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.
"T. S. Eliot—Confidential
Saturday Review 36
(29 August 1953), 26–28.
T. S. Eliot, whose unquestioned merit as a poet, playwright, and essayist has been officially recognized by Her Majesty with an O.M. (Order of Merit), is this week unveiling his fourth full-length play in eighteen years. Titled The Confidential Clerk, it opens at the Edinburgh Festival, moves on to Newcastle, and finally arrives in London in mid-September. A fortnight before embarking for Caledonia the distinguished writer granted me an hour-and-a-half interview—an extremely thoughtful dispensation, for in addition to the normal stress that every playwright must face in the crucial rehearsal period Mr. Eliot was continuing to punch the clock three days a week at the publishing offices of Faber and Faber, Ltd.
“Now let's see,” he began, shoving his hands deep in his pockets and bowing his head a bit, “I mustn't say too much about this play, as I want the audience to make up its own mind. If I say I intended such-and-such, then people will feel they have to find just that in it. But, really, if a play is any good it ought to have a great deal in it that its author doesn't completely understand.”
Although The Confidential Clerk's director, Martin Browne, has publicly announced that the play is “a modern comedy lighter in tone than any of his previous plays,” the playwright even refuses to define it as either comedy or tragedy.
"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.
"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.
R. P. Blackmur.
"The Dangers of
Hound and Horn 7
Mr. Cowley [in Exile's Return] and Mr. Eliot [in After Strange Gods] are looking—but neither together nor in the same direction—for a living standard of approach to literature. Neither, in the books before us, is primarily a literary critic—as indeed their subtitles attest; neither attacks his problem from within the field of literature as an art that finds autonomy in its practice, and neither fortifies himself in any logic of aesthetics. Each, rather, regards literature as it interprets life rightly or wrongly, with reference to a general, complete view of life as distinguished from the free, uncontrolled, merely literary view. Each deeply realizes that literature does not ever in fact—at least in the degree that it is serious—escape into thin air without first influencing the moral and spiritual life of its readers; and each therefore requires that literature assent, for its own salvation, or at least to secure its best possibilities, to a definite intellectual and spiritual discipline. Mr. Eliot asserts the discipline of Christian orthodoxy and provides examples of the evils that result from ignoring it. Mr. Cowley suggests a discipline that rises from an honest recognition of the class-struggle and all its implications in economic and political life; and he provides us with a comparative history of recent literary futility as it resulted from a distorted emphasis upon the individual.
"Love and Mr. Eliot."
Time 72 (8 September
On opening night at the Edinburgh Festival last week, the author (who will be 70 this month) sat in the audience holding hands with his 31-year-old wife, his former secretary whom he married a year and a half ago. That scene offered a clue to the proceedings onstage. More than any of his previous plays or most of his poems, T. S. Eliot's The Elder Statesman extols love. Compared to The Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk—intellectual avocados spiky with Greek myth and Christian mysticism—Eliot's latest seems as simple as the peach that Prufrock was once afraid to eat.
The play's theme: dishonesty toward oneself is the worst policy. The play's hero: Lord Claverton, an aged, retired Cabinet minister who idly fingers the empty pages of his once-crowded engagement book. Two unwelcome visitors from the past destroy the sand castle of his memories—precarious memories of what was essentially bogus success. Visitor No. 1 is a moneyed spiv from Central America who shared in a disreputable episode of Claverton's youth. Visitor No. 2 is Maisie Moutjoy (now respectably renamed Mrs. Carghill), a onetime chorus girl whom the young Claverton seduced; in true Victorian melodramatic fashion. Claverton's father had squelched her breach-of-promise suit with cash. Nowshe accuses her former lover of having posed as a man of the world during their affair, just as he has since posed as an elder statesman: “You'll still be playing a part in your obituary, whoever writes it.”
