Categories: Literary Criticism

Eliot and scholarship: Method and judgemen

Eliot had his own doubts about the desirability of an academic form of literary criticism. His misgivings stemmed, in part, from his belief that the qualities needed to be a critic included a kind of taste that developed in a gradual, organic manner, rather than being a skill to be taught. In the Introduction to The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), Eliot stated that he was uncertain as to ‘whether it is possible to explain to schoolchildren or even undergraduates the differences of degree among poets, and whether it is wise to try’, doubting ‘whether the attempt to teach students to appreciate literature can be made at all ’. Such appreciation rested not on education but on the wider development of character, requiring a breadth of perspective and ‘experience of life’ rather than the ‘sham acquisition’ of taste.12 Implicitly, the formal study of literature was only tangential to such a development: the capacity for the kind of objective judgement that Eliot required, a ‘pure contemplation’ in which personal emotion was set aside, arose ‘only very slowly in the course of living’ and could not be accelerated.13 These doubts about the nature of criticism can be linked to Eliot’s conception of the purpose of criticism, and its relationship with creative artistic practice. In ‘The Function of Criticism’ (1923) Eliot established a vision of criticism and creation as interdependent processes, insisting that the ‘frightful toil’ of authorship is ‘as much critical as creative’, and attacking ‘the thesis that the great artist is an unconscious artist, uncon- sciously inscribing on his banner the words Muddle Through’.14 Indeed, Eliot admits that ‘at one time I was inclined to take the extreme position that the only critics worth reading were the critics who practised, and practised well, the art of which they wrote’, suggesting that an isolated form of critical practice would be limited in use.15 In his 1942 lecture ‘The Music of Poetry’, Eliot used this notion of isolation to distinguish between the scholar’s awareness of versification – seen in terms of a knowledge of ‘the names of feet and metres, [and…] the accepted rules of scansion’ – and his own, more instinctive assimilation of verse forms, suggesting that the rhythms of English poetry could be best preserved through ‘a deeper imitation than is achieved by analysis of style’.16 However, Eliot was not prepared to state, unequivocally, that scholar- ship was futile. Earlier in the same lecture he had argued that ‘the critic, certainly, should be something of a scholar, and the scholar something of a critic’, describing W. P. Ker – to whom this lecture was dedicated – as showing an attention to ‘problems of historical relationship’ that was also interfused with ‘the sense of value, the good taste, the understanding of critical canons and the ability to apply them, without which the scholar’s contribution can be only indirect’.17 In a lecture on Milton, delivered to the British Academy in 1947, Eliot described both scholar and practitioner as dedicated to the understanding of the literary tradition, albeit in different ways:

The scholar is more concerned with the understanding of the masterpiece in the environment of its author: with the world in which that author lived, the temper of his age, his intellectual forma- tion, the books which he had read, and the influences which had moulded him. The practitioner is concerned less with the author than with the poem; and with the poem in relation to his own age […] The scholar can teach us where we should bestow our admiration and respect: the practitioner should be able, when he is the right poet talking about the right poet, to make an old masterpiece actual, give it contemporary importance, and persuade his audience that it is interesting, enjoyable, and active.18
Eliot’s definition unites both scholar and practitioner in the important task of promoting the living tradition of art: while the practitioner concentrated on the contemporary application of the literary tradition, the scholar aimed to analyse this tradition in a way that was commen- surate with the early Cambridge ideal of uniting ‘literature, life and thought’. And importantly, the work of both was also infused with a sense of rigour, placing it beyond the realm of subjectivity. This rigour meant that the relationship between criticism and creation required a certain balance. Eliot’s analysis of a range of ‘flawed’ critical styles, in ‘The Perfect Critic’ and ‘Imperfect Critics’, includes a warning against the subordination of criticism to an impulse towards creativity, a failing he blames for the degeneracy of modern criticism. The critical work of the Decadent writer Arthur Symons is denounced as little more than ‘the faithful record of the impressions [. . .] upon a mind more sensitive than our own’, with these impressions reflecting the ‘incomplete artist[ry]’ of one who is neither purely analytical nor a true creator.19 The ‘tumultuous’ and ‘undisciplined’ style of Algernon Charles Swinburne, meanwhile, is used as the basis of an exploration of an alternative kind of criticism that emphasises tradition and analysis over pure subjectivity. Swinburne, so Eliot tells us, might as a poet have concentrated his attention upon the technical problems solved or tackled by these men; he might have traced for us the development of blank verse from Sackville to the mature Shakespeare, and its degeneration from Shakespeare to Milton. Or he might have studied through the literature to the mind of that century; he might, by dissection and analysis, have helped us to some insight into the feeling and thought which we seem to have left so far away. In either case, you would have had at least the excitement of following the movements of an important mind groping towards important conclusions. As it is, there are to be no conclusions, except that Elizabethan literature is very great, and that you can have pleasure and even ecstasy from it, because a sensitive poetic talent has had the experience.20

