Skip to main content

The Passionate Poet and the Use of Criticism

ISSUE:  Summer 1992

Like styles of interior decoration and ways of cutting the hair, poetic fashions change. What Thomas Stearns Eliot thought and wrote in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, when as a young reader and would-be writer I was making his acquaintance, was considered almost canonical in its authority. Nowadays, as a critic he is out—way, way out. This is scarcely an occasion for surprise, because no author could maintain the kind of hegemony that Eliot did for very long; otherwise literature and literary taste would have to stand unchanged in their tracks.

Purely as poetry, nobody has succeeded in dropping “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Waste Land,” “Gerontion,” etc., from the body of poetry in the English language that is to be read and absorbed. Harold Bloom can go on and on about the anxiety of influence, and claim that Eliot was overrated, that “the academy, or clerisy, needed him as their defense against their own anxieties of uselessness,” and so on, but to any fair-minded observer it must be obvious that the imprint of Eliot’s way of writing verse remains upon every serious practitioner of the art.

It is Eliot’s critical personality, not his poetry or even his poetical personality, that is being repudiated. He was a poet who also wrote a great deal of criticism, which in its day was also highly influential, both for what it said and because of who was saying it. The criticism carried social, religious, and political ramifications, and not only the poetics but the politics of literature were involved.

More than any other critic Eliot was responsible for the intensified interest in the English Metaphysical poets during the 1910’s, 1920’s, and thereafter. He did not rediscover them; for one thing, they had never been completely lost, and during the 19th century good poets on both sides of the Atlantic read and valued them, even if popular anthologists, such as Francis Palgrave in his widely-read Golden Treasury, slighted them. It was Herbert J.C. Grierson’s edition of the Metaphysicals, published in 1912, that occasioned Eliot’s essays. Yet it seems safe to say that had not Eliot championed Donne, Marvell, Herbert, Cowley and their contemporaries so powerfully, and tied in their poetics (and to a degree their politics) with the poetry of modernism that he and others were engaged in writing, so that a vote for Donne was a vote for modern poetry, so to speak, rather less would have been heard about the Metaphysicals during succeeding decades. As it was, to assert an interest in the Metaphysicals was to assert one’s freedom from literary Victorianism.

The public face that Eliot showed in his criticism and—or so it seemed at the time—his poetry was that of the anti-romantic, the severe moralist who would suppress the brazen assertion of personality through immersion in the literary tradition. He introduced the term “dissociation of sensibility” to describe what he saw as a chasm between thought and emotion that has afflicted the Western world at least from the late 17th century onward. His own fondness for the 17th-century Metaphysical poets lay in what he considered their ability to fuse the material and the spiritual world within the tropes of an imagery that invested physical objects with emotional significance.

In retrospect, however, there seems to have been notably less suppression of personality on Eliot’s part than everyone thought; what we took as reticence was more along the lines of impassioned self-mortification. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a poet of any era the rhythms of whose verses throb with more autobiographical passion than Eliot’s, while his criticism, which once seemed so calm and magisterial, now appears to constitute a strenuous and even desperate insistence upon personal coherence in the face of near-chaotic emotions.


The cultural and historical situation out of which Eliot emerged was similar to that of elders and contemporaries such as Henry Adams, James Russell Lowell, John Jay Chapman, Owen Wister, and other scions of the older, pre-Civil War American upper-middle class which felt itself in danger of being supplanted by newly-rich vulgarians. The Eliots were Boston and Cambridge all the way, even though the poet’s grandfather, a distinguished Unitarian educator and theologian, had gone out to St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1830’s and founded Washington University and the St. Louis Academy of Science.

It was axiomatic that Eliot, with his literary inclinations, would be educated at Harvard. What was not axiomatic, however, was that he would proceed to turn his back on the fashionable culture of Cambridge and Boston, and the high-minded, rational theology of New England Unitarianism, with its creed of moral uprightness and public service. For all that, however, he shared with his social peers a sense of being deprived of a privileged role by the leveling impact of industrialized urban democracy.

Eliot arrived in England in the summer of 1914 when the imminence of war caused him to cut short his doctoral study in Germany. His intention was to return to Harvard, defend his dissertation, and join the philosophy faculty there. Previously he had tried Paris, but found it tawdry and vulgar. England, however, was the proper place for him, and it did not take long for him to realize it. For Eliot was a snob—who was also a great poet. Among the qualities he liked about England was that its class distinctions were visible, open, and need not be blurred by egalitarian theory; subordination was built into its way of doing things.

