Literary Criticism

Personal authority and the retreat from scholarship

Such a focus on language gives many of Eliot’s writings a characteristic structure that is at once an echo of Walter Bagehot’s notion of the ‘review-like essay’,33 and a potential blueprint for an academic essay that could demonstrate the capacity for judgement as well as know- ledge that he praised in the work of W. P. Ker. Eliot’s early periodical essays typically begin by quoting an accepted view of the writer in question, and then examine its validity through a close analysis of style and theme, a technique described by F. W. Bateson as embodying a scepticism whose ‘continuous invitation […] to dig below the verbal or conventional surface’ gave Eliot’s early work much of its rigour.34 Yet this rigour is not consistent in its application. At many points in Eliot’s work, quotations are used not as the starting-point for an analysis of language and form, but as a means of justifying evaluative comments that are presented as objective, all-encompassing truths. When comparing Massinger to Shakespeare, Eliot opines that ‘while the lines of Massinger have their own beauty’, they remain inferior: ‘a “bright exhalation” appeals to the eye and makes us catch our breath in the evening; “meteor” is a dim simile; the word is worn’.35 The normative use of plural pronouns gives Eliot’s judgements an authoritative sweep that elevates them above the purely personal, echoing the rhetoric of the ‘men of letters’ in its attempt to create a sense of objectivity. Later in the same essay, Eliot’s judgements become more expansive, encompassing not just stylistic technique but the whole of an author’s vision:

Marlowe’s and Jonson’s comedies were a view of life; they were, as great literature is, the transformation of a personality into a personal work of art, their lifetime’s work, long or short. Massinger is not simply a smaller personality: his personality hardly exists. He did not, out of his own personality, build a work of art, as Shakespeare and Marlowe and Jonson built.36
Here, beliefs about the relationship of text and author, and about the relative success of the authors Eliot mentions, are asserted with the impersonality of fact. For J. Hillis Miller, such impersonality is purely illusory, a trick of rhetoric that substitutes the appearance of a univer- sal mind for the private mind of Eliot himself: ‘in neither case can there be an encounter with anything other than mental’.37 Yet this impersonal rhetoric is an important factor in maintaining Eliot’s critical authority. The broad historical range of his work, together with his presentation of tradition as an order and a system of which he had a complete understanding, gives his criticism a sense of objec- tivity that seems to expect no dissent. The importance Eliot placed on judgement – on ‘the critic’s ability to tell a good poem from a bad one’ – adds to this air of confidence: while it is unspoken, Eliot’s belief in his own ability to carry out this task is apparent throughout his work.38 This belief in the centrality of judgement often leads Eliot to adopt a critical position that seems entirely at odds with the authority of the academic. While many of his essays do draw attention to judgements that are rooted in factual knowledge, others seem to revel in exposing gaps in this knowledge, even flaunting them as evidence that the critic has a right to voice judgements even when they are unsup- ported. His discussion of versification in ‘The Music of Poetry’ is accompanied by the admission that ‘I have never been able to retain the names of feet and metres, or to pay the proper respect to the accepted rules of scansion.’39 In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Eliot’s attitude towards Coleridge’s theory of imagination seems decidedly casual:

