On September 17, 1932, Eliot set sail from England, where he had been in residence virtually nonstop since the late summer of 1915, to assume for the coming academic year the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at his alma mater, Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He would also use the extended absence from his first wife, Vivien, required of him by this academic appointment to make final and legal what had become an emotional and physical separation from her, whose marriage to him in 1915 had by now become a disastrous failure in everyone’s eyes except, apparently, her own. The fruits of his labors at Harvard would include a substantial fee for his services, one that would better enable him to establish a separate household on his return to England the following year.
In the meantime, free to travel elsewhere in the United States provided that he fulfill his primary obligation to Harvard, Eliot saw to it that this year abroad allowed him ample opportunity to tour and lecture extensively. Thus, in addition to the visiting professorship at Harvard, Eliot made appearances at various other academic venues, including at the University of California, Los Angeles, in December and at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, in February. In April, he was invited to give the Page- Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and these addresses, in keeping with the terms of that lectureship, were later collected and, in February 1934, published by Faber & Faber under the intriguing title After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy.
While that book may have achieved far more notoriety because of its apparent xenophobic slant and anti-Semitic overtones, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism should nevertheless be regarded as the foremost result of Eliot’s U.S. sojourn. Eliot seems to have agreed. Like the lectures that comprise After Strange Gods, Eliot was enjoined by the terms of the Norton professorship to publish the lectures that resulted from the series at Harvard, and they now make up The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. He would expressly forbid any future publication of After Strange Gods after its initial release; The Use of Poetry, on the other hand, would not only be rereleased in a new edition in 1964, toward the end of the poet’s life, but would be provided with a preface prepared for that new edition. In that preface, Eliot would make it clear that he would rather be remembered for these essays than for his most celebrated critical essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which, though he declined to repudiate it, he labeled “the product of immaturity.”
Including the introductory and concluding lecture, between November 4, 1932, the date of the first, and March 31, 1933, the date of the last, Eliot delivered eight lectures, presenting an overview of English literature from the time of Shakespeare to the present. Throughout the lectures, Eliot’s aim would be twofold. As the title makes clear, he wished to establish some guiding principles regarding the uses both of poetry and of the criticism of poetry, primarily as they interacted with each other but also as each served a larger social purpose.
The Introductory Lecture
As Eliot delivered his first, introductory lecture, it was the eve of a national election. America, already deep in the throes of the Great Depression, was just about to elect Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency for the first time. In a stunning victory over his Republican rival, President Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt would usher in a new regime for a nation desperate for economic rescue but not quite ready for the radical social and political changes that would constitute the New Deal. Europe, meanwhile, was moving into a period wherein the continuing economic and political turmoil resulting from World War I would, by decade’s end, catastrophically bring about new and increasing hostilities and the eventual outbreak of World War II.
Such a state of affairs is mentioned because Eliot alludes to these pending changes in his opening remarks, thereby paying tribute to the lectureship’s namesake, the late Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton, who, Eliot illustrates by citing from his letters, was also a man of letters who was generously in tune with the great public events of his time. Norton was a distant cousin of Eliot’s, as was the past Harvard president Charles William Eliot, for whom Harvard’s newly opened Eliot House where Eliot was being put up during his stay in Cambridge was named. Clearly, the guest professorship was, in very real terms, a family affair for Harvard alumnus Eliot, himself by now a world-renowned poet whose poem The Waste Land had come virtually single-handedly to describe the unique character of the modern moment as much in the popular imagination as for literary and academic audiences.
Homage to Norton accomplished, Eliot sets about defining the business of the evening at hand: to “try to find out, in examining the relation of poetry and criticism, what the use of both of them is.” Poetry, Eliot admits, is the more difficult of the two to define otherwise; criticism, he insists, is not, being of two kinds—that which seeks to define poetry and assess its value and uses, and that which, by making assumptions regarding those matters, treats actual poetry. The first kind considers what poetry is, he explains, while the other determines what is a good poem or good poetry.
That distinction is the crux on which the remainder of his introductory lecture depends. Citing authorities as varied and disparate as Aristotle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and his own contemporary, the psychological critic I. A. Richards, whose Principles of Literary Criticism remains a classic in the field, Eliot points out that there are those who can, as it were, talk the talk but not necessarily walk the walk. They can, in other words, tell the reader what should constitute a good poem but not satisfactorily discern the difference, in practice, between a good and bad poem.
