Notes on Eliot's criticism based on René Wellek's A History of Modern Criticism and other sources:
2. Classicism and Tradition
4. Autonomy of the Poem
5. The Dissociation of Sensibility
6. Language and Technique
7. The Function of Criticism
7. Literature, Morality, Religion
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) has been called "by far the most important critic of the twentieth century in the English-speaking world." He is above all a critic of poetry and drama; he is not much interested in the novel. Eliot does not write any systematic treatise explaining his theory of poetry; it is expounded in a number of books and essays written through many years, interspersed with practical criticism or other speculations on culture. Moreover, Eliot denies having an aesthetic theory, he claims to suspect thinking abstractly about poetics. He seems to have a genuine conviction that ultimate questions are beyond the reach of the intellect, and that any attempt to define poetry is bound to failure. Eliot distrusts any criticism that aspires to a scientific knowledge of its subject:
The true critic is a scrupulous avoider of formulae: he refrains from statements which pretend to be literally true. He finds fact nowhere and approximations always. His truths are the truths of experience rather than of calculation.
Criticism, it seems, does not fully escape the condition of literature. Eliot should be read therefore with this assumptions: that he aims at most at an approximation to his subject, the writer or the poetic experience. Being a poet, Eliot claims that in his case theory is only "a by-product of my private poetic workshop", that his theorizing is arbitrary, "epiphenomenal to [his] taste." According to Wellek, this is not true: in fact, "Eliot's taste is often in little relation to his theory" (History 5:178). Eliot's theory is modelled on what he thinks he should like, not on what he likes; in this sense it fulfils its own requirements.
Eliot's implied theory itself is coherent enough, although "some internal contradictions persist" (Wellek, History 5:176). It develops many of the critical concepts that will become current among critics during the greater part of the century: poetry must be impersonal. Poetic creation requires aunified sensibility which permits to find an objective correlative. But there is a historical dissociation of sensibility which increases the difficulty of creation for modern poets. The concepts of tradition and the status of belief in poetry are also central in Eliot's criticism. "All these are crucial critical matters for which Eliot found formulas, if not always convincing solutions" (Wellek, History 5: 176).
2. Classicism and Tradition
In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), T. S. Eliot opposes the critical views then current in England. Apart from their disorganization, he complains that there is no place left for tradition in them; only originality and difference are recognized as a source of value. Therefore, the poets are considered in isolation from one another, they are misleadingly presented as rootless individuals.
Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. ("Tradition" 14).
Belonging to a poetic tradition should not be confused with repetition, with servile imitation of the works of the past. What Eliot mistrusts is the show of personality, novelty and originality. For Eliot, to be "original" is easy, and "the poem which is absolutely original is absolutely bad." What is difficult is to belong to the great poetic tradition. Eliot reverses the usual romantic view of tradition as a dead weight which must be shaken off by the poet in search of his voice. Tradition is not a given, but an end: "It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour" ("Tradition 14). In Eliot we find, therefore, an anti-Romantic doctrine of artistic creativity, a classicist conception of poetics. In order to produce great art, the poet must rely not on his subjectivity and the peculiarities of his personality, but on a poetic tradition, on maturity and the discipline of the spirit. "True originality is merely a development."
A poet needs a historical sense, a sense of the pastness and also of the presentness of the past, of its present-day relevance. The poet must be introduced to the dead poets' society. He must become aware
that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. The historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity. No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relations to the dead poets and artists . . . . [W]hat happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. ("Tradition" 14-15)
The whole of European literature is therefore an organic whole, a structural system which is changing constantly. But at the same time it is always complete; there cannot be any missing parts before they are created. The usual assumption that the past is unchangeable is done away with: the past is constantly being reworked by the preset. Eliot would presumably agree with Borges's dictum that a a work creates its own predecessors, that a work orders a series of disparate and previously unrelated works into a teleological series that points to the newly created work. Tradition, therefore, must not be conceived as a one-way street. It consists in an interplay of present and past; the past guides the present and the present alters the past, giving it a new significance.
"And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities" ("Tradition" 15). A writer must acquire a knowledge of the past. For some this will mean erudition, for others it will be a matter of natural acquisition. In any case, it is necessary. It is naive to dismiss the writers of the past and try to cut ourselves away from tradition. But do we not know more than the writers of the past? "Precisely", Eliot answers, "And they are that which we know" ("Tradition" 16). It is the knowledge of the past which allows us to be moderns.
Eliot's influence in defining this tradition is also great: he helps to effect a shift of taste away from romantic poetry, and revaluates the metaphysical poets, Dryden, Jacobean and Caroline drama. Dante is the greatest poet of history, "the most European, the least provincial." Eliot was not particularly interested in what are usually called "the classics", the writers of Antiquity or those of the Neoclassical age. "In spite of this ideological superstructure of classicism, Eliot's taste belongs to a line which could be called medieval-baroque-symbolist" (Wellek, History 5:206).
It is easy to imagine the upheaval that this imaginative and evaluative historical perspective would cause in the positivistic philology of the early twentieth century, when scholars were busy with factual data instead of their interpretation, and assumed quite naturally that the past comes before the present and quietly stays there. However, Eliot is interested in this notion of the dead poets' society "as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical criticism" ("Tradition" 15). That is, he intends to use it to explore the nature of poetry, of poetic creation, to apply it as a guiding principle to the writing of new poetry.
