The most influential and, arguably, the most important poet writing in English in the 20th century, T.S.Eliot was also a master essayist. As significant, for contemporary readers, writers, scholars, and teachers of literature in English as his thematic and stylistic innovations in Modernist poetry were his critical analyses and gnomic pronouncements in numerous essays, several of which have become classics of the genre: “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), “Hamlet” (1919), “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), “The Function of Criticism” (1923), “Dante” (1929), “Milton I” (1936), “What Is a Classic?” (1945), “To Criticize the Critic” (1961), and many more. Beyond literary criticism, there are also Eliot’s essays on sociological, educational, and theological subjects: “Thoughts After Lambeth” (1931) and “Modern Education and the Classics” (1932), for example. Two longer works of this kind, The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) are properly classified as extended essays. Furthermore, in the way of articles and reviews, in the 60 years from 1905 to his death, Eliot contributed some 600 pieces to periodicals such as the Little Review and the Times Literary Supplement. As editor of the Criterion, Eliot was able to nurture the careers of other essayists, just as he promoted the works of younger poets at Faber and Faber.
In his literary-critical essays, especially those gathered in his most important collection, Selected Essays (1932; revised and enlarged, 1934, 1951), Eliot’s principal purpose is “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste” (“The Function of Criticism”). Most of the “works of art” to which he refers are from the English Renaissance and the “correction of taste” which he would accomplish is that to which he aspired in his own poetry: the eradication of the prevailing hegemony of Romantic priorities and practices (in their Edwardian and Georgian forms) in literary criticism and creativity. However, Eliot wanted to revive not only the appreciation of the artistry of the 17th-century poets, dramatists, and prose writers, but something, too, of the spirit of their cohesive civilization (as he envisaged it) in the fragmented modern world of The Waste Land.
So when Eliot defined “the general point of view” of his “Essays on Style and Order,” For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglocatholic in religion,” his inspiration for these convictions came from Jacobean and Caroline England, in the lives and works of such as Andrewes himself, a translator of the Authorised Version of the Bible (1611), and Bishop of Winchester, whose sermons Eliot celebrates for their harmony of “intellect and sensibility” (“Lancelot Andrewes”). Later in the 17th century, however, in the discord of the Civil War, Eliot identified “a dissociation of sensibility…from which we have never recovered” (“The Metaphysical Poets”). This was not merely literary, but cultural and spiritual as well.
The association of “ordonnance, or arrangement and structure, precision in the use of words, and relevant intensity” that Eliot admired in Andrewes’ sermons is to be found in his own essays. They exhibit the combination of carefully evolved frameworks of argument (Eliot had begun as a philosopher), intellectual acuteness (seasoned with provocative aperçus), and impassioned assessment. Eliot’s is a prose decidedly not written, as Milton claimed his to be, with the poet’s “left hand.” His intended readership was those with a measure of his own literary culture. Many examples are occasional pieces, such as reviews. Yet as Eliot emerged as the premier poet of the modern age, his prose writings were also disseminated to a wider audience. The brilliant insights and sweeping generalizations achieved the status of canon law, and toward the end of his life Eliot confessed to having been dogged by his quotable pronouncements long after they had ceased to be adequate statements of his convictions (“To Criticize the Critic”).
The famous essay of 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” is a case in point, its very title being a credal statement about the combination and tension between received and innovative elements in literature. It first appeared in the Egoist and contains an untranslated quotation from Aristotle and references to Homer and Dante, in combination with Modernist convictions about objectivity in creativity and criticism—revolutionary by the literary standards of the time. Eliot’s procedure enacts his thesis, culminating in the declaration: “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.”
Such dicta transformed literary criticism in the 20th century, as Eliot enunciated the precepts by which his own poetry—with its wry, ironic, and fastidious detachment— could be enjoyed: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” The confrontation of the classical ideal and Romantic experience which Eliot constructs in his essays, and the refinement of the latter by the former, is the leitmotif of his theory: “Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility” (“The Metaphysical Poets”).