Words and their limits are the problem at either end, and Eliot calls on Richards’s authority, as he does throughout the lectures, to clarify certain points (although it should be observed that Eliot does not defer to Richards’s judgment on all points, regarding the ethical relativism of his critical stance as a questionable moral posture). What a poem says, then, is not, either in Eliot’s or in Richards’s view, anywhere near as important as what that same poem is. This idea is not as thickheaded as it may seem. If the poem is judged merely on the basis of the quality of the statement that it makes, then it is little different from any other kind of expository, analytical, or persuasive writing. Whatever else a poem may be, the given for the critic as well as for the poet is that poetry is something altogether different from other species of writing, even if that difference cannot be, as Eliot continually stresses, easily defined.
The experience of poetry that the critic brings to any one poem is the other end of the spectrum. The wider and more varied the experience, it stands to reason, the more the critic, as reader, is able both to identify the bogus and to distinguish it from the new that may appear to the less widely read person to be bogus as well.
Eliot also labors to make it clear that by criticism he means that very intellectual process by which one endeavors to determine what poetry is, and by doing so, he tries to divorce himself from any association with that school of thought that sees the critical and creative impulses as processes at odds with each other. Thus, too, he rejects the notion that a highly critical age cannot produce great creative efforts, although he would never dispute that an age can produce great poetry without producing any written criticism. Still, he argues as well, “you cannot deplore criticism unless you deprecate philosophy,” for he sees the best criticism emerging from periods when poetry no longer expresses the whole of a culture—when, in other words, there is great and productive intellectual ferment. (While he does not say it at this juncture, his own age is most certainly experiencing just such a ferment.)
At this point, Eliot makes a shift in his presentation, subtle but nevertheless discernible, from the general, what poetry and criticism is, to the particular, the last 300 years of the development of a more and more sophisticated critical apparatus in English letters. This shift to the particular allows him, in good expository fashion, to introduce an outline of the remainder of his lectures. He chooses to begin, he says, with the age of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare because, over and above their own especial notoriety as literary masters, it was during this time, the late 16th century, that the so-called native tradition in English literature (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) came into open critical conflict with the influences of continental (i.e., Latinate) literary precepts and practices. He will then, he says, move on to the age of John Dryden, because this 17thcentury English poet was instrumental in winning the day critically for the nativists, thereby giving the shaping impetus to the succeeding two centuries of English poetry and criticism.
Something more critical, for lack of a better word, is at stake at that juncture as well, however. The use of poetry, which to that time had been thought of as “at once delight and instruction, . . . an adornment of social life and an honour to the nation,” an attitude as old as the Roman poet Horace’s utile et dulce dictum (poetry is “useful and sweet”), begins to undergo a radical transformation that will become complete by the time of the English romantics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “Wordsworth and Coleridge,” Eliot concludes, “are not merely demolishing a debased tradition, but revolting against a whole social order,” resulting in the confidence with which another English romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley, can proclaim that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind.” Eliot hopes to occupy the middle territory here between an age that agrees on the use of poetry and, so, looks for its most felicitous expression and an age that debates the use of poetry as an instrument for effecting moral and social change and, so, produces much criticism but is less scrupulous in separating the wheat from the chaff.
While Eliot was obligated to publish the lectures as they were presented, he was also free to expatiate further in endnotes, as he does in the case of the first lecture, to which he appends a note on the development of taste in poetry. Here he concludes, using his own recollections of the development of his taste in poetry as a boy and young man, that the taste for poetry seems to diminish in most at about the time of the onset of puberty, and for those in whom it continues, it never really quite settles down until early adulthood, at which point it likely never develops much further. The mature taste, nevertheless, he defines as one in which the reader comes to recognize that both the poem and the poet have an existence “apart from us” readers. That is the point at which one is ready for a lifelong engagement with the great poets, and with identifying the sources of that greatness, neither of which are regarded by Eliot as topics easily taught in formal academic settings.
“Apology for the Countess of Pembroke”
The second lecture, delivered on November 25, is titled “Apology for the Countess of Pembroke.” In it Eliot will make good on the promise made in his first lecture to begin with an examination of the critical and poetical precepts that dominated the age of poets like Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. His thesis, as well as his means of approaching it, already having been established in his introductory lecture, Eliot gets right to business. In this second lecture, his aim will be to show that the critical mind and the creative mind were not as much at odds in the Elizabethan period as is generally thought, thus enabling him, he hopes, to advance eventually his central thesis that in later periods the creative and the critical mind enjoyed an increasingly intimate relationship.
The point of controversy that Eliot focuses on might best be described in terms of the old argument regarding the ancients and moderns, in which the classical poets and dramatists of ancient Greece and Rome were seen to have laid down principles of composition that the modern poet or dramatist could ignore or violate only at his or her own peril. Shakespeare’s total disregard for the three unities of time, place, and action, for example, and his apparent disregard as well for the unity of sentiment (that is, of not mixing the comic and the tragic) made him a lesser artist in the eyes of many of his most astute contemporaries, but it has made him a genius in the eyes of posterity. If those contemporaries of Shakespeare were so blinded by classical precepts that they could not otherwise recognize the brilliance of Shakespeare’s creative spark, then, Eliot argues, the criticism of the time, of which Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry provides an outstanding example, would have to be regarded as antagonistic to the creative spirit that was present.
