T. S. Eliot Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 24)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 35,290 words.)