• Email
  • Print

Eliot’s English Usage

In response to:

The Struggles of T.S. Eliot from the May 13, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Having recently read the same books that Michael Wood reviews so expertly in “The Struggles of T.S. Eliot” (NYR, May 13), may I report one of my conclusions which differs markedly from one of his—and, incidentally, express some astonishment at his statement: “Of the uncollected criticism, I have seen only Eliot’s reviews in The Athenaeum…”? Can a professor of English really have escaped The Criterion, let alone all of those famous prefaces—Huckleberry Finn, Valéry’s Art of Poetry, and, to name only a few of the women who come and go, Bubu of Montparnasse and Simone Weil, Djuna Barnes and Marianne Moore?

Mr. Wood writes that

we can admire…the “deliberate clarity” of [Eliot’s] thought, as long as we understand that it is a clarity of articulation, a matter, usually, of scrupulous syntax rather than rigorous vocabulary. What Eliot says is sometimes foggy; what he means is perfectly clear.

When Eliot’s writing is foggy, so is his meaning, at least sometimes, and his syntax can be confusing indeed. In the introduction to Nightwood, for instance, he discourses on prose style in prose that, if submitted by a student, would result in his or her transfer to a course in remedial English (unless what would seem to be a recent emigration from Germany was regarded as a mitigating factor):

He ceased to be like the brilliant actor in an otherwise unpersuasively performed play for whose re-entrance one impatiently waits.

But, to be fair, Eliot questions whether his own introduction, which is foggy both in what it says and in what it means, isn’t “perhaps too pretentious for a preface.” (To be merely pretentious is presumably acceptable.)

In his own prose, Eliot often seems to be oblivious of even the simplest uses of punctuation, adding commas, for instance, where they simply intrude (“An artist, happens on a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly…”;1 “It is to be observed, that a society, and a literature, like an individual human being…”2 ), but omitting them where they are essential (“For it is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor without distortion of meaning, tranquility…”3 ) and using them to enclose restrictive clauses (“When the unexpectedness, due to the unfamiliarity of the meters to English ears, wears off and is understood…”4 ). Nor does he seem to have any idea of the functions of colons and semicolons, evidently turning to them simply when at a loss to know what to do (“But totalitarianism can retain the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and give them its own meaning: and its right to them is not so easily disproved as minds inflamed by passion suppose”;5 “The renovation of the versification of Racine has been mentioned often enough; quite genuine, but might be overemphasized, as it sometimes comes near to being a trick…”6 ).

The variety of errors in Eliot’s grammar ranges from such elementary blunders as using “between” for “among” (“The classical qualities are scattered between various authors and several periods”7 ) to misrelating participial phrases (“Being a period of rapid assimilation the end may not know the beginning, so different may the taste become”8 ); introducing superfluous words (“Whether these are memories of six or seven years ago, or out of a more remote past, it makes no difference”9 ); failing to complete parallel constructions (“…I have more sympathy with Dante the man than Goethe the man…”10 ); not conforming first-person possessive plural pronouns (“Like the first period of childhood, it is one beyond which I dare say many people never advance; so that such taste for poetry as they retain in later life is only a sentimental memory of the pleasures of youth, and is probably entwined with all our [etc.]…”11 ).

But the full awkwardness of Eliot’s prose is exemplified only in such mazes as the following, the first of which lacks the grammatically essential words that would lead to an exit:

Not only have the words “organized” and “activity,” occurring together in this phrase, that familiar vague suggestion of the scientific vocabulary which is characteristic of modern writing, but one asked questions which Coleridge and Arnold would not have permitted one to ask.12

The second does not even display any clear notion of what constitutes a subject and a predicate, not to mention the nonrelated pronouns, suspensions, run-on sentences, improper capitalization, purely decorative colons, and malapropisms:

…We do not proceed, from Liberalism to its apparent end of authoritarian democracy, at a uniform pace in every respect. There are so many centres of it…that the development of western society must proceed more slowly than that of a compact body like Germany, and its tendencies are less apparent. Furthermore, those who are the most convinced of the necessity of étatisme as a control of some activities of life, can be the loudest professors of libertarianism in others, and insist on the preserves of “private life” in which each man may obey his own convictions or follow his own whim: while imperceptibly this domain of “private life” becomes smaller and smaller, and may eventually disappear altogether….

…We are in danger of finding ourselves with nothing to stand for except a dislike of everything maintained by Germany and/or Russia: a dislike which, being a compost of newspaper sensations and prejudice, can have two results, at the same time, which appear at first incompatible. It may lead us [etc.]…. If we have got so far as accepting the belief that the only alternative to a progressive and insidious adaptation to totalitarian worldliness for which the pace is already set, is to aim at a Christian society, we need [etc.]…. Those who, either complacently or despairingly, suppose that the aim of Christianization is chimerical, I am not here attempting to convert. 13

Most of these examples have been chosen from The Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, which Mr. Wood reviews, but the incidence of similar stumbling blocks throughout the great poet’s prose is higher than his more pious readers are willing to notice. Perhaps it is time for Eliot scholars to examine his syntax as well as his symbols.

Robert Craft

Michael Wood replies:

The statement which aroused Mr. Craft’s astonishment was perhaps not precise enough. I meant to disclaim expertise rather than profess incompetence. But in fact I don’t think of Eliot’s Criterion pieces as criticism, and I don’t think of the prefaces as uncollected. They are in books, after all; one doesn’t have to riffle through old journals to find them.

As for the sentences Mr. Craft quotes, they are of course graceless and disorderly, and Eliot frequently wrote in this way. But I would still maintain that Eliot’s meaning is rarely in doubt, and that his syntax, at its best, perfectly reflects the movements of his mind. I am drawn, as perhaps Mr. Craft is not, to prose which pursues meaning instead of simply recording conclusions, and the following passage from Eliot’s Dante essay seems to me awkward, difficult, delicate, wonderfully scrupulous, and entirely characteristic:

I am quite aware of the ambiguity of the word “understand.” In one sense, it means to understand without believing, for unless you can understand a view of life (let us say) without believing in it, the word “understand” loses all meaning, and the act of choice between one view and another is reduced to caprice. But if you yourself are convinced of a certain view of life, then you irresistibly and inevitably believe that if any one else comes to “understand” it fully, his understanding must terminate in belief. It is possible, and sometimes necessary, to argue that full understanding must identify itself with full belief. A good deal, it thus turns out, hangs on the meaning, if any, of this short word full.

Here are two senses of understanding, a very casual, secondary use of believe, and an absolutely alarming if any. Yet a complicated and hesitant though is clearly rendered, with all its complication and hesitation intact.

  1. 1

    Reflections on Vers Libre.”

  2. 2

    What is a Classic?

  3. 3

    Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

  4. 4

    Reflections on Vers Libre.”

  5. 5

    The Idea of a Christian Society.

  6. 6

    Baudelaire.”

  7. 7

    What is a Classic?

  8. 8

    The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Faber, first edition).

  9. 9

    Introduction to France Remembered.

  10. 10

    Dante.

  11. 11

    The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Faber, first edition).

  12. 12

    The Perfect Critic.”

  13. 13

    The Idea of a Christian Society.

  • Email
  • Print