The Achievement of Eliot as a Critic

A Poet-Critic: His Greatness

Eliot is one of the long-line of poet-critics extending from Sir Philip Sydney to our own day and including such names as Ben Jonson, Dryden, Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Arnold. Both from the point of view of the bulk and quality of his critical writings, Eliot is one of the greatest of literary critics of England. His five hundred and odd essays published as reviews and articles from time to time, have had a far-reaching influence on the course of literary criticism in the country.
 “Eliot made English criticism look different” says George Watson, “through not in a simple sense”. His criticism has been revolutionary; he has turned the critical tradition of the whole English speaking world upside down. The Sacred Wood was published in 1920 and since then his authority has steadily increased. “I cannot think”, say John Hayward, “of a critic who has been more widely read and discussed in his own lifetime; not only in English, but in almost every language, except Russian, throughout the civilised world.”

His Faults

As a critic Eliot has his faults, and some of them are quite glaring ones. Sometimes he is pontifical, assumes a hanging-judge attitude, and instead of sympathetic understanding his pronouncements savour of a verdict. Often his criticism is marred by personal and religious prejudices, and dislike of the man comes in the way of an honest and impartial estimate. In this respect he does not live up to his own theory of the objectivity and impersonality of poetry. His condemnation of Milton, and that of Shelley, can hardly be called sound literary criticism. When he scoffs at Arnold for his being an overworked inspector of schools, he drifts away from criticism proper and stoops to personal invective. Moreover, he does not judge all by the same standards of criticism. For example, in his essay on Dante he remarks that knowledge of the ideas and beliefs of a poet is not essential for an appreciation of his poetry. But he condemns Shelley for his ‘repellent ideas’. There is an element of didacticism in his later essays and with the passing of time his critical faculties were more and more exercised on social problems. Critics have also found fault with his style as too full of doubts, reservations and qualifications.

His Contribution: Reassessment of Earlier Writers

However, such faults do not detract from Eliot’s greatness as a critic. His criticism offers both a reaction and a re-assessment. Through his practical criticism, he has brought about a revaluation of the great literary names of the past three centuries. His recognition of the greatness of Donne and the other Metaphysical poets of the 17th century, has resulted in the Metaphysical revival of the 20th century. The credit for the renewal of interest in the Metaphysicals and the Jacobean dramatists must go to Eliot, and Eliot alone. Similarly, he has restored Dryden and the other Augustan poets to their rightful place in the hierarchy of the Englishmen of letters. According to Bradbrook, his essay on Dante resulted not only in a greater appreciation of the Italian poet, it aroused keen curiosity and enthusiasm for the latter middle ages. We may not, sometimes, agree with his views, but there can be little doubt that he is highly original and thought-provoking. The novelty of his statements, couched in tenchant phrases, startles and arrests attention. He has shed new light on a number of English writers and has made them look entirely different—According to Eliot, the end of criticism is to bring about a readjustment between the old and the new, and his own criticism performs this function to a nicety. He says, “From time to time it is desirable that some critic shall appear to review the past of our literature, and set the poets and the poems in a new order.” Such critics are rare, for they must possess, in addition to an unusual capacity for judgment, an independence of mind powerful enough to recognise and interpret for their generation its own values and categories of appreciation. “Matthew Arnold was such a critic as were Coleridge and Johnson and Dryden before him; and such, to our own day, is Eliot himself (John Hayward). Eliot’s re estimation of the dramatists and poets of the 17th century, remains unrivalled in the history of English criticism.

Raised Criticism to the Level of Science

Eliot’s practical criticism offers a re-assessment of earlier writers; his theoretical criticism represents a reaction to romantic and Victorian critical creed. He called himself, ‘a classicist in literature’, and one of his important contributions in the reaction against romanticism and humanism which he strengthened. The reaction had been started by T.B. Hulme. Eliot carried it on, made it a force in literature, and thus brought about a classical revival both in art and criticism. He rejected the romantic view of the perfectibility of the individual, stressed the doctrine of the original sin, and exposed the hollowness of the romantic faith in the ‘Inner voice’ as merely doing, ‘what one likes’. He stressed that a critic must follow objective standards; instead of following merely his, ‘inner voice’ he must conform to tradition. A sense of tradition, a respect for order and authority is at the core of Eliot’s classicism, and in this respect the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent is the manifesto of his critical creed. In this way, his criticism is a corrective to the eccentricity and waywardness of the contemporary impressionistic school of criticism. Similarly, he sought to correct the excesses of what he contemptuously called ‘the abstract and intellectual’ school of criticism represented by Arnold. The critic must have a highly developed sense of fact and he must judge on the basis of these facts with perfect detachment and impartiality. He thus sought to raise criticism to the level of science; in his objectivity and scientific attitude Eliot is the English critic who most closely resembles Aristotle. In this stress on facts, on ‘comparison and analysis’, Eliot has exercised a profound influence on the New Critics. He has started many new trends in English criticism.

