T.S. Eliot – Non-fiction (1919-23)

Tradition and and the Individual Talent (1919)

Eliot is struggling to articulate how, once the “newness” of poetic expression has become cliché, someone can still make something new. He turns to tradition, which he claims is not passively inherited, but must be acquired with great labor. “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (38). What happens when an artist makes something new, happens simultaneously to every great work of art that has come before. Each new work of art alters the entire tradition, at least in some small way. “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.” Thus in relation to this tradition, the work of the artist becomes that of self-sacrifice, “a continual extinction of personality.” He then says that the mind of the artist if like a “shred of platinum” that acts as a catalyst for two gases to become sulfurous acid. This chemical analogy bears a strange relation to Woolf’s “atomic” theory in “Modern Fiction.” He thus argues against a poetics of personality:

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 emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things. (43)

Metaphysical Poets (1919)

A book review that turns into a theory of literary history and poetics tout court. Eliot defends folks like Donne from critics like Johnson, who wrote disparagingly of them that, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Rather than think of them as a failed aberration from the heritage of English poetry (Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, etc.), Eliot wants to say that there is something valuable in this poetry that has been lost–namely, the coincidence of thought and feeling.

A thought in Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly quipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noises of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. (64)

Since their time, Eliot believes, we have suffered and are still suffering from a dissociation of sensibility–an inability to unify sensibility with thought (Shelley almost does in Triumph of Life, but he dies, along with Keats). Thus poetry today must be “difficult,” as he famously writes, since it needs to deal with complexity and fragmentations heretofore not experienced.

Ulysses, Order and Myth (1923)

Opens by praising Larbaud’s review of Joyce, which calls attention to the Odyssey parallels, and by criticizing Aldingtion’s review, which accused Joyce’s method of being undisciplined and vulgar. Eliot first defines classicism (drawing from Hulme), as something which all good literature strives for within the possibilities of its space and time–that is, not a fixed historical term, but a living category undergoing transformation. Joyce’s ability to deal with living material in a classical matter, Eliot believes, has the importance of a scientific discovery. It is not a novel, because the novel was the product of an age that has not lost its form enough to feel the need for something stricter (177). Along with Lewis’ Tarr, Eliot foretells the death of the novel. James and Flaubert were the last.

Thus Joyce employs the mythical method, which is a way of “controlling, ordering, giving shape and significance to the anarchy and futility which is contemporary history.” He says that Yeats has also done this (look at Easter 1916 for one example, but probably best to look at Leda and the Swan). It is through this method, that Joyce helps makes “the modern world possible for art,” which means that art has a intervening power beyond mere description. It can create it material. Very interesting to think of Tarr as employing the mythical method. One wonders….


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