Eliot cites, too, the debate between Thomas Campion and Samuel Daniel over whether English prosody should adhere to the artificial rules of rhyme and meter derived from classical Latin and other Latinate masters or should follow the inclinations, inherent in native Anglo-Saxon verse forms, of naturally stressed lines that often resulted in blank—that is, unrhymed—verse. Eliot concludes that the debate, as contentious as it might seem to have been, nevertheless legitimized the use of natural rhythms and unrhymed verse in English, paving the way for the genius of Shakespeare. Indeed, in Eliot’s view, “our greatest [English] poetry” was the direct result of “the struggle between native and foreign elements.” Nor should the reader forget how much of Eliot’s own poetry continued to be a rich mixture of native and foreign elements, (Jules Laforgue and Dante Alighieri prominent examples in the latter case), and of both comic and tragic touches, often on the same page, if not in fact in the same line.
Sidney’s complaint that the drama of the day lacked unity of feeling or sentiment, meanwhile, is one with which Eliot tacitly agrees, because he imagines that at the time that Sidney lodged his complaint, 1580, the great plays of the Elizabethan period had yet to be written. It takes a “much more highly developed audience,” Eliot proposes, to deal with pure comedy or pure tragedy, but again he concludes that that very unity of feeling did in fact eventually emerge, not, however, in slavish obedience to Sidney’s critical wishes that the two modes not be too freely mixed, but because Sidney touched on improvements that “a maturing civilization [such as Elizabethan England’s was] would make for itself.” Here, Eliot is able to single out Shakespeare as a poet who could turn the necessities forced on him by the tastes and fancies of his own time to his own advantage, so that the “comic relief” in a Shakespeare tragedy, rather than weakening the effect, makes for contrasts that empower the tragic moment. Eliot, nevertheless, is pleased to see the comic element disappear as Shakespeare matured.
Eliot then enters into a long passage regarding the famous debate over the inviolability of the dramatic unities, particularly those of time and place, which are generally attributed to Aristotle but which Eliot argues were imported into England largely from Italy. Eliot appreciates the prejudice for the unities, he claims, since it is one that theater audiences share to this day, but he astutely observes that too rigid a respect for them can only lead inevitably to their violation, as indeed became the case.
The countess of Pembroke to whom this lecture’s title alludes was the center of a literary circle that included such gentlemen of the court as Sidney and Sir Edmund Spenser. Theirs was a criticism that emerged during a period when popular literature was, as Eliot puts it, “mostly barbarous.” But the real effect of her circle was not to alter the course of popular literature—as Eliot had pointed out earlier, the advancing causes of civilization did that by creating the rich literary environment out of which a comedian of the genius of a Ben Jonson could emerge—but to engender valuable critical debate. Spenser’s verse contributed itself to the resolution of the other issue—the matter of verse technique—by influencing Christopher Marlowe’s blank verse, from which John Milton’s verse line would eventually spring.
Eliot ends the lecture by observing that the common confusion between the poet as a maker or craftsperson and the poet as a philosopher makes it difficult to resolve the question of the use of poetry in any society. Still. the example of a Sidney, for whom Eliot expresses great disdain as a poet, demonstrates, in his view, that even in a time when it appeared that the critical and the creative faculties were in a state of major disconnect, there was in fact a certain measure of complementary mutuality to their common concerns. In other words, “you cannot dissociate one group . . . from another . . . and say here is backwater, here mainstream.”
In the final analysis, the Elizabethan poets were never dull, having been “galvanised into animation by the necessity to amuse . . . or starve.” Somewhere behind that closing observation has to be the idea that those in the countess of Pembroke’s circle never had to trouble their literary concerns with such mundane matters as sheer survival. Maybe Eliot is implying that that is more of a difference than one should ever have to mention, since everyone ought to know it.
“The Age of Dryden”
The exigencies of the typical academic year with its holiday break between semesters aside, it should come as no surprise that while only one week— from December 2 to December 9, 1932—elapsed between the third lecture, “The Age of Dryden,” and the fourth, “Coleridge and Wordsworth,” more than two months would elapse before the fifth, “Shelley and Keats,” which was presented on February 17, 1933. Even less surprising should be the fact that Eliot would devote a single lecture to 150 years of English literary critical history, from the time of the early 16th century and Ben Jonson to the mid-17th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson, but two full lectures to the 20 years of developments covered by the critical writings of the four English romantic poets: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. As anyone as astute as Eliot, and certainly as the learned members of his audience, would be aware, the reason is that any critical tradition in English letters was more or less merely marking time between the richly contentious period of critical debate and creative activity that marked the Elizabethan period and the equally animated period identified with romanticism that came about nearly 200 years letter.
