The leader of romantic poets, Wordsworth, says in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads that “all poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” In other words, poetry cannot be composed under duress nor can the poet be forced to write at the spur of an opportune moment. Poetry is a matter of feeling and mood.
Furthermore, emotion is the fundamental condition of poetry. Without emotion and powerful feelings poetry cannot be written. But emotions and feelings alone are not sufficient to ensure good poetry; they must be directed and modified by a calm mind. Wordsworth adds : “Poetry is produced by a man, who being possessed of more than organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.” From this statement rises the second contention of Wordsworth that “poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
According to Wordsworth, poetic composition has to pass through four stages: recollection, contemplation, recrudescence and composition. All that Wordsworth seeks to emphasise in the theory that ‘poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity’ is, to quote the words of Herbert Read, that good poetry is never an immediate reaction to the provoking cause; that our sensations must be allowed time to sink back into the common fund of our experience, there is to find their level and due proportion. That level is found for them by the mind in the act of contemplation, and then in the union of contemplating mind and the receiving sensibility, rises that unique mood of expression which we call poetry”. In Wordsworth’s view, in poetic process are involved observation, description, reflection, imagination and fancy, invention and judgement.
At another place Wordsworth says of the poet that “he is a man speaking to men : a man endowed with more lively sensibility, more
enthusiasm and tenderness a man pleased with his own passions and volitions “Thus Wordsworth places emphasis on individualism and regards the poet as a superior genius taking pleasure in ‘his own passions and volitions.’ Thus Wordsworth regards poetry as passion and emotion which he again modifies by his description of the poetic process as “recollection in tranquillity.”
T. S. Eliot in his essay on “Tradition and Individual Talent” refutes this theory of Wordsworth. He says that poetry is neither emotion, nor recollection nor tranquillity. In fact, it is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality. “The progress of an artist is a continual extinction of personality. It is in this depersonalization that art must be said to approach the condition of science.”
Contrary to Wordsworth Eliot believes in the impersonal theory of art. He regards the poet’s mind as a medium rather than a personality. He says that the feeling, or emotion, or vision, resulting from the poem is something different from the feeling, or emotion,or vision in the mind of the poet. The poet has not a personality to express, but a particular medium which is only a medium and not a personality, which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.
Therefore, greatness in poetry is not a matter of personality, says Eliot. Then he makes one of his most famous statements : “It is not the “greatness,” the intensity of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.” He says that a poet does not have stronger emotions than others, and this is also not the concern of poet to find new emotions.
“It is not in his personal emotions, the imitations provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. The emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing, but not with the complexity of the emotions of the people who have very complex or
unusual emotions in life The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones, and, in working them up into poetry to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all consequently, we must believe that “emotions recollected in tranquillity” is an inexact formula. For it is neither emotion nor recollection, nor without distortion of meaning, tranquillity. It is a concentration, of a very great number of experience which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experience at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation.”
T. S. Eliot, therefore, finds fault with Wordsworth’s theory of ’emotion recollected in tanquillity’. Nor does he believe that poetry is “a spontaneous over-flow of powerful feelings.’ It is a conscious art and requires conscious effort. “There is a great deal in the writing of poetry,” says Eliot, “which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious and is conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to makes him ‘personal.’ Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
Eliot compares the poet’s mind to a jar or receptacle in which are stored numberless feelings, emotions, etc., which remain there in an unorganised and chaotic form till “all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” Thus poetry is organization rather than inspiration. And the greatness of a poem does not depend upon the greatness or even the intensity of the emotions, which are the components of the poem, but upon the intensity of the process of poetic composition. Just as a chemical reaction takes place under pressure, so also intensity is needed for the fusion of emotions. The more intense the poetic process, the greater the poem. There is always a difference between the artistic emotion and the personal emotions of the poet. For example, the famous Ode to Nightingale of Keats contains a number of emotions which have nothing to do with the Nightingale. “The difference between art and the event is always absolute.” “The poet has no personality to express, he is merely a medium in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may find no place in his poetry, and those which become, important in the poetry may have no significance for the man. Eliot thus rejects romantic subjectivism.
