The most substantial cache of papers in volume 1 of Eliot's Complete Prose consists of the twenty-five philosophical essays that he wrote at Harvard and Oxford between 1911 and 1915, culminating in the first draft of his Ph.D. thesis. Although I had been absorbed in these papers for two decades, there were still challenges, which in collaboration with Ron Schuchard had to be worked through. My old transcriptions (and Schuchard’s) of Eliot's drafts, some in pencil on yellow paper, had to be checked, word by word, jot by tittle. The Greek passages had to be translated, a task entrusted to J. C. Marler, a specialist in classical studies at St. Louis University. Eliot's references, entangled in memories of lectures, books, and conversations, had to be traced. “I remember a statement of Eucken's to this effect: es gibt keine Privatwahrheiten.” This tidbit (“there are no private truths”), repeated three times in Eliot's papers, does not appear in Rudolf Eucken's works, but was probably uttered in one of several lectures that Eliot heard him give at Harvard in 1912 and 1913. In a discussion of the degrees of reality, he often contrasts his position with that of one “Mr. Givler,” eventually identified as Robert Chenault Givler, a classmate in one or possibly two seminars.
But rather than emphasizing the challenge of editing these essays, I prefer to reflect on the pleasure of reading them. In reading the papers written between 1913 and 1915, I discovered that Eliot frequently uses the image of “melting”—eleven times in this two-year period compared to a mere half-dozen over the next two decades. My curiosity was piqued not only by the frequency of the occurrence, but also by the fact that the image is used at key points in the poetry. It appears in the Tiresias note to line 218 of The Waste Land, the longest and most discussed note in the poem. The image reappears in “Journey of the Magi,” a poem reflecting the difficulty of a journey through snowy mountains to “melting snow” to a “temperate valley.” “Melting” shows up again in Murder in the Cathedral and The Elder Statesman, but more significantly it occurs in Little Gidding, where “melting” is associated both with midwinter spring and with spiritual states.
In July 1922, as part of an attempt to assemble a list of distinguished writers for the Criterion, Eliot contacted E. R. Curtius, professor at the University of Marburg, to express admiration for his recent book, Die literarischen Wegbereiter des neuen Frankreich (1919) [Literary Precursors of the New France] (L1 694). When Curtius responded positively, Eliot expressed “the hope that we may some day see a work from you on English literature comparable to your book on contemporary France” (L1 721). In August 1923, Eliot repeated his suggestion: “I wish you wd do a series of English Wegbereiter,” adding that “my choice” would include Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, and “I shd be tempted to add Frazer and Bradley” (L2 186). Curtius did not write such a book, but two months later, in October 1923, Eliot finished an essay for Vanity Fair making his own case for James, Frazer, and Bradley as precursors: “A Prediction in Regard to Three English Authors: Writers Who, Though Masters of Thought, are Likewise Masters of Art.” He claimed that these writers had shaped the sensibility of a generation and predicted that they would endure because their work, compared to that of their contemporaries, “throbb[ed] at a higher rate of vibration with the agony of spiritual life” (CP2 517). Of the three “masters,” only James, strictly speaking, is a “literary” precursor; Frazer is a social scientist and Bradley a philosopher. The author of The Golden Bough undoubtedly influenced the sensibility of a generation, but the author of Principles of Logic and Appearance and Reality was relatively obscure, known primarily to students and fellow philosophers. Frazer and Bradley made Eliot's list in large part because they were his own precursors, touchstones in his intellectual biography. With James, they represent the three core areas of his university education: literature, social science, and philosophy.
Eliot was educated, chiefly at Harvard, between 1906 and 1916. In June 1910, he received his B.A, and in October, he crossed the Atlantic to attend the lectures of Henri Bergson. At the end of his year in Paris, he returned to Harvard to work on a Ph.D. in philosophy, in the course of which Frazer and Bradley joined Bergson as major influences.
