. (p. 178)

As for his theorizing, he was never doing more than generalizing his own sensibility, his own tastes; and the celebrated phrases like "dissociation of sensibility" and "objective correlative" were but "conceptual symbols for emotional preferences."

On the topic of Continuity and Coherence in his critical thought and writing, he has his own opinion to give. He objects to having forty years of 'occasional' writing reduced to simultaneous existence…. He found, as any critic will, in rereading his own old work, views he now maintains "with less firmness of conviction," or only with reservations, statements the meaning of which he no longer understands, and some matters in which he has simply lost interest, even in whether he still holds the same belief or not—in other words, shifts of interest and of emphasis; but no radical break or disastrous incoherence. (p. 179)

Even before Eliot's death, there began to exist a large amount of interpretative commentary on his criticism—as well as his poetry; and there has been very considerable disagreement among able fellow critics, including Ransom, Tate, Winters, and Leavis. The issues disputed are, principally, the degree to which Eliot's religious conversion altered his critical position: whether, from being a purely aesthetic critic he became a moral one, or a combination of both; and whether, if there was a change, it was a break or a shift of emphasis; then, whether Eliot's criticism is full of self-contradictions, or, instead, reasonably coherent, or even—in essence, if not in form of presentation—methodical and coherent enough to be called systematic; and, finally, perhaps, whether the prime value of his criticism lies in its theory, or theoretical implications, or whether it lies rather in his corruscation of 'insights.' (p. 180)

[However, it] is impossible to deny that, despite a flexible terminology and shifts in emphasis, there is, throughout Eliot's work, a substantial unity and coherence of thought; if not a system of conscious thought, then a coherence of conscience and 'sensibility,' a persistent Strebung toward a structural articulation of a serious man's emotions, feelings, perceptions, and purposes.

This must not be read as a 'strategy' or a 'program,' or rendered too conscious. If Eliot had ambitions to system-building, he would certainly have taken pains to read over his own earlier work and retrospectively explain or justify at least seeming contradictions and inconsistencies: his repeated statements, till the last essay, that he has not read over his earlier work, seem arrogant on the part of a publishing and eminent critic. But his intention was other, I think: he sought for no merely verbal or even overtly logical consistency but one which should depend on the constant maintenance of spiritual integrity. And so, though he treats each of his prose pieces as 'occasional,' his mind is possessed by the occupation with a steady series of central topics. And each time he takes one of these up, he starts afresh to think it out, hoping to advance his development of thought on this topic, and trusting that his mind has such a reasonable degree of continuity and coherence that there will be no really shocking break but some advance, at least some new distinctions and refinements.

Eliot has been called an 'empirical critic,' and so he is. He knew the kind of aesthetician who constructs his categories out of a minimal experience of little-enjoyed artifacts, and had a just horror of such. But an empirical critic is not required to dispense with literary theory—only to make sure that his theories do not go beyond his own literary experience, including (for he is not a solipsist) his experience of the experience of others.

In Eliot's criticism there is, at least in potentia, a theoretical generalization of his experience as so defined, and that is all to the good. But—and there his past (and perhaps more impressionist)—readers have been accurate: the dominant, the crowning achievement lies in the vitality, vivacity, and copiousness of his perceptions and insights—the constant and invigorating sense of a first-rate mind intent upon the process of thinking. (pp. 182-83)

Austin Warren, "Continuity and Coherence in the Criticism of T. S. Eliot" (respective portions reprinted here by permission of the University of Michigan Press and the editors of The Sewanee Review; originally published in a shorter form as "Continuity in T. S. Eliot's Literary Criticism," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXIV, No. 1, Winter, 1966), in his Connections, The University of Michigan Press, 1970, pp. 152-83.

Roger Sharrock

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

This essay is concerned not with extracting principles but with establishing the tone of Eliot's criticism…. [It] is necessary to go back to the germinal work, the essays collected in The Sacred Wood (1920), to find in a pure form the relation between what is said in his criticism and the authoritative personal tone; in this relation lies the secret of his compulsive success…. [The] rhetorical element is important in these early essays. The quiet tone, precise but hedged with qualification, is the exact embodiment of the thought and a closer examination of it may lead us to look more closely at the thought…. (pp. 26-7)

In The Sacred Wood the ideas and style are already fully formed and the sense of speaking from an assured position is in the young Eliot quite dauntingly middle-aged…. [The] impression left by The Sacred Wood is that a completely honest and rigorous intellectual survey of the highest order has been carried out as it were off stage, and that what one is getting is not even a full report of the results, but simply the application of a few of the results, devastatingly and accurately, to certain current problems of literary value that have come in Eliot's way. The later essays do not develop this critical approach, and in them the stylistic impact is blurred rather than sharpened; they explain and extend certain features of the approach by moving further in the direction of an explicitly theological and sociological attitude to literature.

All the great English critics have been poets seeking to justify their own practice in poetry (F. R. Leavis is the outstanding exception). Eliot resembles Sidney, Dryden, Johnson and Wordsworth in this respect. To put it like this is perhaps to suggest too much that one activity was secondary to the other, that the criticism was a programme and the poetry a demonstration; better to say that the young Eliot's interest in what might be done in English poetry and how the language might be freshly used was at once so intense and so self-conscious that he was compelled both to write poems himself and to say what he was doing by implication in comment on works that appeared to him strikingly helpful, technically related to his own work, or strikingly illustrative of methods that seemed to him no longer profitable.