The alternative proposed by Eliot involves a willingness to set aside the personal and subject oneself to the higher scale of values by which art should be judged, showing a belief in the authority and objectivity of classical order and a sense of the importance of the past to the present. For if ‘the forces of the past’ could not be brought to bear on ‘the present problems of art’, criticism was little more than a temporary diversion.21 The undirected enthusiasm of Symons, Swinburne and their fellow ‘imperfect critics’ was only a starting-point in the development of a critical sensibility in which ‘the original intensity of feeling’ needed to be tempered by ‘a more intellectual addition’, allowing the critic ‘to classify and compare his experiences, to see one in the light of others’, and therefore ‘to understand each more accurately’.22 This description of the process of classification and modification echoes Pater’s belief in the importance of discrimination, of the need ‘“to see the object as in itself it really is” […] to know one ’s impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly’.23 Yet while Pater’s emphasis was firmly on the relationship of art to the self – on the effect of the art object ‘on me’24 – Eliot’s was on the place of both text and reader within a much more objective system, that of the critical tradition. In turn, Eliot’s notion of this tradition – and of the ability to compare and reorder on which it relies – can be seen as underpinning what appears to be a particular model for the academic study of literature, resting on both a breadth of literary knowledge and the beginnings of a critical methodology. Such a model is hinted at in Eliot’s review of A. H. Cruickshank’s Philip Massinger, in which he praises Cruickshank’s scholarship for bestowing on the reader ‘a method, rather than a judg- ment’ and describes his scholarship as being of a kind ‘that professed critics ought more willingly to undertake’. Cruickshank’s historical breadth receives a particular measure of approval: in Eliot’s opinion, ‘to understand Elizabethan drama it is necessary to study a dozen playwrights at once, to dissect with all care the complex growth, to ponder collaboration to the utmost line’.25 This emphasis on breadth is apparent in a number of Eliot’s essays. In ‘The Function of Criticism’, it is seen as being crucial to an understanding of the ‘organic wholes’ within which ‘individual works of literary art, and the work of individual artists, have their significance’, while in ‘The Perfect Critic’ it underwrites Eliot’s description of the mental processes involved in the ideal act of criticism:

There is not merely an increase of understanding, leaving the original acute impression unchanged. The new impressions modify the impressions received from the subjects already known. An impression needs to be constantly refreshed by new impressions in order that it may persist at all; it needs to take its place in a system of impressions. And this system tends to become articulate in a general- ized statement of literary beauty.26
Interestingly, Eliot believed that this broad sweep of knowledge was essential to the work of the practitioner, as well as that of the critic. Indeed, Eliot’s ‘manifesto’ for a poetic training, expressed in his 1947 British Academy lecture in the statement that ‘a knowledge of the literature of their own language, with a knowledge of the literature and the grammatical construction of other languages, is a very valuable part of the poet’s equipment’, echoes the syllabus that was in place at Oxford in the early twentieth century, in which English was accompanied by the study of classical and modern languages.27 If poetry was to fulfil the task Eliot set out for it in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, acting as a living force that was able to counter the potential barbarism of a society that ‘ceases to care for its literary inheritance’, then both poet and critic would need to base their work on a broad understanding of literature, rather than on the narrowness of personal opinion.28 Eliot’s doctrine of impersonality and historical breadth can therefore be interpreted as giving literary criticism both a body of knowledge and a sense of rigour, emphasising the need for an awareness of the develop- ment of a literary tradition that was also simultaneous with the present, and for a critical method that allowed no space for the impressionism of misplaced creation. His emphasis on poetry and verse drama, and on the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gave his criticism an additional measure of difficulty. This can be linked to the early degree courses in English that were discussed in Chapter 2, which focused on poetry and drama – and avoided the literature of the more recent past – as a means of distancing themselves from the taint of ‘home reading’. In Eliot’s work, verse was also the subject of a close verbal and metrical ana- lysis that foreshadowed later developments in formalist criticism, giving substance to Eliot’s approval of the adoption of ‘method, rather than […] judgment’ as a means of approaching the text. In the Preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood, Eliot justified such criticism by drawing atten- tion to poetry’s stylistic properties, defining poetry as ‘excellent words in excellent arrangement and excellent metre’, and rejecting Arnold’s ide- alistic conception of poetry by stating that it was not ‘the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equival- ent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words’. He also went on to argue for the autonomy of poetry in claiming that it was ‘something over and above, and something quite different from, a collection of psychological data about the minds of poets, or about the history of an epoch’.29 This opened the way for a form of criticism based on close verbal analysis rather than historical or other extralinguistic studies, involving the rigorous examination of expression and versification. This dimension of Eliot’s criticism is perhaps most apparent in his essays on Renaissance dramatists and in his work on Donne and Milton, where Eliot demonstrates a form of criticism in which judge- ments are based on a close analysis of imagery and versification. In ‘Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe’, Eliot uses a series of quotations to analyse Marlowe’s conscious reworking of elements of Spenser’s lyricism, using this analysis to demonstrate his sense of Marlowe’s energy: ‘Marlowe gets into blank verse the melody of Spenser, and he gets a new driving power by reinforcing the sentence period against the line period.’30 A similar level of detail is present in the 1936 essay ‘A Note on the Verse of Milton’, a piece contributed to the English Association’s Essays and Studies, in which Eliot’s thesis that blank verse never recovered from the ‘Chinese wall’ of Milton rests on his observation that Milton’s syntax emphasises ‘musical significance […] the auditory imagination, rather than […] the attempt to follow actual speech or thought’. Milton’s privileging of the auditory imagi- nation is seen by Eliot as creating a separation between the surface of his verse and the ‘inner meaning’: while Eliot admits that he can ‘enjoy the roll’ of Milton’s verse, he also feels that it is ‘not serious poetry’, leading nowhere ‘outside of the mazes of sound’.31 Eliot saw his close analysis of Milton’s style as a crucial part of his reassessment of the poet’s status: if his analysis was not to be seen as ‘wanton iconoclasm’, it would need to make its methods and assumptions absolutely clear.

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