I have read some of Hegel and Fichte, as well as Hartley (who turns up at any moment with Coleridge), and forgotten it; of Schelling I am entirely ignorant at first hand, and he is one of those numerous authors whom, the longer you leave them unread, the less desire you have to read. Hence it may be that I wholly fail to appreciate this passage. My mind is too heavy and concrete for any flight of abso- lute reasoning. If, as I have already suggested, the difference between imagination and fancy amounts in practice to no more than the difference between good and bad poetry, have we done more than take a turn round Robin Hood’s barn?40
Such claims may well have been disingenuous, an attempt to lessen the gap between Eliot and his audience rather than a genuine admission of ignorance. Yet it is important to note that Eliot’s brusque rejection of Coleridge’s philosophy (and the knowledge that supported it) places him firmly in the camp of the generalist: one who may be rescued by his own authority as a poet, but who nevertheless is emphatically not an academic specialist.41 This personal stance is also apparent in Eliot’s discussion of Shelley, in which he makes it perfectly plain that he is approaching Shelley as an interested amateur rather than a scholar: ‘I find his ideas repellent […] the man was humourless, pedantic, self- centred, and almost a blackguard.’42 Eliot’s overt rejection of scholarly knowledge highlights his ambivalence about the value of a form of criticism that was dominated by the needs of specialisation. Chris Baldick points out that while the ‘university English Studies movement’ was able (as Louis Menand has claimed) to ‘expand upon Eliot’s early promise [by] appropriating his critical innovations […] and using them for its own purposes’, this process of appropriation was ‘often against [Eliot’s] will’, taking criticism in a direction of which Eliot would not have approved.43 One of the most pertinent examples of this is in the formalist analysis that E. M. W. Tillyard defined as a major influence on the work of I. A. Richards. For Tillyard, ‘the change of taste typified and promoted by Eliot, the reaction from Romantic emotionalism to more cerebral types of poetry, fostered the urge towards practical criticism because it directed attention to a kind of literature for which minute exegesis was especially apt’.44 Yet Eliot himself felt that such exegesis did not necessarily assist the ordinary reader, as it carried with it an assumption that poetry was invariably difficult – thus throwing the reader into ‘a state of consternation very unfavourable to poetic receptivity’.45 He also believed that the critic must bear in mind the relevance of the knowledge he or she sought to produce. In ‘The Function of Criticism’, he insists that while the critic’s chief tools are comparison and analysis, ‘it is obvious indeed that they are tools, to be handled with care, and not employed in an inquiry into the number of times giraffes are mentioned in the English novel’.46 A similar view, albeit more soberly phrased, is expressed in ‘The Perfect Critic’, in which technical criticism is seen as ‘limited’ in its aims.47 Meanwhile, in ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (1956), Eliot acknowledged that while ‘most of the really interesting criticism to-day is the work of men of letters who have found their way into the universities, and of scholars whose critical activity has first been exercised in the classroom’, the resulting level of specialisation threatened to deaden true critical insight, producing a kind of knowledge typified by the ‘explanation by origins’ of John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, or by ‘the lemon-squeezer school’ of Practical Criticism. Neither approach would succeed in fostering a genuine understanding of literature. The former – like the ‘bogus scholarship’ of Eliot’s own notes to The Waste Land – offered little more than a puzzle invented ‘for the pleasure of discovering the solution’, accumulating knowledge yet failing to use this for any real purpose.48 The latter closed off the possibility of individual thought by claiming to offer a single, univocal interpretation of the text: ‘There are many things, perhaps, to know about this poem, or that, many facts about which scholars can instruct me which will help me to avoid definite misunderstanding; but a valid interpretation, I believe, must be at the same time an interpretation of my own feelings when I read it. ’49 Perhaps more important, however, was the sense that such approaches also pointed to a loss of critical direction. Recognising the changing nature of the ‘serious’ reading public, and the narrowing of the potential audience for criticism, Eliot wondered ‘whether the weak- ness of modern criticism is not an uncertainty as to what criticism is for […] what benefit it is to bring, and to whom’.50 If criticism was to carry out its task of reasserting and reinterpreting the literary tradition to a world in crisis, it had to avoid both the subjectivity of aestheticism and a retreat into academic isolation. Eliot’s criticism therefore offered a number of methods and philosophies to academic departments of English. Its early insistence on rigour and impersonality, and on the importance of critical method, gave implicit support to the subject’s claims to disciplinarity: to read Eliot’s criticism is to be aware of an activity that was at once wide-ranging, difficult and important. Yet this importance brought responsibility, and this responsibility – to a society constantly depicted as in danger of losing its sense of its culture – could not be fulfilled if English was allowed to remain a purely specialist pursuit. For criticism to carry out its ‘social mission’, it would need to have a wider audience and a wider frame of reference.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.