Eliot’s lecture on Dryden and Johnson, as a result, devotes the first few pages to Ben Jonson, the Jacobean playwright whose Discoveries or Timbers, a so-called commonplace book or compendium of odds and ends, constitutes a critical record by virtue of its occasional insights into the tenor of Jonson’s literary times and his interests as a writer. Indeed, the attention that Eliot affords Dryden himself and then Johnson is rather scant, as if he cannot wait to get to a dicussion of Coleridge, whom he mentions virtually as frequently. Perhaps Eliot’s own regard for this age of Dryden is best summed up in the disparaging comment on the criticism of Joseph Addison, the 17th-century English essayist and pamphleteer, whom he calls “a conspicuous example of this embarrassing mediocrity, . . . a symptom of the age which he announced.” It is no doubt due to that mediocrity, nevertheless, that the romanticism that ushered in the next century was so abundantly luscious with new ideas and attitudes toward poetry and poetry writing that they are still being sorted out to this day.
“Coleridge and Wordsworth”
Within the 20 years or less separating Wordsworth’s publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, to which he appended his famous preface in 1801, and Coleridge’s publication, in 1817, of his Biographia Literaria, or Literary Biography, the sleeping giant of the English critical sensibility was awakened with a series of violent starts that continue to trouble poetry’s formerly dreamy waters into our own time. Everything old was new again, but, as a later poet would put it and as Eliot certainly seems to feel, it was a terrible beauty that was born.
In the case of Coleridge and Wordsworth, the topics of his first lecture on romanticism, Eliot was wise to confine himself to Coleridge’s doctrine of fancy and imagination and to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s literary dialogue on the topic of poetic diction, the two most common areas of scholarly concern. Even so, Eliot is stepping into literary historical territory that was still undergoing reassessment and revision. The debate here, such as it was, involved Wordsworth’s claim to be writing in “a selection of language really used by men,” as opposed to the highly stylized and artificial- sounding language of poetry characterized as poetic diction that had been in vogue for the last century or more. In this regard, Coleridge, without detracting from the natural vigor and vividness of Wordsworth’s use of language, argued instead that the distinction was not one between the kinds and levels of language that particular poets wrote insomuch as one between levels of creative genius. These he distinguished as the imagination, whose products were fresh and original, and the fancy, whose results, however interesting, were merely repetitions of past performances.
While not trying to take sides, Eliot commends Wordsworth’s contribution more than Coleridge’s, perhaps because Wordsworth’s applies more to poetic practice and Coleridge’s more to its evaluation by others. On the issue of diction, then, Eliot wonders “what all the fuss was about,” finally coming to rest on the astute observation that “it is not the business of the poet to talk like any class of society, but like himself.” Recognizing nevertheless that there was a conscious social agenda on Wordsworth’s part to give voice to the lives and concerns of the economically and socially excluded, Eliot recognizes, too, that Wordsworth’s is a poetry that is better understood in the context of “the purposes and social passions which animated its author,” inspiring him to use the selection of so-called real language.
Coleridge fares less well, perhaps because Eliot saw the elder poet as a man who squandered his considerable talents. While he thus acknowledges “the great importance” of the distinction that Coleridge draws between the imagination and the fancy, in the final analysis Eliot sees it as amounting to little more than “the difference between good and bad poetry.” Providing such a critical tool is no small accomplishment, of course, and Eliot does not gainsay that fact. Still, when he commends Coleridge as a critical intellect from whom “there is a good deal to learn,” it is not for any particular precept or contribution but for the new dimensions of “a richness and depth, an awareness of complication” that Coleridge’s, and Wordsworth’s, deliberations bring to English critical discourse.
In recognition of the fact, then, that it is his purpose in these lectures to show how attitudes toward the uses both of poetry and of criticism have reached their present state of development in English literature, Eliot concludes the present lecture on that topic by handing the laurel to Coleridge, despite his reservations regarding the applicability of Coleridge’s actual conclusions. Thus, while Wordsworth in his own criticism “knew better what he was about,” it was Coleridge who “did much more” by having brought “attention to the profundity of the philosophic problems into which the study of poetry can take us.”