He did not become an Anglican until the mid-1920’s, but the spiritual crisis that led him to High Church orthodoxy dated from the early 1910’s. The poems that placed him at the head of modernism were written not from/a standpoint of belief, but the compulsive appetite for it, by a man who very much feared he might be damned to Hell (and who was also greatly drawn to the role of martyr). A considerable amount of arrogance is necessary, of course, to be able to view oneself in terms either of martyrdom or eternal damnation, but Eliot had no trouble managing it.

The technique he developed, mostly on his own, to write his verse was precisely what the poetry of his time required— intellectual rigor, concrete imagery, allusive reference, complexity in general. He and his generation were still very much in revolt against the high Victorians, whose example hung on. The Edwardians had proposed little more than a relaxation in the formal use of adjectives and nouns, whereas what was required was considerably more drastic—the overthrow of a pervasive cultural ideality that used high-sounding abstractions to minimize contradiction, and that avoided the historical duality of mind and matter through sentimental transcendence. Poetry, if it is to mean anything beyond inspirational utterance, must offer immanence; but the late Victorian, fin de siècle poetry could manage only a kind of wistful regret at the inability to escape the toils of mortality.

In the hands of the great Victorians, poetry in English had been able to address itself to a very large, educated audience, but the price paid for that kind of mass communication had turned out to be too high by far, because once the immediate excitement wore off the poets had begun to write not merely to but for that audience, and had developed a language convention and a set of ornamental emblems to facilitate the process. By adopting a specialized poetic diction, the poetry of waning Victorianism denied poets the right to document their own everyday experience. In subject matter, attitude, and vocabulary, the dominant verse of the late 19th century was tailored to what a cultural concensus of educated English and American middle-class taste and opinion was willing to approve, and as always happens, the absence of controversy soon produced a listless apathy.

What Eliot and his generation set about doing was to restore importance and intensity to poetic utterance by breaking up the cultural concensus. The modernists, as they came to be known, wanted no comfortable across-the-board agreement between poet and expectant audience, for the price of such agreement was intellectual platitude and emotional pablum. Eliot’s enthusiasm for the English Metaphysicals was in part simply that, as Samuel Johnson had declared, they forced the reader of poetry to think. “We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it appears at present, must be difficult. . .,” Eliot wrote in 1921. “The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”

The impact of the First World War had the effect of greatly reinforcing this attitude, because the chasm that opened up between the rhetoric of patriotic nationalism, on the one hand, and the horrendous, impersonal lethality of trench warfare on the Western Front, on the other, called into question the poetic abstractions and slogans through which the values of Western civilization had been articulated.

The footnotes that accompanied publication of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in 1922, in addition to commenting on the text of the poem, had a specific rhetorical function to perform. This Poem Is Difficult, they announced to an audience that was in effect being told to choose between intellectual complexity or blandness. If you want to read the poem, you had better not be put off by the threat of having to use your intelligence, because this poem is not going to do your thinking for you in advance.

Eliot in later years minimized the role of the footnotes, declaring them a spoof and saying that he wrote them to help fill out the pages of a too-thin volume. And doubtless the element of spoof was involved, but it was an insiders’ joke, meant for the amusement of the initiated—which is to say, for the audience for modern poetry, which was a severely reduced audience by comparison with that of the poetry it had supplanted.

What Eliot did in his early poetry was to get down to the here and now. J. Alfred Prufrock himself may have been wistful and longed for transcendence; but the poem offered a flesh-and-blood character about whose physical immersion in the world there could be no doubt. Prufrock might say things fuzzily; the poem describing him as he did so was concrete. It was, moreover, psychologically complex: whenever Prufrock essayed a pose, he was quick to recognize and identify it as a pose. He was neither naïve nor vain; and he was intelligent. And because he was, intelligence was required to understand his situation.


There was, however, considerably more to Eliot’s aesthetic than the advocacy of verbal complexity, intellectual rigor, and linguistic precision in poetic utterance. His preference for the Metaphysical poets and the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists carried cultural ramifications. He was deliberately reaching back to a language convention that antedated John Milton as well as the Romantic and Victorian poets (of the 18th-century poets he had little to say, because it was no part of his aesthetic to find merit in a poetry based upon rhymed couplets and personification). In so doing he was rejecting a poetics that involved the open assertion of individual personality, in favor of a more stylized utterance. One doesn’t find Elizabethan poets writing sonnets about their own blindness, or their career frustrations at the age of 22. In terms of their personal experience we scarcely know who the Elizabethan poets were. The key to Eliot’s critical stance, I think, lies in just that: an abhorrence—one might even say a terror—of the unabashed declaration of personal identity on the part of a writer.