His Revolutionary Theory of Poetry

“Eliot’s theory of the impersonality of poetry”, says A.G. George, “is the greatest theory on the nature of the poetic process after Wordsworth’s romantic conception of poetry.” According to the romantics, poetry was an expression of the emotions, the personality of the poet. Thus Wordsworth said that poetry was an overflow of powerful emotions, and that it had its origins in, ‘emotions recollected in tranquillity’. Eliot rejects romantic subjectivism and propounds the revolutionary doctrine that poetry is not a letting loose of emotion but an escape from emotion, not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality. The poet is merely a catalytic agent in the presence of which varied emotions fuse to form new wholes. He differentiates between the emotions of the poet and the artistic emotion, and points out that the function is to turn attention from the poet to his poetry. Thus his criticism is a corrective to the excesses of the biographical, historical and sociological schools of criticism. He thus changed the entire cause of critical theory and practice in many ways of far-reaching significance.

Poetry as Organisation: Break from Romantic Tradition

Eliot’s views on the nature of poetic process are equally revolutionary. According to him, poetry is not inspiration; it is organisation. The poet’s mind is like a receptable in which are stored a number of varied feelings, emotions and experiences. The poetic process is the process of fusing these disparate experiences and emotions into new wholes. In his essays on The Metaphysical Poets, he writes, “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary”, but in the mind of the poet varied experiences are always forming new wholes. Perfect poetry results when, instead of dissociation of sensibility’, there is ‘unification of sensibility’. The emotional and the intellectual, the creative and the critical, faculties must work in harmony to produce a really great work of art. Until now critics had either stressed that the aim of poetry is to give pleasure and in this way to mitigate pain, or that its function is moral edification A great poet both instructs and delights. However, for Eliot the greatness of a poem is tested not by the pleasure it gives or the moral elevation it leads to, but by the order and unity it imposes on the chaotic and disparate experiences of the poet. Wimsatt and Brooks are, therefore, right in saying, “Hardly since the 17th century had a critic writing in English so resolutely transposed poetic theory from the axis of pleasure versus pain to that of unity versus multiplicity.” In this way, Eliot’s theory of poetry marks a break from tradition, and gives a new direction to literary criticism.

His Critical Concepts and Their Popularity

Eliot has formulated a number of new critical concepts which thanks to his gift of phrasing, have gained wide currency, and exercised a far-reaching influence on criticism ever since. Objective co-relative, Dissociation of sensibility, Unification of sensibility, are only a few of the Eliot cliches which have been hotly debated by a host of critics, and have made people sit up and think. His dynamic theory of tradition, his theory of impersonality of poetry, his insistence on, ‘a highly developed sense of fact’, on the part of the critic, have all tended to impart to literary criticism both catholicity and rationalism.

His Influence: Wide and Continuing

To conclude: Eliot’s influence as a critic has been wide and all-pervasive, it has also been a continuing one. He has corrected and educated the taste of his readers and has brought about a rethinking regarding the function of poetry and the nature of the poetic process. He gave a new orientation, new critical ideas and new tools of criticism. It is in the re-consideration and revitalisation of English poetry of the past “that his influence as a critic, has been most fruitful and inspiring. ‘No critic, indeed, since Coleridge has shown more clearly the use of poetry and of criticism’ (John Hayward). Estimating the achievement of Eliot as a critic, George Watson writes, “Eliot made English criticism look different, but not in a simple sense.” He offered it a new range of rhetorical possibilities, confirmed it in its increasing contempt for historical processes and yet reshaped its notion of period by a handful of brilliant intuitions. It is not to be expected that so expert and professional an observer of poetry should allow his achievement to be more nearly classified than this.” His comments on the nature of Poetic Drama and the relation between poetry and drama have done much to bring about revival of Poetic Drama in the modern age. There is hardly any critic now who does not bear the stamp of his influence. Even if he had written no poetry, he would have made his mark as a distinguished subtle critic.

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