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This article is taken from PN Review 18, Volume 7 Number 4, March - April 1981.

A European Figure (Hölderlin) John Pilling

IN one of his last, and least influential, meditations on a subject that had long intrigued him, T. S. Eliot wrote:

The European poet must not only be one who holds a certain position in history: his work must continue to give delight and benefit to successive generations. His influence is not a matter of historical record only; he will continue to be of value to every age, and every age will understand him differently and be compelled to assess his work afresh. And he must be as important to readers of his own race and language as to others: those of his own race will feel that he is wholly one of them, and indeed their representative abroad. To readers of different nations and different ages he may mean different things: but his importance no nation or generation will question. The history of what has been written about the work of such a man will be a part of the history of the European mind.

It is plain that Eliot is on the point of nominating 'such a man' or, as it turns out, men: 'Of three I do not think that there can be any doubt: they are Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe'. The conclusion recommends itself as axiomatic, echoing in more sober terms the Daunty, Gouty and Shopkeeper of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. And it was certainly necessary, after the award to him of the 1954 Hanseatic Goethe Prize, for ...

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