Significantly Eliot tended at all times to skirt the presence of Shakespeare, because even though the same kind of anonymity characterized Shakespeare’s verse, the sheer richness and inimitability of the language was such that it called attention to itself and, by implication, the author composing it. Eliot’s attack on Hamlet is famous; he based it upon what he considered was the assertion of the poet’s personality in excess of the logic and plausibility of the protagonist’s characterization, insisting that the secret of Hamlet’s dilemma lay outside the play and in its author’s personal consciousness. It was on this occasion that he coined (or reinvented) the term “objective correlative,” declaring that the writer must find an objective—i.e., anonymous—image or symbol for his personal emotion, and that Shakespeare had failed to do so. This was nonsense, for a writer can—as Milton, Wordsworth, Keats and others did (including, as we shall see, Eliot himself)—assert his own personality in such strong and unmistakable terms that his emotion assumes palpable and believable form. The true sticking-point was that the distraught Prince of Denmark was in personality too close to a Romantic poet—i.e., to a person of acute sensibility, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought—for Eliot to feel comfortable in his presence.

Eliot disapproved of all the Romantics and Victorians, even Arnold, because not only did their aesthetic call for the outright assertion of personal sensibility, but also because the sensibilities being asserted were for the most part not to his liking. One might think, for example, that a poem such as Arnold’s “The Buried Life” would have appealed powerfully to Eliot:

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force,
In tracking out our true, original course . . . .

But even that was too public, too communal: “our buried life,” “our true, original course”—and besides, the poem goes on to say that when “a belovéd hand is laid in ours” and “Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,” then “what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know. . . .” Prufrock, by contrast, realizes that “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” and that even if one could do so, there was every likelihood that it would be neither understood nor accepted. In short, Arnold’s civilized melancholy would not do; what Eliot wanted expressed was civilized desperation.

His desperation. Yet one mustn’t express one’s own private desperation. That was the problem. What Eliot wanted to do, and he constructed a poetics that would enable him to do it, was to achieve a naked, unqualified expression of social, intellectual, religious, and sexual desperation—while appearing not to be personally involved at all! The truth is that Eliot was himself a dyed-in-the-wool romantic (how could he not have been, given his time and place?), but his own assertiveness took the form of an intensely self-conscious rejection of overtly public emotional assertion.

He called this “classicism,” linked it to monarchism and Anglo-Catholicism, and announced it as his program. Yet however its outward form may have resembled classicism in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when it was in full flowering, it was in motivation and psychological stance at the furthest remove from any kind of classical severity, sobriety, and proportion. As we now realize from Eliot’s published correspondence and Lyndall Gordon’s two excellent biographical volumes, for Eliot his poetry was a way of asserting an intensely personal appetite for suffering, an agonizing fear of sexual appetite, and a shrinking from carnality, along with a desperate need for religious certainty and for civic and social coherence.

Here was no mere disgruntled Henry Adams, concerned over loss of supposed ancestral privilege and lamenting the erosion of government by the Best People; this was a man in full emotional recoil from democracy, the middle class, religious latitudinarianism, and the cramp of the flesh. His adopted English identity became a badge of virtue to signify his emancipation from vulgarity. Following his conversion, he used High Church Christianity as a weapon to defend himself against the excesses of political and social democracy, and also as an antidote to lustfulness.

Reading the edition of his letters from childhood through the year 1922, edited by Valerie Eliot, one is struck by the extent to which this man shared emotionally and intellectually in almost none of the political and social assumptions that we assume are characteristic of the ideological heirs of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. He used the word “European” to contrast with “American,” and saw the latter as threatening the civilized integrity of the former (this was before the Second World War, of course). He was, all in all, a man thoroughly and desperately in flight from his country, his origins, his family, the academic career the family had expected of him, and from his own carnal appetite. And he shaped a series of antithetical responses into a poetics, an aesthetic, and, indeed, a theology and politics.


