Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Frontiers of Criticism

First presented as the Gideon Seymour Lecture at the University of Minnesota in 1956 and subsequently collected in On Poetry and Poets, this essay takes up where The Function of Criticism had left off some 33 years earlier. While it is not to say that Eliot had not produced much interesting and influential commentary on literature during the intervening years, most notably The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism in 1934, the fact remains that those other works of his dealt mainly with individual authors or the social and moral ramifications of certain trends in literature.



A pointed analysis on the state and purpose of literary criticism at the present time as a field of endeavor in and of itself was long overdue from one of the founding voices of 20th-century literary thought. Eliot calls attention to this situation himself by commencing his address by somewhat selfdeprecatingly harking back to his 1923 essay The Function of Criticism. He happily admits that by now he can no longer remember what all the fuss was about in his attack on J. Middleton Murry and other critics of that ilk, whom he had characterized as devotees of what he called “the Inner Voice.” He saw them as individuals whose unwillingness to accept external standards of literary taste and propriety could only corrupt contemporary critical intelligence, which, in Eliot’s view, required objectified measures of quality, not an enthusiastic responsiveness to what the critic found pleasing on personal grounds and for no other reason. From the vantage point of a public address being made more than three decades later, Eliot could say that he may have been engaged then in no more than the old debate regarding authority versus individual judgment.

He freely admits, too, that much has changed in the field since 1923, not the least event among them I. A. Richards’s publication in 1925 of The Principles of Literary Criticism. In that landmark work, Richards had attempted to systematize critical processes largely on the basis of proposing a psychology of reader response. Another major change to which Eliot calls attention is that there are increasing numbers of professional literary critics, the result of universities embracing their expertise as an integral part of the teaching and study of literature. A further result, as Eliot sees it, is that “serious criticism now is being written for a different, a more limited though not necessarily a smaller public than was that of the 19th century.” It is that observation that enables Eliot to open his essay to a consideration of his main topic, which, as the title announces it, is the “frontiers of criticism,” or, rather, its proper limits.

In 1923, Eliot had observed that, unlike creative endeavors, criticism is not autotelic; that is, it is not self-justified or self-fulfilling. Quite the contrary, it could be asserted as an axiomatic truth that literary criticism exists only because literature exists. The danger these 33 years later, as Eliot sees it, is that literature itself may be in danger of becoming a secondary pursuit to the much larger interests represented by and invested in the academic industry now created by the criticism of literature, to the end that the messenger becomes more important than the message, and the message than the event to which it relates. Nor is Eliot out simply to protect his own primary turf as a poet and a playwright. As he had already argued in 1942 in “The Social Function of Poetry,” a culture that loses the habit of poetic discourse as an end in itself loses its attachment to emotion and feeling.

This increasing emphasis on the processes of criticism poses a threat to creative processes unless they, the critical processes, be kept in constant check. So, then, Eliot is able to pose the dilemma as a question: “When is criticism not literary criticism but something else?” As he sees it, the danger comes down to altering reader expectations of what a work of literature can accomplish and of what engaging it can achieve for the reader. Placed alongside what he calls the “workshop criticism” of the practicing poet, such as himself, who in his earlier critical efforts commented mainly on what he had learned from and appreciated in the work of other poets and dramatists, the criticism that merges with or emerges from the sort of scholarship that the universities encourage is by far the more influential. The trouble is that, as influential as it has become, it encourages what he says “may be characterized as the criticism of explanation by origins.”

As examples of this notion that a text is explained once its origins have been exposed by the scholar critic, he cites two outstanding examples. In the first case, it is John Livington Lowes’s now legendary source study, The Road to Xanadu, which makes a convincing case that images and phrases from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s reading found their way into his poems “Kubla Khan” and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While commending Lowes’s impeccable and impressive scholarship, Eliot implicitly questions, nevertheless, both its value and its validity as literary criticism by pointing out that despite Lowes’s extensive investigation into the literary sources for Coleridge’s imagery, how that material became great poetry “remains as much of a mystery as ever.”

