Eliot’s Practical Criticism: His Critical Method

Eliot’s Practical Criticism

Eliot’s critical essays may broadly be divided into two categories: (1) essays dealing with the nature and function of criticism, poetry and drama, i.e. his theoretical criticism, and (2) essays dealing with a number of important authors and their works. Such essays constitute his practical criticism, and throw valuable light on his critical methods. Eliot has told us in his essay on the Function of Criticism that the chief purpose of criticism is the elucidation of a work of art and the correction of taste, and that comparison and analysis are the chief tools which the critic uses. We would first quote significant passages from Eliot’s practical criticism, and then examine his critical method in the light of these passages.


Here is an extract from Eliot’s essay on Dante: “The first lesson of Dante is that of the very few poets of similar stature. There is none, not even Virgil, who has been a more attentive student of the art of poetry, or a more scrupulous, painstaking and conscious practitioner of the craft. Certainly no English poet can be compared with him in this respect, for the more conscious craftsmen—and I am thinking primarily of Milton—have been much more limited poets and, therefore, more limited in their craft also. To realize more and more what this means through the years of one’s life, is itself a moral lesson, but I draw a further lesson from it which is a moral lesson too. The whole study and practice of Dante seems to me to teach that the poet should be the servant of his language, rather than the master of it. This sense of responsibility is one of the marks of the classical poet, in the sense of “classical” which I have tried to define elsewhere, in speaking of Virgil. Of some great poets and of some great English poets, specially, one can say that they were privileged by their genius to abuse the English language, to develop an idiom so peculiar and even eccentric, that it could be of no use to later poets. Dante seems to me to have a place in Italian literature which, in this respect, only Shakespeare has in ours, that is, they give body to the soul of the language, conforming themselves, the one more and the other less consciously, to what they believed to be its possibilities. And Shakespeare himself takes liberties which only his genius justifies, liberties, which Dante, with an equal genius, does not take. To pass on to posterity one’s own language, more highly developed, more refined, and more precise than it was before one wrote it, that is the highest possible achievement of the poet as poet. Of course, a really supreme poet makes poetry also more difficult for his successors, but the simple fact of his supremacy, and the price literature must pay, for having a Dante or a Shakespeare, is that it can have only one. Later poets must find something else to do, and be content, if the things left to—do are lesser things. But I am not speaking of what a supreme poet, one of those few without whom the current speech of a people with a great language would not be what it is, does for later poets or of what he prevents them from doing, but of what he does for everybody after him who speaks that language, whose mother tongue it is, whether they are poets, philosophers, statesmen, or railway porters.

That is one lesson: that the great master of a language should be great servant of it. The second lesson of Dante—and it is one which no other poet, in any language known to me, can teach—is the lesson of width of emotional range. Perhaps it could be best expressed under the figure of the spectrum, or the gamut. Employing this figure, I may say that the great poet should not only perceive and distinguish more clearly than other men, the colours and sounds within the range of ordinary vision or hearing, he should perceive vibrations beyond the range of ordinary men, and be able to make men see and hear more at each end than they could ever see or hear without his help. We have for instance in English literature great religious poets, but they are, by comparison with Dante, specialists. That is all they can do. And Dante, because he could do everything else, is for that reason the greatest ‘religious poet’ though to call him a ‘religious poet’ would be to abate his universality. The Divine Comedy expresses everything in the way of emotion, between depravity, despair and the beautific vision, that man is capable of experiencing. It is, therefore, a constant reminder to the poet, of the obligation to explore, to find words for the inarticulate, to capture those feelings which people can hardly even feel, because they have no words for them, and at the same time, a reminder that the explorer, beyond the frontiers of ordinary consciousness, will only be able to return and report to his fellow-citizens, if he had all the time a firm grasp upon the realities with which they are already acquainted.”

The essay On Dante is of great significance, for it was followed not only by considerable general interest in Dante, but also by a revival of interest in the later Middle Ages. Eliot’s essays on Dante, says M.C. Bradbrook, “was one of the first signs of the new movement, (the medievalisation movement) in England”. Eliot admires Dante, first, for the clarity and lucidity of his style, and secondly, for his wide emotional sensibility. He regards Dante as the, ‘universal poet’. Elsewhere, he compares Dante with Donne, and says that Dante’s sensibility was more highly developed than that of Donne. Both were religious poets, but Dante was universal and Donne only a specialist. Thus Eliot uses the tool of comparison to elucidate Dante’s art, but the comparison is unfortunate, for Dante and Donne were poets of an entirely different order, and such comparisons must be avoided. The essay also reveals Eliot’s twin interns in structure and language.

