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There are two Eliots, the poet and the critic, which bear
a curious relation to one another. Only the latter, that poet-critic descended from the
line of Johnson, Coleridge, and Arnold shall be addressed here, whose achievements are hardly inferior to his
achievements as a poet, in fact stand side by side with his achievements as a poet. That
Eliot was primarily responsible, along with Ezra Pound, for the correction of canonical
taste in our time--that modern re-evaluation which abased Milton and exalted Donne, and
rescued the minor Elizabethean dramatists--is a fact, but not one which will aid the
modern poet very much. For the poet today needs, not a discussion of how Eliot effected a
revolution in taste, but a discussion of how that revolution has effected present conditions.
This taste in poetry which Eliot and Pound created was a massive
undertaking and, like most revolutions, need occur no more than once a century: to shift
reputations more often than that would be to invite instability into an order which must
remain solid, if not permanently fixed, to endure. So first of all, the poet must
understand that, for him, the revolution did not occur in his lifetime but its effects are
everywhere, and constitute his atmosphere: the Modernist taste in poetry is the air he
Now what is a man more
likely to be unconscious of than air? All the paradoxes, obscurities, and technical
sophistication which he expects of good poetry--which is another way of saying all of his
distaste for rational order, common imagery, and direct statement in poetry--is an
inheritance of Modernism. Whether or not Modernism was our Alexandrianism, our period of
literary Rococco, is a matter that lies beyond the parameters of this essay, but of
absolutely crucial importance to the poet, so far as his relationship to the Modern
tradition is concerned. And one need not be an obstinate contrarian to understand that
there is ample reason, both poetically and historically, to question our Modernist taste
as both too obscure and too purely aesthetic to be considered a classic, still less a
For this was surely a great
portion of Eliots task as critic: to prove that his poetry was classical. That it
clearly was not a continuation of the English
tradition, at least stylistically, was a problem that Eliot took great pains to hide. For
all the essays promoting Ben Johnson and John Dryden, the fact remained that Eliots
poetry was primarily influenced by the French Symbolists. And though he often mentioned
the criticism of Lamb and Hazlitt, he was much more indebted to the obscure French critic
Remy de Gourmont for his ideas. It must always be remembered that his criticism often
disguised his poetic tradition: one must always account for the hidden influences.
All of this should be
borne in mind when one approaches Eliots poetry, through his criticism. That is a misleading path,
for it will not lead to an understanding of how Eliot wrote the poems he did. Any number
of Eliots critical ideas become fully intelligible only when viewed through the lens of his poetry:
the mythological method outlined in his essay on Ulysses
becomes practicable when seen though The Waste
Land, the objective correlative through Gerontion, the theory of
impersonality through The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and so on. This
must, necessarily, be the case for the criticism was largely a conscious attempt to
explain what the unconscious poet had wrought.
Let us take for example the
most misunderstood idea from the poets most celebrated essay, Tradition and
the Individual Talent:
One of the facts that might come to light in this
process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a
poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least
resembles any one else. In these aspects or parts of
his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the
man...Whereas if we
approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often
find than 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.
So, in the opening pages of his earliest essay, Eliot propounds a paradox: that
true originality is misunderstood imitation. If he means by originality and imitation roughly what the dictionaries mean, then
the reader must face the reconciliation of opposite terms rather awkwardly and alone. That
Eliot clearly meant something else altogether one infers from his poetic practice.
For we understand imitation
as a kind of inferior repetition of certain artistic traits, but Eliot was never guilty of
this. From the very beginning of his poetic development, Eliot would appropriate the
devices, techniques, and stock imagery of other poets, such as Jules Laforgue. But when he
did so, even when he stole or borrowed lines repeatedly as in The Waste Land, he placed them in such a context as
to completely alienate them from their original meaning. Thus, his deliberate borrowings
were used to further original ends.
We see this when we turn to
one of his earliest poems, Cousin Nancy, contained in Prufrock and Other Observations:
Miss Nancy Ellicott
Strode across the hills and broke them,
Road across the hills and broke them--
The barren New England hills--
Riding to hounds
Over the cow-pasture.
Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about
But they knew that it was modern.
Upon the glazen shelves kept
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law.
The educated reader will note
that the last line of the poem is a theft: it is the last line of George Merediths
Lucifer in Starlight. When one turns to that poem, and reads its Christian
allegory, one concludes that the use of the line in Eliots light satire only
heightens the parody.
Such is the case when Eliot imitated a style, as he did in the
second section of The Waste Land, called A Game of Chess:
Above the antique mantel was
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
Jug Jug to dirty ears.
When Eliot imitated a style,
he was conscious of doing so, and that is why it was never imitation in the vulgar sense.
The last line rather summarily dispels the grandiloquent fog pervading the previous page
or so of pseudo-Elizabethan blank verse, and the reader is left with no doubt as to the
artifice, the conscious intention, of the poet. For imitation must be unconscious to be
So Eliot, without being
disingenuous, could craft in Tradition and the Individual Talent his apology for imitation. Of course, what he meant by that
word was so personal that it has been changed out of all recognition. For his sense of
imitation, the eclectic borrowings from obscure and contemporary Frenchman, from the
lesser Jacobean dramatists, led the enterprise an exoticism which any American writing at
the turn of the century (and steeped in Tennyson, Swinburne, and Browning) would have
misunderstood. And if we understand Eliots meaning of the word, then in fact we see
how his talent stood in relation to the tradition. For one of his principal claims to
originality in English poetry is precisely his adaptations and borrowings from other
poets: a practice not seen on such a scale since Chaucer.
As for Modernism, now that it is the classical school of American
poetry, the assumptions and explanations which Eliot produced must be examined intently if
they are not to become the received, and therefore sterile, opinion of his poetic
descendants. For once ideas are no longer revolutionary, but traditional, they become more
dangerous: a point which Eliot always labored to explain. He wrote, in an unobtainable
book, I hold--in summing up--that a tradition is rather a way of feeling and acting
which characterizes a group throughout generations; and that it must largely be, or that
many elements in it must be, unconscious. And what is the primary lesson of T.S.
Eliots criticism, the finest and most influential criticism of the 20th
century, if not that the poet should be supremely conscious?