T. S. Eliot (1888—1965)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

T. S. Eliot (1888—1965)

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River, and he later spoke of himself as a Southwesterner or Mid-westerner. Even so, his deeper loyalty seems to have been to New England, where he was a Harvard student and where his family kept a summer home, and later to Old England, to which he emigrated in 1914 and stayed, taking on British citizenship in 1927.

His education was more in philosophy than in literature, and he did everything for a doctoral degree but pick up the diploma itself. He worked for some years as an officer of Lloyds Bank and then became a valued member of the directorate of the publishing firm Faber and Faber. During the 1920s Eliot established a potent international reputation as a poet and a critic, also editing the influential magazine The Criterion (1922—1939). Like Thomas Hardy, he was given the rare and coveted Order of Merit; like W. B. Yeats he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—still, after more than fifty years, the only American-born poet to be so honored. Long after Eliot’s death, Andrew Lloyd Webber turned one of Eliot’s lighter works, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, into the musical show Cats, which ran for decades in London and New York, breaking records for longevity in both and earning billions.

At first Eliot’s poetry may seem obscure and difficult, but very soon almost any reader discovers that the obscurity and difficulty serve a purpose: they are part of the poem and remind us that much of life is obscure and difficult. Experiencing Eliot’s poetry is like experiencing life itself. For readers of all ages all over the world, that experience has been doing something that very little poetry has managed to do, for Eliot possessed both the subtlety and the vulgarity to find ways—images, rhythms, characters, echoes—to reach some of the hidden recesses of inner life. Eliot’s poetry and Eliot’s criticism are complementary in some ways but also antithetical in some ways. (Randall Jarrell predicted that the time would come when people would not believe that the same man wrote both.) Rejected and ridiculed by some of his elders, he spoke an idiom immediately familiar to many of his contemporaries and successors: Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken. He shaped and directed the way more than one generation read and wrote. Because of accusations of anti-Semitism and misogyny, Eliot’s legacy will remain a thorny issue for some; for many more, however, the influence of his deeply emotional art—especially in the darker precincts of fear, doubt, confusion, and regret—will continue.


From The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, (London: Methuen, 1922).

The questions—why there is no poetic drama to-day, how the stage has lost all hold on literary art, why so many poetic plays are written which can only be read, and read, if at all, without pleasure—have become insipid, almost academic. The usual conclusion is either that “conditions” are too much for us, or that we really prefer other types of literature, or simply that we are uninspired. As for the last alternative, it is not to be entertained; as for the second, what type do we prefer?; and as for the first, no one has ever shown me “conditions,” except of the most superficial. The reasons for raising the question again are first that the majority, perhaps, certainly a large number, of poets hanker for the stage; and second, that a not negligible public appears to want verse plays. Surely there is some legitimate craving, not restricted to a few persons, which only the verse play can satisfy. And surely the critical attitude is to attempt to analyze the conditions and the other data. If there comes to light some conclusive obstacle, the investigation should at least help us to turn our thoughts to more profitable pursuits; and if there is not, we may hope to arrive eventually at some statement of conditions which might be altered. Possibly we shall find that our incapacity has a deeper source: the arts have at times flourished when there was no drama; possibly we are incompetent altogether; in that case the stage will be, not the seat, but at all events a symptom, of the malady.

From the point of view of literature, the drama is only one among several poetic forms. The epic, the ballad, the chanson de geste, the forms of Provence and of Tuscany, all found their perfection by serving particular societies. The forms of Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, served a society different, and in some respects more civilized, than any of these; and in the society of Ovid the drama as a form of art was comparatively insignificant. Nevertheless, the drama is perhaps the most permanent, is capable of greater variation and of expressing more varied types of society, than any other. It varied considerably in England alone; but when one day it was discovered lifeless, subsequent forms which had enjoyed a transitory life were dead too. I am not prepared to undertake the historical survey; but I should say that the poetic drama’s autopsy was performed as much by Charles Lamb as by anyone else. For a form is not wholly dead until it is known to be; and Lamb, by exhuming the remains of dramatic life at its fullest, brought a consciousness of the immense gap between present and past. It was impossible to believe, after that, in a dramatic “tradition.” The relation of Byron’s English Bards and the poems of Crabbe to the work of Pope was a continuous tradition; but the relation of The Cenci to the great English drama is almost that of a reconstruction to an original. By losing tradition, we lose our hold on the present; but so far as there was any dramatic tradition in Shelley’s day there was nothing worth the keeping. There is all the difference between preservation and restoration.