“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion,” Eliot wrote in a famous essay, “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” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent.”) My point is that T.S. Eliot was a powerful personality, and that personality is powerfully expressed, not escaped from, in his poetry and criticism. “The Waste-Land” and “Gerontion” may look like the “objective correlative” he insisted that the poet’s emotions must assume and that Shakespeare supposedly failed to exhibit in Hamlet, but only because it is in the form of negation. That is, because especially in his earlier work (and, indeed, at least until Four Quartets) Eliot chose to depict his own contemporary society predominantly in terms of images drawn from his frustration, revulsion, disgust, and sense of loss, he identified what he portrayed as not himself, not his own. In that sense they are “objective”—but far from being “an escape from personality” they constitute, in their “not me,” a passionate assertion of that personality.

In his old age, Eliot admitted as much, declaring that “The Waste-Land” was no more than the expression of a private peeve against the world. As it indeed was, but it was so powerfully expressed that it answered both the poetic and the emotional needs of a considerable audience. Otherwise it could never have had the vogue and influence it enjoyed.

He was greatly talented, and intensely ambitious. Poets who have programs and agendas cannot wait on their poetry to secure them a hearing and further their careers. They write criticism, make friends with editors. With calculated skill, Eliot set about the conquest of literary London. Consider the implications of the following, written to his mother in 1919 in the course of a letter explaining why he has turned down an editorial position offered him by the Athenaeum:

There is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England. . . . I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had, unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me, and I can remain isolated and detached.

All this sounds very conceited, but I am sure it is true, and as there is no outsider from whom you would hear it, and America really knows very little of what goes on in London, I must say it myself.

He is writing to his mother, and is concerned to justify his choice of a literary rather than an academic career, and moreover is aware that his parents in St. Louis probably believe he has squandered his talents and is wasting his life. Still, the terms in which he describes his success seem so thoroughly predicated upon reputation, and his satisfaction at his reputation thus far so obvious. The view he takes of what he has accomplished shows a highly realistic, even brazen acknowledgement of what it is that he has been seeking in literary London. It cannot be denied that he found it.

Eliot’s literary criticism is filled with the articulation of his own emotional needs and assertions. He was a master at giving the appearance of disinterested objectivity, while in fact pursuing his own calculated goals. He used criticism, as he freely admitted in later life, to advance the kind of poetry he was writing, and he was none too gentle in how he went about denigrating whatever did not contribute toward that objective. His famous rejection of Milton’s poetry in 1936 is an example. To watch him in action as he advanced toward his goal with, shall we say, waffled oars is to view a master at the art.

His opening sentence is a classic. “While it must be admitted that Milton is a very great poet indeed, it is something of a puzzle to decide in what his greatness consists.” It must be admitted—an onerous chore, you understand, something that one doesn’t wish to do or enjoy doing. Did his audience share the reluctance? It seems highly unlikely—but putting the matter as he does, Eliot averts his audience’s anger, because, after all, he is saying that Milton is a great poet. Still, great in what way? The pretense is that justifying one’s praise of the poetry of John Milton is going to be a difficult business.

Second sentence: “On analysis, the marks against him appear both more numerous and more significant than the marks to his credit.” It is going to be hard to do, he concedes, but, so help him, somehow he is going to try to find a way to commend John Milton’s poetry. “As a man, he is antipathetic. Either from the moralist’s point of view, or from the theologian’s point of view, or from the psychologist’s point of view, or from that of the political philosopher, or judging by the ordinary standards of likeableness in human beings, Milton is unsatisfactory.”

Unsatisfactory to whom? Why, to the speaker, of course; but since the speaker is obviously the very image and embodiment of Fair Play and reason, then maybe there is something wrong with a poet we had always thought of as being an ornament to English letters.

What is really unsatisfactory to the speaker, of course, is that Milton was a Puritan, and a regicide, and a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, and in favor of a republic rather than a monarchy, and above all the inventor and wielder of a style so formidable and expressive that the powerful personality of the poet infuses every line of his work. And all that is unsatisfactory and offensive if one is by contrast an Anglican and a believer in social subordination and a convert from the inherited political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to the adopted political philosophy of Sir Robert Filmer and George III—and also the wielder of a formidable, inimitable personal style.