No clearly defined principles emerge from these essays: the tone is dry, ironic and cagey, as if full-blown theorizing is for fools…. There are no key phrases like Wordsworth's 'the real language of men', no wooing slogans like Arnold's 'the best that is known and thought in the world'. The manner is dry and reticent, and yet it is exciting because of a reserve of intellectual passion all the more impressive for being held back. And we feel that what is being held back is not so much a body of undeclared principles as a bitterly acquired knowledge of the business of living, passion as well as intellect. (pp. 27-9)

The impression gained from the tone predominates because in his handling of ideas Eliot is habitually cautious and evasive. In this he is the successor of Matthew Arnold, however temperamentally opposed the two may be. He describes Arnold as more a propagandist for criticism than a critic; to both the critical intelligence is not merely worthwhile but indispensable. They share a common aim: the defence of the rigorous intellectual analysis of artistic works in an England which is felt to be potentially hostile to such an approach…. As Arnold had done, Eliot too in his later work moved towards a broader interest in the problems of culture and society. (p. 29)

The characteristic insinuating tone [of Eliot's criticism] can be seen in the careful dropping of certain names on the margin of the main arguments of the essays. The disparaging references to Milton have become notorious…. The favourable references to Stendhal and the extremely hostile ones to Meredith might also be mentioned…. (p. 30)

Faults and virtues are hinted at, but no full case, or even the suggestion of a critical case is made out; yet the allusions occur in the course of carefully reasoned arguments and therefore draw to themselves from the main argument some of its force and weight of judgement…. [Eliot] carried out a series of small-scale intellectual reassessments of particular writers so well that readers could fill in the gaps between these new landmarks for themselves, as one joins up the dots in a child's drawing book, so that a whole new orientation of English literary tradition began to appear. (pp. 30-1)

Eliot's criticism is directed against three sacred, no longer argued presuppositions of late nineteenth-century poetic mythology: first, the idea that only the genius, the great man, matters, and that he is solitary, owing nothing to the community of his fellows (Eliot calls this 'the perpetual heresy of English culture')…. He argues that we need second-order minds which are not the same as second-rate minds; the great man may be greater for a current of fresh ideas which only the second-order minds can maintain, and the poet who is less than great will certainly profit from that current. Here again the revolution has been accomplished, not of course entirely on account of Eliot's writings, but owing to impersonal pressures in our society and the advent of mass education. (p. 31)

The second assumption, which is clearly linked with the first, is that the quality of a work of art is dependent on an unanalysable personal emotion which lies beyond intellectual discourse and which the beholder or audience shares with the artist. The third assumption, which may seem superficially to be at odds with the second, is that poetry offers some form of uplift, consolation or philosophy or beautiful thoughts. A closer inspection will show us that the last two ideas really complement each other. If the poem as poem cannot be analysed, the ideas and moral attitudes that are taken up into it are at least detachable and give the critic something to talk about.

Eliot's criticism of all these presuppositions is that they draw the reader's attention away from the poetry itself to something else, the pleasant emotions generated in him by the poem, the interest of the personality he feels is being revealed to him, or some kind of ennobling statement about life…. All views are false which try to substitute something else for the poem. It is noticeable now that in arguing for the substantiality and indivisibility of poetry as a thing in itself Eliot is returning to the chief Romantic doctrine of poetic uniqueness in order to dismiss late aberrations of that doctrine. Thus on what I have crudely summarized as the second assumption to which he is hostile, his attitude is ambiguous: he holds with Coleridge and the Symbolists that the poem is an imaginative fusion reaching an effect that lies beyond personal associations and beyond the local or historical (lexical) meanings of words and phrases…. (pp. 31-2)

In the first essays of The Sacred Wood Eliot describes 'The Perfect Critic' and then various contemporary 'Imperfect Critics'. All the latter are interested in something other than the poem as unique and independent object….

The key words used in the passage characterizing the perfect critic are 'intelligence', 'feeling' and 'feelings', 'emotion', and 'sensibility' (the latter less frequently). Combinations of these terms occur throughout the essays; they suggest that Eliot's hidden theory of poetry is based on a theory of human perception. In real life from moment to moment feeling (sensuous perception) and thought (reflection on it) come together in the continuous stream of consciousness, so that the poet looking faithfully at his experience can never separate thought and feeling (together they form his sensibility); abstract thought comes later, after both the original experience and the fused thought resulting from it; so does emotion, for in Eliot's usage emotion is something that plays later about experience, not a part of it like the immediate feelings—it is both a luxury product and a stage on the road towards increasing indefiniteness. (p. 33)

The classical severity of all this, the austere intellectual tone, is aimed at getting the critic away from emotions and personalities and abstract systems to the hard facts of real moments of perception. There is a paradox here: Eliot's intellectualism, his approval of the hard definite outline …, his distrust of the blurred emotion mediating between creation and the expression of personality …, is directed to a conception of literature which is not intellectualistic, but which envisages a 'whole man' in whom thought, feeling and even muscular sensation may be blended, and in him also the final success of creation is not entirely under the control of the will: the good poet who has struggled for years to refine his technique may yet be surprised at what he finds himself saying. (pp. 33-4)

The fullest statement of Eliot's view of the impersonal artist is found in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' which comes nearer than any of the other essays to a consistent formulation of ideas…. The passages on the fusion of thought and feeling declare that only such 'felt thought' can do justice to the truth of individual moments of experience; in a similar manner, the historical sense which, though it is said to involve great labour, is clearly not the same as historical learning, can achieve a knowledge of the timeless through the understanding of particular historical moments.

Eliot's conception of tradition raises more difficulties than any other aspect of his view of literature. It is possible to see how it chimes in with his other ideas; it is especially helpful as a ballast for his view of the poet. If the poet is likely to be hamstrung by doctrinaire intentions, if even his attainment of greatness is a matter of hit and miss in particular historical circumstances, then it is necessary for the creator who must be so aware of imperfection to have an external standard: the impersonal artist takes his place in an impersonal order. It is equally easy to see that Eliot's 'simultaneous order' is not some vast extension of literary history at which literary historians can grind away linking up everything with influences and derivations. This is an aesthetic order. The past is altered by the present. (pp. 35-6)

[It is not clear] whether Eliot thinks the poet must always be in the position of having an increasingly large available past of thought and literature or whether this is a special crisis of the twentieth century. The latter seems more likely, availability in a liberal, internationalized epoch in which cultural communication through both time and space has become highly organized and the 'imaginary museum' extended to all the arts. Eliot does not take much account of how in other periods poets might have been able to work with much less self-consciousness about the past. To be sure, he does show some recognition of this in the essay 'The Possibility of a Poetic Drama' where he discusses the value of a conventional form like the Elizabethan blank verse drama for the writer, especially the minor writer. If there is no tradition, he says here, we lose our hold on the present; if there is no established form, the writer has to waste time and energy in hammering out a home-made form for himself. (pp. 37-8)