“Shelley and Keats”
One philosophic problem, and one that he had already touched on with a painstaking astuteness in his 1929 essay “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” is the problem of poetry and belief. In his next lecture, “Shelley and Keats,” which was delivered on February 17, 1933, Eliot traces that issue to a possible source, at least in English poetry, by laying its modern manifestation squarely at the doorstep of Shelley. Anyone familiar with Shelley’s poetry knows that he appears to be, in many of his poems, espousing a very particular social and political agenda, often couched in terms of human liberty and frequently cast in quasi-religious spiritual terms. This is very much in keeping with the revolutionary fervor and enthusiastic passion for liberation from artificial constraints that typified the times, of course. However, Eliot seizes on it as the bane of Shelley’s poetry and criticism and thus as a pernicious influence on the view of poetry and the poet that subsequently emerged in the popular imagination.
The idea that the poet is both poet and philosopher, a purveyor of truths that have an extraliterary validity and impact, is, for Eliot, at the heart of the confusion that is often made between poetry and belief to the detriment of the poetry. As Eliot puts it, “Shelley both had views about poetry and made use of poetry for expressing views.” Furthermore, in Eliot’s view, Shelley’s views, his beliefs, have all of the unrealistic enthusiasm and none of the practical values of an adolescent mind, explaining, for Eliot, why one is drawn to Shelley in youth but abandons him in maturity. It is not for Eliot a matter of whether one agrees with the beliefs so much as whether or not they are of a sufficient depth and experience to deserve one’s attention, and on this score Eliot finds Shelley’s views lacking (as he will shortly do with the views or beliefs of a number of his prominent contemporaries in After Strange Gods, three lectures that he would deliver at the University of Virginia in April).
As for Keats, if Eliot gives this youngest and shortest-lived of the romantics what appears to be the shortest shift, it is probably a sign of genuine approbation on Eliot’s part. He calls him a great poet, no small compliment to a man who died at 26, and concludes the few pages that he devotes to him by remarking that, unlike Wordsworth and Shelley, “Keats had no theory. . . . [H]e was merely about his business.” That that was the writing of poetry, and that Eliot had earlier commended Johnson for treating poetry as poetry “and not another thing” suggests how much, for Eliot, such an attention to the task of composing poetry was, too, no small matter. So, then, it is indeed a high compliment to the purity of Keats’s intellect, which was no less philosophic in Eliot’s view, to commend him primarily for his attention to craftsmanship.
Eliot’s sixth lecture, on the 19th-century poet and literary and social critic Matthew Arnold, was delivered on March 3, 1933. Eliot was beginning to move into territory that was extremely close to home, and that perhaps accounts for the tone of complaint that he seems to adopt as he comments on all Arnold’s efforts to create an intellectual climate in which critical thinking and critical discourse in English letters could properly flourish. Indeed, considering that Eliot has been aiming all along to clarify the principles whereby both creative and critical literary endeavors might be given their due and have been rightly balanced, it seems odd that he should spend most of this lecture on Arnold severely disparaging Arnold’s own considerable accomplishments on behalf of the same goals.
To those familiar with his work, Arnold remains a significant literary figure from the second half of the 19th century. Rather like the young writers of Eliot’s own generation, Arnold was a poet who felt that not just his own creative career but that of his times had come to a dead end, repeating themes that had already been belabored by several preceding generations. Determined at least to set a course for a future generation’s own success with a reinspired creativity, he turned his hand entirely to critical endeavors, hoping thereby to lay the groundwork for what he called a “current of fresh ideas” out of which a new poetry might emerge. He sounds, indeed, quite a bit like a younger Eliot, calling for a more objective and tradition-bound vision to guide poetic production, and for a new order of balance between the critical and the creative.
It is possibly this genuine affinity between the aims of the two poet-critics that makes the competition between them, from Eliot’s end, seem more strident than objective. Arnold, who died the year that Eliot was born, comes too close to fulfilling a role that Eliot would like to claim for his own. In any case, Arnold is, for Eliot, “the poet and critic of a false stability,” one for whom writing about poets merely “provided a pretext for his sermon,” a man more likely to think about “the greatness of poetry rather than . . . its genuineness.” While he should not be neglected, he nevertheless also dealt in “departments of thought for which his mind was unsuited and ill-equipped.”
These kinds of charges against Arnold from Eliot begin to sound more and more like the sort of criticisms that were lodged against Eliot himself as his own criticism ventured into areas that were not wholly literary in nature. To be sure, the level of that criticism against his own tendency to appear to be sermonizing and lecturing others in his own criticism would be ratcheted up after Eliot delivered the condemnations of the moral values exhibited in the works of many of his own outstanding contemporaries in After Strange Gods. It is reasonable to assume that Eliot could hardly have been unaware of the similarities between himself and Arnold and their critical methods, which was a more or less scorched-earth policy. If Eliot seems to minimize those similarities here by pretending that they do not exist, it may be for the purposes of thereby throwing the hounds off his own scent by giving them Arnold to excoriate in his stead.
