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 of his mind was never in doubt. So we can admire, as Frank Kermode invites us to, the “deliberate clarity” of his thought, as long as we understand that this 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.

Eliot’s views on personality in poetry seem to have two phases, then, but offer no serious contradiction. The impersonality of the poet creates a set of poems which add up to a distinct and significant personality: the poems have the personality. The first half of this proposition, the purging of “all the accidents of personal emotion” from the poem, is not much cherished these days, and William Empson remarked recently that “one ought to have realized at the time that only some great personal distraction could account for so bizarre a judgment.” Few critics are now as eager as Eliot was to separate “art” from “the event,” “the mind which creates” from “the man who suffers.”

Indeed, Eliot himself is supposed to have said that The Waste Land was “only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” But then he may have meant only that he thought The Waste Land was not a great poem, and while there are poets we must simply disfigure or dismiss if we look at them through Eliot’s theory, there are others, Eliot included, whose achievement needs to be understood, not as a conquest of emotion, but as the translation of emotion into another key.

Eliot’s unhappiness lies behind “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but it is not in the poem, even as a source or a shadow. In the later work, the unhappiness appears more clearly, but it is still disciplined and displaced, so that the apparently confessional Four Quarters remain impersonal in Eliot’s sense. Like the poetry of Yeats, and unlike the poetry of Hardy, Hopkins, Lawrence, or Pound, they inhabit a zone beyond personal anguish. In yesterday’s aesthetic, this would have been a sign of the greatness of Yeats and Eliot and the inferiority of the others. I’m not sure we need to make such choices, but we do, clearly, need to recognize the differences of poetic mode.


The second phase of Eliot’s views on the subject—the notion that greatness in poetry is measured by the dimensions and integrity of a whole oeuvre—seems more dubious. Hopkins’s greatness rests on four or five sonnets, and Eliot would be a great poet if he had written nothing more than the last section of The Waste Land. Eliot’s thought here seems to answer a moral or metaphysical need for wholeness, a quest for what he himself called “character,” rather than a real critical requirement.

Balachandra Rajan’s elegant study of Eliot’s poetry nevertheless looks for “the right metaphor of wholeness” for the work, and finds it in a conjunction of stairways and gardens: “the spiral of process and the circle of design.” The book thus has the flavor of a thoughtful, posthumous compliment: Eliot is shown to be a great poet by his own measure, the consistent personality of his poems is revealed. Rajan’s writing is so fluent and harmonious that it becomes, after a while, faintly oppressive. An ungrateful complaint, I know, but even Mozart might pall if there were no other music:

The confrontation of reality cannot be endured; the images twist away into rites of expiation and anxiety, surrogates for the truth that will not be faced. It is this falling short, this failure of metaphysical nerve, that makes the difference between dying and dying into life. So the tree of life becomes the tree of wrath, and neither fear nor courage can save us, because both fear and courage acquire their full nature only when they are morally rooted….

We gain something by taking the long view of Eliot, by tracing out a career rather than studying separate poems. But we probably lose more than we gain, and when Rajan writes that The Waste Land “stands by itself,” but “is not fully itself until it is placed in a continuum,” I’m simply inclined to think the reverse is true. We can usefully place the poem in a continuum, but it is more “fully itself” when we see it as a poem and not as an item in Eliot’s spiritual progress.

To some extent this is a barren controversy, a clash between perspectives which ought to complement each other, and Stephen Spender, who says that Eliot’s poetry, in its successive stages, “seems to proceed from a different consciousness,” is not as far from Rajan as he seems. One can be torn and whole at the same time, as Ash-Wednesday reminds us.

Even so, any perspective which misses the abrupt discontinuities in Eliot’s work has missed too much, for such discontinuities are the life of the poems. It is not simply that Eliot is a “poet of fragments,” as Spender says, or that he sees the world as broken in pieces. Eliot specializes in putting fragments together in such a way that we see the wholeness that we lack:

The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,

And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.

