We publish here for the first time T.S. Eliot’s lecture on George Chapman (1559–1634), the Elizabethan and Jacobean poet, dramatist, and translator, known particularly for his translations of Homer. The following headnote is by Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard, coeditors of volume 2 of the forthcoming eight-volume edition of The Online Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot, in which all essays will appear with scholarly annotation and apparatus. The first two volumes (1905–1926) will be published in April 2014 on Project MUSE, a provider of digital humanities content made available by Johns Hopkins University Press in collaboration with the Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

—The Editors

T.S. Eliot delivered this unpublished lecture, which scholars have long believed lost, at Cambridge University on Saturday, November 8, 1924. In a letter of May 21, 1924, James Smith, English literary critic and president of the newly revived Cam Literary Club, invited Eliot to speak to the club on “any subject connected with the Elizabethan drama.” As late as November 6, Eliot told Richard Aldington that the lecture was “still in very rough shape.” Shortly afterward he wrote to Virginia Woolf that, despite all of his labors, it proved “unworthy of subsequent publication.” It did, however, dovetail with his creative efforts; on November 30 he told Ottoline Morrell, in reference to the recently published “Doris’s Dream Songs”: “They are part of a larger sequence which I am doing—I laid down the principles of it in a paper I read at Cambridge, on Chapman, Dostoevski & Dante.”

Eliot still hoped to revise and publish the essay in the Criterion; it was announced in a subscription flyer as “An Aspect of George Chapman” for the “next issue” (April 1925), where he ascribed its delay “to severe illness.” He later wrote regretfully in the preface to Essays on Elizabethan Drama (1956):

I did not, during that period of my life at which these essays were written, have occasion to write about the work of that very great poet and dramatist, George Chapman. It is too late now: to attempt to repair such a gap, after many years’ neglect, would be almost as futile as to attempt to remove the blemishes…in one’s early poems.



T.S. Eliot, 1940s

A Neglected Aspect of Chapman

There is a first part to this paper which is still unwritten. This is one chapter in a whole book of Prolegomena to Elizabethan Literature which is still unwritten. My excuse for not having written the book is that there have been a great many other people, better equipped in many ways than I, who have not written it either. This book should be an examination of the sources and of the assumptions—the received ideas or categories—of the Renaissance. There was one man—one of your Cambridge men—who might have written this book, had he not been wiped out by a German shell—and that was T.E. Hulme.

This paper should have started by an examination of Chapman’s sources—the writers who influenced him—a sifting of what he borrowed in order to show you what was indubitably his own. What was merely borrowed from Stoic or other philosophy? What ideas, if any, had he actually lived into and made his own? The Elizabethans are often, individually, praised for what they borrowed, or for what are mere commonplaces of the time; and their true originality as often, overlooked.

[appended pencil insertion:] With Chapman then I must assume that we have examined his considerable learning, and identified his borrowings from Stoic philosophy. I assume that we have set aside all his clichés (not all of them his exclusive property) such as

Man is a torch borne in the wind; a dream
But of a shadow, summ’d with all his substance:

Nothing is made of nought, of all things made,
Their abstract being a dream but of a shade.

I shall try to present you with a mind which is personal, in that it is not shared with other Elizabethans; and which could not possibly be derived directly from classical or pre-Christian culture; which is the combination of an individual temperament, capable of profound feeling with all the history and influences which were directed upon it at that particular moment of time. I cannot show by orderly steps of exclusion that it is not a classical borrowing, but I hope that you will agree, when you see it, that it is not classical. And I hope you will assist me by not regarding what is vaguely called the Renaissance as an independent epoch, separated from the “middle ages” as the “middle ages” themselves are supposed to be separated from the “classical world.” Please clear your minds of any prejudices which may have been planted there by Mr. Middleton Murry or Walter Pater—whose “Renaissance” can be fixed nearer to 1890 than to 1500 AD.


Chapman’s “philosophy” is pretty flimsy stuff, crude and parvenu. [end pencil insertion] It is difficult. It is a difficult period. It is difficult to know what the Elizabethans stood for, if for anything, or what they were trying to do. And in Chapman, for one, as in Donne for another, I seem to find an internal incoherence, as of an era of transition and decay. It is to illustrate this lack of unity that I wish to contrast Chapman with the mediaeval—Dante—and with the modern—Dostoevski—with both of whom he has something in common. We will call the period which includes Chapman and Dostoevski the humanist period: and in saying this I have in mind the words of Hulme: “it may be possible that the humanist period we live in may also come to an end, to be followed by a revival of the anti-humanist attitude.”