To resume the scrutiny of what John Hayward labeled as “Milton I,” Eliot goes on to say that Milton subjected the English language to deterioration, and though a great literary artist was a bad literary influence. I cannot refrain from quoting in full one paragraph of quintessentially Eliotic demolition:

There is a large class of persons, including some who appear in print as critics, who regard any censure upon a “great” poet as a breach of the peace, as an act of wanton iconoclasm, or even hoodlumism. The kind of derogatory criticism that I have to make upon Milton is not intended for such persons, who cannot understand that it is more important, in some vital respects, to be a good poet than to be a great poet; and of what I have to say I consider that the only jury of judgement is that of the ablest poetical practitioners of my time. (“A Note on the Verse of John Milton”)

As I read that paragraph, it first declares that anyone who will not let the author flail away at Milton without protesting is stupid. The first clause of sentence two then makes a distinction between “good” and “great” poets that appears to imply that routine competence is better than poetic genius, and that this is “important.” Again, important to whom? The second clause of the sentence informs the audience that no one is permitted to have an opinion on the subject except other poets, and only the very best of these. Yeats? Pound? Auden? Who else, in 1936? Surely not Robert Frost!

Taken all in all, the paragraph is Eliot at his best, a classic of aggressive assertion, written on the theory that in literary skirmishing, offensiveness is the best possible defense. (James Joyce could have done no better.) He goes on to say that Milton had no visual imagination, that his language is (“if one may use the term without disparagement”!) “artificial and conventional,” and that instead of a fusion there is a division between sense and sound in his poetry. He compares Paradise Lost to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (at the time still known as Work in Progress), sees both as blind alleys for the literature, and concludes that Milton has “done damage to the English language from which it has not wholly recovered.”

This was not the end of it, of course. In “Milton II” (as Hayward calls it), a lecture to the British Academy in 1947, Eliot takes it all back, or rather, he says that he meant what he said at the time, but only for the time. The reason is that what his own generation of poets was engaged in doing back in the 1920’s and 1930’s was getting the language of poetry back into contact with everyday vernacular speech, extending the range of its subject matter to cover modern experience, and getting rid of the idea that poetry should be restricted only to certain kinds of material. To achieve this, “the study of Milton could be of no help; it was only a hindrance.”

The revolution had now (1947) been accomplished, however. The language of poetry was sufficiently up-to-date, and it was time to go on to other things, such as seeing what kinds of variations and developments could be managed within the now-accepted language, and also keeping it from becoming too up-to-date, too addicted to the vernacular, and so on. Since Milton was, outside of the theatre (i.e., Shakespeare), “the greatest master in our language of freedom within form,” it was all right to admire him again: “In short, it now seems to me that poets are sufficiently removed from Milton, and sufficiently liberated from his reputation, to approach the study of his work without danger, and with profit to their poetry and to the English language.” At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue; I To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new.

Now in 1947, when Eliot announced that Milton was on the approved list again, he had published Four Quartets four years earlier, and he was more or less done with lyric poetry. (He was finished with some other things, too, including an insane wife who had made his life close to a hell on earth until he left her in 1933, and then had continued to harass and embarrass him until she was confined to an institution in 1938. In 1947 she died.) In the 1930’s he had written two verse plays. Now he turned full time to the drama, producing three comedies which were highly successful on the commercial stage. For writing verse plays, Milton constituted neither model nor menace; the language convention appropriate to drama was at opposite ends from that for lyric poetry. For, that is, T.S. Eliot’s lyric poetry.

The plain truth is that in terms of the poetic personalities manifested through their verse, John Milton and T.S. Eliot have more in common, are more alike, than almost any other two major poets in the English language. Allowing for differences in historical idiom, as poets they think alike, they sound alike. There is the same moralizing sensibility, the same habit of delivering sonorous ex cathedra judgments. This is not usually realized. Listen, however, to their alternating voices, their personalities as makers of lines and words:

The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

As killing as the canker to the rose,
Or taint-worm to the weanling flocks that graze
Or frost to flow’rs, that their gay wardrobe wear

. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . . . .

In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unquent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours . . . .

With all her bravery on, and tackle trim,
Sails filled, and streamers waving,
Courted by all the winds that hold them play,
An amber scene of odorous perfume
Her harbinger, a damsel train behind?

. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . . . .

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark . . . .

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon . . . .

. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . . . .

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without
For hope would be love of the wrong thing

“Thoughts, whither have ye led me? with what sweet
Compulsion thus transported to forget
What hither brought us? hate, not love, nor hope
Of Paradise for hell, hope here to taste
Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
Save what is in destroying: other joy
To me is lost. . . .”