As for the objection that his programme demands too much learning for the modern poet and will end by turning him into a pedant, Eliot finally evades a straight answer that would state what he expects the honest minor poet actually to do…. So the nature of the consciousness of the past remains largely undefined, while what is being stressed is its value in taking the poet outside himself and so assisting him to depersonalize his art. Therefore the second section of 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' comes round again to discussing the impersonality of the artist. The good poet is not a more interesting personality or a man who has more to say than others; what marks him off is that his mind is a more finely-perfected medium into which all kinds of different feelings are free to enter into new combinations. (pp. 38-9)

Given the impersonality of the poet, there must be a binding agent other than emotion or personal intention to bring about the fusion of the various elements. This is the 'objective correlative'…. [One] is driven to conclude that the concept of the objective correlative originates in order to fill the gap which has been there described between the mind that suffers and the mind that creates, to obviate the impression of a complete stasis, the impersonal artist frozen in the impersonal order of tradition. But if the correlative is a set of objects, a situation or a chain of events, it still remains to be operated in some manner by the conscious mind: the dynamic of the creative process still retreats before the reader, and this is not surprising; not surprising in any attempt at a theory of poetry, but especially not in Eliot, when he starts from the recognition of the equation between a partial, contingent individual contribution and a varying measure of sheer good luck. (pp. 39-40)

The essays on particular poets, Jonson, Marlowe, Massinger in The Sacred Wood, and the subsequent ones in Elizabethan Essays, carry out the programme already discussed. Certain points and curves are plotted along the line of that subterranean, unhistorical tradition which is the true one for the poet. As with Arnold's 'touchstones', the plotting of the graph can be highly personal. The same intelligence and complete control of subject displayed in the poems and in the theoretical essays are applied to substantiating the practice of complexity. Hence the rehabilitation of Donne and the Metaphysicals.

Thus the reviewer's judgements, the hints, the comments on style, form and metre, valid as so many of them still seem and the basis for so much of our thinking about poetry, may be traced to an extremely personal and special epistemology. Great poetry is complex and impersonal, because the isolated moments making up contingent experience are complex structures of feelings in which perceiving subject and objective outer world merge in an impersonal order.

The great achievement of these essays … is to define the individual quality of writers by close attention to the language of their poetry…. The poet creates language and is renewed by it. When Eliot stabilized his own poetic style he became a less exciting critic. The Sacred Wood records the growth of a poet's mind. Language, form and metre have more life than the individual intention. The individual struggle with them can produce both despair and joy. Later in the Quartets Eliot is still meditating on language: the struggle with words will be decided by a complex of cultural forces of which the poet cannot foresee the outcome…. But there is also the occasional happy reward of the poet, when the words come together and make a significant point on the line of tradition. (pp. 41-2)

Roger Sharrock, "The Critical Revolution of T. S. Eliot," in Ariel (© A. Norman Jeffares and the University of Calgary, 1971), Vol. 2, No. 1, January, 1971, pp. 26-42.

George Watson

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The question sounds eminently reasonable, but remains unanswerable: what is revolutionary in the criticism of T. S. Eliot? Everyone—except apparently Eliot himself—can see that the critical tradition of the whole English-speaking world was turned upside down by the trickle of articles and lectures—there has never, strictly, been a critical book—issuing from his pen since the First World War. But the nature of his influence as a critic has always been felt to be mysterious and indefinable…. Disciples—even enemies—have hardly succeeded in identifying what is new and special in Eliot's criticism, though they have been loud both in praise and censure. The most discreet of major English critics, he has practised evasion and reticence with determined skill. In his earliest period, positions were tentatively stated and argument disarmed by a certain irony; in his middle years, argument was openly spurned; and in the later years, since the Second World War, he elaborately pretended never to have been a major critic at all. Altogether, his critical career might have been planned as a vast hoax to tempt the historian into solemnities for the sport of Philistines.

The key to Eliot's reticence as a critic surely lies in the relationship between his criticism and his poetry. In a sense, his criticism is a smoke-screen to the rest of his career. It misleads as much as it reveals about the quality of his poems, and the smoke-screen grows thicker as the years pass. By the 1950s Eliot's determination to hide himself from the devotees of his poetry by means of critical red-herrings had grown so obvious as to suggest a possible motive: the intense love of privacy, perhaps, of a fastidious New Englander whose poetry has led him into the indignity of spiritual self-exposure. (pp. 168-69)

The formal properties of Eliot's criticism, at least, are clear enough, and may be summarily described. An Eliot essay is a statement of an attitude, a prise de position, an evaluation. It does not even pretend to be biographical, in the sense that an Arnold essay so pretends: Arnold's claim to be a disciple of Sainte-Beuve gives way, with Eliot, to a frankly unhistorical insistence upon the immediacy of certain poets here and now, and Eliot hardly ever stoops to purvey information. Secondly, 'relevance' refers to modern poets rather than to modern readers…. Thirdly, Eliot eschews close analysis in favour of general judgements; his taste and techniques were formed decades before the New Criticism of the thirties, and he never practises the 'close analysis' characteristic of that school.

These are hardly arguable statements about Eliot's criticism. They go a very little way, however, toward describing what an Eliot essay is like. To do that would require a more impressionistic account, leading to statements that might prove highly debatable, since the rhetoric of his criticism is opaque enough to leave a good deal in doubt. What does seem clear is that Eliot is Arnold's successor in terms of the audience he expects for criticism: a minority audience, aware of itself as a cultural leadership, and peculiarly vulnerable, like Arnoldians, to the seductions of intellectual snobbery. It might be unfair to attribute to Eliot himself the stock-market approach to literary values that characterizes a good many of his followers; but certainly, in this regard, Eliot finishes what Arnold began. A price-scale of values for an intellectual élite among the dead poets, of a kind that would certainly have puzzled Dryden, Johnson, and Coleridge, is part of the Eliot inheritance, however little he may like it. But the object of Eliot's criticism is not just an Addisonian ambition to correct taste: more narrowly, it is the correction of taste with a view to influencing his own future readership and audiences. (pp. 169-70)

The originality of his essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', with which his critical career effectively begins, lies not in its anti-liberalism but in its application of that fashionable doctrine to the immediate critical situation. It is … evidently an unofficial manifesto of Eliot's criticism, or an account of the principles the young critic planned to bring to bear upon English poetry….

