Eliot’s Achievement

To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings

by T.S. Eliot
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 198 pp., $4.95

T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot; drawing by David Levine

There is much to interest and even fascinate students of T. S. Eliot in this posthumously published collection, consisting for the most part of public lectures and addresses delivered between 1942 and 1961. Of the earlier articles not heretofore reprinted only two, both dating back to 1917—one on vers libre and the other on the metrics of Ezra Pound—are included in this volume. The analysis of vers libre is as lively as it is discriminating, keyed up to the highest pitch of poetic intelligence; but the essay on Pound’s metrics is less satisfactory. It is full of technical argumentation that somehow steers clear of any truly evaluative judgment. It has generally been my impression that, in his various statements on Pound, Eliot seems to be laboring under an intolerable burden of personal indebtedness that inhibits candor. As a result, what we get is a kind of embarrassed formalism that makes more for the appearance than the substance of criticism. He is always ready to praise Pound; yet the grounds of his praise, apart from the purely technical points involved, remain obscure.

The title essay of the volume is indispensable for the understanding of Eliot’s development. He reviews in it the entire corpus of his critical writing with great tact and a good deal of humor. The self-deprecatory manner characteristic of his later years is also much in evidence in his remarks on errors of judgment and errors of tone: “the occasional note of arrogance, of cocksureness and rudeness, the braggadocio of the mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter.” As he grew older Eliot was never fanatical about his literary ideas and opinions, and he mixed grace with courage in retracting quite a few of them, as on the subject of Milton, for instance; nor did he ever lose sight of the literary object in expounding his religious convictions. The one interlude of fanaticism in his career that I recall occurred in the early 1930s, and its upshot was After Strange Gods. This book, harsh and even supercilious in tone, has not been reprinted for a long time, probably because its author regretted its publication in the first place. The fanaticism has been voiced mainly by his disciples, who did their master little good by converting his insights, perhaps inseparable from their specific contexts, into dogmas; and Eliot does in fact express here his irritation at having his words, uttered decades ago, quoted as if he had written them yesterday. Even the famous statement (in the Preface to For Lancelot Andrewes) that proclaimed him to be “a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion,” is considerably hedged in 1961—the Anglo-Catholicism is still firmly retained, while the royalism is reduced to an empty gesture, and the classicism is brushed aside altogether. It is clear that Eliot is no systembuilder, has no great flair for logical consistency,…

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