It is not the business of the poet to find new emotions. He may express only ordinary emotions, but he must impart to them a new significance end a new meaning. And it is not necessary that they should be his personal motions. Even emotions which he has never experienced personally can ,serve the purpose of poetry. (For example, emotions which result from the reading of books can serve his turn). Eliot rejects Wordsworth’s theory of poetry, having its origin in “emotions recollected in tranquillity,” and points out that in the process of poetic composition there is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor tranquillity. In the poetic process there is only concentration of a number of experiences; and a new things results from this concentration. And this process of concentration is neither conscious nor deliberate.
Q. 282. What, according to T. S. Eliot, is the nature of the
poetic process? (Rajasthan University, 1978)
Ans. In Eliot’s theory of poetic process, it is sensation, feeling, emotion and thought which form the subject-matter of poetry, and all that the poet achieves by these is experience; Sensibility, in Eliot, is a terrible responsiveness, whose function is to harmonize the discordant notes, to provide an ‘internal equilibrium’ in order that art-emotion may be produced; it is this rather any personality or tradition which finds expression in the movements of verse. Nonetheless, both personality and tradition are significant in a poetic creation. Of course, personality enlivens sensibility, but Eliot was inclined to the preservation of individuality. Personality in Eliot was ephemeral, while individuality was permanent— an inert medium eternally given. Eliot’s individuality was given a distinct particularity in his poetry by the constancy of his Christian standpoint.
Some of the main theories of Eliot’s poetic process are given below:—
1. The Poet as a Medium : The poet as a medium of expression, and no more. Eliot thought that the poet must be objective, nor subjective, working as a medium rather than an experience. To concentrate on his own personality would shift our attention from the poetry to the poet. Eliot advocates the doctrine of impersonality, which is a result of the dramatic projection by various marks or characters and in ironic or contradictory expression. He separates the man and the poet, and conceives the latter as a medium, an instrument of communication. The function of the poet’s mind as medium is to digest and transmute the diverse experiences of human life which form its material.
2. Sensibility : Sensibility is the faculty which enables the poet to respond to the different experiences in a unified manner. In its function, it is close to Coleridge’s conception of’Secondary Imagination’, which also is one with its response and gives form to the shrubby undergrowth of experiences in life. George Williamson regards sensibility in Eliot as a
synonym for sensation, or for feeling, or for thought. What enables the poet to unify diverse experience is sensibility, which operates upon thoughts and feelings, emotions and sensations. Sensibility, in Eliot’s view, is a physical totality—”a single act of experience enabling the poet to recapture the unity of knowledge”.
3. The Role of Emotion : Eliot’s views on the role of thought, feeling and emotion also form an important part of his theory of poetic process. According to Vincent Buckley, in Eliot’s theory emotion is given a place inferior to thought and feeling. To Eliot poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion. But there is some inconsistency in
Eliot’s view of emotion. He admires Shakespeare for his susceptibility to a greater range of emotion. In Rhetoric and Poetic Drama he says that “genuine and substantial human emotions” are properly the subject matter of poetry. In fact, Eliot ignores the ordinary emotion, that is emotion for
emotion’s sake. But he values ‘significant emotion’—an emotion in which the private sufferings and agonies of poet have been transmuted into something impersonal and universal. The ‘significant emotion’ is thus the emotion of art, or as Eliot defines it in Tradition and Individual Talent “emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet.”
Emotion can best be expressed through an objective correlative.
4. The role of thought in poetic process : Eliot’s views on the role of thought have also been much misunderstood. Some critics like Winters think that Eliot uses ‘thought, as an equivalent for emotions motivated by thought, while Buckley finds Eliot’s views on the role of thought inconsistent with his theory of objective correlative.’ What is to be remembered in this connection is that whenever Eliot uses the term
‘thought’ it is in the sense of imaginal thinking and not conceptual thinking. According to him, for a poet thought qua thought has little significance : what a poet is interested in is the emotion equivalent of thought. As Eliot says, “the poet who thinks is merely the poet who can express the emotional
equivalent of thought.” This view of thought in poetry is perfectly consistent with Eliot’s theory of objective correlative. Just as emotion is not to be expressed directly in a poem but only through a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, similarly the poet is not concerned with the direct statement of thought, but only with an emotional equivalent of thought.
In Eliot’s view of poetic process, feelings, sensations, emotions and thoughts are to be regarded as the materials for poetry. Neither singular nor in unison they transmute the diverse experiences into new wholes. It is sensibility that, according to Eliot, performs the task of unifying the experiences.