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Eliot’s Achievement

To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings

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

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, and is scarcely if ever concerned with the more abstract concepts of aesthetic theorizing. If a number of influential commentators have insisted on deriving a system from his work, it is largely due, it seems to me, to their wilfully confusing his religious ideas, which belong to an entirely different order of discourse and are even at best quite unoriginal, with his literary and critical ones. There is no real interdependence, either logical or substantive, between the two orders of ideas. For it can be shown, I think, that his more valuable literary ideas are mostly empirical in nature and can easily be disengaged from his religious commitments. That this disengagement is stubbornly resisted by some people points to the vested interest in Eliot that the religious ideologists have acquired. The religious experience that he records in his poetry is validated by the poetry, not the other way around; the ideology, insofar as it enters his criticism, is something else again, and should be separated out if we are to make the best use of it. Deliberately or not, it is exactly in this fashion that we proceed with Dr. Johnson, with Coleridge, and with Arnold. Why not with Eliot, who, to my mind, is as good a critic as any of them?

ELIOT distinguishes three periods in his criticism, and attributes the “enduring popularity” of his earlier essays, in which, as he says, he was implicitly defending the sort of poetry he was then writing, to a kind of “urgency, the warmth of appeal of the advocate,” which his later, “more detached and judicious essays cannot claim.” (Of course, there is more to it than that: The authority and enormous influence of that earlier criticism, though it must always be considered in close relation to the poetry, are by no means fully accounted for by his successful poetic practice.) In the first period the influences he was chiefly aware of were those of Irving Babbitt and Ezra Pound, “with a later infusion of T. E. Hulme and of the more literary essays of Charles Maurras”—influences apparent in the recurrent theme of Classicism vs. Romanticism, an opposition he later abandoned when he realized that its literary implications were meager indeed, and that its origins lay mainly in political conservatism. As for the emphasis on “tradition”—transmogrified by the disciples, of whom there were far too many until very recently, into a reactionary status-symbol—it came about, he states, as a result of his reaction against the poetry, in English, of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and his “passion” for the poetry, both dramatic and lyric, of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But this much we have known for a long time. He is “certain of one thing,” however, that he wrote best about the poets who influenced his own poetry.

The essay “To Criticize the Critic” is full of very informative asides and excellent formulations. Thus he comments on his varying attitudes toward D. H. Lawrence through the years, confessing that, in spite of Mr. Leavis’s repeated animadversions, his antipathy to Lawrence remains, “on the grounds of what seems to be egotism, a strain of cruelty, and a failing in common with that of Thomas Hardy—the lack of a sense of humor.” This may not be the last word on Lawrence, but it surely adumbrates a more realistic approach, and a more sensible one, than can be inferred from the overwrought opinions of Dr. Leavis, whose addiction to a limited, social-moralistic, edifying interpretation of Lawrence has now for the most part prevailed in academic circles. Eliot persists in his view that it is impossible “to fence off literary criticism from criticism on other grounds,” that standards other than those of “literary merit” cannot be excluded in the long run. I think that he made this point with greater precision in an earlier essay, “Religion and Literature”: “The greatness of literature cannot be determined solely on literary grounds; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.” Certainly the practice of most literary critics, past and present, bears out this simple but very important truth.

IT IS disturbing to observe that this simple truth, substantiated by the whole history of literature, is hardly understood any longer by our younger, articulate critics of art and letters, whose twaddle about something they call “aesthetic bliss,” setting immediate sensation above thought and feeling, has lately acquired a fashionable ring. What this represents, finally, is a falling back to fin-de-siècle aestheticism, only in a souped-up, modish version. Now in the van of fashion—and fashion invariably goes in for change for its own sake and novelty at all costs—these people are not critics at all but the tastemakers of the newly affluent whose vulgar yearning it is to consume culture, as it consumes any product that makes for “excitement.” Since these tastemakers have learned that “culture” goes down all the more easily if diluted with Kitsch, they exhibit no reluctance whatever to issuing certificates of aesthetic chastity to Kitsch of all sorts. The true function of criticism, however, is more frequently to resist the Zeitgeist rather than acquiesce in its now rampant aberrations. As Eliot notes in this book, criticism at its best acts “as a kind of cog regulating the rate of change of literary taste,” since it is well aware of “the antiquarianism of the old and the eccentricity and even charlatanism of the new….”