Be that as it may, Eliot does not deny that in his critical endeavors, Arnold added significantly to the range of critical discourse of which English letters might be capable, observing that Arnold came to “an opinion of poetry different from that of any of his predecessors.” If Wordsworth and Shelley’s fault was that they too freely suggested a link between poetry and philosophy, one that remains an undercurrent of criticism and of reader response to this day, Arnold felt that “the best poetry supersedes religion and philosophy.” This is very much in keeping with premises crucial to Eliot’s own position on the matter; he had noted in his lecture on Shelley that he could not imagine how a poet could be a philosopher without being “virtually two men”—a clear indication from Eliot that the two are separate endeavors and ought to be kept and treated that way.
However, if on this point Eliot gives Arnold his due, it is only to take it away at lecture’s end where he observes that Arnold was so engrossed in the question of “what . . . poetry was for, that he could not altogether see it for what it is.” To require of any critic that he or she do as much is, of course, a rather tall order, as Eliot himself had pointed out in his inaugural lecture in the series. Perhaps, nevertheless, Eliot reveals more of his antipathy to the validity of Arnold’s methods and conclusions when he cites him as well for a “conservatism which springs from lack of faith.”
Arnold had sought to make a religion of poetry, as it were, one that he saw as a consoling cultural force and that would be “at bottom a criticism of life.” Earlier in the lecture, Eliot had lacerated Arnold for that kind of a conviction. “That is a great way down,” Eliot says of the bottom. “At the bottom of the abyss is what few ever see, . . . and it is not a ‘criticism of life.’ ”
For the benefit of Eliot’s achieving that kind of an observation, one worthy of the finest aspects of what Wordsworth and Coleridge would both call the philosophic mind, it is perhaps worth it as well to hear him flay a fellow conservative critic like Arnold in public. While Eliot does not hold others to his faith and convictions, he does hold them, Arnold included, to a very high standard of what faith and convictions ought to be if those are to be the terms of the argument. So, then, Arnold’s faith in poetry alone just does not cut it for Eliot.
“The Modern Mind”
In the seventh lecture, delivered two weeks later, on March 17, 1933, Eliot finally gets into territory in which he is not so much expert as an original boarder: “The Modern Mind.” Eliot, after all, had had by this time a great deal to do with helping shape the literary manifestations of the modern mind in English letters, so it is safe to say that much of his spin on the matter is valuable for his own proximity to the phenomenon. Whether or not a new kind of mind had emerged on the cultural scene, enough critical ink had been spent on the fact that one apparently had emerged for Eliot to get right down to business.
He turns back to Arnold once more, giving him credit for an insistence on a moral valuation in literature that suited his own time, but now, Eliot argues, a greater clarity and more exacting language are needed if criticism is to respond to the self-consciousness that typifies the modern mind. Out of those adjustments, being made by individuals such as I. A. Richards and, presumably, Eliot himself, should come a critical apparatus for learning “to distinguish the appreciation of poetry from theorising about poetry.” The danger is inherent in the times themselves, for modernism as a mindset “comprehends every extreme and degree of opinion.” The challenge of achieving clarity and exactness of thought and wording in such a liberal environment is not an easy one, nor one to be taken lightly.
In fact, Eliot fears that when it comes to the topic of poetry, there is not much agreement beyond the notion that it is something of, or has some, importance. Furthermore, it puzzles Eliot that an age that has produced so much poetry should be debating questions about its nature, and he sees that problem as one going back to the entire matter of people’s having made poetry a substitute for religion, a problem that began with a poet and critic such as Shelley and culminated in Arnold’s critical stance.
Now Eliot adamantly rejects the quasi-religious notion that “poetry is capable of saving us,” an utterance of Richards’s, who thanks the influence of Arnold for the insight. Indeed, because of what Eliot views as the “intense religious seriousness” of Richards’s attitude toward poetry, Richards becomes the final focus of Eliot’s argument for keeping poetry poetry and belief belief. For himself, in the matter of poetry and religion, Eliot remains firmly of the mind that to confuse one for the other or to substitute one for the other does no good for either and even less good for the individual or culture that has been thus confused. Richards’s dismissive proposition that religion is constituted of “pseudo-statements” (ideas that sound good but are intellectually meaningless otherwise) that are no longer accepted as true is, for Eliot, itself a pseudostatement in its attempt to preserve the emotions of religion to the exclusion of the beliefs that have historically given them context.
