The Struggles of T.S. Eliot

The Overwhelming Question: A Study of the Poetry of T. S. Eliot

by Balachandra Rajan
University of Toronto Press, 153 pp., $10.00

Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot

edited with an introduction by Frank Kermode
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $4.95 (paper)

T. S. Eliot

by Stephen Spender
Viking (Modern Masters Series), 222 pp., $8.95

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

“The progress of the artist,” Eliot wrote in 1919, “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” Some thirteen years later, he seemed to modify his view:

A man might, hypothetically, compose any number of fine passages or even of whole poems which would each give satisfaction, and yet not be a great poet, unless we felt them to be united by one significant, consistent, and developing personality.

The second remark is usually taken as a recantation of the first, yet even there, surely, the emphasis falls on personality as a principle of order rather than a value in its own right. Throughout his life, Eliot clearly believed that poems were made out of the personal emotions of poets. The difference between Shakespeare and Jonson, he thought, lay in Shakespeare’s “susceptibility to a greater range of emotion, and emotion deeper and more obscure.”

The question, always, was whether such emotion had been properly absorbed into a poem, or whether it had been left hanging; whether the poem trailed ragged edges of unmastered feeling of the kind Eliot saw in Hamlet (“the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action”), and continued, later, to see in the sermons of Donne (“About Donne there hangs the shadow of the impure motive”) and the writings of Ruskin (“One feels that the emotional intensity…is partly a deflection of something that was baffled in life”).

Even Eliot’s most famous pronouncement on the subject still deserves close attention:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

The second sentence is an apparent aside in Eliot’s best “English” manner, an instance of his taste for what Stephen Spender calls mystification. A vast concession is made, while the writer seems to be looking the other way. But the small words “want to,” quite unnecessary either to the grammar of the sentence or to Eliot’s general meaning, very nearly stand the whole argument on its head, since they convert the doctrine into a desire rather than a prescription. Eliot himself joins Donne, Ruskin, the Shakespeare of Hamlet, and countless other writers who are trapped in their own unextinguished lives, unable to create those lines in which the emotion will be there: ” ‘there’ simply, coldly independent of the author, of the audience,” as Eliot wrote of a phrase from Othello.

This is what Eliot meant by his famous (or infamous) “objective correlative,” which has since been variously fathered on Coleridge, Washington Allston, Bosanquet, Whitman, Santayana, and Husserl, and it is what he meant when he spoke, on another occasion, of a “general symbol.” Eliot’s critical terminology was rather slack, but the movement…

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