These poetic personalities are not so much antithetical and contradictory voices, as they are rival operators. Who else, except perhaps William Wordsworth, could use the high style so satisfactorily, combine Latinate and Anglo-Saxon diction so variously and flexibly? Who else could through cadenced and intensified language assert powerful personalities quite so unmistakably? The fact that the one was a Puritan and the other a High Church Anglican is unimportant; both wished to place the muse of poetry in the service of theological truth, and clearly each was also privately seeking to convince himself that it was indeed truth.

The theological positions, as noted, made them competitors; the poetry they wrote, and their attitude toward it and toward the politics of poetry and poets, made them rivals, and Eliot responded to it without a moment’s hesitation. In Milton’s day one did not write critical prose to manipulate the audience and undercut the competition, or assuredly the author of “Lycidas” would have written it:

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days. . . .

In Eliot’s day it was done, and he went about it with a masterful assiduity.


As noted, there has been a powerful critical reaction against Eliot’s position. He expected it, and would not have been surprised, though perhaps its vehemence might have dismayed him (he had been savage with his elders in his own day, but in his later years he grew quite benign.) The revolt has been mainly along political rather than poetic grounds. His role has been attacked as snobbish (which it was), anti-democratic (which it also was), and cold-blooded and intellectual (which it decidedly was not.) His way of voicing the assumptions of Anglo-Catholicism, so popular in the 1940’s and 1950’s, come across as terribly provincial and restricted in a world in which Christianity is very much a minority faith, and High Church Anglicans only a tiny, if socially elite, segment of that minority. It would be difficult for all but a small remnant of properly-sanctified readers to view the theological situation precisely as Eliot sketched it in 1931:

The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.

It is essential, however, to keep in mind that Eliot was doing the greater part of his writing about Christian societies and the like before the implications of that particular kind of cultural and social exclusivity were made manifest.

Eliot’s hard-won High Church style has been used by some of his more superficial admirers to justify a kind of smug superiority to the common herd of middle-class citizens striving to cope with the necessities of earning a living and paying taxes. The desperate struggle for belief, the craving for order amid chaos, the hard-won accommodation of soul and body that characterized Eliot’s own tortured religious experience—these can be neatly bypassed by a bloodless, self-centered, privileged sanctimoniousness that holds itself aloof from the modern world and chastizes godless materialism even while sipping Bloody Marys and driving Volvos.

On the political, as well as the social and theological front, Eliot’s position was vulnerable, and remains so. And on the literary front, there seems little reason to go along with his contention that not only Milton but Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, as well as Whitman, Dickinson, etc., represent a falling off from the supposedly healthy, pre-dissociated literary sensibility of the 16th and early 17th centuries. This is a bit much, as they say.

Yet do his detractors come off any better? I must say that what the revolt against Eliot and what he stood for and advocated, as conducted by Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, and others of the so-called “Yale School” (now largely dispersed), would substitute in its place seems pretty shoddy stuff to me. As between the “dissociation of sensibility” on the one hand, and the use of the word “elitist” to stigmatize anyone who finds Shelley’s “Indian Serenade” vacuous, it becomes a matter of “Go it, bear; go it, dame.” The idea that the ultimate dramatic satisfaction lies in “a High Mass well performed” seems no more specious to me than (to quote Bloom) “The mind of Emerson is the mind of America, for worse and for glory . . . .” If so, then God help us.

More importantly, almost all of that sort of thing is in Eliot’s criticism, not his poetry. And when we look at the body of his literary criticism, what seems obvious is that not only was it usually placed in the service of his poetical ambitions, as he admitted, but also that most of it—including all the essays that attracted so much attention in the 1920’s and 1930’s— remains of importance principally because it was written by him. We can read it with pleasure because we can watch him at work defending his turf and cutting down the competition. He was a master contestant, no doubt of that. An American in flight from his cultural and social situation, he set out to establish himself at the top of the British literary cosmos, and he succeeded. As Allen Tate wrote to Donald Davidson from London in 1928, “There is something very American about Eliot’s whole procedure, and I like it. He came here unknown and without influence. In fifteen years he has become the acknowledged literary dictator of London. What I like is that he doesn’t seem to feel the role.” (Tate was wrong, however, about the last.)

