Literary Criticism of T. S. Eliot

Thomas Steams Eliot (1888-1965) has described his criticism as a “by-product” of his “private poetry-workshop” and as “a prolongation of the thinking that went into the formation of my own verse” (On Poetry 117). These devaluations minimize his status as a critical theorist, and his early references to himself as a poetical practitioner also suggest that theory is permissible only to the extent necessary to dispense the poetic prescription. In due course the poetical practitioner becomes the Man of Letters, but even the later description suggests an Amoldian assumption of office as the voice of the humanities rather than a claim to have articulated an anatomy or system. Eliot indeed places himself implicitly in the John Dryden-Samuel Johnson-Matthew Arnold succession of poet-critics, pointing out that only poets can write authentically about poetry (129). The observation, like the first one quoted, tends to treat criticism as primarily an annotation of the creative enterprise. Finally, we have Eliot’s dismissive reference to “a few notorious phrases” of his “which have had a truly embarrassing success in the world” (117). It is notable that the reference is to “phrases” rather than to “ideas” or “generalizations.” The suggestion that even as an apparent theorist, Eliot’s contribution is to the rhetoric rather than the structure of theory is one that deserves further consideration.

Eliot’s own remarks strongly advise us to treat his criticism as embedded in and nourished by the literary situation that it endeavors to move forward, as seeking to reconsider the canon in order to align it with contemporary interests. It is in fact their capacity to reorder the inheritance that has given those notorious phrases some of their embarrassing success. But the notorious phrases may also have exercised some of their persuasiveness because they are connected to each other in ways that are more than rhetorical and because rising as they do out of individual author studies, they seem to offer a solid and lasting connection between literary “facts” and a potential structure of understanding. It is time to examine the more crucial of these phrases.

Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s What Is a Classic?

Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Hamlet and His Problems

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

Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Metaphysical Poets

Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent

Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1917) can be read as indicating how the canon may change. The “literature of Europe from Homer” and within it the literature of England has a “simultaneous existence” and “composes a simultaneous order” (Selected Essays 14). The geo-historical restriction should not be brushed aside. Twenty years later Eliot’s titles continue to refer to the Man of Letters and the Future of Europe and to Virgil and the Christian World. The simultaneous European order changes, but only slightly, when “the new (the really new) work of art” is admitted to membership (5). The change is evolutionary, a matter of seating arrangements, quite different from Michel Foucault‘s epistemic fissures or Harold Bloom’s swerving from a past that the strong successor must re-form in his image. Eliot’s almost invocatory deference to a simultaneous order out of history strongly underlines the impersonality of the tradition, and the poet’s mind can then be treated as correspondingly impersonal, a catalytic chamber for a process that is independent of the contents of that mind.

T. S. Eliot/Bettmann Archive

In “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921) Eliot proceeds to characterize the canon, and the characterization is predictably historical. The simultaneous order is seen in relation to an ideal configuration from which poetry has lapsed and which it must now seek to reconstitute. Something has happened to the mind of England between the time of Lord Herbert of Cherbury and that of Robert Browning. For John Donne, thought was an experience, immediate as the odor of a rose. The intellect was at the tips of the senses. Falling in love, reading Spinoza, the sound of a typewriter, and the smell of cooking came together in the poetic experience (Selected Essays 247). Marvell (“Andrew Marvell,” 1921) could create an alliance of levity and seriousness in which the components strengthened rather than threatened each other (252). On the other hand, John Milton (“Milton I,” 1936, On Poetry 162) had to be read first for the sound and then for the sense. A dissociation of sensibility had taken place, and modern poetry had to reinstate the original integrity by forcing and, if necessary, dislocating language into meaning (Selected Essays 248). The suggestion that the history of English poetry from Milton onwards is the history of deviation from a mainstream now re-recognized has been immensely influential even though its effects have been largely circumvented by reinterpreting devalued or excluded authors such as Milton and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, so that they once again become admissible into the mainstream. The prescriptive force of the canon is increased by underlining its essential characteristics, so that the participation of a would-be entrant is determined by the extent to which the institution’s requirements are satisfied. Since Eliot’s characterizations are predominantly stylistic, they both sustain new criticism and reinforce its claim of ideological neutrality.

The “objective correlative” may be the most notorious of Eliot’s embarrassingly successful phrases. It is put forward in “Hamlet and His Problems” (1919, Selected Essays 124). At the risk of excessively simplifying a very large body of elucidation, we can say that Eliot argues that there is a verbal formula for any given state of emotion that when found and used will evoke that state and no other. We are in fact being offered a decisively representational view of language in which an unmistakable relationship is claimed between the sign and the state. Though not in the manner of Roland Barthes or Foucault, Eliot’s view does call for the effacement of the author both in his articulation of this concept and in his description of the manner in which tradition enters contemporaneity. The author is merely the agency through which the infallible sign comes into being. The critic’s concern is with the sign and with the one right reading that the sign dictates rather than with the sign’s sponsor or catalyst. Tradition for Eliot is not (as with Bloom) a dramatic narrative of encounters with the past nor (as with Northrop Frye) the shaping presence of basic forms of the imagination through the mutations of history and genre. The canon is composed by the literary profession in accordance with that profession’s constitutive principles. “The ‘greatness’ of literature,” Eliot observes, “cannot be determined solely by literary standards,” but “whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards” (“Religion and Literature,” Essays Ancient 93). It is not wholly enlightening to argue that only the privileged and self-constituted world of literature can draw a distinction between literature and nonliterature, but Eliot’s sense of the profession as a kind of closed shop contributes to the academy’s sense of solidarity, of collective engagement in a common pursuit.