'Tradition and the Individual Talent' is not the kind of essay that invites open discussion. Its tone is drily pontifical, and Eliot's distaste for debate and free speech is firmly suggested in the rhetorical properties of the essay. It asks not to be examined—which is a very good reason for examining it. The deliberate perversities of Eliot's use of language are part of the Arnoldian minority-appeal of the essay…. (p. 171)

Contempt for historical criticism is confirmed in Eliot's argument as it develops: poets do not express themselves in poetry, but escape from themselves by 'a continual extinction of personality'; so that historical criticism, by implication, is convicted of looking for the wrong things. It looks to the poet and his historical situation, whereas the poem itself points away from both towards some ideal of impersonal truth…. (p. 172)

What Eliot calls 'the historical sense' … can be grouped among other attacks upon the historiography of literature in the age that followed Arnold. But Eliot's real historical sense is not to be dismissed: it is far finer than Arnold's, who often seems to live and think in a straitjacket of mid-Victorian enlightenment. There are plenty of passages in The Sacred Wood, and even later, notably in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, that make one wonder what a delicately intuitive historian of literature was lost in Eliot. In the early essays, attacks on the historical principle, and examples of acute historical judgement, coexist oddly in the same passage…. (p. 173)

Eliot's critical convictions cannot be said to evolve in any very striking sense. His alleged change of heart over Milton between 1935 and 1947 is more like a tactical withdrawal under fire; his growing scepticism, as he aged, over the utility of criticism—any criticism—certainly modifies his tone of voice, but hardly his deepest convictions about literature…. Eliot did not have to become older to learn that the past is not a mere sequence. It is all in The Sacred Wood. Still, preoccupations change where theologies do not, and if there are few Eliot juvenilia and no dramatic changes in front, the mass of his five hundred essays, reviews and published lectures still falls comfortably enough into three periods, not unlike the Arnoldian dialectic of the two literary periods separated by an intermediate decade of social interests. Eliot's career evolved in a broadly similar way: from the first, pre-Christian decade (1919–28) of literary preoccupation, mainly with sixteenth and seventeenth-century dramatists and poets in The Sacred Wood (1920), Homage to John Dryden: Three Essays (1924), and For Lancelot Andrewes (1928); through a second decade of social and religious criticism (1929–39) following on his conversion and his final break with 'modernism', in Dante (1929), Thoughts after Lambeth (1931), After Strange Gods (1934); to the post war Olympian period, which marks a certain renewal of interest in critical (especially dramatic) issues, though hardly in the concentrated form of the first decade. It already seems clear … that any serious estimate of Eliot as a critic must depend upon the early essays. Stiff, sly, and pompous as their language sometimes is, they are none the less even-tempered, conscientious, and exploratory, and Eliot's frigid distaste for debate is less evident here, and less damaging, than in his later writings. Reshaped as Selected Essays in 1932, and since enlarged, the early essays are a nearly complete monument to his genius as a critic. (pp. 174-75)

What unites the essays [in The Sacred Wood] is not any doctrine of the 'integrity' of poetry, but of its availability. Eliot behaves towards the dead poets of Europe with all the casual skill of a shoplifter in a department store. He knows what he wants and what he can use, and he seizes upon it as coolly as if no established scale of values already existed among the English poets. He arrives at his views by a process of unhurried irreverence, gently defining what he means (and, very characteristically, what he does not mean), and concluding with judgements which are readily felt to be radical and vaguely momentous…. [In] general, only the most masterly and refined rhetorical analysis could explain how much contrives to be suggested in these essays, as against how relatively little is openly stated, and how powerful and 'insidious' … is the youthful irreverence that inspires them…. ['Rule] of succession by the sword', by which a runaway slave might make his bid for a precarious liberty, provides a key to the unity of Eliot's first critical essays. A youthful poet turns critic to justify his own place in the line of succession, to stake a claim. He is priest and murderer. Perhaps the metaphor is doubly suggestive: Eliot, the new priest of the 'tradition', inherits by a kind of critical massacre, belittling the rights of dead poets to historical existences and boldly plundering their remains. (pp. 176-78)

The plunder of the new priest-king in the essays of the twenties, is various, but mainly Elizabethan in The Sacred Wood, Metaphysical and Restoration in the collections that follow. The Renaissance emphasis is in itself a little surprising: in a literary sense Eliot is so much the child of Arnold … that one might have expected him to echo Arnold's youthful horror of 'those d—d Elizabethans'. But it is still possible to guess why he did not. In the first place, though a Francophile like Arnold, he shared none of Arnold's distaste for English civilization as such. In criticism and in poetry Eliot is a British patriot…. Only those who insist upon reading Eliot as total irony will deny the note of infatuation with an age which British nationalists are irresistibly led to glorify…. And secondly, Eliot sees in the Elizabethans and their successors qualities invisible to Arnold. Arnold thought them responsible for the confused and fragmentary quality of English romanticism: Eliot, very characteristically, sees them not as historical influences at all, but simply as a school where the apprentice-poet can learn his craft…. The more outrageously out of fashion the poet, indeed, the better Eliot seems to like the notion of finding a use for him: Tennyson and Swinburne are respectfully handled, for example, Shelley and Keats not. (pp. 178-79)

The celebrated hint in the first of these essays—it is hardly elaborate enough to be called a theory—of a 'dissociation of sensibility', of thought from sensation, is best studied in this light: that of Eliot's own poetic ambitions in the twenties. It identifies a breach he sought to heal:

A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility … [But] in the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden.

Eliot's majestic historical sense suddenly reveals two systems of vast correspondences, a poetical tradition tragically split beyond a point where romanticism could help. But his own use of the theory seems out of touch with the theory itself. We should have expected Milton and Dryden to be judged as equal offenders: but in fact Milton is ignored until 1935 and then lightly dismissed, Dryden celebrated in an early essay of 1921 as a mentor for poets of today and tomorrow…. Dryden, for all his 'commonplace mind', is useful as a verbal quarry for Eliot and poets like Eliot. Milton is not.

