Lessons Of The Masters: T. S. Eliot

On the Relation of His Criticism to His Poetry

As Reviewed By: Garrick Davis

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.

[private]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 breathes.

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 catholic, taste.

For this was surely a great portion of Eliot’s 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 Eliot’s 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 Eliot’s 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 Eliot’s 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 poet’s 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 it,
But they knew that it was modern.

Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
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 Meredith’s “Lucifer in Starlight.” When one turns to that poem, and reads its Christian allegory, one concludes that the use of the line in Eliot’s 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 displayed
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 harmful.

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 Eliot’s 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. Eliot’s criticism, the finest and most influential criticism of the 20th century, if not that the poet should be supremely conscious?[/private]

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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