At the opposite extreme, meanwhile, is the idea that poetry is a handmaiden to the powers that be, a resurgence of sorts of Sidney’s notion that poetry was an adornment in which the nation could take pride. Eliot identifies this idea as one being put forward in his time by the Russian Communist ideologue Leon Trotsky. An ideology of a social materialism was just beginning to find fertile ground through the emergence of the global political policies of the Soviet Union, and with it was emerging a new aesthetics to support state policy. In Eliot’s view, the only difference from Richards’s ideas, although a major one, is that, according to the communist model, poetry should serve the larger purposes of state bureaucracies. Between the one extreme and the other—Richards’s substitute for religion and Trotsky’s service to the political community—Eliot sees little difference, since each requires poetry to be something other than what it is, even if, as Eliot frequently admits, that can never quite be resolved. Each model, nevertheless, attempts to make it something less.
Finally, Eliot mentions yet another modality by which the so-called modern mind seeks to shape a view of poetry suitable to its own purposes and needs. This last one comes from a book titled Prayer and Poetry by Abbé Brémond, in which he seeks to identify poetry as a sort of inspired mysticism. Eliot will have none of that either, arguing that any theory of poetry, first off, only relates to what poetry the theorizer knows and enjoys and, furthermore, that any theory that tries to intimate a close relationship between poetry and a religious or social agenda thereby limits poetry, as if by some ersatz legislative process.
Eliot launches into his eighth and last lecture, appropriately titled “Conclusions” and delivered on March 31, by answering the question that must have been on everyone else’s mind by the close of the seventh lecture: What is Eliot’s theory of poetry? He does not mince his words: “I have no general theory of my own.” Nevertheless, he feels that it is an obligation to be on guard against theories that claim either too much or too little for poetry and to recognize that there may be nevertheless a variety of uses for poetry without insisting that poetry must be subservient to them.
The reader may recall that that is virtually where Eliot’s survey of the uses of poetry and the uses of criticism began—with the contentious debate among the critics, and between critics and practicing poets, that marked the Elizabethan period. Theory, in other words, should serve the reader’s enjoyment of poetry, not overpower and master it for its own sake. So, then, Eliot also concludes that he is not necessarily even in conflict with Abbé Brémond’s point of view. For one thing, poetry writing can be akin to or even enhance what is typically called a mystical experience, but, Eliot insists for his own sake now, he would hesitate to suggest that that describes all poetry. Indeed, he observes that “the way in which poetry is written is not . . . any clue to its value.” After using his own poetry as an example of how a particular line of verse might find its way several times over into a poet’s work without any direct way of knowing how or why it does, Eliot asserts that there is much that is not and very likely cannot be known about the sources of poetic output except to say that every theory regarding same, up to his own time, has some particular defects, all of which inadvertently aim toward expecting “too much, rather than too little, of poetry.”
One of the most important issues that Eliot tackles in his parting shots is the entire question of meaning in poetry and, ultimately, its relative importance as a constituent element. Whenever he had come to this issue in the past, Eliot had invariably fallen on the side of the poem as a total experience, one not limited in a person’s ability to evaluate it only to the statement that it makes on a particular topic or theme. Anyone who had heard or read this series of lectures, especially beginning with the fifth lecture, “Shelley and Keats,” should now understand why Eliot takes such a stand. The tendency to search for a meaning in a poem lends itself to what Eliot sees to be the pernicious tendency, in recent times, to confuse poetry with philosophy and with religion, a confusion made by both poets and critics alike.
The position that Eliot takes now is clearly stated, and it is that meaning is overrated. Indeed, Eliot likens it to be the bit of meat that the burglar puts out for the dog, distracting the reader’s more intuitive sensibilities while the poem does its “real work” on the reader. The burglar metaphor should not be carried too far, or one may well begin to wonder just what Eliot thinks that real work is. Otherwise, Eliot’s point is well taken. If all the poet wishes to do is render a particular meaning, then there are equally effective and perhaps even more effective ways to do it in prose.
That brings Eliot to the next part of his conclusion: There are other valid means of expressing thoughts and feelings in words, so poetry must permit a particular and unique way of rendering those thoughts and feelings. This idea partakes a bit of Coleridge’s distinction between poetry and prose, which rested ultimately on the writer of each having a specific aim in mind to begin with. For the poet, it was to convey not meaning, or “matter of fact,” as Coleridge calls it, but pleasure. By that, Coleridge meant that poetry makes an appeal to all of the reader’s senses and faculties, not just the rational mind or moral intellect. While Eliot does not make a similar distinction himself, it is likely that it underlies his assertion that “anything that can be said as well in prose can be said better in prose.”