Symposium 1 (April
[Review of Dante]
This little book on Dante may be considered from at least three points of view: as an introduction to Dante, as a discussion of poetry and belief, and as an amplification of what might be called Mr. Eliot's classical ideal. Mr. Eliot disclaims any intention of writing another brief introduction to the study of Dante and declares that he is incompetent to perform such a task; but he has written such an introduction, he has written the best we have, an important and exciting book; and so we can scarcely admit that he is incompetent. “A quotation, a critical remark, an enthusiastic essay,” he writes, “may well be the accident that sets one to reading a particular author; but an elaborate preparation of historical and biographical knowledge has always been to me a barrier.” Such knowledge is always a barrier in an introduction, and most of the introductions to Dante have too much of it. Mr. Eliot pursues a different method: he relates the process and stages of his own comprehension, his gradually growing awareness of the unity of Dante; and his whole endeavor seems to be to make us aware too.
The book is still more valuable because, while he was writing it, Mr. Eliot was preoccupied with a question that is urgent today, the question of poetic belief. Mr. I. A. Richards, in Practical Criticism, has shown how important this question is.
*"Mr. Eliot’s New Play."
Supplement 1741 (13 June
Mr. Eliot's new work of poetic drama has moved farther from the theatre than his previous attempts and come nearer to the Church. It is written for production in Canterbury Cathedral this week. Its conventions have more in common with ritual than with the stage, as in the earliest English drama; and these conventions which he has adopted, including strong use of a chorus, are well assimilated to the whole texture. In The Rock they were often self-conscious, but here they have become subordinate, natural, appropriate. The play might be described as a poem for several voices used liturgically.
The subject covered by a title that echoes detective fiction is Thomas Becket's assassination. It is told without an obvious propagandist intention, which was not the case with The Rock. We open with Becket returning after seven years abroad, to a scene which has been prepared by a chorus of Canterbury women, who speak in strikingly simple language:
Here is no continuing city, here is no abiding stay.
Ill the wind, ill the time, uncertain the profit, certain the danger.
O late late late, late is the time, late too late, and rotten the year;
Evil the wind, and bitter the sea, and grey the sky, grey grey grey.
O Thomas, return, Archbishop; return, return to France.
But Becket, who is shown throughout as one ready for death, will not accept any warning. Tempters appear.
(26 October 1922), 690.
[Review of The Waste Land and
inaugural issue of the Criterion]
If we are to judge by its first number, the Criterion is not only that rare thing amongst English periodicals, a purely literary review, but it is of a quality not inferior to that of any review published either here or abroad. Of the seven items which make up this number there are at least five that we should like to see preserved in a “permanent” form. And of these five there are two, the long poem by Mr. T. S. Eliot called The Waste Land and Dostoevski's “Plan of a Novel,” now first translated into English, that are of exceptional importance. We cannot imagine a more untidy plan for a novel or anything else than this one by Dostoevski, and yet, even on a first reading, one has a confused impression of having passed through an exciting and significant experience.
[ … ]
Mr. Eliot's poem is also a collection of flashes, but there is no effect of heterogeneity, since all these flashes are relevant to the same thing and together give what seems to be a complete expression of this poet's vision of modern life. We have here range, depth, and beautiful expression. What more is necessary to a great poem? This vision is singularly complex and in all its labyrinths utterly sincere.
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.”
*"Not Here, O Apollo."
Supplement 908 (12 June
[ … ]
Mr. Eliot … is fastidiously on his guard against echoes. There shall not be a cadence in his few verses that will remind anyone of anything. His composition is an incessant process of refusing all that offers itself, for fear that it should not be his own. The consequence is that his verse, novel and ingenious, original as it is, is fatally impoverished of subject matter. For he is as fastidious of emotions as of cadences. He seems to have a “phobia” of sentimentality, like a small schoolboy who would die rather than kiss his sister in public. Still, since he is writing verses he must say something, and his remarkable talent exercises itself in saying always, from line to line and word to word, what no one would expect. Each epithet, even, must be a surprise, each verb must shock the reader with unexpected associations; and the result is this:
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the window-panes.
In the beginning was the Word.
In the beginning was the Word.
And at the mensual turn of time
Produced enervate Origen.
Mr. Eliot, like Browning, likes to display out-of-the-way learning, he likes to surprise you by every trick he can think of.
"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.
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.
"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.
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