It is necessary to add that the parts of this volume dealing with non-literary subjects are not very impressive, reminding us, unhappily, of such laborious compositions as Notes towards a Definition of Culture and The Idea of a Christian Society. In such works the author’s superior intelligence and ironic bent recede before his sense of duty as a responsible Anglican churchman. An example is the long piece, “The Aims of Education,” which, though bristling with carefully staged definitions, does not really get us very far beyond Arnold’s “the best that has been said and thought in the world.” But the literary essays are as superb as ever. Even if more “detached and judicial” than Eliot’s earlier work, certainly they display no falling off in the assured grasp of issues relevant to a literary discussion, no loss of vigor in the tactful but firm avoidance of concerns that are basically academic. For instance, in the short essay on “American Literature and Language,” he dissects a number of questions which most of our critics are not properly equipped even to identify. Thus Eliot persuades us once again that he is the finest literary critic of this century in the English language. His only possible rival is Edmund Wilson. But the comparison is not quite to the point, because Wilson’s merits and demerits are of a different order. In the future the comparison will no doubt be made often enough, but only after essential distinctions between kinds of criticism have been drawn.

TO MY MIND the most admirable piece of criticism in the book is the essay “From Poe to Valéry”—a marvel of precision and insight. Eliot begins by giving us his impression of Poe’s status among English and American readers and critics, an impression accurate enough, and then proceeds to develop his own estimate of him. I take it to be the definitive estimate; I certainly find it far more convincing than either the wholly negative, virtually demolishing, view that Yvor Winters adopted in Maule’s Curse, or the somewhat implausibly positive opinion of Poe to which Wilson has committed himself. In some of Poe’s poems Eliot detects “an irresponsibility towards the meaning of words,” and he has no trouble refuting in detail the theory of the impossibility of writing a long poem. According to Eliot, that Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable, but it was also a fatally immature intellect. Though

the variety and ardor of his curiosity delight and dazzle, yet in the end the eccentricity and lack of coherence of his interests tire. There is just that lacking which gives dignity to the mature man: a consistent point of view. An attitude can be mature and consistent, and yet be highly skeptical: but Poe was no skeptic. He appears to yield himself to the idea of the moment: the effect is, that all his ideas seem to be entertained rather than believed.

But the heart of the essay is in Eliot’s consideration of the manner in which three French poets, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry, representing three different generations, responded in different ways to Poe. Their response is, of course, the truly significant factor in his reputation. As Eliot sees it, Baudelaire primarily appreciated Poe as a prototype of le poète maudit, and in this sense he was first of all interested in Poe the man. With Mallarmé the interest shifts to Poe the poetic technician, while with Valéry “it is neither the man nor the poetry but the theory of poetry which engages the attention.” Thus Eliot arrives at the strategic point where he can undertake a thorough analysis of la poésie pure and all the possible relations between subject matter and poetic language grown increasingly self-conscious. Eliot does not come down on the side of purity. On the contrary, he thinks that “poetry is only poetry so long as it preserves some ‘impurity’ in this sense: that is to say, so long as the subject matter is valued for its own sake.” Valéry represents above all a change of attitude toward the subject matter. It is not so much that it has become less important but rather that its importance is that of a means only—the end is the poem. Furthermore, in Valéry the interest in the compositional process, and in observing himself in the act of composition, finally displaces even the belief in ends. This represents the culmination of ideas that can be traced back to Poe. And what about the future? Eliot holds it as “a tenable hypothesis that this advance of self-consciousness, the extreme awareness of and concern for language which we can find in Valéry, is something which must ultimately break down, owing to an increasing strain against which the human mind and nerves will rebel….” That in this respect Eliot is essentially right is shown by the work of the latest generation of poets, post-Eliot and post-Auden, who are in full retreat from the more complicated verbal and structural modes of the recent past.

Eliot is dead, and we will not soon see his like again. He was one of the principal educators of the imaginative life of his age, a uniquely great shaping influence both as poet and critic. In the latter capacity he was never deceived by the stratagems and artifices of “methodology,” and taught us to understand that the only method is to be very, very intelligent, that, in the words of Henry James, “the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer.” His commitment to orthodox beliefs must have answered an irresistible inner demand of his nature for a discipline to shore him up against chaos, against his fears of “shape without form, shade without color/. Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” In this sense it was no more than an anodyne, yet we who have not suffered his pains are seldom in a position to reproach him. No, it was not in the titanic ambition to steal fire from heaven that he sought his inspiration but rather in a kind of patience of suffering and wonderment of scruples forbidding him ever to try purloining the things that rightly belong to the gods.

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