The last three decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth were golden for the social sciences, due in part to the restructuring of knowledge precipitated by the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. With men such as William Robertson Smith in comparative religion, James G. Frazer in anthropology, Émile Durkheim in sociology and Sigmund Freud in psychology at the height of their achievements, the first decade of the new century was a rousing time in European intellectual circles. Eliot grew up during this flowering and from 1906 to 1916 he studied the social sciences at three prestigious universities – Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford – which were in the vanguard of the best new work. As an undergraduate, he focused on comparative language and literature, and as a graduate student on philosophy and comparative religion. As indicated by his graduate essays and early book reviews, Eliot absorbed the philosophy which is an indispensable element of the social sciences – historicism. He explained his version of historicism in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919) and explored the meaning of the past in his major poems, beginning with ‘Gerontion’ (1920) and culminating in Four Quartets (1943). He also internalised the social scientists' methodology: namely, the comparative analysis of fragments. In The Waste Land (1922), begun soon after completing his graduate work, he adapted the method for his poetry, and in reviewing James Joyce's Ulysses in 1923, he outlined this adaptation and christened it the ‘mythical method’ (SP, 178).
Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, was recognized within a year of its appearance as a monument in natural philosophy. But it was much more than an event in the history of science. It effected a revolution in the social sciences, with enormous consequences for the arts, especially naturalism and modernism. Although sometimes associated with notions of discontinuity, Darwin's work was in fact a vindication of the great Newtonian principle of continuity. He succeeded where his predecessors failed in part because his hypothesis included the “missing link” that connected present to past and contemporary humans to their remotest ancestors. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, scholars in the human sciences attempted to follow through on Darwin's claim that lost origins could be reconstructed through the use of surviving fragments. As Darwin claimed to have discovered the origin of species, they tried to find the origins of religion, society, and mind. In Religion of the Semites (1889), William Robertson Smith attempted to trace the evolution of the Jewish religion; in The Golden Bough (1890–1915), James G. Frazer tried to reconstruct the original all-encompassing myth; in Themis, Jane Harrison tried to track Greek religion to its roots; and in From Ritual to Romance (1920), Jessie Weston traced the Grail romances to primitive rituals.
no. 5527 (1 June 1934),
The production of Mr. Eliot's pageant play is organized by the Diocese of London, in aid of the Forty-Five Churches Fund, the president of which is the Lord Bishop of London. Apart, therefore, from its place as a contribution to English dramatic literature, The Rock is to be considered as an official apologia for the campaign of church-building which the fund was started to finance. In both respects it is an extremely interesting work, and in both it is at least partially a failure.
The direct action of the play turns upon the efforts of a group of bricklayers engaged in building a church, and the difficulties (from bad foundations, lack of money, agitators, hostile criticism) against which they have to struggle: their difficulties symbolize as well the general attitude to religion of the secular world. The process of construction is shown in every stage. In the first scene the workmen appear starting on the foundations; later the church is seen half builts; finally, it is shown completed and ready for dedication. The Church's requirements of today are illustrated by a complementary series of pageant scenes, presenting episodes in the history of the Church, for the most part the Church in London: the conversion of King Sabert by Mellitus, Rahere's building of St. Bartholomew's, the dedication of Westminster Abbey, outbursts of Puritan iconoclasm. The episodes are linked together by a chorus, which comments both upon the action of the play and upon the present problems of the Church.
*G. W. Stonier.
"Mr. Eliot’s New Poem."
New Statesman 20 (14
September 1940), 267–68.
[Review of "East Coker"]
It is five years since the publication of Mr. Eliot's last poem—a period occupied by criticism, two plays and a volume of light verse—but “East Coker” takes us back to “Burnt Norton,” in something more than title, as though scarcely a day had passed. Or rather, since Mr. Eliot is not a writer who repeats himself, it would be better to say that we resume from the earlier point. There is a similar cluster of experience: problems of time and eternity clutched at from the sliding second; the return to country scenes in childhood—a moment is held and then let go with a gesture of resignation; permanence sought in solitude and in art hung like a Chinese vase in time; the desire to escape from a twilit consciousness into bright daylight or darkness; the struggle to fix ever-shifting experiences with words which also break and slip. No need to remark, at this time of day, that the expression, the amalgamation of such attitudes is sharp and poignant, as final as Mr. Eliot can make it; or that the poem carries an authority which marks the work of no other living poet except Claudel. This authority has been compared more than once to that of Arnold, but it seems to me even more powerful and exclusive.