Eliot’s individualistic essays, that is to say, in their iconoclastically legislative character, belong to “the tradition,” as represented in the 19th century by Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism (1865–88) and, in the 18th, by Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets (1779–81). In “Hamlet,” for example, Eliot employs the quasi- Arnoldian touchstone of the “objective correlative” to pronounce, with a Johnsonian absoluteness, Shakespeare’s tragedy a failure. This judgment, as startling as Johnson’s repudiation of Milton’s “Lycidas,” derives from Eliot’s conviction that there is not “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” (that is, an “objective correlative”) to justify the emotion of the central character. Hamlet is “dominated by an emotion which…is in excess of the facts as they appear.”
With Milton, Eliot dealt even more rudely. F.R.Leavis, the Cambridge critic who was a principal purveyor of Eliot’s poetry and literary criticism, summarized (approvingly) the devastating effect of Eliot’s assessment, culminating in the essay of 1936, “Milton I”:
“Milton’s dislodgment, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss. The irresistible argument was, of course, Mr. Eliot’s creative achievement; it gave his few critical asides—potent, it is true, by context—their finality” (“Milton’s Verse,” 1936). The matter was not finalized, however. In “Milton II” (1947), Eliot substantially repudiated his earlier indictments. Here and elsewhere, we can trace the evolution of his thought in the sequence of his essays.
Leavis took a phrase from Eliot—his definition of the collaborative process of literary criticism as “the common pursuit of true judgement” (“The Function of Criticism”)—for the title of his critical collection, The Common Pursuit (1952), which was one of several studies by scholars and, perhaps more importantly, teachers of international stature and influence who propagated Eliot’s precepts in the universities in the mid-20th century.
Their graduates took these ideas into the secondary schools to the point where, for two or three generations, Eliot’s literary-critical essays were formative and formidable across the gamut of English studies. The origin of the so-called “New Criticism” of the 1940s, for example, may be traced to the Cambridge of Leavis, I.A.Richards, and William Empson of the 1920s, and they had taken their cue from Eliot.
The breadth of Eliot’s subject matter in his essays, beyond literary criticism, must be emphasized. In “Second Thoughts About Humanism” (1929), for example, the philosopher is to the fore; in “The Aims of Education” (1950), the cultural critic and theologian; while in “Marie Lloyd” (1923), an essay on “the greatest music-hall artist of her time,” we are struck by Eliot’s humanity.
His two long essays remain to be mentioned. The Idea of a Christian Society began as a series of lectures at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in March 1939, which were published later that year. Eliot reflects, in the months leading up to World War II, on the future of Western civilization bereft of Christian spirituality. The Idea of a Christian Society is a valuable aid to the understanding of some of the themes in Eliot’s last important poetic work, Four Quartets (1936–42).
Eliot introduces Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) as an “essay” which he began in the closing stages of the war, after completing the Quartets. It is, as he says, a piece of “social criticism.” Again, it is the centrality of religion in the development and sustenance of culture which is his theme: “no culture has appeared or developed except together with a religion.” Although by this period in his life Eliot had attained the status of a sage, having acquired the Nobel Prize and been admitted to the Order of Merit (both in 1948), his conservative views in these essays did not achieve popular acceptance.
The influence of Eliot’s essays today, especially in what remains of the discipline of English Literature, is negligible. In the 21st century—like Arnold’s Essays and Johnson’s Lives now—they will probably be regarded only as historical curiosities. Yet, like the essays of those earlier masters, Eliot’s will remain exemplary for their style—erudite, stimulating, and, above all, readable. To paraphrase the closing observation of his essay on “John Dryden” (1921), Eliot is one of those who have set standards for English prose which it is desperate to ignore.