This conception of tradition is suggestive and has been widely influential. However, it favours a view of poetry being written in a void, or more precisely, only with respect to previous poetry. Eliot considers literature as being ultimately beyond time. The theory is only superficially historic; it reduces literary history to literary tradition.
The poet, then, must renounce the shortcut to originality and surrender his individuality to tradition, to something more valuable than himself. Poetry is divorced form his personality: "The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality" ("Tradition" 17). Only in this way can he find his real self. Like Hulme and Pound, Eliot conceives of poetic creation as a process of depersonalization. Far from being a confession, an exhibition of the artist's intimacy, art enables the artist to escape from the obsession of his emotions and from his personality. This is the opposite of the expressive, subjectivist theory of poetry which we found in many Romantics.
The poet must limit himself to be a catalyst of emotions and feelings that are played through him, while he himself remains impassible, without being consumed in the reaction. He must be attentive to the quality of the poetic process, and not to his own emotions, because "the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium . . . in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways" ("Tradition" 20). What is crucial is the nature of this combination, of the chemical reaction of poetry: the final compound, and not the bare elements. It is the structure that counts, and not the origin or nature of the materials. The emotions of the poet as such are uninteresting and irrelevant; they will count only insomuch as they become poetry. The poetic emotions are not the psychological emotions experienced by the author before, during or after the process of composition. They are the emotions inherent in the poem itself. The two need not coincide. The emotions which play on the individuality of the poet may be alien to his poetry, and vice versa. Eliot plays down the quality of the emotion experienced by the poet. It may be crude, simple or flat; the poet may still be an excellent poet provided that the poem itself is not crude, simple, or flat. Eliot draws here a difference between the emotions of the poet and those in the poem:
The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him.
Poetical feelings are complex and general, concrete an precise; psychological feelings are irrational, vague and indistinct. Of course, a poem deals with human situations, emotions, attitudes. And inevitably a personality emerges behind the poem. But these emotions, this personality, need not be those of the author. Since poetry is an escape from personality, the best poems tell us nothing about their author. At times he speaks as if the personality of the poet did not intervene in the composition of the poem. The poetic experience is described as a chemical reaction in which the poet is only a "catalyst": he favours the reaction of the poetic elements but is not emotionally involved, he remains apart from the poem. But in his practical criticism Eliot has to recognize that authors are not that impersonal. Other critics will speak in this respect of the "implied author" or the "lyrical subject." Eliot does not use the terms himself, but he shares the views: "Eliot's criticism uses often a standard of personality which is not, of course, the anecdotal, empirical personality but the personality pattern emerging from the work itself" (Wellek, History 5:183). He even uses this personality which unifies the different works of the same author as a criterion of value. He accepts that the emotions used in poetry may be the emotions actually experienced by the author, as long as they have been transformed: "out of intense personal experience," the poet "is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of the experience, to make of it a general symbol."
Eliot recognizes that the right poetic concentration is not achieved by simple deliberation and is not completely conscious. But he is more interested in rejecting the Romantic account of the process of composition, Wordsworth's "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Eliot stresses instead the conscious aspect of writing, the importance of consciousness, of awareness, which is at the same time a flight from subjectivism:
In fact the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him "personal." Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of a personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. ("Tradition" 21).
The emotion of art is therefore impersonal: it is a matter of the poem, not of the writer's life. It is not an outpouring, but a construction, an achievement. And poetic tradition offers the poet a guidance in this escape from personality. The poet "is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment [= importance] of the past, unless he is conscious not of what is dead but of what is already living" ("Tradition" 22).
Writing is a compromise between the personal, creative and chaotic side of the writer on the one hand and his critical instinct, his awareness of tradition on the other. "Probably, indeed, the larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour." The Romantics ignore this aspect of the process of composition; they do not want to accept the need of a regulative principle inside the human spirit. They rely on the individual instead of tradition. But for Eliot the individual as such has no principles—a belief that underpins his ethics as well as his poetics.
4. Autonomy of the Poem
4.1. The Meaning of a Poem
4.2. Organic Structure
4.3. The Objective Correlative
4.2. Organic Structure
4.3. The Objective Correlative
4.1. The Meaning of a Poem
The rejection of the authorial meaning is part and parcel of Eliot's theory of impersonality. If the poet has retreated himself from the poem once it is finished, the poem becomes an independent object, autonomous and public, available to judgement. The literary work of art lies then "somewhere between the writer and the reader; it has a reality which is not simply the reality the writer is trying to 'express', or of his experience of writing it, or of the experience of the reader or the writer as reader." It is easy to see that unless some limits are set or assumed, there is no difference between this theory and complete freedom of interpretation. Eliot, however, does not seem to worry about this problem. He assumes that the objectivity of the poem is evidence enough of its core of meaning. The poem "in some sense, has its own life . . . the feeling or emotion or vision resulting from the poem is something different from the feeling or emotion or vision in the mind of the poet." That is, the poet is one thing and the intention, the idea of the author is another thing. They must not be confused. Only the first is relevant for the reader and the critic; the poem must not be interpreted or evaluated in relation to the writer's subjective experience. The origin of the poem "has no relation to the poem and throws no light upon it." Biographical criticism is therefore irrelevant: no amount of data about the author will explain the existence of the poem. As we shall see later, the critical consequence of this view of the poem as an autonomous whole is that criticism must concentrate on the work itself, not on its causes or effects.