Destructive Criticism: “Hamlet”

Eliot’s essay on “Hamlet” is the finest example of his destructive or iconoclastic criticism:

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an objective correlative, in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, emotion is immediately evoked. If you examine any of Shakespeare’s more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence, you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions, the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion, and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it, his disgust envelopes and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand, he cannot objectify it, and it, therefore, remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him. And it must be noticed that the very nature of the donnees of the problem precludes objective equivalence. To have heightened the criminality of Gertrude would have been to provide the formula for a totally different emotion in Hamlet; it is just because her character is so negative and significant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.”

Hamlet has been universally admired as a great work of art and has been a source of pleasure to countless generations of theatre-goers, but Eliot regards it as an artistic failure. He compares the play with the other tragedies of the dramatist and find it lacking in, “Objective co-relative”. The disgust of Hamlet is in excess to the guilt of his mother. However, the play has reasserted its immortality, despite Eliot’s disparagement. The extract reveals Eliot as a master of the language, as well as his powerful ‘gift of phrasing’. It is here that he has, for the first time, used the phrase, “Objective co-relative”, a phrase which has since attained wide popularity.


Another fine instance of destructive criticism is Eliot’s essay, “On Milton.”

“Many people will agree that a man may be a great artist and yet have a bad influence. There is more of Milton’s influence in the badness of the bad verse of the eighteenth century than of anybody else’s; he certainly did more harm than Dryden and Pope, and perhaps a good deal of the oblique which has fallen on those two poets, specially the latter, because of their influence, ought to be transferred to Milton. But to put the matter simply in terms of ‘bad influence’ if not necessarily to bring a serious charge: because a good deal of the responsibility, when we state the problem in these terms, may devolve on the eighteenth-century poets themselves for being such bad poets that they were incapable of being influenced except for ill. There is a good deal more to the charge against Milton than this; and it appears a good deal more serious, if we affirm that Milton’s poetry could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever. It is more serious also, if we affirm that Milton’s bad influence may be traced much farther than the eighteenth century, and much farther than upon bad poets: if we say that it was an influence against which we still have to struggle.”

Eliot regards Milton as a bad influence for a number of reasons. First, he lacked visual imagination, secondly, he wrote English like a dead language, thirdly, his syntax is involved and rhetorical, fourthly, he employs long lists of proper names to describe space, and lastly, his style, “is not a classical style in that it is not the elevation of a common style.” Eliot could appreciate the artistic merits of Milton; his purpose in stressing his faults was to liberate English poets and poetry from the harmful influence of Milton. It may be said to his credit that, though much has since been written in praise of Milton, the specific charges that he has brought against the Puritan poet have not been refuted so far. However, Eliot is perverse when he compares Milton with Joyce, for there can be no comparison at all between writers so widely different from each other. One cannot help feeling that most of his dislike of Milton results from personal prejudices—religious and political.

The Metaphysical Poets

Eliot’s essay on The Metaphysical Poets—Donne, Marvell, Crashaw, etc.—is a remarkable piece of criticism, for it did much to bring about a revival of interest in these poets of the early 17th century:

“Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular and fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple or artificial, difficult or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinicelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions as magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others. The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in The Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in The Coy Mistress.

The second effect of the influence of Milton and Dryden followed from the first, and was, therefore, slow in manifestation. The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century, and continued. The poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought and felt by fits, unbalanced they reflected. In one or two passages of Shelley’s Triumph of Life, in the second Hyperion, there are traces of a struggle towards unification of sensibility. But Keats and Shelley died, and Tennyson and Browning ruminated.

After this brief exposition of a theory—too brief, perhaps, to carry conviction—we may ask, what would have been the fate of the ‘Metaphysicals’ had the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them, as it descended in a direct line to them? They would not, certainly, be classified as Metaphysical. The possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is the better; the more intelligent he is the more likely that he will have wide interests: our only condition is that he turn them into poetry, and not merely meditate on them poetically. A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved. The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they were better than later poets of certainly not less literary ability.”

It is in this essay, that Eliot has for the first time used the phrase Dissociation of sensibility, a cliche which ever since has had considerable influence on the course of English literature. Eliot’s power of phrasing is displayed at its best in the use of such memorable expressions as, “They do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.” We also get an exposition of his theory of the poetic process. The act of creation is not an expression of the poet’s emotion, it is rather an act of organisation of different and disparate experiences into a single whole. Donne and the other Metaphysical poets are compared with Tennyson, Browning, Dryden, Johnson and a host of other English poets. But the purpose of this comparison is not to determine good or bad, but to elucidate and interpret certain distinctive features of their work. Similar is his use of quotations. The essay represents the triumph of Eliot as a critic. It is a classic both of English prose and English criticism.

Eighteenth Century Poetry

His essay on Eighteenth Century Poetry is equally illuminating. “The eighteenth century in English verse is not, after Pope, Swift, Prior, and Gray, an age of courtly verse. It seems more like an age of retired country clergymen and schoolmasters. It is cursed with a Pastoral convention—Collin’s Eclogues are bad enough, and those of Shenstone consummately dull—and a ruminative mind. And it is intolerably poetic. Instead of working out the proper form for its matter, when it has any, and informing verse with prose virtues, it merely applies the magniloquence of Milton or the neatness of Pope to matter which is wholly unprepared for it; so that what the writers have to say always appears surprised at the way in which they choose to say it.

In this rural, pastoral, meditative age, Johnson is the most alien figure. Goldsmith is more a poet of his time, with his melting sentiment just saved by the precision of his language. But Johnson remains a townsman, if certainly not a courtier; a student of mankind not of natural history; a great prose writer; with no tolerance of swains and milkmaids. He has more in common in spirit with Crabbe than with any of his contemporaries; at the same time he is the last Augustan. He is in no way an imitator of Dryden or Pope; very close to them in idiom, he gives his verse a wholly personal stamp.

In one way, Johnson goes back to an earlier tradition; however inferior as satires Marston’s or even Hall’s may be to Johnson’s, they are surely much nearer to the spirit of Juvenal than are those of Dryden or Pope. Dryden is, in the modern sense, humorous and witty; Pope is, in the modern sense, witty though not humorous; Johnson, neither humorous nor witty in this sense, has yet “the proper wit of poetry”, as the seventeenth century and the Augustan age had it also. I can better expose this by a few quotations than by a definition:

There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail,

Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.

Condemned a needy supplicant to wait,

While ladies interpose, and slaves debate.

Fate never wounds more deep the generous heart,

Than when a blockhead’s insult point the dart.

The precision of such verse gives, I think, an immense satisfaction to the reader; he has said what he wanted to say, with that urbanity which contemporary verse would do well to study; and the satisfaction. I get from such lines is what I call the minimal quality of poetry. There is much greater poetry than Johnson’s but after all, how little, how very little, good poetry there is anyway. And the kind of satisfaction these lines give me is something that I must have, at least, from any poetry in order to like it.”

The essay, too, shows Eliot’s gift of phrasing at its happiest. He has the courage to stand up against established opinion that the 18th century was an age of prose and reason, and express the contrary opinion that the age was too poetic. His remarks on Dryden and Johnson reveal his penetrating intellect and his power of analysis. He is not carried away by the popular wind, but judges for himself on the basis of the facts that are before him.

Matthew Arnold

Eliot did not agree with Arnold as a critic—he regarded his (Arnold’s) criticism as too dry, abstract, intellectual and devoid of emotion. However, he has great admiration for Arnold, the poet: “I have elsewhere tried to point out some of Arnold’s weaknesses when he ventured into departments of thought for which his mind was unsuited and ill-equipped. In philosophy and theology he was undergraduate, in religion a philistine. It is a pleasanter task to define a man’s limitations within the field in which he is qualified, for there, the definition of limitation may be at the same time a precision of the writer’s excellences. Arnold’s poetry was little technical interest. It is academic poetry in the best sense, the best fruit which can issue from the promise shown by the prize-poem. When he is not simply being himself, he is most at ease in a master’s gown: Empedocles on Etna is one of the finest academic poems ever written. He tried other robes which became to him less well, I cannot but think of Tristram and Iseult and The Forsaken Merman as charades. Sohrab and Rustum is fine piece, less fine than Gebir, and in the classical line, Landor, with a finer ear, can best Arnold every time. But Arnold is a poet to whom one readily returns. It is a pleasure, certainly after associating with the riff raff of the early part of the century, to be in the company of a man qui sait se conduire, but Arnold is something more than an agreeable Professor of Poetry. With all his fastidiousness and superciliousness and officiality, Arnold is more intimate with us than Browning, more intimate than Tennyson ever is except at moments, as in the passionate flights in In Memoriam. He is the poet and critic of a period of a false stability. All his writing in the kind of Literature and Dogma seems to me a valiant attempt to dodge the issue, to mediate between Newman and Huxley, but his poetry, the best of it, is too honest to employ any but his genuine feelings of unrest, loneliness and dissatisfaction. Some of his limitations are manifest enough. In his essay on The Study of Poetry he has several paragraphs on Burns, and for an Englishman and Englishman of his time, Arnold understands Burns very well. Perhaps I have partiality for small, oppressed nationalities like the Scots that makes Arnold’s patronizing manner irritate me, and certainly I suspect Arnold of helping to fix the wholly mistaken notion of Burns as a singular, untutored English dialect poet, instead of as a decadent representative of a great alien tradition. But he says (taking occasion to rebuke the country in which Burns lived) that, ‘no one can deny that it is of advantage to a poet to deal with a beautiful world’, and this remark strikes me as betraying a limitation. It is an advantage to mankind in general to live in a beautiful world, that no one can doubt. But for the poet is it so important? We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness, to see the boredom and the horror, and the glory.”