Thomas Stearns Eliot. Born 26 September 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri. Studied at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1906–10, 1911–14, A.B., 1909, A.M. in English, 1910; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1910–11; Merton College, Oxford, 1914–15. Married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, 1915 (separated, 1933; died, 1947). Taught at English schools, 1915–17; worked for Lloyd’s Bank, London, 1917–25. Assistant editor, the Egoist, London, 1917–19; contributor, the Times Literary Supplement, London, from 1919, and the Athenaeum; founding editor, the Criterion, London, 1922–39. Editor, later director, Faber and Gwyer, 1925–28, and Faber and Faber publishers, London, 1929–65. Became a British citizen, 1927. Editorial board member, New English Weekly, London, 1934–44, and Christian News Letter, Oxford, 1939–46. Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, 1932–33, and Theodore Spencer Memorial Lecturer, 1950, Harvard University. Married Valerie Fletcher, 1957. Awards: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1948; Order of Merit, 1948;
New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1950; Hanseatic-Goethe Prize (Hamburg), 1954;
Dante Gold Medal (Florence), 1959; Order of Merit (Bonn), 1959; Emerson-Thoreau Medal, 1960; U.S. Medal of Freedom, 1964; honorary degrees from 19 universities;
Honorary Fellow, Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1948, and Merton College, Oxford, 1949; Officer, Legion of Honor, and Commander, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1950. Died in London, 4 January 1965.
Essays and Related Prose
The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Critidsm, 1920
Homage to John Dryden: Three Essays on Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, 1924 For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, 1928
John Dryden: The Poet, the Dramatist, the Crtiic, 1932
Selected Essays, 1917–32, 1932; revised, enlarged editions, 1934, 1951
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (lectures), 1933
After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (lectures), 1934
Elizabethan Essays, 1934; revised edition, as Essays on Elizabethan Drama, 1956; as
Elizabethan Dramatists, 1963
Essays Ancient and Modern, 1936
The Idea of a Christian Society (lectures), 1939
Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948
Selected Prose, edited by John Hayward, 1953
On Poetry and Poets, 1957
To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, 1965
Selected Prose, edited by Frank Kermode, 1975
Other writings: several collections of poetry (including Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917; The Waste Land, 1922; Four Quartets, 1936–42; collected in Complete Poems and Plays, 1969), seven plays (including Murder in the Cathedral, 1935; The Family Reunion, 1939; The Cocktail Party, 1950), and works on literature and writers.
Gallup, Donald, T.S.Eliot: A Bibliography, London: Faber, 1952; revised edition, Faber, and New York: Harcourt Brace, 1969
Gunter, Bradley, The Merrill Checklist of T.S.Eliot, Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1970
Martin, Mildred, A Half-Century of Eliot Criticism: An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles in English, 1916–1965, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University
Press, and London: Kaye and Ward, 1972
Ricks, Beatrice, T.S. Eliot: A Bibliography of Secondary Works, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1980
Asher, Kenneth, T.S.Eliot and Ideology, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995
Bergonzi, Bernard, T.S.Eliot, London: Macmillan, 1978 (original edition, 1972)
Freed, Lewis, T.S.Eliot: The Critic as Philosopher, West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1979
Good, Graham, “T.S.Eliot: The Process of Refinement,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988:135–51
Gray, Piers, T.S.Eliot’s Intellectual and Poetic Development, 1909–1922, Brighton: Harvester, and Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1982
Jain, Manju, T.S.Eliot and American Philosophy: The Harvard Years, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992
Kojecky, Roger, T.S.Eliot’s Social Criticism, London: Faber, and New York: Farrar Straus, 1971
Margolis, John, T.S.Eliot’s Intellectual Development, 1922–1939, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972
Newton-de Molina, David, editor, The Literary Criticism of T.S. Eliot: New Essays, London: Athlone Press, 1977
Rajan, Balachandra, editor, T.S.Eliot: A Study of His Writings by Several Hands, London: Dobson, 1947; New York: Haskell House, 1964
Ricks, Christopher, T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, London: Faber, and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988
Schwartz, Sanford, The Matrix of Modernism: Pound, Eliot, and Early Twentieth- Century Thought, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985
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