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This article is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.T. S. Eliot
(from The New English Review, March 1949)
IT is becoming, at the beginning of this note, to express, no matter how modestly, some deference to that great poet whose sixtieth birthday was celebrated this September. I write this note for T. S. Eliot not because, in any remarks about contemporary poetry, he must be continually and honourably and even exclusively referred to, but because, since I was twenty-one- and that is fourteen years ago-I have been, in a small way, a friend of that very gentle man. This not is not an evaluation or a revaluation or an exegesis-because I have almost reached that stage, I discover, where the only serious form of criticism is simply an examination of the subject's personal charms. When I read books like The Meaning of Meaning or The Foundations of Aesthetics or Archetypal Patterns in English Poetry, I feel at a loss to account for the paucity of my response. And then I recollect that literature, in any and in all of its various forms, has got, at heart, only one subject. This is the human being. And what I find absent, or pretty well absent, from so much of the intellectually responsible criticism of English poetry, is its responsibility towards the human being. It is absolutely no good to address the fallible and vulnerable and the human as though they were infallible and invulnerable and inhuman. And this is what happens if one addresses the human being as though he were made up of an impeccable intellect and a pair of old boots. In between the intellect and the old boots, a most remarkable phenomenon goes on enacting the comedies and tragedies of the great human passions. It is these human passions which, moving the intellect to offer them a sanctuary, reveal to us, in our poetry, in our paintings-in all the seven major arts-the privilege of being human. I am by no means seeking to deprecate the immense magnificence and the immense magnitude of intellectual interpretations. I see a great deal more latent excitement in the idea of the recurring seven than I ever could in a bunch of dilapidated dahlias. But the intellect, like a blank cheque, needs resources to meet its demands. And these resources, upon which the intellect calls and makes demands, are, in fact, the human passions. The matter upon which the intellect properly operates is not itself and its own propositions, but the matter of human affairs. In these human affairs intellectual issues certainly occupy a place, but a place subordinate in the imperative operancy of the human passions. I never knew a man who could think himself into happiness.
Eliot is a man whom the imperative operancy of the human passions has not left unannealed. It does not need to be said by me that those who suffer and endure in silence nevertheless both suffer and endure. I remember a sentence, and a tremendous pronouncement it is, that concludes Eliot's essay on Tradition and the Individual: '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 them.'
This sentence moves me very deeply because it leaves out so much more than it says, and it says a great deal. It tells us exactly what Yeats meant in between those two deadly lines:
The best lack all conviction, and the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
But, unsaid, merely hinted at, unspoken, the anguish, the agony, the absolute tribulation of the human condition, this is expressed in the negative pathos of that concluding sentence of Eliot's. 'But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from them.' For I have heard too many of the feeble-minded second-rate poetasters, full to the tooth of passionate intensity, accuse the poems of Eliot of a poverty of feeling. The reason is perfectly simple. His poems are poems about passions that only an adult person experiences. They are not poems for adolescent poetry lovers with whom passion can only be compared to a primus stove. Why does Eliot love cats? It is because they are genteel during the day and diabolic during the night. Why does Eliot dress like a respectable publisher? It is not only because he is a respectable publisher but also because he really has got inside him a monster to disguise. The monster speaks exquisitely in the lines:
The tiger in the tiger pit
Is not more irritable than I.
The whipping tail is not more still
Than when I smell the enemy
Writhing in the essential blood
Or dangling from the friendly tree.
When I lay bare the tooth of wit
The hissing over the arched tongue
Is more affectionate than hate,
More bitter than the love of youth,
And inaccessible by the young.
Reflected from my golden eye
The dullard knows that he is mad.
Tell me if I am not glad!
But I must not give the impression that I am trying to interpret the personal character of Eliot through his idiosyncracies or his poems. He is much more capable of doing this, if it should be required, than anyone else will ever be. When it comes down to the interpretation of any given poet, it is necessary to recall that the poet himself is in a very advantageous position. He is his own subject. It can therefore be assumed that he tells you as much about himself as he thinks wise and nice. But, whereas the poet may know all there is to know about the man-the human being-he knows very little about the poet inside himself. For the poet inside a man can only function on a single subject, and this is the poem he writes. This is why the opinion of poets on such matters as the political issues of the times is really of no more significance or sagacity than the opinion of an intelligent bookmaker. Unless, of course, the poet happens also to be an intelligent man. In which case he ought to have more sense than to be a poet.