"The Modern Poet."
Calendar of Modern
Letters 2 (December
If there were to be held a Congress of Younger Poets, and it were desired to make some kind of show of recognition to the poet who has the most effectively upheld the reality of the art in an age of preposterous poeticizing, it is impossible to think of any serious rival to the name T. S. Eliot.
[ … ]
The impression we have always had of Mr. Eliot's work, reinforced by this commodious collection in one volume, may be analyzed into two coincident but not quite simultaneous impressions. The first is the urgency of the personality, which seems sometimes oppressive, and comes near to breaking through the so finelyspun aesthetic fabric; the second is the technique which spins this fabric and to which this slender volume owes its curious ascendency over the bulky monsters of our time. For it is by his struggle with technique that Mr. Eliot has been able to get closer than any other poet to the physiology of our sensations (a poet does not speak merely for himself) to explore and make palpable the more intimate distresses of a generation for whom all the romantic escapes had been blocked. And, though this may seem a heavy burden to lay on the back of technique, we can watch with the deepening of consciousness, a much finer realization of language, reaching its height in passages in The Waste Land until it sinks under the strain and in “The Hollow Men” becomes gnomically disarticulate.
D. G. Bridson.
"Views and Reviews:
New English Weekly 2
(12 January 1933), 304.
It is difficult to criticize Mr. Eliot. It is difficult, in fact, to fix him “pinned and wriggling on the wall.” His elusiveness […] is invaluable to him. No sooner has a critic pronounced his later work a manifestation of his return to the fold, than a true disciple ups and denies the assertion flatly. The form is more regular, it seems, yet the implication is more subtle than ever. So let it be with Sweeney. But when Mr. Eliot labels his work “fragments of an Aristophanic melodrama,” he gives us an axis of reference.
In the first place, then, we do not readily think of Mr. Eliot as the modern Aristophanes. Aristophanic his moods may be, but Aristophanic they have certainly never appeared. The belly-shaking laughter of many passages in Ulysses are as Aristophanic as we choose to call them. But an Aristophanic melodrama by Mr. Eliot …! Sooner a parody of the Sermon on the Mount by St. Thomas Aquinas! And when a man of high seriousness (such we esteem Mr. Eliot) turns himself (as Mr. Eliot has done) to satiric melodrama or farce on the broad scale, we can hazard a guess at the result. […]
A good deal might be said about the form of the fragments now published. […] In the first place, their nature suggests that the whole is not conspicuous for what Frere called “the utter impossibility of the story.”
"Books of the Week."
Listener 8 (28 September
[ … ]
[T]o the fastidious reader I would now like to recommend the Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot. These essays are chosen by Mr. Eliot himself out of work done by him since the year 1917, and I recommend them not because I delude myself into the belief that Mr. Eliot will ever find appreciation among a very large number of people, but because I honestly believe him to stand among the most acute of contemporary critics, and certainly among the most notable of contemporary poets. I think, therefore, that I should be guilty of dishonesty towards myself and towards you if I failed to draw your attention to this book of essays, however stiff you may find it to read. I do not say that you will enjoy it; you certainly will not, unless you happen to have an austere and scholarly taste, akin to the taste of Mr. Eliot himself. You may find, indeed, that it leaves you feeling as though you had bitten into a sloe; and if you have ever bitten into a sloe you will know what I mean—as though your mouth were all dried up suddenly by a strangely astringent juice. Mr. Eliot's criticism has this astringent quality. It is severe and dry. It is restrained and unemotional; above all, it is not in the least picturesque. It makes no concessions to the popular taste.
Edmund Wilson, Jr.