The accidental nightingales, merely singing in two different places and times, the brave flourish of the implausible connection (“And sang”) offer a perfect picture of what it means not to be able to put things together. Of course the perfection of the picture, while not a solution to the problem, is a relief. Things are together in the poem, however violently they have been yoked to each other. It is striking that when Eliot writes of the last canto of Dante’s Paradiso, he shows an almost exaggerated interest in Dante’s sudden introduction of the pagan Neptune into the highest circle of the Christian heaven:

I do not know anywhere in poetry more authentic sign of greatness than the power of association which could in the last line, when the poet is speaking of the Divine vision, yet introduce the Argo passing over the head of wondering Neptune.

This, Eliot says, “is the real right thing, the power of establishing relations between beauty of the most diverse sorts; it is the utmost power of the poet.” The leap from the contemporary Convent of the Sacred Heart to the classical scene of Agamemnon’s death is a parody of such power. It establishes a relation only in the poem, not in the world, and it is a relation between sorts of betrayal not sorts of beauty. But the parody has an authority of its own, and as Hugh Kenner has said, parodied revelations in Eliot often lead to the truth, which is not easily distinguished from its travesty. The point is that Eliot has found in Dante not only a model of lost unity, but also a poet who at a later date might have written The Waste Land, introducing the voice of Ezekiel, say, into Baudelaire’s desolation.


The Waste Land itself is not the ruin of a whole poem pulled down with Pound’s aid, but a selection of the best fragments from a larger bundle of fragments. The greatest service a friend could do for a writer, Eliot said much later, plainly thinking of Pound, was perhaps to say simply “this passage won’t do.” “That’s one way in which my mind does seem to have evolved through the years poetically,” Eliot commented in an interview, “—doing things separately and then seeing the possibility of focusing them together, altering them, and making a kind of whole of them.”

The Hollow Men and Ash-Wednesday are not entirely successful attempts to point fragments toward a larger meaning, and the Four Quartets reflect the triumphant discovery that that is Eliot’s enduring subject: how to join fragments into a poem; how to live out one’s life in the long lulls between the fragmentary moments of illumination—“the moment in the rose-garden, / The moment in the arbour where the rain beat, / The moment in the draughty church at smokefall”—which represent our only chance of a victory over time. The Quartets record a sporadically successful, finally failing tussle with temps perdu; and their distinction lies not, I think, in their claims for religion or in their remarkable lyric passages, but in the unfolding enterprise itself. They are the poem of the mind’s quarrel with the insufficiencies of language, where language at times, miraculously, is found to be sufficient after all.

Frank Kermode’s Selected Prose provides a good sample of Eliot’s critical writings, but it is a puzzling book in some ways. There is a note of condescension in the selections which is at odds with Kermode’s serious and lucid introduction. Too many essays are excerpted rather than printed in full, and the pieces on Pascal and Henry James appear to be included solely so that we can hit a famous phrase (“Some forms of illness are extremely favourable…to artistic and literary composition”; “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it”) and move on.

There are a scant twenty-eight pages (out of 305 pages of text) devoted to Eliot’s social and political writings, and while this probably represents a just estimate of their value, it would no doubt have been better to leave them out than to offer this poor sop. It is pleasant to be reminded that the author of The Waste Land became interested in soil erosion in his later years, but I would rather have had a literary essay than three thin-looking passages from The Idea of a Christian Society. And there is some mystery about the reasons for the book’s existence. The chief collections of Eliot’s criticism—The Sacred Wood, Selected Essays, On Poetry and Poets, and To Criticize the Critic—are all in print, and apart from adding an essay on Joyce and a piece of an essay on James, Kermode has simply selected from them. This is what he says about this policy:

A word, however, should be said concerning the policy of choosing—with two exceptions—only what has appeared in collections made by the poet himself. There is a large body of criticism by Eliot that has never been collected; some of it is of high interest, and it is greatly to be hoped that it will one day be published. But given the exigencies of space, an editor ought, I think, to respect the initial act of selection made by the critic himself.

The rightness of following Eliot’s lead is perhaps not as self-evident as Kermode seems to think it is, and “exigencies of space” is truly baffling. Presumably Kermode had 300 empty pages before he decided to fill them up with stuff that was already available. Perhaps we are not supposed to understand what is happening here. Of the uncollected criticism, I have seen only Eliot’s reviews in The Athenaeum, but his piece there on Balzac and Stendhal and Flaubert (a review of the second volume of Saintsbury’s History of the French Novel) is a small masterpiece, and there are very good essays on Kipling and Yeats and Pound.