Here Arnold compared to Tennyson, Browning, and a number of other poets, his limitations are pin-pointed, but his merit also is recognised. He alone is the poet to whom one readily returns, for his poetry gives pleasure, the pleasure arising from the intimacy between the poet and his reader. Though in this essay, the tone is one of frank admiration, in another essay in which Eliot deals with Arnold the critic his views are coloured by extraneous considerations. Eliot stoops to personal invective, and reveals his personal prejudice when he calls Arnold, ‘a propagandist of literature’, and an ‘overworked school Inspector’.

Eliot’s Critical Methods

In the light of the practical criticism examined above, Eliot’s critical methods may be summed up as follows:

1. Eliot’s style forms an important aspect of his critical method. As M.C. Bradbrook points out, his style is a neutral style “expository rather than forensic”. It works through negative, and definition by exclusion. It is devoid of emotional phrase and metaphor, and underneath it runs a delightful current of humour and irony. He was not state or describe anything in detail, he works by reserves and implications. Much more is implied than what is directly asserted. In this way, he is able to secure the lively co-operation of his readers. His strength lies in the fact that he does not make a statement or communicate feeling; rather he starts off a process and the readers criticise for themselves. They are active participants, and not mere passive receivers of the critic. His style is reserved and restricted, and his prose is marked by precision and exactitude.

2. Another aspect of Eliot’s style is his use of quotations. “The quotations are made to do the critics work, and the reader is made to work on them”—(Bradbrook). They are exactly chosen to make the point at which Eliot aims, and he succeeds in his purpose, because the reader is compelled to work on the quotations, and respond actively to them. The quotations stamp themselves on the mind of the reader and easily pass into general circulation. They have a peculiar, generative force. They are thought-provoking. They make the reader think, and in this way his active co-operation is secured.

3. As a critic, Eliot tries to be as exact and precise as possible. In order to convey his meanings accurately, he makes frequent use of conditional and qualifying phrases. In this way, he says exactly and accurately what he has to say. Again, it is in the interest of accuracy that he avoids all superfluity. He is compact, sharp and to the point. Attention is focused throughout on the key-points and a few significant phrases in a writer’s work, and all that is unessential is excluded.

4. Irony, and a devasting wit, are potent instruments in the hands of Eliot. Sometimes he does not counter an argument but treats it with mocking irony.

5. He does not pass any judgments of worse and better. He simply elucidates and leaves the readers to form their own judgments. He simply analyses and places the facts before his readers, without commenting on those facts. However, the arguments are so arranged that the judgment of the readers is conditioned. His style is persuasive and he is able to carry the readers with him.

6. Comparison is an important aspect of Eliot’s critical method. But the purpose of his comparison is to elucidate and analyse, never to determine good and bad. He compares only to elucidate and not to interpret the facts.

7. Eliot avoids all digressions, biographical, historical, or sociological. No doubt, much extraneous prejudice, colours and spoils his destructive criticism. This is particularly so in the case of his criticism of Milton and Arnold. However, with few exceptions, he can appreciate even writers who are uncongenial to him, and his sincerity and integrity are above doubt.

Conclusion: Eliot’s Achievement as a Practical Critic

Eliot’s achievement as a practical critic has been of far-reaching importance. He has brought about a revolution in taste. As a result of his criticism, there has been a revaluation of poets like Marlowe, Jonson, Donne, and many others. The Metaphysicals were appreciated merely by a few scholars, but thanks to Eliot, they are now appreciated even by the young under-graduate. The credit for the Metaphysical revival in the early 20th century must go to T.S. Eliot. Similarly, the renewed interest in Ben Jonson and Dryden is a sort of personal triumph for Mr. Eliot. His essay on Dante has been followed not only by a considerable general interest in the Italian poet, but also by an enthusiasm for the later Middle Ages.

Above all, as a practical critic, Eliot has set a standard and displayed a method. His criticism, therefore, is of permanent value, and all attempts to run down his critical achievement have so far remained futile.

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