T.S. Eliot: The Poet as Critic
Writing in the wake of the chaos and destruction of WWI, when liberal-humanist (or Arnoldian) assumptions about the intrinsic value of culture began to seem hopelessly naive, Eliot tried to recuperate a sense of allegiance to tradition and order.
In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), Eliot offered a vision of the literary canon in which great writers of the past and present formed and continuously re-formed an order of literary merit.
Eliot also attacked the Romantic valorization of the poet’s individual genius and originality. He compared the process of poetic composition to a chemical reaction in which a shred of platinum acts as a catalyst, causing oxygen and sulphur dioxide to produce sulphuric acid.
The poet’s mind is like the filament of platinum.
This striking scientific analogy cuts against Wordsworth’s Romantic humanism. The poet’s mind, for Eliot, is a receptacle for feelings, phrases and images that remain in storage until these elements unite to form a poetic compound.
Eliot’s idiosyncratic view of literary tradition and inheritance devalued originality and inspiration (as praised by Wordsworth) and argued instead that an understanding of tradition can only be obtained by “great labour” and the honing of historical awareness. In the “Function of Criticism”, he opened with a quotation from his earlier essay, which encapsulates his exacting critical outlook:
Compared to the revolutionary aspirations of the young Wordsworth, or Shelley, Eliot’s account of the “supervention of novelty” can seem particularly conservative and cautious. Where it becomes most interesting is in the practical application of this principle. In taking a critical stance on the Romantic valorization of originality and the “Inner Voice”, Eliot arrived at a poetics of self-negation.
Criticism, for Eliot, involves the interpretation of works of art as well as the “correction of taste”. He argued that:
The critic’s labour is as important, if not more so, than the artist’s flash of enthused inspiration.
His own critical writing focused heavily on Elizabethan dramatists, including Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe (1564— 93) and Thomas Middleton (1580—1627).