Literary Criticism

Eliot and his influence

The relationships between the work of all three critics are complex. Only seven years separated them in age. Eliot and Richards were close friends whose correspondence spanned some forty years; Leavis was deeply influenced by both Eliot’s poetry and his analysis of the develop- ment of the literary tradition; and Leavis and Richards were contempo- raries at Cambridge, although relations between them were strained (Leavis felt that Richards should have given him more help in securing a permanent post in the Cambridge English Faculty, while Richards, who detested the academic politics of Cambridge, suspected that Leavis ridiculed him in lectures).9 Yet while there are certain similarities between the work of all three, it is difficult to prove that Richards and Leavis adopted their ideas in a direct response to Eliot – that Eliot was the direct influence that Menand describes. It is, perhaps, more accurate to state that some of the concepts that are present in Eliot’s work were developed, in differing ways, by both Richards and Leavis, although whether this was part of a conscious attempt to build on Eliot’s philo- sophy is not always certain. It is also important to recognise that Eliot’s prose writings do not, in themselves, express a single, unified theory of criticism. These writings – spanning literature, religion and society, and made up of a vast number of articles, books and lectures written over a period of forty years – are notoriously difficult to summarise, and attempts to do so can seem highly reductive.

Menand’s description of Eliot’s critical method as ‘highly disciplined’ is contradicted by his later statement that rather than possessing an ‘interlocking and highly developed set of aesthetic criteria’, Eliot’s criticism was made up of a group of ideas that were under continual revision, making attempts to identify a consistent set of critical principles problematic.10 Certainly, the circumstances in which Eliot worked – publishing in periodicals such as the Adelphi, the Athenaeum and the Times Literary Supplement as well as the Criterion, and writing to make a living rather than with a consistent philosophy in mind – highlight the need to avoid projecting a retrospective cohesion onto his critical canon. Graham Hough, sounding a cautionary note common to much writing on Eliot’s prose, asserts that ‘what has been received as a considered literary programme was in origin something far more fortuitous’, written ‘from necessity and under pressure’ rather than with a consistent critical philosophy in mind.11 As a result, any attempt to isolate Eliot’s critical method needs to proceed with care. One way of side-stepping this difficulty – and resolving the apparent contradiction in Menand’s comments on Eliot’s critical philosophy – is by focusing not so much on the internal consistency of Eliot’s ideas, as on the specific areas of his thought and practice that could be adopted by academic departments of English.

Consequently, my emphasis in the first part of this chapter will be on two separate elements of Eliot’s criticism. The first consists of what might be interpreted (as in Menand’s analysis) as those elements of Eliot’s criticism that were most amenable to the ‘institutional needs’ of the universities: his doctrine of imperson- ality, his rejection of subjectivity and his analysis of form and language. The second, in contrast, involves a set of values that are much less ‘academic’, seeing Eliot adopting the kind of subjectivity that some of his early criticism, in particular, is keen to reject: a subjectivity that relies on an apparently innate sense of judgement, and therefore rests not on scholarship, but on a more personal form of authority.

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