Eliot's two lectures on Milton, like his essays on poetic drama, overlap the second period of political and theological interests, and even the third, exhausted phase of critical activity. They take tone and colour from the fact that they are belated. Both are written in a convoluted style of qualification and reservation that grows more complex with the years …; and it is only by a narrow margin that the first lecture can be called an exercise in the qualified rejection of Milton, or the second one of qualified assent. By the thirties, negatives and limiting judgements settle thickly upon the prose of Eliot—'by this I do not mean to say that …' 'perhaps', 'somewhat'. Argument advances crabwise: the Milton of the first lecture is called 'a very great poet indeed', but 'a bad influence'. But to be a bad influence is not necessarily 'a serious charge'. But Milton's poetry 'could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever', and the twentieth-century poet too must struggle against it. And then, startlingly, Eliot shows his hand:

The kind of derogatory criticism that I have to make upon Milton is not intended for such persons who cannot understand that it is more important, in some vital respects, to be a good poet than to be a great poet….

It is Eliot's rooted assumption that criticism is an aid to his own career as a poet, rather than any intuition of a 'dissociation of sensibility', that governs his choices here. A good poet is one who, like Dryden, is useful to later 'poetical practitioners'; a great poet, such as Milton, may lack the merits of the salvageable. (pp. 179-81)

The Sacred Wood, then, though it remains the nub of Eliot's achievement as a critic, offers only elusive hints concerning his system of values, and few certainties beyond an intuition of his egoistical purpose in using criticism as 'a by-product of my private poetry-workshop' with the object of judging and rejecting the work of the past by the standards of his own immediate needs as a poet. Certainties followed, in the second decade (1929–39), but they were of a kind to alarm his disciples and darken a reputation in an age even more starkly controversial than the 1860's. It is easy now to see that the bright young people of the twenties, for whom a volume of Eliot's poems, and even The Sacred Wood, had talismanic force, had failed to note the illiberal echoes in Eliot's first works. They are faint, but they are there: the contrast posed between a heroic past and a decadent present, the distaste for argument, the contempt for cosmopolitanism, the references easily interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as anti-Semitic…. Looking back, one can see as inevitable a schism between master and disciples which left the disciples with a sense of angry betrayal, and the master with some sense of relief. Eliot, like Arnold, preferred to walk by himself.

Eliot's second period opens with a delightfully disarming prelude, the monograph Dante (1929), a frankly amateurish, enthusiastic introduction to Dante for readers who possess little Italian, and the kind of book that no one could dislike. Eliot's love for Dante, infectiously suggested, looks literary rather than neo-scholastic, a poet's rather than a convert's enthusiasm. An ensuing pamphlet, Thoughts after Lambeth (1931), collected, like Dante, in the Selected Essays of 1932, is a sensible and moderate comment on the Anglican conference of 1930, but sets its face firmly against humanism in its conclusion…. [The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)] is a sketchy, occasionally suggestive survey of poets as critics from Sidney to I. A. Richards, but the shades are falling. This is the Lenten period of his career, to stretch his own metaphor. Eliot is already half bored with poetry, and more than half bored with criticism, and intensely bored with his own role as poet-critic. (pp. 181-83)

[After Strange Gods] is the oddest of Eliot's books, and certainly the most difficult to justify. Perhaps it is a fulfilment of the promise made in a footnote in the Use of Poetry … where after quoting Jacques Maritain on 'the unconcealed and palpable influence of the devil' on many writers of the time, Eliot adds solemnly: 'With the influence of the devil on contemporary literature I shall be concerned in more detail in another book.'… The austere subtitle to After Strange Gods—'A Primer of Modern Heresy'—strikes a certain inquisitorial chill, and refusals to discuss grow ever more explicit and insistent…. The lectures [in this book] take as their starting-point the fifteen-year-old essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', and we are made to understand the neo-conservative seduction of a word which, in the early essay, seems strikingly and deliberately incongruous. Eliot's poetic tradition had nothing to do with a historical sequence: his political tradition has. There is praise for the tradition of the Old South and for the resurrectionist group of neo-agrarians such as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, for old New England…. The two lectures that follow are a diatribe against free inquiry and the sinister effects of the modern movement … and against the novels of George Eliot, Hardy, Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence…. With this book, offered not as literary criticism but as an attack upon a wider range of views then currently fashionable, Eliot's tragic break with the dominant impulses of his age was declared total and permanent.

The third period of Eliot's activity as a critic, since the Second World War, is profoundly anti-climactic. There is little attempt to renew the anti-liberal controversies of the thirties, but his return to literary issues seems only half-convinced. Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) only palely reflects a pre-war concern for intellectual values in a stable society. Poetry and Drama (1951) and The Three Voices of Poetry (1953) suggest a spark of enthusiasm for a poetic drama which has its roots deep in the Elizabethan essays of The Sacred Wood; but the despairingly high ideal of achieving a 'musical order' in language 'without losing that contact with the ordinary everyday world with which drama must come to terms', as in Shakespeare's last plays, is, on his own telling, unattainable, and his later plays are distinguished flops. The dominant tone of his last essays and lectures is sarcastic and irritable, and the target is usually the very criticism his own examples created. Like a startled Frankenstein, Eliot recoils from the monster he has created, wearily disclaiming responsibility: 'I fail to see any critical movement which can be said to derive from myself,' as he told a Midwestern audience in 1956. (pp. 183-85)

These, then, are the three voices of T. S. Eliot the critic: first, the youthful, exploratory enthusiasm of the twenties, where an almost ideal balance between poetic and critical activity is realized; second, an abortive career of social and religious advocacy in frankly obscurantist causes; and third, a bold but exhausted attempt to recover the creative urge, followed at once by denial and desperation. The imposing sense of a vast critical intelligence that emerges, especially in the twenties, is not of a sort that can be defined and codified, and the question with which this chapter began must remain unanswered. Eliot made English criticism look different, but in no simple sense. He offered it a new range of rhetorical possibilities, confirmed it in its increasing contempt for historical processes, and yet reshaped its notion of period by a handful of brilliant intuitions. It is not to be expected that so expert and professional an observer of poetry should allow his achievement to be more neatly classified than this. (pp. 185-86)