"T. S. Eliot and the
New Republic 41
(7 January 1925),
This small volume contains three essays on seventeenth-century poetry in Mr. Eliot's best vein. The discussion of English literature has suffered peculiarly from a lack of well-informed and independent criticism outside its official historians, who as a rule accept the same scheme of rankings and hand the same phrases on to one another. It was the great merit of George Moore's imaginary conversations with Edmund Gosse that they attempted to disturb this system. Mr. Moore, reading many celebrated English novels for the first time rather late in life, complained, as a novelist, that the actual artistic qualities of these works did not fit the conventional accounts of them; and Mr. Gosse, who had come to guard the treasures of English culture with almost as little over-exercise of the critical sense as the Beefeater who watches the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, was represented as rather hard put to it to make a satisfactory defense. So Mr. Eliot, who has the advantage over Mr. Moore of having studied his subject as thoroughly as any compiler of text books, becomes bored with the cliché reputations of the English poets: he is tired of hearing about Ben Jonson's “comedy of humors” and the “quaint conceits” of the “metaphysical” poets and the superlative lyric excellence of Wordsworth and Shelley. And he sets out to find what artistic realities are laid away in these parroted phrases.
"The Use of Poetry."
Spectator 151, no. 5499
(17 November 1933),
This volume contains eight lectures given by Mr. Eliot at Harvard University during the term of his professorship. Their purpose is roughly defined by the title, and more particularly by a sentence in the introductory lecture. “Let me start,” Mr. Eliot says, “with the supposition that we do not know what poetry is, or what it does or ought to do, or of what use it is; and try to find out, in examining the relation of poetry and criticism, what the use of both of them is.” The examination is careful and penetrating, but the result of it is not something that can be shortly formulated in a review; it is rather a body of conviction which grows as the author deals with one period of poetry after another. He does not arrive finally at any hard and fast definition of the use of poetry and criticism, nor does he seem to have much faith in the use of such a definition. His way of giving us a lively impression of the use of these two activities is to show us what it is not; and though that may appear at first purely negative method, it is hard to imagine a more suitable one for dealing with a problem which cannot be satisfactorily solved by a generalization. But if Mr. Eliot does not tell us what the use of poetry and criticism is, he tells us a great many things about it, and that, for the student of poetry and criticism, is probably a far more useful thing.
"Culture and Classes."
Observer, 28 November
1948, p. 4.
In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Mr. T. S. Eliot argues that a truly civilized society needs a class system as part of its basis. He is, of course, only speaking negatively. He does not claim that there is any method by which a high civilization can be created. He maintains merely that such a civilization is not likely to flourish in the absence of certain conditions, of which class distinctions are one.
This opens up a gloomy prospect, for on the one hand it is almost certain that class distinctions of the old kind are moribund, and on the other hand Mr. Eliot has at the least a strong prima facie case.
The essence of his argument is that the highest levels of culture have been gained only by small groups of people—either social groups or regional groups—who have been able to perfect their traditions over long periods of time. The most important of all cultural influences is the family, and family loyalty is strongest when the majority of people take it for granted to go through life at the social level at which they were born. Moreover, not having any precedents to go upon, we do not know what a classless society would be like. We know only that, since functions would still have to be diversified, classes would have to be replaced by “élites,” a term Mr. Eliot borrows with evident distaste from the late Karl Mannheim.
*"A Christian Society. Mr.
Eliot on Ideals and
(4 November 1939), 640,
Only those who have done some hard thinking for themselves concerning the nature and destiny of contemporary society will appreciate how much objective analysis and self-scrutiny has gone to the making of this slim book by Mr. T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society. It was written before the outbreak of war; its origination, Mr. Eliot tells us, was in the moral shock produced upon him by the crisis of September 1938, which caused in him “a feeling of humiliation … not a criticism of the governments but a doubt of the validity of a civilization.” But it was written with the possibility of war in mind, and it is acutely pertinent to the situation today.
What is the idea—in Coleridge's sense of the word—of the society in which we live? Mr. Eliot begins by asking. We conceive of it under several different phrases the meaning of which we forbear to examine; they are regarded as sacrosanct, as sufficient in themselves to establish the superiority of our form of society over its new and now insistent rivals. We speak of it sometimes as a “liberal” society, less often as a “Christian” society; but the blessed word which is chiefly used to validate it is “democracy.”