Eliot’s prose seems in its way as reticent as the poetry, and yet it does give us more glimpses of the man who suffered. Stray phrases in all kinds of sentences communicate an abiding sadness: “the eternal message of vanity, fear, and lust”; “the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life”; “the fact that no human relations are adequate to human desires”; “the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering.” The tug of those phrases helps us to understand Eliot’s religion, I think; and his use of a formula like “the ecstasy of assent,” and his attachment to Dante’s line (always slightly misquoted), “E’n la sua volontade è nostra pace.” Against such profound and extensive misery, perhaps only external agencies are any use at all: God, dogma, a harsh old law, our peace underwritten by His will. “I am really shocked by your assertion that God did not make Hell,” Eliot wrote to a friend. “It seems to me that you have lapsed into Humanitarianism…. Is your God Santa Claus?” “Only Christianity,” Eliot wrote earlier, “helps to reconcile me to life, which is otherwise disgusting….”

Eliot, especially in the years immediately following his entry into the Anglo-Catholic communion, could fall into a shrill moral snobbery: “the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform”; “The worst that can be said of most of our malefactors, from statesmen to thieves, is that they are not men enough to be damned.” That is not the worst that can be said of our malefactors, and Eliot, as Spender remarks, was often “altogether too willing to condemn ordinary people and ordinary living as a form of death.” Still, one can dislike Eliot’s religion and his heartless high Tory politics without disliking Eliot, whose integrity survives his shrillness.

A curious, recurring use of the word only is a good index of Eliot’s distance from the world around him. Protestantism has manifested itself “only within the last four hundred years,” and many people are concerned “only with changes of a temporal, material, and external nature.” They sacrifice themselves, if at all, “only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future.” Eliot’s only is what many people would call a lot. It is true that in the poems this usage yields the wonderful, mournful wit of “that which is only living / Can only die,” but it also carries the wailing ascetic note which often makes Eliot’s poetry seem less substantial than it is: “only / A heap of broken images”; “only the wind’s home”; “The hope only / Of empty men”; “only the knowledge of dead secrets”; “Our only health is the disease”; “there is only the trying”; “We are only undeceived / Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.”

Against this glum litany we need to insist perhaps on the specificity of so much of Eliot’s poetry:

   And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell….

Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.
The death of hope and despair, This is the death of air.

Here are only lilacs and golden-rod and regret; only ash, dust, and death. But that is perhaps enough, and these lines enact Eliot’s central paradox and theme: they give back to us, the readers, the lilac and the roses the poet has lost. “My words echo / Thus, in your mind”:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

In its looser forms the paradox is less attractive, and an insistence on the relevance of lost or unattainable experiences can lead Eliot into strange contortions, as in his essay on Virgil as a classic. There are no classics like Virgil in English, Eliot says, but this is not a bad thing, indeed is in some ways a good thing, since a classic exhausts the language. On the other hand, we need to “preserve the classical standard, and to measure every individual work of literature by it,” and in this way we shall see that

while our literature as a whole may contain everything, every single work in it may be defective in something. This may be a necessary defect, a defect without which some quality present would be lacking: but we must see it as a defect, at the same time that we see it as a necessity.

This is surely an expression of the metaphysical need I spoke of earlier, and Frank Kermode’s The Classic, in attempting, as he says, “to explore more systematically the implications of Eliot’s position,” simply reveals the position’s poverty, and loses the chief charm of Eliot’s essay, which is the sight of a man loyally hanging on to his good sense as he battles with illusion: with his desire to find in literature an analogue for the papal infallibility which his cismontane religion could not make available to him.

Kermode’s book is a dazzling and always interesting affair, and it reads like a thriller—the corpse being the classic, and the murderer, it seems, either time or the spirit of interpretation. There is a real exhilaration in the way Kermode can bring together, within a few pages, the types of Tennyson (“So careful of the type she seems”), Cuvier, Agassiz, Emerson, Cotton Mather, Daguerre, Hawthorne, and the printing press. But Kermode has a disconcerting habit of arriving at the thoroughly obvious by tortuous tracks (“It seems that on a just view of the matter the books we call classics possess intrinsic qualities that endure, but possess also an openness to accommodation which keeps them alive under endlessly varying dispositions”), and it is slightly distressing to learn on page 117 that “a new model” of the classic, “a new start” on the problem, is simply the old view that many people would have begun with: “A classic, then, is a book that is read a long time after it was written.”

Over-all, the book gives the impression of a gifted critic on the run from literature, taking flight into literary theory and the fascination of miscellaneous knowledge, and this impression is confirmed by Kermode’s reading, in his last chapter, of Wuthering Heights. No sooner has he approached the text than he abstracts it into the riddle provided by the names scratched on a window ledge in Heathcliff’s house: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff, Catherine Linton. “Read from left to right,” as Kermode says, the names “recapitulate Catherine Earnshaw’s story; read from right to left, the story of her daughter, Catherine Linton.” But the important thing is that from right to left they read literally—Catherine Linton marries Heathcliff’s son, and then marries Hareton Earnshaw—while from left to right they diverge into fantasy and fact: Catherine Earnshaw might have married Heathcliff, but did marry Edgar Linton.

A view of the pattern which can’t register this sort of variation is neglecting too much, and when Kermode says that each Catherine “assumes” all three names, he is flogging a poor verb to exhaustion. Neither Catherine assumes the name she is born with, and the first Catherine assumes Heathcliff’s name only in a wish. More seriously, Kermode tells us that we hear nothing of the first Catherine’s dreams except that they go through her “like wine through water,” and I would have thought that even the most casual or abstracted reader would remember Catherine’s dream of being flung out of heaven because the angels were angry with her, and because heaven did not seem to be her home: “they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.”

Stephen Spender’s book is a useful introduction to Eliot, full of affection and good sense (“Being a prig is a vocational risk of an Eliot hero”) and appealing anecdotes, which begin with phrases like “According to a friend who used to dance with Eliot at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse…,” or “On one occasion I was having tea with Leonard and Virginia Woolf….” Two of the anecdotes suggest remarkably well both Eliot’s dark imaginings and his ironic mastery of them. Asked by the young Spender what form he thought the collapse of civilization would take, Eliot replied, “Internecine warfare.” Spender pressed him for a little more precision, and Eliot added, “People killing one another in the streets.” Many years later, Spender recounts, Auden found Eliot playing Patience, and asked him why he liked the game. Eliot thought for a moment, and then said, “Well, I suppose it’s because it’s the nearest thing to being dead.”

Spender sometimes drops into flatness—“Eliot is a poet in whom consciousness balances unconsciousness,” “He was famous but his private life was no happier”—and at one point he speaks of his “opening remarks,” as if he were addressing the annual general meeting of elder statesmen. There is some rattling of loose paradoxes—“Prufrock is superior to the inhabitants of his world because he is conscious of being inferior”—but there is also a fine description of Laforgue—“Harlequin, Scaramouche, correct but faintly sinister, shadow among the shadows of the city street”—and a splendid, subtle joke that either Spender or Viking decided was too advanced for American readers. “I wrote from Berlin,” Spender says in the English edition of his book, “where I was then partly living….”

Spender is better on Eliot’s plays than on the poems, following fairly dutifully there behind Helen Gardner and Hugh Kenner. Still, those are very good people to follow, and Spender does persuade me, as no one else has, of the power of the closing verses of “A Cooking Egg.” The single line between the stanzas is very disquieting, as is the unexpected answer to its apparently rhetorical question, and the reference to the ABCs (a chain of London bakeries and cafés) is saved from snobbery by the proximity of the snow-deep Alps and the comic majesty of the multitudes weeping into their tea. The ghost of Villon, evoked in an epigraph to the poem, presides discreetly over the whole sad, funny thing:

But where is the penny world I bought To eat with Pipit behind the screen?
The red-eyed scavengers are creep- ing From Kentish Town and Golder’s Green;

Where are the eagles and the trumpets?

Buried beneath some snow-deep Alps.
Over buttered scones and crumpets Weeping, weeping multitudes
Droop in a hundred A.B.C.’s

This Issue

May 13, 1976