George Watson, "The Early Twentieth Century," in his The Literary Critics: A Study of English Descriptive Criticism (copyright © George Watson, 1962, 1964, 1973), second edition, Rowman and Littlefield, 1973, pp. 168-207.∗

R. Peacock

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[However] admirable as finely tempered, self-possessed criticism [Eliot's] Elizabethan essays may appear to scholar-critics, they reveal in effect, in the guise of criticism, some of Eliot's obsessional problems. In retrospect they are seen to be every bit as much the co-lateral documentation of the subjective origins of his early poetry, and of his plays, which are all about guilt, as a model piece of criticism on his own principles of analysis and comparison, cool, rational, marvellously poised. His obsession with the subject area, as well as his formal analysis, give these essays, as a group, their committedness, their intensity, their force, their even hallucinatory perspicuity.

In this criticism he was keen not solely to describe the virtues of particular authors, nor to find one or two models to serve his own plans best. He moved steadily towards defining some general principles of poetics. To discover the nerve of dramatic poetry became his persistent aim; this is nearer to aesthetics than criticism. He avoided using technical aesthetics, but constantly expressed aesthetic principles in the language of criticism. His most famous dictum about the objective correlative is of this kind. Most critics stop short of his point of generalized formulation, whilst most philosophers start on the other side, in abstract analysis, of its complex and dense simplicity. He works with great adroitness and concision within a critical idiom, but always on the edge of aesthetics. (p. 99)

Eliot's position as critic of drama is strange because he chose to write most on a difficult and remote group of dramatists who raise many special, historical questions. What he did is a little bizarre; for urgent contemporary reasons (his desire to have a poetic drama) he went, in order to establish his criteria about poetry and conventions, realism and prose, to a period drama which gave him an extremely oblique view of his real problem, the one that put him in confrontation with his present-day. For most people this means that a series of significant modern dramatists have been pushed into a critical limbo of Eliot's making. It means that he refused, at least as public critic, to face up to a powerful presence in the twentieth century, namely a varied and interesting prose drama that has displaced verse drama, as prose fiction had displaced epic and narrative poetry. This is, of course, easier to see now because we have before us the longer development; we see continuities stretching from Strindberg, late Ibsen, and the social drama of the nineties and after, through both German expressionism and the poetic revivals in France and England, down to a post-war drama completely liberated from the social realism that persisted still in Eliot's earlier years and had become trite and superficial.

In relation to most of this drama Eliot was critically aloof. This meant, however, that he was unable, and unwilling, to apply an enlightening, positive criticism to a large body of reputable work, and displayed his powers in that respect only on the remoter drama. Naturally no one could require him to write about the prose authors if he didn't wish; he was averse anyway to writing criticism about living writers. Nevertheless, with his drama criticism, he was jumping into contemporary waters with arguments and attacks, and so it is inevitable that one should feel a gap of sorts. What we notice, no doubt with hindsight, in the straightening perspective of history—and all this is now historical—is that his vigorous focusing on the twin problem of the nature of poetic drama, and the practical problem of creating it anew, deprived him really of the distanced view that would have let him see more clearly all the forces, literary and social, that had in fact created the situation, and went on reinforcing the trends that were against his dream, insofar as it was the aspiration actually to bring into being a movement of some proportions. Slipping into this position was unfortunate, because, although drama enlarged his own creative effort,… his intended regenerative criticism was concerned only with a restricted area of the genre and he perhaps underestimated, or did not wish to acknowledge, the major change of direction that was occurring.

As we read his essays on drama in sequence, watching the pattern of criteria developing, we notice that they are wholly tied to the Greek, Renaissance, and French classical tradition. His attempt at a renewal was lucidly calculating and bold but was perhaps a last-ditch stand. The last florescence of the great tradition was the German classical-romantic effort reaching from Goethe to Grillparzer and Hebbel; a movement with which, however, Eliot had little sympathy. It was, moreover, still within earshot of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By Eliot's time the gap had indeed widened. (pp. 108-09)

Nor did Eliot, nor anyone else, for that matter, amongst the literary, foresee to what an extent the dominant temper would be so unutterably 'conversationalised', in the sense that all elevation of feeling and attitude would be under suspicion. The poetic drama in the Classical and Renaissance tradition did depend not only on a taste for a type of poetry but also on the receptivity for elevated attitudes, that is, genuine ones, not assumed, or rhetorical in a bad sense. Such receptivity has disappeared in the extreme egalitarian temper of the present.

However, Eliot worked out in his drama criticism some valuable central principles of the poetic form he most admired. He produced what is on any count an illuminating set of ideas about permanent features of this form. The two-dimensional interest of the general principle of poetics and the project for an experiment is constantly maintained. It is a distinctive feature. Other dramatists wrote criticism, but as often as not it was a form of justification of their own practice and deviations, under the guise of general principle. In Eliot the principles are not apologia, defensive pleading, but forward projections. (p. 110)

R. Peacock, "Eliot's Contribution to Criticism of Drama," in The Literary Criticism of T. S. Eliot, edited by David Newton-De Molina (© University of London 1977), The Athlone Press, 1977, pp. 89-110.

Edward Lobb

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The most frequently noted feature of Eliot's prose style is that it combines assertion and reticence to a remarkable degree. Particularly in essays from Eliot's great period as a critic (roughly 1918 to 1936), one is apt to encounter the largest statements about literature and sensibility, or apparently final judgment upon this or that figure; but the logic of the argument often remains elusive. The statement is treated as self-sufficient, or becomes part of another, larger issue…. (p. 93)

Although he has certain beliefs about the relationship between sensibility and language, Eliot does not, clearly, have a theory of literature in the sense that Frye or Lukács may be said to have one. Between the fundamental points of Eliot's 'classicism' there is much feeling about literature, relatively articulable but not susceptible of demonstration in reasoned argument…. Criticism was, for Eliot, a branch of rhetoric rather than of philosophy; it was natural for him to treat it as an art of persuasion rather than a science of 'proof'.

