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


(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 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...

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R. P. Blackmur

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edmund Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Desmond Maccarthy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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S. Ichiyé Hayakawa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


[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...

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Stephen Spender

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Crowe Ransom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.


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Delmore Schwartz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ruth C. Child

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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F. R. Leavis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Austin Warren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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Roger Sharrock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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George Watson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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R. Peacock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Edward Lobb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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