The impersonal tradition; the aesthetically dominated, ideologically neutral canon, constituted by the profession rather than by the author; the poem as an act of unification bringing together otherwise disparate elements; the work of literature as a verbal icon, a unique realization pointing to the one right reading—all these propositions strongly support New Criticism, providing it with several of its foundational principles. Eliot does not put himself forward as a systematic critic, and his crucial generalizations are usually delivered as the climax of consideration of a specific literary problem. But these generalizations also seem to issue from presuppositions that are structurally cogent. They arm a generation with critical authority and a conceptual rhetoric because they are offered not simply by a scholar-critic but by the most individual and powerful poetic voice of its era.

High modernism could be vehement in its repudiation of the Romantics, and Eliot’s view that P. B. Shelley’s philosophy was not sufficiently respectable intellectually to command a willing suspension of disbelief (Use 95-97) is part of an antipathy now past. Spinoza, the typewriter, and the smell of cooking maximize the incongruity in what S. T. Coleridge called “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities,” but the main proposition and its distinctive consequence (cointensification and not merely coexistence) are fully anticipated in the peroration to Biographia Literaria, chapter 14.

Eliot’s later criticism moves cautiously away from his earlier work. The most significant revision is “Milton II” (1947, On Poetry), which is generally read as a recantation of “Milton I,” though the extent and even the reality of the recantation can be debated. More important is the reinstatement of personality as a shaping force, particularly in a major poet’s accomplishment. The work of a “great poet” is united “by one significant, consistent and developing personality” (“John Ford,” 1932, Selected Essays). The superiority of W. B. Yeats’s later poetry to his earlier lies in the fuller expression of personality within it (“Yeats,” 1940, On Poetry). Collateral with this reinstatement is Eliot’s growing interest in the overall identity of a writer’s oeuvre. “The whole of Shakespeare’s work is one poem,” and George Herbert’s poetry is “definitely an oeuvre to be studied entire” (Selected Essays 179; Spectator 148 [1932]: 360-61). Accompanying the reinstatement of personality is a more personal note in Eliot’s criticism, carried up even into the title of a late essay, “What Dante Means to Me” (1950, To Criticize). “The Frontiers of Criticism” and “The Three Voices of Poetry” (On Poetry) contain disclosures of much interest to students of Eliot, for example, on the notes to The Waste Land (121) and on the “yellow fog” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (125-26). It is a practice begun in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, where Eliot draws attention to the extraordinary fascination certain images held for him (148).

Eliot’s lasting concern with the problems of poetic drama is developed in “The Three Voices of Poetry” (i953) and “Poetry and Drama” (1951). To bring poetry closer to the rhythms and language of speech is a commitment shared by Eliot, Yeats, and EZRA po u n d and universalized in a later essay by Eliot. “Every revolution in poetry is apt to be, and sometimes to announce itself to be a return to common speech” (“The Music of Poetry,” 1942, On Poetry 23). In drama the commitment involves writing for a popular theater and also writing for the educated imagination—an achievement of the Shakespearean moment that requires a frame of discourse less fissured than the one within which Eliot found himself. Yeats takes the opposite course, writing for an elitist theater in which the “depths of the mind” are sounded by a premeditated withdrawal from the “pushing world” of the popular stage.

Some of Eliot’s most telling observations on language are to be found in his poetry, notably in Four Quartets. The proposition that every state of mind has its unique verbal representation can lead to the proposition that the sign should efface itself in the presence of the signified, that the verbal icon is important not finally as itself but for what it points at (“Rudyard Kipling,” On Poetry 265). In Eliot’s poetry, language struggles from a condition of inarticulateness to a threshold where it can approach the total presence, which is also its own extinction. It falls away inevitably in order to reconstitute itself as language. In the end language can point not to any finality but only to its continuing effort to proceed beyond itself in seeking that finality. That effort gives it its meaning and purpose as language.

Four Quartets is a poem that reflects formally on its own poetics to the extent of having specific places in its recurrent structure (sections 2 and 5) allotted to its selfexamination. Since the character of the poem’s self-scrutiny depends on the point reached in its progress, these recurrent investigations open the poem up to modern critical movements in which understanding is made contingent on the perspective in which it is installed. Eliot’s status has waned since the passing of the New Critical era. Its retrieval will depend on the extent to which the self-revising nature of his poetry is read so as to counter the absolutes that are implicit in his criticism and also asserted more categorically in the dogmatic prose of his religious and cultural statements.

T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods (1934), Essays Ancient and Modem (1936), The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley (1964), Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948), On Poetry and Poets (1957), Selected Essays (1932, 3d ed., 1950), Selected Prose (ed. Frank Kermode, 1975), To Criticize the Critic (1965), The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)· Mowbray Allan, T. S. Eliot’s Impersonal Theory of Poetry (1974); Sean Lucy, T. S. Eliot and the Idea of Tradition (i960); F. O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (1935, 3d ed., 1958); Jeffrey M. Perl, Scepticism and Modern Enmity: Before and After Eliot (1989); Richard Shusterman, T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism (1987).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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