The other work that Eliot cites as an example of the criticism of explanation by source is a work of the imagination rather than of criticism, James Joyce’s virtually unreadable last novel, Finnegans Wake. That a reading experience as densely cryptic and obscure as Joyce’s “novel” becomes the sort of literary achievement that other scholar critics, emulating Lowes, then go on to crave and encourage, suggests that the tail is beginning to wag the dog. The creative artist begins to provide the sorts of texts that are approved by the prevailing critical method, in this case, one that seeks to identify obscure or cleverly concealed sources rather than to engage the text head on for its purely literary value and qualities.

As might be suspected, Eliot does not deny that the notes that he provided for The Waste Land (notes that he claims were the result of decisions regarding the printing of the poem in book form) have gone a long way toward making source studies suffice as literary criticism. The result is that such criticism leads to the error among readers “of mistaking explanation for understanding,” so that, in his estimation, ultimately “a good many readers” nowadays desire that “poetry should be explained in terms of something else.” In contrast, Eliot holds, as he virtually always has, that “When the poem has been made, something new has happened, something that cannot be wholly explained by anything that went before.” Indeed, Eliot goes as far as to plead that that “is what we mean by ‘creation.’ ”

For all his particular biases and preferences, Eliot remains a pragmatist at heart. Early in the essay, for example, he had credited Coleridge with making an irrevocable alteration in the direction of English literary criticism by bringing philosophy and psychology to bear on aesthetics. “Were he alive now,” Eliot observes, Coleridge might instead “take the same interest in the social sciences and in the study of language and semantics.” A point so well made ought to be well taken as well. Circumstances and human knowledge, its extent and its interests, alter, and as it does, so do all the fields of human endeavor.

While he will not, then, give these new critical methodologies, with their fascination with sources, their own due, he insists that “to understand a poem . . . we should endeavour to grasp what the poetry is aiming to be”—that is, the critical focus should be on not what the poetry was made out of but what it has been made into. When he argues, then, using lines from Shakespeare and from Shelley for his examples, that he can understand some poetry without the benefit of explanation, he is not being coy but emphasizing, as he has done many previous times in his critical career, that nothing else can suffice for an actual experience of the poetry itself, as poetry. “I see nothing to be explained,” he points out with regard to the lines in question, “nothing, that is, that would help me to understand it better and therefore enjoy it more.”

Criticism, he concludes, when it is truly literary criticism, is an explanation that leads to the sort of understanding that enhances one’s enjoyment of the poem. Any criticism presented as literary criticism that does not enlarge one’s understanding for the sake of enjoyment may still be legitimate, Eliot is willing to concede, but it is not literary criticism. Rather, it is “a contribution to psychology, or sociology, or logic, or pedagogy, or some other pursuit . . . to be judged by specialists, not by men of letters.”


Eliot delivered these remarks in the heart of the enemy camp, inasmuch as that metaphor is appropriate here. He is on a major American university campus, after all. Many in the audience would have been drawn there by Eliot’s well-deserved celebrity alone, but doubtless the most attentive among his audience are literature professors and graduate students convinced that source studies and deep readings are not only a present prerogative but the wave of the future for literary studies and, by extension, literary criticism.

Still, Eliot asserts, when he draws his remarks to a close, that “to understand a poem” is the same as “to enjoy it for the right reasons.” He adds that “to enjoy a poem under a misunderstanding as to what it is, is to enjoy what is merely a projection of our own mind.” For Eliot, that is the worst thing that one can do. He is calling for a firsthand engagement not with the poet’s life or beliefs or his or her sources, nor with the reader’s life or beliefs, but with the poem itself.

There must be, finally, a balance between considerations of understanding and enjoyment in the best literary criticism. Emphasize issues of understanding at the expense of enjoyment, and the result can be mere explanation to no other purpose. Overemphasize enjoyment, however, and there is a danger that the criticism can become too subjective and impressionistic. What matters is that Eliot has delivered on the promise of his title, delineating what he takes to be the frontiers, the proper limits, of literary criticism. In doing so, he also reasserts his lifelong insistence on regarding the poem as poetry, not in terms of something else, such as philosophy or religion or biography.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Poetry

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