But there are other reasons for this attitude, which the Clark Lectures make clear. [The Clark Lectures on metaphysical poetry were delivered at Trinity College in 1926 and have not been published.] It is apparent from the historical myth of Eliot's criticism that rational argument is harder to conduct as words are treated more and more subjectively. As the background of shared belief disappears, as words come to be thought of as constructions rather than as references, the nature of argument undergoes fundamental and permanent changes. (p. 94)

[The] structure of an Eliot essay is not logical but psychological; it aims at inducing a certain temper of mind rather than persuading the reader on particular small points. And, because of its 'reticence' and non-rational structure, we are more likely to understand Eliot's critical prose if we read it as we would poetry, with attention to suggestion, nuance, and tone.

To a certain degree, of course, all criticism depends upon rhetoric and rhetorical strategy…. But in critics before Coleridge, there is at least an identifiable thread of sequential argument (which is all that is meant by 'proof' as a critical term), and it is this which becomes less and less evident in the continuing Romantic tradition…. It is with the writers of this tradition that Eliot has his most notable affinities; as a stylist, he is most often compared with Arnold, and however he may have deplored the element of 'emotional temperature' in the great Victorians, he employed devices similar to those of Ruskin, Arnold, and Newman. He did so quite consciously, and often in a humorous spirit.

There is considerable evidence, in fact, that Eliot thought of the whole business of criticism—journals, papers and lectures, disputes and reputations—as a sort of solemn game or insiders' joke. The pseudonyms with which he signed his early reviews ('Crites', 'T. S. Apteryx', 'Gus Krutzsch') suggest a lack of high seriousness…. (p. 96)

[We] have Eliot's own word that the element of 'illegitimate' persuasion in the essays is large. Writing to E. M. Forster in 1929, he put the matter bluntly…. Eliot acknowledges that there is an element of bluff in much of his prose, and suggests that he was aware of it from the beginning of his critical career. For critics hostile to Eliot, this is evidence enough that no one need pay attention to Eliot as a critic after all. But if we attempt to dispose of 'rhetoric' entirely there will be very little criticism left. The real importance of the rhetorical element here is that it constitutes another link between Eliot and the ongoing Romantic tradition: in how he speaks as well as in what he says, he shows his nineteenth-century heritage. In analysing Eliot's prose style, we simply extend the study of his art into another area. (p. 97)

Eliot was in fact an accomplished mimic as well as a parodist, and his sensitivity to conversational as well as written styles is apparent in The Waste Land. It is not surprising, therefore, that we encounter a great variety of 'voices' in the essays. That which is heard most often is simply fluent and assured; many of the essays open with a strong statement which the rest of the paper attempts to confirm…. (p. 100)

The value of this sort of opening is apparent. Its obvious self-confidence creates confidence in the reader, and disposes him favourably towards what follows; the directness of the statement also creates an impression of candour, and suggests that the critic has all his cards on the table. Sometimes Eliot maintains this positive tone throughout an essay—as he does in '"Rhetoric" and Poetic Drama'—but more frequently he varies it for interest's sake. (p. 101)

[It] is, finally, our awareness of Eliot as a reasonable and sensitive reader of literature which determines much of our response to his critical prose…. There is a large element of sheer panache in the essays: Eliot, like the original narrator of The Waste Land, 'do the police in different voices', and takes obvious pleasure in his virtuosity. The voice of the essays is protean. Whimsical and serious, precise and obscure, insouciant, arch, and admonitory by turns, it also strikes 'the occasional note of arrogance, of vehemence, of cocksureness or rudeness'. But in the best of Eliot's criticism, 'the cool outsider's gaze and the poised intellectual gaiety' which [Bernard] Bergonzi noted are always evident. (p. 108)

Within the atmosphere established by the tone or tones of an essay, Eliot employs a wide variety of forms of statement.

It is in part by what he takes for granted that we 'know' any critic, and some of Eliot's assumptions, at least, are straight-forwardly stated. After listing the qualifications of the perfect critic, for example, Eliot adds that 'we assume the gift of a superior sensibility', thereby introducing, quite casually, the most crucial elements of all—maturity of mind and sensitivity to the ways in which words are used: what is often called 'taste'. In a true critical system, taste has little or no place…. But Eliot, like other major critics of our century (Leavis and Richards, for example), does not have a system, and it would be a mistake to think of his central ideas, preoccupations or historic mythography as vehicles of judgment. The animating principle, the central assumption, is that of taste.

The point may seem too obvious to require stating, but we are inclined to overlook how deeply criticism is influenced by sensibility, and how seldom that influence is acknowledged in the form of critical statements. Eliot writes that 'Swinburne's judgment [of Elizabethan drama] is generally sound, his taste sensitive and discriminating.' In form, this is a statement of fact; in fact, it is in itself a judgment based on taste.

Many of Eliot's conclusions in the earlier essays become assumptions in later ones. These central ideas are so frequently and so lightly invoked that the reader who goes through much of the criticism is apt to be unaware of how much else depends upon them; like axioms in geometry, they are the essential elements for more complicated exercises. The importance of tradition, the necessity of clear images, the objectifying of point of view, the concern with the slight alteration from the expected which constitutes great poetry—these leitmotifs constitute such unity as the essays have.

They also serve to clarify Eliot's pronunciamentos, those single-sentence judgments with which the early criticism abounds. Many of these are extraordinary, and seem designed as affronts to the reader's sense of things; they are at the same time mysterious, for they appear without supporting argument. When we read of George Eliot, 'who could write Amos Barton and steadily degenerate', we are included to dismiss the remark as a misunderstanding of George Eliot's art, a sentence dashed off before the week's deadline. But similar remarks occur twice in the carefully edited Sacred Wood…. In the context of Eliot's criticism as a whole, [such] remarks are comprehensible. We know that Eliot requires clarity. He also values irony as an indication that the author can look at his characters' situation, or his own, from the outside; and irony is apt to be mistaken by the imperceptive for a lack of seriousness. (pp. 109-10)

As he approaches [the main] subject in many of the essays, Eliot suggests an idea which the reader can entertain … while the discussion is going on. By stating his conclusion at the beginning, Eliot appears to be straightforward, without palpable designs on the reader's mind; but at the same time he sets up the terms of discussion. Even if the reader does not agree that 'Seneca had as much to do with [the] merits and … progress [of Elizabethan tragedy] as with its faults and delays', he has been forced to think of Elizabethan tragedy in Senecan terms. If the central statement occurs late in the essay, it crystallizes Eliot's argument by providing a sudden persuasive focus to the discussion of the preceding pages:

It is, in fact, the word that gives [Swinburne] the thrill, not the object….