As might be expected, Eliot saves his most interesting observations for last. The entire purpose of this series of lectures has been not only to trace creative and critical developments in English letters from Shakespeare’s to contemporary time but to comment on the shifts in expectations that have been made of each over those intervening centuries. Of criticism, Eliot asks that it be less restrictive in its definition of poetry while at the same time it restrict more severely the increasing demands that it has been making that poetry function as a tool for social order and spiritual well-being. Of poetry, he seems finally to believe that little more can be asked of it except that it continue to be written in an age that behaves as if it has little use for any species of discourse that serves no immediately recognizable social function.
The poet, too, Eliot observes, is especially aware of this crisis. As the confused condition of the modern world calls for a more and more complex response from the poet, so does the most responsive poetry come to be characterized as obscure and difficult (Eliot’s own having perennially been a candidate for such charges). To that valid criticism Eliot offers an equally valid justification, that readers ought to be glad that poets nowadays express themselves at all. He adds the further observation that much of the difficulty and obscurity of modernist texts may be more a matter of reputation than of fact.
Still, he is willing to offer a way of solving the entire problem of the tenuous relationship between the modern poet and the modern readership for poetry. The solution that he proposes is that “the most useful poetry” for his own time would be one that “could cut across all the present stratifications of public taste”—stratifications that may be themselves merely signs of social disintegration. This “most useful” poetry, he suggests, would be dramatic poetry, that is, verse written for the stage, and he further argues that not only the “ideal medium,” but also the “most direct means of social ‘usefulness’ ” for poetry is the theater because it permits levels of significance to persist simultaneously. Eliot does not deny that this may be too simplistic a solution, for the poet would then be forced to tailor not only his verse but his themes, such as they are, to the wide variety of individuals in a typical theatrical audience. The age of Shakespeare comes to mind, of course, during which many of the best poets were playwrights. But so does the fact that Eliot had already experimented with a stage play in verse, the abandoned “Sweeney Agonistes,” to which he makes passing reference in this closing lecture.
Eliot would follow his own advice to a considerable degree for the remainder of his literary career. Within a year’s time, indeed, Eliot provided the poetic text for The Rock, a religious pageant play, and within another year he completed his first original verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral. By 1959, another four verse dramas will have flowed from his pen, all of them successful productions on the London stage and still part of the standard repertoire.
For now, he brings his remarks to a close by observing, perhaps only slightly coyly, that for all the risks to a personal peace of mind that the poet runs “for the pains of turning blood into ink,” he may as well be willing to try to please a live audience exactly as if he were a music hall comedian, if the result would nevertheless be “a play which is real poetry.” In his concluding paragraph, Eliot reiterates that he has not, in his lectures, tried to define poetry and has rather insisted that there be a variety of poetry and that it not be defined by its uses. If, he says, poetry ultimately does little more than help others consider those very real features of day-to-day human existence that most of us spend most of our time evading, then, in his view, it has achieved some purpose, even if that purpose seems not to have any immediately assignable or recognizable social use.
No doubt because the lectures of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism were presented to an appreciative and sympathetic audience at such a leisurely pace over a long period, but in keeping with the rigorous academic and scholarly standards required by the venue, Eliot achieves a neat and orderly survey of modern English literature. Much that he says is not new, although that does not mean that it is not necessarily original. Where a reader can benefit most from Eliot’s observations, however, is where he touches on the uses and benefits of poetry in the present time.
There he speaks with a great deal of personal experience and reflection behind him, and with an authority that, while it may not be unassailable, is nevertheless inspired by an impeccable integrity and constant practice. He has for his credentials the fact that he has been devoted to the cause that he takes up, the cause of poetry, perhaps the highest but unquestionably the most misunderstood of the arts, underrated where it ought most to be cherished, and overrated in arenas where it can do the least good.
Eliot’s continuing and increasingly emphatic insistence that readers and critics alike avoid the pitfall of demanding of poetry that it be belief or philosophy forms no small part of his own critical agenda. Whatever human needs poetry may address, Eliot knows that it cannot address them successfully and, as a result, service those needs if succeeding generations of poets and of readers begin to demand a poetry that is nothing less than bad poetry and worse philosophy. That is exactly what he fears is beginning to happen on several fronts in the present-day culture. The pressures of psychology to make poetry and poets into case studies, of the state to confuse poetry and poets with public relations, and of scholarship to make all of it into elaborately high-stakes puzzles—these are forces doing more to shape the public perception of the uses of poetry than the poets themselves can ever hope to counteract. For Eliot, bad poetry is poetry that aims to prove or to make a point rather than to give verbal shape to the timeless human impulses that make us desire to prove and to make points. The distance between the one and the other is greater than any measurable distance in the universe, and no critical mind can ever successfully analyze or account for that distance. It is, nevertheless, a real distance, and Eliot’s point is that we recognize that.