The Elizabethan Age in England was able to absorb a great quantity of new thoughts and new images, almost dispensing with tradition, because it had this great form of its own which imposed itself on everything that came to it. Consequently, the blank verse of their plays accomplished a subtlety and consciousness, even an intellectual power, that no blank verse since has developed or even repeated; elsewhere this age is crude, pedantic, or loutish in comparison with its contemporary France or Italy. The nineteenth century had a good many fresh impressions; but it had no form in which to confine them. Two men, Wordsworth and Browning, hammered out forms for themselves—personal forms, The Excursion, Sordello, The Ring and the Book, Dramatic Monologues; but no man can invent a form, create a taste for it, and perfect it too. Tennyson, who might unquestionably have been a consummate master of minor forms, took to turning out large patterns on a machine. As for Keats and Shelley, they were too young to be judged, and they were trying one form after another.

These poets were certainly obliged to consume vast energy in this pursuit of form, which could never lead to a wholly satisfying result. There has only been one Dante; and, after all, Dante had the benefit of years of practice in forms employed and altered by numbers of contemporaries and predecessors; he did not waste the years of youth in metric invention; and when he came to the Commedia he knew how to pillage right and left. To have, given into one’s hands, a crude form, capable of indefinite refinement, and to be the person to see the possibilities—Shakespeare was very fortunate. And it is perhaps the craving for some such donnée which draws us on toward the present mirage of poetic drama.

But it is now very questionable whether there are more than two or three in the present generation who are capable, the least little bit, of benefiting by such advantages were they given. At most two or three actually devote themselves to this pursuit of form for which they have little or no public recognition. To create a form is not merely to invent a shape, a rhyme or rhythm. It is also the realization of the whole appropriate content of this rhyme or rhythm. The sonnet of Shakespeare is not merely such and such a pattern, but a precise way of thinking and feeling. The framework which was provided for the Elizabethan dramatist was not merely blank verse and the five-act play and the Elizabethan playhouse; it was not merely the plot—for the poets incorporated, remodeled, adapted or invented, as occasion suggested. It was also the half-formed Image [stuff, raw material—ed.], the “temper of the age” (an unsatisfactory phrase), a preparedness, a habit on the part of the public, to respond to particular stimuli. There is a book to be written on the commonplaces of any great dramatic period, the handling of Fate or Death, the recurrence of mood, tone, situation. We should see then just how little each poet had to do; only so much as would make a play his, only what was really essential to make it different from anyone else’s. When there is this economy of effort it is possible to have several, even many, good poets at once. The great ages did not perhaps produce much more talent than ours; but less talent was wasted.

Now in a formless age there is very little hope for the minor poet to do anything worth doing; and when I say minor I mean very good poets indeed: such as filled the Greek anthology and the Elizabethan song-books; even a Herrick; but not merely second-rate poets, for Denham and Waller have quite another importance, occupying points in the development of a major form. When everything is set out for the minor poet to do, he may quite frequently come upon some trouvaille, even in the drama: Peele and Brome are examples. Under the present conditions, the minor poet has too much to do. And this leads to another reason for the incompetence of our time in poetic drama.

Permanent literature is always a presentation: either a presentation of thought, or a presentation of feeling by a statement of events in human action or objects in the external world. In earlier literature—to avoid the word “classic”—we find both kinds, and sometimes, as in some of the dialogues of Plato, exquisite combinations of both. Aristotle presents thought, stripped to the essential structure, and he is a great writer. The Agamemnon or Macbeth is equally a statement, but of events. They are as much works of the “intellect” as the writings of Aristotle. There are more recent works of art which have the same quality of intellect in common with those of Æschylus and Shakespeare and Aristotle: Education Sentimentale is one of them. Compare it with such a book as Vanity Fair and you will see that the labor of the intellect consisted largely in a purification, in keeping out a great deal that Thackeray allowed to remain in; in refraining from reflection, in putting into the statement enough to make reflection unnecessary. The case of Plato is still more illuminating. Take the Theætetus. In a few opening words Plato gives a scene, a personality, a feeling, which color the subsequent discourse but do not interfere with it: the particular setting, and the abstruse theory of knowledge afterwards developed, co-operate without confusion. Could any contemporary author exhibit such control?

In the nineteenth century another mentality manifested itself. It is evident in a very able and brilliant poem, Goethe’s Faust. Marlowe’s Mephistopheles is a simpler creature than Goethe’s. But at least Marlowe has, in a few words, concentrated him into a statement. He is there, and (incidentally) he renders Milton’s Satan superfluous. Goethe’s demon inevitably sends us back to Goethe. He embodies a philosophy. A creation of art should not do that: he should replace the philosophy. Goethe has not, that is to say, sacrificed or consecrated his thought to make the drama; the drama is still a means. And this type of mixed art has been repeated by men incomparably smaller than Goethe. We have had one other remarkable work of this type: Peer Gynt. And we have had the plays of M. Maeterlinck and M. Claudel. [Eliot’s Note: I should except The Dynasts. This gigantic panorama is hardly to be called a success, but it is essentially an attempt to present a vision, and “sacrifices” the philosophy to the vision, as all great dramas do. Mr. Hardy has apprehended his matter as a poet and an artist.]