But it is the poetry that matters, and that lasts. It survives the man, and it justifies him as a man because it testifies to and embodies the agony. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion”—so asserted one of the most passionate, desperate men ever to write verse. His poetry is not an escape from passion; it is not about the passion. It is the passion, for it is the poet, the personality, who is speaking the lines and uttering the language. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is placed in the mind of a middle-aged gentleman who hears the mermaids singing but not to him; but what gives this early poem its power is the communicated sense of frustration, the struggle between decorum and libido, the contempt for mannered response juxtaposed with the dread of vulgarity. “The Waste-Land” is no diagnosis of contemporary society from outside and above; it is the articulated and agonized depiction of a participant sharing in the chaos, and the organization by juxtaposed montage is part of the condition of fragmentation. And so on.

These things are in the poetry, are the poetry. The notion that the cold-blooded poetic craftsman is drawing upon the man’s human emotions to provide an “objective correlative” in language and symbol is not so much false as simply inaccurate, when expressed in such terms. The passion is present, for the poet and the reader alike, in the disciplining as well as the outpouring, and is communicated through and within the naming and versifying.

From the earliest lyrics through “Little Gidding,” the poetry throbs with the communicated emotion of a powerful personality, who is not least in evidence when he affects to be unconcerned. We cannot read a stanza of Eliot’s poetry without sensing at once that we are in the presence of a passionate man, who moves words, image clusters, and stanzas around with calculated bravado, and knows all the tricks of the trade:

That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

It does matter; it matters so much that to save it from being undercut by irony he will pretend here that it doesn’t—in a poem. Because if there is one thing that is more true of Thomas Stearns Eliot than of almost any other poet of his century, it is that neither in his verse nor in his life could he separate his personality into tidy, discrete segments. The voice is of a whole, a unified organism. But not one of harmony, balance, moderation—rather, a unique arena, a single sentient consciousness, made up of thought, emotion, desire, loathing, frustration, beauty, acheivement.

How to account for his influence? In part for the reasons I noted earlier, about the condition of the art of poetry in the early decades of the 20th century. In part merely because, as he himself said, young men who think they know the answers and act upon that assurance attract attention (as for example a braggart like Robert Bly, who had nothing to say about the art of poetry but gained an audience for a time through sheer bravado and loud-mouthed assertiveness). But mainly Eliot was influential because he was not only a superb poet who got all of his personality into his poetry, but a poet whose verse strategies, whose technique, offered a model for shaping a response to the experience of his time and place. He showed his contemporaries a way to express passion in language.

In his public and his social life he could offer the illusion of having so compartmentalized his experience so that he could be now this, now that—poet, critic, publisher, Anglican layperson, humorist, philosopher, pornographer (or scatologist rather), ascetic, and so on. But the poetry gave the lie to the appearance. Walt Whitman’s line, “I was the man, I suffered, I was there,” is an apt epitaph for this poet who thought his American predecessor a vulgarian and poseur (and who baldly coopted Whitman’s hermit thrush for his own use).

Eliot’s complete poems, 1909—1950, are a virtuoso performance of monumental proportions. In their revelatory honesty and their ability to cast the most recalcitrant and refractory material into language and so convert it into art, they yield priority to no other verse of their time—not even Yeats’. To my mind they exhibit, through what they show of their, author, so much of what makes poets the barbed, difficult creatures most of the good ones are (Here we go round the prickly pear).

In his life, his dealing with others, he wrote and did some wretched, lamentable things. For all his first wife’s repellant qualities—and from all accounts, including her own in her letters, she must have been an absolute hell on wheels—it is clear that in marrying T.S. Eliot she had come up against an ego that could not unbend or forgive. There was no way that marriage could have worked, because neither party was then in a position to identify or accommodate the other’s dimly-articulated needs. He was up against a virago; she was up against a male version of Charybdis. He could not help it; indeed, having contracted the engagement he assumed the burden manfully. Yet without “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” on his part there was no chance. And he could not manage it.

All this is in the poetry. The further away in time the historical figure recedes—if he were still alive he would be 103 as I write this—the more complete, and awesome, the poetry seems. Even today, during the full tide of the critical reaction against what he represented politically, socially, his verse cannot be ignored, and has not been. It is the day of the Harold Blooms: “Eliot is a poet whose poems, with some exceptions, tend to become weaker rather than stronger, the more provocatively they trope, defensively, against the burden of anteriority.” (Come and trope it as you go, with a parricidal toe. Elito asked for it, all right—and he got it. Bloom’s whole protesting body of criticism is testimony to the strength of Eliot’s influence.) But good poetry outlasts criticism and outlives fashion. We have no finer, more passionate poetry than Eliot’s, and deserve no better.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading