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T.S. Eliot—Poet as Playwright

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

Murder in the Cathedral. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $1.25. The Rock. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $1.00. The Achievement of T. S. Eliot, An Essay on the Nature of Poetry. By F. 0. Matthiessen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.25.

If Mr. Eliot’s last two volumes, “The Rock” and “Murder in the Cathedral,” be considered good poetry, then they stand as further contradictions to the old idea that the poet is good to the degree that he deviates from his theory. For even though the scenario of the first was not original with Eliot but was provided for him by Mr. Martin Browne, and even though both the works show the author’s determination to turn toward other forms rather than to rest in the development of one manner, the pageant and the play incorporate predilections of the earlier poetry and tenets of the criticism. The verse of these two volumes differs from the earlier verse only in degree, but they provoke a more specific consideration of the choice of the dramatic rather than the reflective quality, of the importance of form and condensation, and of religion as subject matter.

In his essay on Hamlet, Eliot says that the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative.” In “The Achievement of T. S. Eliot,” Mr. Matthiessen takes this clue for the subject of one of his most interesting chapters on the poet’s achievement, and shows that Eliot, like Ezra Pound, feels the necessity of the distinct presentation of something concrete. For the Elizabethan playwright, the objective correlative was the plot, and the action and thought of the characters who moved through the plot were identical. Eliot, who has said that poetry is the emotional equivalent of thought, has reached the same end even in his early poems by the selection of a similar externality, an object or a situation which constituted the formula of a particular emotion. Just as the Elizabethan play is more than the usually borrowed plot, the images of poetry stand for something much larger than themselves; that is, the “consciously concrete” suggests the “unconsciously general.” The early poems are really soliloquies objectified by the poet’s selection of a correlative—a girl standing at the top of a stairway, an old man being read to by a boy, and so on. But the poems through “Gerontion” have secured their dramatic quality by the objectifying of thought through detail, the method of the metaphysicals; and that poetry’s characteristic is complexity. Eliot has felt that the ideal medium for poetry is the theatre, where “for the simplest auditors there is the plot, for the more thoughtful the character and conflict of character, for the more literary the words and phrasing, for the more musically sensitive the rhythm, and for the auditors of greater sensitiveness and understanding a meaning which reveals itself gradually.” The pageant and the drama show the poet to be moving in the direction of these several levels of significance.

The correlative has become a grander and more obvious externality; the medium is story rather than conceit; and, were it not that the poet has been careful to deal with actuality and to preserve a degree of the metaphysical mosaic or were it not that we think of allegory in the tradition of Spenser rather than of Dante, the method of “The Rock” and “Murder in the Cathedral” would be called “allegorical.” If there has been some sacrifice of the wealth of allusion and image for the sake of simplicity and dramatic action, there remains, in the “allegory,” a compensation for the audience of greater sensitiveness and understanding. Eliot has not reached the universal level of the Elizabethan dramatist; but, in the direction of it, he has made a long stride from his point of approach, “Ash Wednesday.”

Saying that poetry is the emotional equivalent of thought, Eliot expresses Mallarme’s contention that poetry is written with words rather than with ideas; and, creating in accord with his theory, he presents a form characterized by a “contrast between fixity and flux . . . which is the very life of verse,” In “The Waste Land” this contrast arises principally from the surprise of the sudden turns of words and figures, of the mutilation of a familiar quotation, or of the appearance of an “anthropological ghost”; in the later poetry, it rises mainly from the irregular rhythms of the dialogue and the songs and from the interchange of verse and prose. To compensate the loss of many phrasal contrasts, the dramatist has used the action of the play to offer a grander contrast, the most striking instance being in the last work, where after the murder of Becket and the recitation of one of the most exalted choruses of the play, the First Knight advances to the front of the stage and, addressing the audience with “We beg you to give us your attention for a few moments,” proceeds in prose to analyze the English audience and to present each of his accomplices that they may explain the rash deed. In this respect, Eliot shows that he has appreciated the consciousness of such creators as Webster, who found that prose was not only the prince of comedy but also one of the most effective means of contrast and certainly the only medium for the character who lets the audience probe his intellect rather than the depth of his spirit.

This play is probably the best example of Eliot’s practising his theory. From the reading of it, one may conclude what the critic said before the poet wrote: “. . . if we are to express ourselves, our variety of thoughts and feelings, on a variety of subjects with inevitable Tightness, we must adapt our manner to the moment with infinite variations. Examination of the development of Elizabethan drama shows this progress in adaptation, a development from monotony to variety, a progressive refinement in the perception of the variations of feeling, and a progressive elaboration of the means of expressing these variations.” This precept, Eliot has successfully followed; and though in this drama there are few lines that will linger in the memory of the listener, though there is hardly enough action for the simplest level, and though there awaits disappointment for him who prefers such passages as those of “The Waste Land,” there is poetry of lucid words, of clear visual image, and of immediate intelligibility. In short, here is poetry “standing naked in its bare bones.”

A third significance of these two volumes is the belief; for herein is involved a question which eventually will die of its own exposure but which at present demands consideration, since there is maintained an inverted order of poetry and criticism wherein the latter seems to determine the first. The present is said to be a time in which everyone asks questions to which none can. find answers. Eliot has chosen to answer, and whether or not Anglo-Catholicism makes provision for Communism or Methodism or any other dogma is of little consequence; for what a poet believes is not necessarily a hindrance to his expression of “the greatest emotional intensity of his time.” He who would condemn belief would have little poetry; his principle, in extension, would eliminate even metaphor. However, were the reader made conscious of an evangelistic Mr. Eliot, dissension would be justified, for the interpretation of life would be colored by bias, which distorts the creator’s vision. Belief is detrimental to poetry only when it becomes a substitute for the poetic function. The question is now considered largely from the point of view of religion, but the cause of its manifestation was probably the attempt of chauvinists to use poetry as a means for the purpose of expressing dogma. At least, the question did not arise until belief became the cause of poetry.


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Damaru Chandra Bhatta's picture
Damaru Chandra ... · 3 years ago

Could you please mention which plays of T S Eliot resemble which Greek plays?


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