Chapbook 2, no. 8
(February 1920), 7–14.
[Review of Three Critical Essays
on Modern English Poetry
(by T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley,
and F. S. Flint) 1920]
Wars, perhaps inevitably, have a bad effect on the critical spirit. They make the necessary detachment difficult or impossible, play havoc with our standards of values, and leave us often with an after-taste of commercialism which it takes years to eradicate. After a war such as the one from which we have just emerged, nothing is more necessary than the restoration of criticism to its old prestige, and it is one of the hopeful signs of the times that attempts in this direction are beginning to be made.
[Discussion of various British critics]
Among the few younger critics who show an entirely disinterested love for their art, perhaps the most interesting figures are Mr. T. S. Eliot and Mr. Aldous Huxley. Mr. Eliot has a scientific, analytical brain, and approaches his task with some of the detachment of the great surgeon who, knife in hand, advances towards the exposed flesh of the anesthetized “case.” He rarely makes a cut in the wrong place, he dissects with an unhurried precision, and remorselessly reveals the structure and the content of the book on which he “operates.” His learning is prodigious, and kept carefully under the counter until it is required. If some of the elusive essences of an author's heart and mind occasionally escape him, we have no right to object. Every critic has his limitations; Mr. Eliot fewer than most.
Poetry Journal 5
[Review of Catholic Anthology]
As anthologies go nowadays, Mr. Pound's Catholic Anthology is an interesting one.
[ … ]
Dull things there are, of course,—each critic will find his own—but for the present critic the Catholic Anthology seems worth while if only for the inclusion of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the “Portrait of a Lady” by T. S. Eliot. These are remarkable. They are individual to a degree. Mr. Eliot uses free rhyme very effectively, often musically; and with the minimum of sacrifice to form conveys a maximum of atmosphere. Both poems are psychological character-studies, subtle to the verge of insoluble idiosyncrasy, introspective, self-gnawing. Those who are constitutionally afraid to analyze themselves, who do not think, who are not psychologically imaginative, will distrust and perhaps dislike them.
[ … ]
[A]ny anthology, which, like this, blows the horn of revolution in poetry, whether sound or unsound, is at the least certain to interest all poets, even the most conservative; and will, perhaps, be of value to them.
"The New Poetry."
Quarterly Review 226
(October 1916), 386.
[Review of Catholic Anthology]
Cleverness is, indeed, the pitfall of the New Poetry. There is no question about the ingenuity with which its varying moods are exploited, its elaborate symbolism evolved, and its sudden, disconcerting effects exploded upon the imagination. Swift, brilliant images break into the field of vision, scatter like rockets, and leave a trail of flying fire behind. But the general impression is momentary; there are moods and emotions, but no steady current of ideas behind them.
Cambridge Review 49
(30 November 1928), 176.
Mr. Eliot asserts himself. He is no longer the intelligent layman; there are moments when he is near becoming the intolerant cleric. This religious preoccupation is as irritating as that of M. Maurras, and as irrelevant. Dogma is an integral part of classicism; but it is a part only; and when Mr. Eliot underlines it so insistently, he endangers the whole perspective of his attitude. The essay on the humanism of Prof. Babbitt shows to what falsification this must lead, and cannot be passed over without challenge.
Mr. Eliot, in attacking American humanism, suggests that humanism is ancillary to religion; and develops a picture of Christianity as continuous in contrast to a sporadic humanism. This is patently false. If there has always been a remnant of religious tradition in the High Church—and such passages as Tractarian humanism make even this doubtful—there has certainly been no such tradition in the English Church proper. Neither have the European races an “actual tradition of Christianity” but, as T. E. Hulme showed, European culture since the Renaissance has been almost continuously humanist. The confessions of Rousseau, the tabletalk of Queen Victoria, or the sermons of Archbishop Fénelon, are ample illustration. The humanist attitude is in fact quite tenable in an age sufficiently self-satisfied; and it is only Prof. Babbitt's classical contacts which make him uncertain.
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