The theoretical essays also frequently revolve around a single point.

In these instances the rest of the essay either elaborates or builds to the central statement. But there are many statements in the essays which are not really susceptible of elaboration. These usually concern the texture of a poet's verse or the feel (there is no more precise word) of his work as a whole. Eliot's technique here is a direct appeal to the reader's experience of literature. (pp. 110-11)

What enables him to succeed with [his] judgments is not only the justice of the remarks themselves, but Eliot's knowledge of reader psychology…. The reader usually agree with Eliot, I believe, when the aperçu can be tested against his own nerve endings or his own experience. The technique backfires, however, when this sort of validation is not possible. Some of Eliot's more portentous historical generalizations fail simply because, in unelaborated form, they have the look of 'mysteries' in the theological sense—that is, articles of faith beyond rational comprehension. (pp. 112-13)

One can say generally of Eliot's statements that, in the earlier criticism at least, they are extremely concise. Particularly at the beginning of an essay, Eliot is likely to slice through masses of material for a few salient points…. Particularly in discussing a writer's whole oeuvre, Eliot really is obliged to deal with vast amounts of material in a short space. He therefore often writes in such a way as to combine fact and judgment, and the combination is informative even when the judgments are not elaborated on…. There is a directness and terseness about the style of [some passages which] … recall Dr. Johnson, and Eliot is, in his moments of quick and candid assessment, closer to Johnson in practice than to any other of the English poet-critics. The two share an easy authority and a disinclination to argue the point. (pp. 119-20)

Eliot imposed no overall structure upon his essays: the shape of each was determined largely by the material under review and the nature of the points he wanted to make. Within the essays, however, certain patterns recur as means of placing and evaluating literary figures.

The largest of these patterns is the historical survey…. This simplification of literary history—… any ordering of literary history is a simplification—often places the writers in an almost programmatic relationship to each other. (p. 121)

A single essay obviously cannot generate this sort of perspective, but a reading of all of Eliot's essays suggests that it was never far from his mind. Nor is the perspective always historical: occasionally it appears as the grouping, across centuries and even arts, of artists with similar visions of human experience. Eliot was interested, for example, in what he defines as Marlowe's 'farce', 'which secures its emphasis by always hesitating on the edge of caricature at the right moment'. Eliot perceives the same spirit in the work of Ben Jonson, and suggests in the Marlowe essay that a history of this 'old English humour, the terribly serious, even savage comic humour', could be traced down to Dickens. (p. 122)

Eliot is not talking here about influence; the method, if one can talk of a method governing such scattered remarks, is that which Eliot espoused in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'—writing about a work of art with the sense that 'the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has [sic] a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.' (pp. 122-23)

Eliot does use the idea of influence for his own purpose, which is often to imply an evaluation by placing a writer in a certain line of descent. (p. 123)

Often, of course, Eliot simply mocks the whole idea of influence as a kind of bootless pedantry. In the Clark Lectures, the tone of the send-up is suitably solemn: Eliot traces a complex genealogy in which Baudelaire, mated this time with various other writers, produces offspring as varied as Huysmans and the surrealists, Mallarmé and Blaise Cendrars, Corbière and Cocteau.

This technique damns (or praises) by association. The contrary technique, that of setting up a foil, can accomplish similarly 'critical' results…. Eliot's boldest use of the technique is to contrast styles from different centuries. Morris is pitted against Marvell, Milton against James, Shelley against Crashaw, Tennyson against Dante.

One's first impulse is to protest against comparisons which take no account of different conditions, genres, or types of ability. But, again, the method is in keeping with Eliot's view of all literature as simultaneous, and he contrasts only works which share significant features. (p. 124)

Even when the distinction is not one of quality, the opposition can still help to isolate the personal element in writing which interests Eliot. The sermons of Lancelot Andrewes have little in common with those of Donne, but discussion of one illuminates the other. The recurrent pairing of Dante and Shakespeare in Eliot's essays provides a fruitful contrast between the poet who finds a world-view ready-made and the poet who must construct at least a part of his own; or, in other instances, a contrast between bare and mannered styles in poetry.

The vehicle of these comparisons is quotation, and no reader of Eliot's criticism can fail to be impressed by his almost unfailing ability to choose lines which reinforce his point and which, once heard, stick in the memory…. Quotation is, in fact, the fine pivot upon which many of the essays turn…. Eliot's quotations generally illustrate one of these two types: the innovative or the bare and Dantesque.

The Dantesque is, for Eliot, the summit of poetry. It is clear expression of even the most spiritual emotions, and Dante is the ideal model for the young poet, since he has no vices of style. To assert this quality is one thing, but to discern it in poets other than Dante is a real contribution to criticism. (pp. 124-25)

The second category of quotations is the larger, and includes those passages which exhibit 'that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations, meanings perpetually eingeschactelt into meanings, which evidences a very high development of the senses.' Eliot's desire to isolate the essential, the personal, in poetry is related to his interest in the 'slight alteration'; it is a desire to assess the extent of individual contributions within the tradition. (p. 126)

Eliot's major essays are, strictly, essais—attempts—and, despite their firm tone, they retain a tentativeness which is part of their charm. Eliot himself expressed some qualms about his critical work, but the best of it … constitutes the most impressive body of general literary criticism written in English during this century. It is eloquent testimony to the fact that the poet-critic is still, in an age of academic criticism, our best guide to the tradition. (p. 134)

Edward Lobb, "Eliot As Rhetorician," in his T. S. Eliot and the Romantic Critical Tradition (copyright Edward Lobb 1981), Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 93-134.

Previous

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 2)

Next

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 3)