This separation of the poet and the poem has further anti-Romantic consequences. The issue of the sincerity of the emotion becomes irrelevant. If the emotion represented in the poem need not be the poet's own, the question of sincerity does not arise. In fact, it does not arise for the reader if he faces the poem itself, without any prior knowledge of the author. Eliot recognizes at first that our knowledge of the poet's insincerity of feeling affects our enjoyment of the poem. But he soon becomes more concerned with what he calls "genuineness": he separates the sincerity of the man from that of the poet, the sincerity which is built into the poem and is the only relevant one. The subjective, psychological belief of the author is finally irrelevant. "Strength of belief has no relation to successful art" (Wellek, History 5:192).
4.2. Organic structure
According to T. S. Eliot, a poem is an autonomous verbal structure, a dynamic organism with a life of its own. It is a describable object, a symbolic world which is amenable to analysis and judgment. The relevant objects of study are its meaning, the organization of the materials which constitute it, the relations between each of the parts and the other parts, as well as the relations with the overall structure of the work. The object of study is the work itself, its immanent values, not the poet or the process of composition. No amount of external criticism, of biography, of history, source studies, influences, psychological or sociological studies will be sufficient for the critic. His proper job is to study the work itself. Of course, the relevant emotions, the meaning of the work is a part of the work: Eliot is no formalist in this sense. But "once we have dissociated the speaker of the lyric from the personality of the poet, even the tiniest lyric reveals itself as drama" (Wimsatt and Brooks 675). Lyric poetry, the subjective genre, is objectivised by Eliot's ideal of impersonality; all art aspires to the classical ideal of the objective drama. The feelings in lyric are not the feelings of the poet: in poetry there is simply the expression of an emotion through an object, not the expression of the author.
An instance of organicism is Eliot's discussion of the role of verse. Eliot is vague when speaking of metrics, but nevertheless he insists that its relation to meaning is organic. The beauty of verse is not the beauty of pure sound: sound and metre become one with the meaning of the words they organize. Eliot sees the poem as a "musical pattern of sounds and a musical pattern of secondary meanings of the words which compose it, and these two patterns are indissoluble and one." The music of the word "is at a point of intersection: it arises from its relation first to the words immediately preceding and following it, and indefinitely to the rest of the context; and from another relation, that of the immediate meaning to that context to all the other meanings which it has in other contexts, to its greater or less wealth of associations." Poetry aspires to the condition of music (here Eliot agrees with the Romantics) but it is a music of meaning, not of sound. Actually, what Eliot is referring to is not music but the peculiar semantics of the poem, in which the value of the words is fully present and is moreover contextually overdetermined.
A work may fail to achieve an organic structure, a unified meaning of its own. According to Eliot, Hamlet is an artistic failure because Shakespeare has not succeeded in integrating all the materials of his sources and his own vision in a successful way. The work shows that it is a product of various hands instead of being guided by one unifying principle. It drags along a number of superfluous scenes and irrelevant motifs. According to Eliot, Hamlet's melancholy is left unexplained; there is not sufficient motivation for it in the play, given Gertrude's insignificance. Emotion is not adequately conveyed, it is in excess of the facts, it is not embodied in the play, but remains outside. Most people would not agree with Eliot, but here we are interested mainly in the critical principles he applies. The relation between character and plot in drama should also be organic: "in great drama character is always felt to be—not more important than plot—but somehow integral with plot."
4.3. The Objective Correlative
The theory of the objective correlative is inspired in the doctrines of evocation put forward by the French symbolists, as well as in Colerige and in Johnson's description of the Metaphysical conceit. A passage in Santayana has been pointed at as the immediate predecessor: "The glorious emotions with which [the poet] bubbles up must, however, at all hazards find or feign their correlative objects." Actually, the term "objective correlative" itself is unimportant. Eliot seems to have used it literally only in the essay on Hamlet, which provides also the clearest definition of the concept.
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. ("Hamlet" 145)
An "objective correlative" is then a kind of metaphor for an emotion, a metaphor where the tenor is an emotion (or rather, a "feeling") and the vehicle is any literary device: a metaphor proper, a motif, a plot structure, a character. . . For Wimsatt and Brooks it is "the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling" (668). For Wellek, the objective correlative is the poem considered as "a symbolic world which [Eliot] thought of as continuous with the feelings of the poet, objectifying and patterning them" ; it is
the right kind of devices, situations, plots, and objects which motivate the emotion of a character in a play or a novel, or even, as Eliot used it more broadly, simply as the "equivalent" of the author's emotion, the successful objectivation of emotion in art. (History 5:192).
The notion of the objective correlative is the logical result of the conception of the literary work as an autonomous structure and of the impersonality of poetic feeling. The work provides the formula for a feeling particular to itself.
Eliot's own formulation is couched in terms which are surprisingly psychological and not so distant from the empiricist doctrines of the association of ideas. Eliseo Vivas has criticised Eliot's conception of the objective correlative as not being sufficiently objective: Eliot assumes that the poet is in possession of an emotion that he tries to express, or that he intends an effect which is fully formed before he composes the work. For Vivas, "the poet only discovers his emotion through trying to formulate it in words." The poet and the reader need not feel alike; poetry is not to be conceived as the transaction of an emotion from the writer to the reader. In general, however, Eliot is not guilty of conceiving poetry as a communication of emotions. The doctrine of the objective correlative is concerned with an emotion which is objective, that is, contained in the work: the emphasis is put on the structure of the poem, and not in the emotion of the poet. The emphasis is on an emotion which is not spontaneous, but mathematically calculated: we may usefully remember here the mathematical analogy in Poe's "Philosophy of Composition." The stress on craftmanship is anti-Romantic. Eliot favours bold images with the power to amalgamate disparate experiences (witness the opening of his "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"). He sees imagination where Colerige saw only fancy: "in the verses of Marvell . . . there is the making of the familiar strange, and the strange familiar, which Coleridge attributed to good poetry."
5. The Dissociation of Sensibility
Eliot's version of organicism is part and parcel of a whole theory of history. The idea of a dissociation of sensibility has a venerable Romantic ancestry: witness for instance Schiller's opposition between the material drive and the formal drive, and their unification in the play-drive. It seems to derive more directly from Rémy de Gourmont's analysis of Laforgue's mind in Promenades littéraires. Eliot transforms this individual description into a universal narrative. Originally, the sensibility of the human being was unified: his emotions, his ideas, his sensations, were all channelled in the same direction, instead of running against each other. Then, at a given moment in history, there occurred a dissociation of this unified sensibility. Eliot usually locates the change in England and in the seventeenth century. The metaphysical poets were able to think and feel in an orderly way: in them, there is an identity of thought and sensation. In them Eliot finds "a direct apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling." "A thought for Donne was an experience: it modified his sensibility." Eliot praises what he calls Cowley's "wit", a near-equivalent to the New Critical "irony." "Wit" means range and comprehensiveness, a refusal to be one-sided, a suggestion of multiple perspectives on experience. Wit is a "constant inspection and criticism of experience. It involves, probably, a recognition implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible. But after the metaphysicals the dissociation of sensibility occurs. The eighteenth century consecrates itself to abstract thought, and becomes unable to feel. This leads to the opposite reaction in the nineteenth century, which is submerged by a wave of disorderly feelings. In the poets of the Victorian and the Georgian age, we find a confusion of thought and feeling, instead of a harmonic fusion. Eliot's ideal is the restoration of this unified sensibility by means of poetry. The artist "should have the unified sensibility which reaches from the most elementary response to the highest intellectual abstraction" (Wellek, History 5:198). The poet of unified sensibility should be aware not only of truth and beauty, but also of good and evil. Dissociation involves forgetting the problem of good and evil in poetry. Some of the French Symbolists (Baudelaire, Laforgue) attempted the reconstitution of a unified sensibility, and they did that partly by reintroducing the problem of good and evil in poetry; only by dealing with moral problems and establishing a moral order is it possible to reunite the whole of man's personality.
Eliot presumably aspires to write a poetry of unified sensibility, which in his case means also religious poetry. However, "In the defense against Paul Elmer More's accusation that there is a cleavage between Eliot's correctly classical criticism and his perverse modernist poetry, Eliot endorses the strange view that in a chaotic age poetry must be chaotic." His poetry would therefore be flawed as the whole age is flawed. Indeed, Eliot seems to believe that the poet cannot help expressing in some way the time he lives in. There is an uneasy relationship between this awareness and the timeless version of literature that he puts forward in "Tradition and the Individual Talent."
The idea of the objective correlative is also related to the theory of the unified sensibility. "The poet becomes the man who returns to this original immediate experience, to a unified sensibility by objectifying his feeling" (Wellek, History 5:186). Ideas must become feeling⎯even sensory experience:
actually Eliot . . . exploits the ambiguity of the term 'sensibility' and conceives this fusion of thought and feeling as equivalent to a fusion of thought and sensation. The metaphysical poets represent this fusion to perfection . . . . The poet must both feel and sense his thought. (Wellek, History 5:187).
The poetry of unified sensibility satisfies Eliot's and man's yearning for wholeness and integrity.
At times Eliot gives different accounts of the dissociation of sensibility. He often seems to see the dissociation as a gradual process, or to locate it at other points in history. It has, too, practical consequences for the historian of literature, such as the fragmentation of literary genres. In order to read the novels of Wilkie Collins we must be able to reunite the elemnents that have become dissociated in the modern novel. The Victorian novel reunited the thriller, the sentimental novel, the philosophical novel. Now these elements have split into as many genres. The subgenre of the "thriller" did not exist in the Victorian age because the best novels were thrilling.
6. The Language and Technique of Poetry
6.2. Myth and Symbol
6.3. The use of convention.
6.2. Myth and Symbol
6.3. The use of convention.
"Eliot in approaching a work of poetry thinks of it, first of all, as language" (Wellek, History 5:193). An important mission of the poet is to restore and to develop language. In order to do this, the poetry must stand in some relation with common language. The language of poetry must not "stray too far from the ordinary everyday language which we use and hear." Eliot favours "some standard of poetic diction, neither identical with, nor too remote from current speech." The language of Dryden or that of Dante are examples of this balanced poetic diction. Milton, on the other hand, is the example of the way the poet should not use language, tearing it apart from the common language. "Milton", Eliot holds, "writes English like a dead language." Eliot liked Joyce'sUlysses, but not the baroque Finnegans Wake. He rejects those styles in which language itself becomes the center of attention, instead of pointing towards its object; he warns against "language dissociated from things, assuming an independent existence."
The difference between prose and poetry bothers Eliot. He wants to write prosaic poetry, which nevertheless is the contrary of Pater's poetic prose: a poetry which exploits the resources of colloquial language without ceasing to be poetry. He does not identify poetry and verse; for him poetry is an honorific term. He complains somewhere that we lack the the word to qualify good prose as "poetry" qualifies good verse. However, Eliot justifies the use of verse, even in drama: "if we want to get at the permanent and universal we tend to express ourselves in verse."
Eliot defends two very different kinds of poetry. The first is the poetry of images, the kind of poetry written by St. John Perse: "The work of poetry is performed by the use of images: by a cumulative succession of images each fusing with the next; and by a rapid and unexpected combination of images apparently unrelated." The other is the poetry of statement, the poetry which preserves the coherence of a prose argument, with few images and a solid logical construction⎯the kind of poetry that Dryden writes. And when speaking of long poems or of drama, he holds that there must be a difference in degrees of poetic intensity between the parts. The less "intense" fulfil the role of prose inside the poem.
In any case, whether we write a poetry of images or a poetry of ideas, Eliot demands that poetry in our present-day civilization
must be difficult. The poet must become more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. It is not sufficient to 'look into our hearts and write'. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts. (Selected Essays 275-76)
As an example of this comprehensive and difficult poetry, he puts forward the model of the metaphysical poets; but in order to understand his meaning we must think of his own poetry instead.
The reference to allusion is important . Eliot became known in the early 1920s because his poetry was "so full of quotations." Eliot uses fragments of older poetry, lines or passages from Spenser, Shakespeare, Dante, as an ironic device, in order to emphasize the difference between the ideal world of the past and the decayed world of the present. His poetry, therefore, invokes a large number of world-views and implied contexts which are brought to bear on the poem. Eliot's disgust with contemporary reality may be "a traditional literary device" (Sampson 853) but his technique to convey this disgust is new enough: it is only possible because Eliot exploits his position at the end of a poetic tradition.
6.2. Myth and Symbol
Eliot sees the connection between poetry, myth, and ritual, but he does not favour the primitivistic interpretations of Jung or Herbert Read, or the latter's notion of "unconscious symbols." Consciousness and unconsciousness are not the parameters in which symbolism functions: "If we are unconscious that a symbol is a symbol, then is it a symbol at all? And the moment we become conscious that it is a symbol, is it any longer a symbol?" Eliot provides an unmystical description of the use of symbolism a a deliberate device to control the meaning of words. Symbolism is for Eliot one of the main resources of the poet. The poet turns the word into a symbol; that is, he makes it work as much as possible, uniting the disparate in the concrete, meaning more than it would in other kind of writing. In Eliot, "Symbol is simply the rightly charged word and not a pointing to the supernatural" (Wellek, History 5:198).
Likewise, Eliot recommends myth as a method, a technique. The role of myth in his poetry can be compared to that of literary allusion. A myth can provide the framework of a contemporary work. In this respect, Eliot praises the use Joyce makes of the Odyssey as a reference basis for Ulysses: myth can be "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." The artist is a user of myths, but he is not a mythmaker. "The artist is more primitive, as well as more civilized than his contemporaries." The artist is not bound to the remnants of the past: he encompasses the whole of history.
6.3. The Use of Convention
There are other conventions, apart from myth, available to the poet. "Rhetoric", used by the critics of the Romantic tradition as a term of abuse, is revaluated by Eliot. The conscious artificiality of a genre, its "rhetoric", is not a shortcoming, but a precondition for a required effect. Eliot reacts against the naturalistic tradition in drama, and wants to recover the right for a character to speak in monologue or being aware of his own dramatic role, the kind of play inside the play that we often find in Shakespeare. The rhetoric of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic speeches is the result of a conscious delight in speech. This is pernicious if it is done for its own sake, "if it is not done for a particular effect but for a general impressiveness" ("Rhetoric" 42). Generic conventions must be used as elements of poetic construction. They must become a channel through which to articulate the emotion in drama. Inarticulate emotion is, as always, Eliot's bête noire.
Eliot reacts against the dramatic tradition of Shaw or Ibsen, and calls for a more concentrated, more stylized, more intense drama, closer to the religious ritual which was at the origin of drama. To the naturalistic drama of the late nineteenth century Eliot opposes the poetic drama he was to exemplify himself in Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party. Poetic drama he defines as "a design of human action and of words, such as to present at once the two aspects of dramatic and musical order." An extreme example of the use of conventions with a view to reaching a particular effect can be seen in melodrama. Melodrama does not arise naturally, in the way drama does: "we are asked to accept an improbability, simply for the sake of seeing the thrilling situation which arises in consequence" (Eliot, "Wilkie Collins" 467). Eliot speaks of exploring the devices of melodrama, presumably to turn them to worthier uses.
7. The Function of Criticism
Just like literature, the body of criticism forms an organic whole, a society of dead critics. There is an unconscious community between critics as there is one between artists. But criticism is not autotelic, like art. Its end is "the elucidation of the works of art and the correction of taste" ("Function").
Eliot insists on the need to adopt critical standards, to choose the principles of criticism. He draws here a significant analogy between criticism, literature, religion and politics. The English tendency is to Protestantism, to Romanticism, to individualistic, liberal Whiggery and to critical anarchy. The French tendency is to classicism and Catholicism, to the establishment of a central authority and the regulation of taste: the Frenchman seeks external standards in the tradition, and does not rely on his inner voice alone ("Function"). All of Eliot's thought is pervaded by this classicist ideal: that we should refer our subjective principles to general laws, to avoid impressionism and vague moralism in criticism. Eliot seems to have derived much inspiration for this from the French critic Remy de Gourmont.
In "Tradition and the Individual Talent", T. S. Eliot has sown the seeds of both his poetics and his critical theory. Criticism must concentrate itself on properly literary matters, not extraliterary considerations. Eliot calls critics such as the "New Humanists" Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More "imperfect critics" because their concern is primarily moral, not artistic. He also reacts against impressionistic criticics, who are unable to establish critical principles, to formulate the general laws underlying their impressions, in a word, to objectify what is subjective. Eliot's poetics based on tradition and impersonality has a direct bearing on his critical ideas. It is the poem and not the poet who will become the center of critical attention. Biographical criticism, or any kind of data concerning the circumstances of the work instead of the work itself are useless as an explication of the work. The only relevant tools of the critic are comparison and analysis.
We have already seen that every poet has a critic inside him which is his connection with tradition and guides him during the composition of his work. "The critical activity finds its highest, its true fulfilment in a kind of union with creation in the labour of the artist" ("Function" 31). This is Eliot's backhanded way of showing criticism out of the literary scene. If every poet has a critic inside himself, there is no need for other critics to show him his job.
There are more kinds of criticism apart from the one built-in in the poet. Most of them are not legitimate. The first is creative criticism, the impressionistic criticism of Sympson or Pater⎯which is not criticism, in fact: "It does not count" for Eliot; these critics are actually frustrated, "incomplete artists." Criticism must be subordinated to creation: autotelic, creative criticism is not to be accepted. The second kind is historical criticsm, scholarship, which again is not criticism proper; it is a legitimate activity in its own right, but should not be confused with criticism. Eliot is fond of drawing a distinction between scholarship and practical criticism. Scholarship is ideally concerned with facts; its aim is to interpret the meaning of the work in its original historical context. Criticism is concerned with value judgments: its aim is to determine the meaning of the work for us, now; the use we can make of it; its significance to the modern poet. This confrontation will be replayed again and again during the following decades. According to Wellek, "making criticism serve only temporary ends while scholarship serves the permanent seems a specious conclusion based on a false dichotomy. It pervades Eliot's criticism" (History 5: 178). At one time Eliot claims that "the only genuine criticism is that of the poet-critic who is criticizing poetry in order to create poetry." "The important critic is the person who is absorbed in the present problem of art, and who wishes to bring the forces of the past to bear on these problems." There is only one exception for Eliot: Aristotle, who seems to have been good at everything. Predictably, Eliot was strongly criticized for these views. They are unduly restrictive, both of the authors and the scope of criticism. "Later he merely asked the critic to have some experience in composing poetry" (Wellek, History 5:179). But still Eliot rejects interpretation and judicial criticism.
A further imperfect kind of criticism is interpretation. When applied to criticism, Eliot's theory of impersonality makes him warn us against the dangers of critical interpretation:
it is fairly certain that "interpretation" . . . is only legitimate when it is not interpretation at all, but merely putting the reader in possession of facts which he would otherwise have missed. ("Function" 32).
Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret, we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for "interpretation" the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know. ("Hamlet" 142)
Even irrelevant historical facts are to be preferred to allegorizing the work. Even the critics who investigate Shakespeare's laundry bills are better than those who try to "interpret" the work and succeed only in interpreting themselves. Eliot has a respect for factual scholarship that he does not manifest when facing journalistic criticism. Facts cannot corrupt taste, but random opinons and fanciful interpretations can. Just as the critic has no business giving advice to the poet on how to write, he has no business giving advice to the reader on how to read. The critic, like the author, must be impersonal; his role is to attract the attention of the reader to the work, not to himself. Criticism which draws attention to himself is vicious, and must be avoided. Interpretation is not true criticism because it falsifies the work. You lose contact with the work itself, and "instead of insight, you get a fiction." Interpretation is deceiving because it limits the meaning of the work even as it claims to explain it. Eliot does not believe in the possibility of a single or permanent interpretation: "every interpretation, along perhaps with some utterly contradictory interpretation, has to be taken up and reinterpreted by any thinking mind and by every civilization." He looks on interpretation as "a necessary evil, a makeshift, a compensation for our imperfections" (Wellek, History 5:180). We have already mentioned Eliot's conception of the autonomy of the poem, his rejection of the continued authorial control on the finished work. The meaning of the poem is left for the reader to decide; it does not seem to be completely fixed in Eliot's conception. "A poem may appear to mean different things to different readers, and all of these meanings may be different from what the author thought he meant." "The reader's interpretation may differ from the author's and be equally valid⎯it may even be better." According to Wellek, "Eliot is right in not wanting to lose this accrual of meaning", but this does not solve the problem of correctness, which was not really faced by Eliot (History 5:181).
Judgments of value are also forbidden in criticism. "The critic must not coerce, and he must not make judgments of worse and better." He "must simply elucidate; the reader will form the correct judgment for himself." These are, presumably, among the statements that we are not supposed to take literally. Eliot "seems rather to protest against subjective and arbitrary interpretation and against the dogmatic ranking of authors." Moreover, "the interdiction of judgment and ranking is completely belied by Eliot's practice. Ranking, judging, was the secret of his success and appeal as a critic" (Wellek, History 5:180). Actually, his idea of the poetic tradition, of the "absolute poetic hierarchy" that we must assume presupposes the activities of judgement and ranking.
It is to be noted that in rejecting interpretation and judgment as tasks proper to the critic, Eliot is not dismissing them completely: instead, he is displacing them into the area of the reader. What Eliot does is to suppress the mediation of the critic in areas where his judgment or his interpretation will be in conflict with those of the reader, who in any case would have to judge and interpret again the critic's interpretation.
What is left, then, for the critic to do? The aim of criticism is "the return to the work of art with improved perception and intensified, because more conscious, enjoyment." This enjoyment comes from an awareness of how poetry achieves its effect. The critic can explain the technique of the poet, the way he says things, instead of the things he says. But Eliot's own criticism oversteps the limits he sets here⎯as all criticism should.
8. Literature, Morality, Religion
The early Eliot defended the autonomy of art. The later Eliot subordinated it to religion. Poetry is not actual religion nor an adequate substitute (Eliot always defended this) but in the later years it is seen as a preparation for religion. The need of critical regulation we have been commenting on exceeds the purely literary judgment. Literary criticism must be supplemented by moral and religious criticism. Because of this Eliot has been accused of upholding a double standard of value.
Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint . . . . The 'greatness' of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.
The New Critics will reproach Eliot that he has accepted the division in the first place and will keep trying to fit together the fragments of the work. According to Wellek, Eliot speaks here "as if morality and theology were ingredients merely added to minimal aesthetic value . . . . To accept Eliot's dichotomy of 'greatness' and 'artness' means giving up an organic point of view, establishing a new divorce of form and content" (History 5:190). But Eliot refuses to subordinate the religious standard to a wholesale moral aesthetics, and insists on opposing two regulative principles. He gave a name to this regulative principle when he declared himself to be a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics and an Anglo-Catholic in religion.
Morality is a constituent part of literature, and good literature must be moral. We separate irrationally (and incompletely) our literary from our religious judgments. Aesthetic and moral pleasure must not be divorced: a purely "aesthetic" judgment is an aberration. Reading literature, Eliot argues, affects not only our taste but the whole of our being. Therefore, Eliot reacts against purely aesthetic approaches to literature, and differentiates taste and morality: "For literary judgement we need to be acutely aware of two things at once: of 'what we like', and of 'what we ought to like'. Few people are honest enough to know either." We must learn to know what we feel and to understand our shortcomings, in taste as in everything else.
It is here that we meet the problem of belief. The early Eliot had defended that belief in the ideas used by the poet is irrelevant to the enjoyment of poetry: "You are not called to believe in Dante's philosophical and theological views"; he draws "a difference between philosophical belief and poetic assent" . Later he will hold, perhaps more sensibly, that this complete separation is not possible: "One probably has more pleasure in the poetry when one shares the beliefs of the poet." According to Wellek, "we are not always able to reach the state of disinterested contemplation that poetry demands" (History 5:190). The truest philosophy becomes then the best poetic material. The problem is that Eliot uses the Catholic dogma as the rule to measure the degree of truth or falsensess of ideas or philosophical systems. Still, his theory allows a measure of distance in belief which is still acceptable and does not preclude the enjoyment of poetry:
When the doctrine, theory, belief, or 'view of life' presented in the poem is one which the reader can accept as coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience, it interposes no obstacle to the reader's enjoyment, whether it be one that he can accept or deny approve or deprecate.
Eliot separates here logical criteria from aesthetic ones, and once more he will meet the rebuke of Wellek, who thinks that
coherence is an aesthetic as well as a logical criterion. . . The maturity of a work of art is its inclusiveness, its awareness of complexity, and . . . the correspondence to reality is registered in the work itself. An incoherent, immature, 'unreal' poem is a bad poem aesthetically. (History 5:191).
Eliot warns against the effects of bad art. Literature affects our personality; it contributes to shape it when we are young. The literature read for amusement may have the greatest influence, since it is read without effort and uncritically. To read critically is to realize that literature is not a presentation, but an interpretation of life: another's interpretation of life. Literature only becomes knowledge when we consider it as another person's perspective on reality. Unless we realize this we are in danger of letting our personality be invaded by the personality of the writer. For instance, when the author in a novel condones the behaviour of some characters and condemns others, our judgment of those characters is affected by that alien viewpoint. And the novel has become gradually secularized, alien to a religious view of life. Indeed, contemporary literature as a whole tends to be degrading, since it has forgotten the supernatural side of man and concentrates on the inferior natural life. Eliot complains that our age is the most parochial of ages: we read only contemporary authors, and forget the classics. Today it is more difficult than ever to become an individual, since most people are simply caught in the main drift of modern culture which leads them to worldly values. The Christian reader must be aware that most authors today are unbelievers. Still more: they are unbelievers who do not realize that there are still believers near them. The Christian reader may enjoy modern literature and profit from it, but he must know the place of others and his own.
Eliot deplores Arnold's conception of the end of religion and his attempts to substitute "culture" or literature for religion. "The effect of Arnold's religious campaign is to divorce Religion from thought." In this, Arnold was after all a Puritan. He surrenders to a blind moral feeling and sees in Christianism only a source of emotions which do not need any belief to uphold them. Eliot will likewise reject Arnold's double offspring, I. A. Richards conception of poetry as psychological balance, and the "new humanism" of Irving Babbitt. Humanism is an offshoot of religion, it is dependent on Christianity, its values need the values of religion to uphold them. Without its religious basis, humanism will lose its sense of direction: "You cannot make humanism itself into a religion" ("Babbitt" 475); "the humanist makes use, in his separation of the 'human' from the 'natural', of that 'supernatural' which he denies." If the supernatural is denied, the opposition betwen man and nature collapses. The logical outcome is Pater's doctrine of "art for art's sake" which actually means "feeling for feeling's sake", and can only lead to an irresponsible hedonism. These attempts to turn literature or art into a kind of substitute for religion are the symptoms of the dissolution of thought which is in progress in the 19th century: "the isolation of art, philosophy, religion, ethics and literature, is interrupted by various chimerical attempts to effect imperfect syntheses" ("Arnold"). Arnold's religion of poetry is therefore a consequence of the dissociation of sensibility, a further symptom of decay. Literature is not a source of ethical principles. The humanist solution is a historical accident, which may serve for certain individuals, but which cannot provide the basis for society at large. The life of a culture must stand on a basis which is firm and true, not derivative or nostalgic.
There is no getting round the real issues. We must face the problem of religion, of the meaning of existence, because all our actions depend on the answer we give to that question. "There are two and only two finally tenable hypotheses about life: the Catholic and the materialist." This is Eliot's diagnosis of contemporary society: it is confused, lost; it lacks orientation. It is unable to educate young people. Education must be related to the social system. Our education deteriorates because our society is unsettled, and we have no clear notion of what we want. The problem of education turns out to be a religious problem. Education is dominated by the idea of getting on in the world, no longer by the wish to acquire wisdom. Only technical efficiency and social promotion count. Modern education focusses on scientific knowledge of the world and of man⎯which does not mean understanding of life or self-knowledge. Eliot opposes the idea of "education for a society of leisure" and of raising up the school age as a remedy against unemployment. He is also against the notion that everyone should reach higher education, that the university should be expanded to the whole of the population. These notions merely show that modern education has no clear aim: it neglects the questions of who should be educated, and why. The modern tendency, according to Eliot, is to let students develop their own interests, instead of being guided. Studying things for which we have no taste or aptitude, he argues, is essential: in this way we learn to take an interest in them. This is one of his arguments to defend the continued study of the classics at university. Ultimately, Eliot argues, education must rest upon a religious conception. "As only the Catholic and the Communist know, all education must be ultimately religious education" ("Modern Education" 515). Eliot concludes his critique of modern society with an appeal to the revival of the monastic ideal of the Middle Ages.
Eliot "looked complacently upon those who refuse to choose between Rome and Canterbury on the one hand and Moscow on the other (Communism is for him a religion) and who refuse to appplaud his glorification of an earlier state of British culture" (Wellek, History 5:220). He did not decline as a critic after his conversion, but he did not solve the problematic relationship between his theory, his practical criticism, and his own poetry. Instead, he refused to concentrate on literature and embraced extrinsic standards of criticism:
his interests shifted away from literary criticism and thus he was apt to use literature as documents for his Jeremiads on the modern world. He embraced a double standard which dissolved the unity of the work of art as well as the sensibility that goes into its making and the critical act itself. he thus weakened (on behalf of what he felt to be higher interests) the impact of his achievement as a literary critic. Taken in its early purity his literary criticism seems to be very great indeed" (Wellek, History 5:220).
Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays. 1932. 3rd ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1951.
Sampson, George. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. 3rd. ed. Rev. by R. C. Churchill. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970. 1979.
Wellek, René. "T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)." In Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950. Vol. 5: English Criticism, 1900-1950. London: Jonathan Cape, 1986. 176-220.*
Wimsatt, W. K. and Cleanth Brooks. Literary Criticism: A Short History. New York: Knopf; London: Routledge, 1957.