This comparison of these men originated in a resemblance between Chapman and Dostoevski, which struck me several years ago, and which is the “neglected aspect” of my title. It is found in the two Bussy d’Ambois plays.1 It may be fanciful. But we are accustomed to accepting—or censoring—uncritically, the inconsistencies in Elizabethan plays: that it may easily have been overlooked.

You remember that in the first Bussy d’Ambois play the downfall of Bussy is compassed largely by the Duke of Guise, and that the motive of the second play was the “revenge” of Bussy by his brother Clermont. The fact is of course that Clermont, so far from carrying out his design on the body of the most important culprit, actually becomes the passionately devoted servant of the Guise. More than this—his devotion has a distinctly mystical tone. When the Guise is dead Clermont exclaims:

[Guise, O my lord, how shall I cast from me
The bands and coverts hindering me from thee?
The garment or the cover of the mind,
The humane soul is; of the soul, the spirit
The proper robe is; of the spirit, the blood;
And of the blood, the body is the shroud.
With that must I begin then to unclothe,
And come at th’other.

And there is one very important scene, which is dismissed by such critics as Mr. William Archer as the usual blood and thunder rant, as an attempt at the crudest form of stage pageant without the slightest regard for the plot of the play in which it is introduced.

[Music, and the Ghost of Bussy enters, leading the Ghost of the GUISE, Monsieur, Cardinal GUISE, and CHATILLON; they dance about the dead body, and Exeunt.]

then the speech—

[Clermont. How strange is this! The Guise amongst these spirits,
And his great brother Cardinal, both yet living,
And that the rest with them, with joy thus celebrate
This our revenge! This certainly presages
Some instant death both to the Guise and Cardinal.
That the Chatillon’s ghost too should thus join
In celebration of this just revenge,
With Guise, that bore a chief stroke in his death,
It seems that now he doth approve the act,
And these true shadows of the Guise and Cardinal,
Fore-running thus their bodies, may approve
That all things to be done, as here we live,
Are done before all times in th’other life.
That spirits should rise in these times yet are fables;
Though learned’st men hold that our sensive spirits
A little time abide about the graves
Of their deceased bodies; and can take
In cold condensed air the same forms they had,
When they were shut up in this body’s shade.

Mr. Archer, repenting this amazing speech, says that Clermont is expressing “mild surprise”! Even Swinburne, who is certainly at the opposite pole from Mr. Archer, says that this play is a “singular example of Chapman’s passion for paradox.” “One chief aim of the author,” Swinburne says, “was apparently to reverse all expectations that might be excited by its title.” And he proceeds to explain Chapman’s reverse as the exercise of the irresponsible activity of a legal mind. Chapman was in Swinburne’s opinion a man who delighted in pleading—apparently quite without scruple—any unlikely or untenable cause. He however at least acquits Chapman of clumsiness, and credits him with “direct defiance to all rules and traditions of dramatic effect”!

[appended holograph insertion:] But Swinburne is even more positive. He appears to think that the Revenge is a complete reversal of Bussy. The more I read the two plays, the more I am convinced of their consistency. The note of Stoical (and more than Stoical, in my opinion) resignation is clear from the beginning.

[Bussy. I must farewell, however: though I die,
My death consenting with his augury;
Should not my powers obey when she [death] commands,
My motion must be rebel to my will:
My will to life: if, when I have obey’d,
Her hand should so reward me, they must arm it,
Bind me or force it: or, I lay my life,
She would rather convert it many times
On her own bosom, even to many deaths;
But were there danger of such violence,
I know ’tis far from her intent to send:
And who she should send is as far from thought,
Since he is dead, whose only mean she used.

[Bussy…. Prop me, true sword, as thou has ever done:
The equal thought I bear of life and death
Shall make me faint on no side; I am up;
Here like a Roman statue I will stand
Till death hath made me marble: oh, my fame,
Live in despite of murder; take thy wings
And haste thee where the grey-eyed morn perfumes
Her rosy chariot with Sabean spices,
Fly, where the evening from th’Iberian vales,
Takes on her swarthy shoulders Hecate,
Crown’d with a grove of oaks: fly where men feel
The cunning axletree: and those that suffer
Beneath the chariot of the snowy Bear:
And tell them all that D’Ambois now is hasting
To the eternal dwellers; that a thunder
Of all their sighs together (for their frailties
Beheld in me) may quit my worthless fall
With a fit volley for my funeral


British Museum


Portrait of George Chapman from the frontispiece to his edition of the works of Homer, 1616

I get almost equally the impression from the earlier as from the later play, that more or less consciously the personages are acting, and accepting, inevitable roles in this world, and that the real centre of their action is in another Kingdom. And I have a similar feeling from the House of the Seven Gables, and The Wings of the Dove, and especially the Brothers Karamazoff. [end insertion]

Readers of Dostoevski will remember the difficulty they had at first in understanding the motives and actions of the characters. They find very soon that a mere charge of irrationality will not do; that there is a true consistency of which one is convinced even without understanding it. I hardly need to give instances: in the behaviour even of minor characters, who would hardly seem important enough to behave irrationally, one finds this peculiarity. (In the Karamazoff, for instance, there is a scene where Dmitri drives out madly with a party in the night to a distant inn where the party carouse with a couple of quite irrelevant Poles.) What one gradually comes to be aware of is that in Dostoevski’s novels there are everywhere two planes of reality, and that the scene before our eyes is only the screen and veil of another action which is taking place behind it. The characters themselves are partially aware of this division, aware of the grotesque futility of their visible lives, and seem always to be listening for other voices and to be conducting a conversation with spectres. Hence their distraction, their inability to attend to the business at hand in a practical way.

A good deal has been made of the connexion of Dostoevski with psychoanalysis, and I dare say that you know more of the literature of this subject than I do. And I do not want to adventure into a scientific field in which I have no competence, and which is already overrun by amateurs. Psychology is a legitimate field of investigation, but its shortcomings always seem to me to have been most manifest when it has been applied to literature. I will only touch upon one dilemma. Either the author is in some sense a psychoanalyst himself, in which case the work of criticism is merely to interpret the author’s analysis of his characters, or he is not: in which case the author himself is the subject of analysis. Now I have no objection to the psychologist finding if he can, an explanation in his own terms of the mind of Dostoevski or of the mind of Chapman.

[holograph insertion:] But I question the legitimacy of applying psychology to a fictitious character: apply it to the author if you like, but not to his world—once you are in it. [end insertion] I only refer to psychology at all in order to point out my belief that it has nothing to do with my question, which is this: what is the meaning of this world of Dostoevski and Chapman, this inexplicable behaviour, this Reconciliation motive? What is the similarity between the behaviour of Clermont toward the Guise, and the behaviour of Prince Muishkine when he lies down beside his old antagonist, and strokes his head, while the woman with whom they were both so occupied lies dead near by? Cannot literary history throw some light on it? [appended holograph insertion:] Psychology is a half way science justified, if at all, by its therapeutic value. It must lead you in the end, either to glands or to theology—both of which are clear and distinct ideas. But it must in any case, admit the existence of other worlds of discourse than its own: and I am at the moment in one of these other worlds. I speak of psychology only because Dostoevski seems to appeal to the psychological mind, but I am dealing with him from this point of view. [end insertion]

Let me digress for a moment to some other poets of the period of Chapman. One characteristic which makes Donne so piquant to the present generation is a peculiar mystical sensuality, which is really similar to the sense of a double world of a Chapman. The reasons for Donne’s present popularity, and the minor vogue of certain poets like Lord Herbert who have some of the same quality—are not difficult to find: they are similar to the reasons which make Dostoevski so popular amongst the more hysterical Teutonic nation. It represents a nostalgia for spiritual life amongst peoples deadened by centuries of more and more liberal protestantism. But what is this spiritual sensuality, as found in the seventeenth century? It is in fact a symptom of Dissolution of Christianity in protestant Europe, of the relaxing of the Christian system of the various needs of man.

A disorder like this must be referred to some order in decay. Examine the theory of love in Donne—it is not a theory at all, it is merely an honest statement of a problem and a paradox. But it is a problem which would never have existed but for Christianity, and Christianity found its own solution—but left the problem after the solution had been lost. It is curious that Christianity should thus have made problems, solved them, disappeared, and left the problems.

I am now thinking of course of Dante and his contemporaries. Dante is a poet not very much read, and what is read is chiefly the Inferno. To judge Dante by the Inferno, is as if to judge Dostoevski after the first third of the Brothers Karamazoff: and the Paradiso is the most important of all. No one who reads Dante and his contemporaries attentively—and also I believe his Provençal predecessors—but here I am wholly ignorant—and also (incidentally) some of the Spanish mystics—here I am only partially competent—can doubt that they had arrived at a theory of love and sex which was comprehensive and which worked. I do not say that it is possible at the present moment: since a Coalition Government beneficently added innumerable female votes to the roll,3 and with ladies’ colleges almost in earshot—it is difficult for us to understand the Mystery of the Adoration of the Blessed Virgin. My point is that Chapman and Dostoevski and ourselves are all part of a modern world and that Dante belonged to another and perhaps a wiser one.

For Dante knew as well as Chapman and Dostoevski that man belongs to two worlds: that the human life when it is human, is a compromise and a conflict. It is an error to regard Dante’s conception of love as romantic. Dante was a practical Latin, and being a practical Latin was therefore more spiritual than the Northerner. You are not to conceive of me in this context as the apologist of Christianity or the champion of obscurantism. That is another story. But I do say that if you accept Christian problems then you should accept Christian conclusions. When I find a writer for whom clearly the Christian other world does not exist, or who has found another “other world,” then I will not judge him by Christian standards. But I say that Chapman and Donne and Dostoevski, and also James Joyce, accept Christian problems; they are operating with Christian categories; and that they are all inferior to Dante because they do not draw Christian conclusions. This is I think the great distress of the modern world, that it is neither Christian nor definitely something else.

I should like—and it is really called for to support my remarks on Dante—to proceed by tracing his creation of Beatrice from the Vita Nuova through the Paradiso. I should like to show how deliberately and consciously, with what knowledge of his own needs and limitations he created this figure as a solution of his physical and spiritual needs. [appended holograph insertion:] But I must content myself with a few assertions. I am not making any statements about the truth or falsity of Dante’s philosophy. I will say only that it was more sophisticated and more comprehensive than that of Chapman and Dostoevski. He knew, better than they, what he felt, because he had a category for every feeling. Hence he is, even in the most restricted sense, a consummate technician, having standards of precision. [end insertion]

Trasumanar significar per verba
non si poria; però l’esemplo basti
a cui esperienza grazia serba.

[appended holograph insertion]: I know that the Elizabethan literature is usually regarded as a golden age, instead of an age of decomposition; and my friend Hermann Hesse, for whose book on Dostoevski Blick ins Chaos [In Sight of Chaos] I have a great admiration, though I do not agree with his conclusions, regards Dostoevski as the prophet of a new religion. But I must consider Chapman, and Donne and Dostoevski simply as struggling, and vainly, against that movement which culminated in Goethe—the movement which accepted the divorce of human and divine, denied the divine, and asserted the perfection of the human to be the divine. On the contrary, the perfection of the human is Mr. George Bernard Shaw. The recognition (recognition—facing unpleasant facts) that neither human nor divine will be denied, that they are inseparable and eternally in conflict, this recognition of duality is the Doctrine of Original Sin. [end insertion]

It may strike you that I have said very little about Chapman, and that he has been merely a pretext. What I wanted to do, primarily, was to exhibit Chapman as a representative Elizabethan, in a new light. As the representative of a period which was the beginning of a decay.

On the one hand, Chapman is not quite the incompetent bungler that Mr. Archer supposes: he had purposes beyond Mr. Archer’s comprehension. On the other hand, like the other Elizabethans, he represents not re-birth but decomposition. And of this decomposition Dostoevski is a further stage: they both saw the need, but were unable to realise τὸν κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βιόν.5

Excerpted with permission from The Online Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot, Eliot prose © 2013 Estate of T.S. Eliot; Editorial Apparatus © 2014 Faber and Faber Ltd. and Johns Hopkins University Press. Made possible with generous support from the Hodson Trust.