In the works of Maeterlinck and Claudel on the one hand, and those of M. Bergson on the other, we have the mixture of the genres in which our age delights. Every work of imagination must have a philosophy; and every philosophy must be a work of art—how often have we heard that M. Bergson is an artist! It is a boast of his disciples. It is what the word “art” means to them that is the disputable point. Certain works of philosophy can be called works of art: much of Aristotle and Plato, Spinoza, parts of Hume, Mr. Bradley’s Principles of Logic, Mr. Russell’s essay on “Denoting”: clear and beautifully formed thought. But this is not what the admirers of Bergson, Claudel, or Maeterlinck (the philosophy of the latter is a little out of date) mean. They mean precisely what is not clear, but what is an emotional stimulus. And as a mixture of thought and of vision provides more stimulus, by suggesting both, both clear thinking and clear statement of particular objects must disappear.

The undigested “idea” or philosophy, the idea-emotion, is to be found also in poetic dramas which are conscientious attempts to adapt a true structure, Athenian or Elizabethan, to contemporary feeling. It appears sometimes as the attempt to supply the defect of structure by an internal structure. “But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” [Eliot’s note: Poetics, vi. 9. Butcher’s translation.]

We have on the one hand the “poetic” drama, imitation Greek, imitation Elizabethan, or modern-philosophical, on the other the comedy of “ideas,” from Shaw to Galsworthy, down to the ordinary social comedy. The most ramshackle Guitry farce has some paltry idea or comment upon life put into the mouth of one of the characters at the end. It is said that the stage can be used for a variety of purposes, that in only one of them perhaps is it united with literary art. A mute theatre is a possibility (I do not mean the cinema); the ballet is an actuality (though under-nourished); opera is an institution; but where you have “imitations of life” on the stage, with speech, the only standard that we can allow is the standard of the work of art, aiming at the same intensity at which poetry and the other forms of art aim. From that point of view the Shavian drama is a hybrid as the Maeterlinckian drama is, and we need express no surprise at their belonging to the same epoch. Both philosophies are popularizations: the moment an idea has been transferred from its pure state in order that it may become comprehensible to the inferior intelligence it has lost contact with art. It can remain pure only by being stated simply in the form of general truth, or by being transmuted, as the attitude of Flaubert toward the small bourgeois is transformed in Education Sentimentale. It has there become so identified with the reality that you can no longer say what the idea is.

The essential is not, of course, that drama should be written in verse, or that we should be able to extenuate our appreciation of broad farce by occasionally attending a performance of a play of Euripides where Professor Murray’s translation is sold at the door. The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world—a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a complete process of simplification. I do not find that any drama which “embodies a philosophy” of the author’s (like Faust) or which illustrates any social theory (like Shaw’s) can possibly fulfil the requirements—though a place might be left for Shaw if not for Goethe. And the world of Ibsen and the world of Tchehov are not enough simplified, universal.

Finally, we must take into account the instability of any art—the drama, music, dancing—which depends upon representation by performers. The intervention of performers introduces a complication of economic conditions which is in itself likely to be injurious. A struggle, more or less unconscious, between the creator and the interpreter is almost inevitable. The interest of a performer is almost certain to be centered in himself: a very slight acquaintance with actors and musicians will testify. The performer is interested not in form but in opportunities for virtuosity or in the communication of his “personality”; the formlessness, the lack of intellectual clarity and distinction in modern music, the great physical stamina and physical training which it often requires, are perhaps signs of the triumph of the performer. The consummation of the triumph of the actor over the play is perhaps the productions of the Guitry.

The conflict is one which certainly cannot be terminated by the utter rout of the actor profession. For one thing, the stage appeals to too many demands besides the demand for art for that to be possible; and also we need, unfortunately, something more than refined automatons. Occasionally attempts have been made to “get around” the actor, to envelop him in masks, to set up a few “conventions” for him to stumble over, or even to develop little breeds of actors for some special Art drama. This meddling with nature seldom succeeds; nature usually overcomes these obstacles. Possibly the majority of attempts to confect a poetic drama have begun at the wrong end; they have aimed at the small public which wants “poetry.” (“Novices,” says Aristotle, “in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot.”) The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make. For every person who is likely to consider it seriously there are a dozen toymakers who would leap to tickle æsthetic society into one more quiver and giggle of art debauch. Very few treat art seriously. There are those who treat it solemnly, and will continue to write poetic pastiches of Euripides and Shakespeare; and there are others who treat it as a joke.