Some two or three months before the declaration of war I went to see Eliot in his little office overlooking the gardens of Russell Square. It was late in the afternoon and there was about everything that atmosphere of resigned melancholy that seems to precede all catastrophic events. I forget what was the occasion of my calling upon him-I think it was to say goodbye, for I was leaving England. He looked out of the window. And, after a while, in a tired voice, he said: 'We have so very little time.' I never knew whether he was referring to that interview or to more general matters: I do not think he wished me to know. But it remains in my mind because it is almost the only occasion on which I have heard the poet Eliot speak through the man.
And when I was twenty or twenty-one I used to call and see him whenever I visited London from the southern county in which I lived. And he would enquire about my dog and advise me on the planting of potatoes and warn me not to cudgel my brains for poems. But for the most part he spoke to me about matters of infinitely more service to me than the technique of English versification (for this, he knew, I would learn if I were able). He concerned himself with the problems of how the devil I was to get some money whilst I tried to learn how to write good verse. I speak of these personal matters because the occasion of his sixtieth birthday is an opportune time to remember that Eliot is not only a great poet who redeems this time from mediocrity: he is also a man.
In the highly distinguished history of English literary criticism three figures stand out in superlative prominence. These are Dryden, Coleridge and Matthew Arnold. To these three names, in its proper season, I believe that the name of Eliot may be added. For he has restored to that almost discredited art, the art of literary criticism, some of the intellectual responsibility and some of the etymological veracity that his immediate predecessors had sacrificed or degraded. I do not think that he is an inceptor. Few of the critical propositions upon which he establishes his theories have, for me, very much that is new about them. The kind of innovations Coleridge introduced into English critical thinking were in truth revolutionary. For Coleridge invested us with our intellectual self-consciousness. Before him, the English critics, even the most hard-headed, men like Johnson and Dryden, laboured about in an atmosphere in which the fundamental assumptions were uncertain and obscure. Coleridge introduced the lightning. And what it revealed was not at all as neat a scene as either Dryden or Johnson confidently imply. I speculate on Doctor Johnson's response to those lines of Gerard Hopkins which would, I suspect, have so delighted Coleridge: 'The mind, the mind has mountains, cliffs of fall/Sheer, no man fathomed.' For, since Coleridge, it has been absolutely impossible to disregard the presence of these precipices both in the work of art and in the work of criticism: these precipices which are inhabited by monsters whom it is the special operation of a poem to tame. These things, these otherwise indescribable denizens of the human imagination, were first discovered as subjects of critical and scientific analysis, by Coleridge. (But they had always been the subject of the work of art.) For this reason Coleridge is the first great English critic. I would almost say that he showed the poem that it was capable of original sin. I do not think Matthew Arnold fulfilled any such eminent destiny in the history of English criticism: he was as utterly incapable of making Coleridge's mistakes as he was incapable of equalling Coleridge's innovations. But he did remind the poet that his vocation involved wrestling with both angels and monsters: I take this to be the meaning of his forgivably pedagogic remark: 'Poetry is at bottom a criticism of life.' And this quotation brings me to Eliot, whose comment on this remark of Arnold's was: 'At bottom? That is a great way down. The bottom is the bottom. At the bottom of the abyss is what few ever see, and what those cannot bear to look at for long: and it is not a criticism of life.' Perhaps none of us have ever been there, down where the ultimates exist in their mystery: but I believe that Eliot has been deeper down than Arnold. I believe this because I see in Matthew Arnold's substitution of poetry for religion, I see, here, only the debilitation of his religious passion. Only an anaemic spirit could seek to substitute poetry for its aspirations towards the divine union. And because Arnold is weaker in spirit he has not descended so far into the abyss as those who acknowledge the secularity of poetic consolation. But, in defence of Arnold, it should be said that, bottom or no bottom, the sentence, 'poetry is a criticism of life' strikes most of us as a better statement than that statement made by Eliot many years ago: 'Poetry is a superior amusement.' But between Eliot and Matthew Arnold one is between the devil and the deep blue.
In spite of the apparent originality of many of his poems and the less apparent originality of many of his critical judgements, Eliot is not an inceptor. What characteristics of the original his poems display-and 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' seemed inexcusably original in its day-these characteristics were really nothing other than a judicious pilfering of French sauces. It was not the originality of a man like William Blake, who invented a new way of writing because he had new subjects to speak about. These remarks are, of course, in no way a derogation of Eliot as a poet or as a critic: it is not a condition of things that all good poets should be violently original. I remember that William Shakespeare addressed a sonnet to himself asking why he did not turn to new found methods and to compounds strange. But it is salutary to try to clear out of the way some of the false impressions that either are or have been current about the work of Eliot, And just as his apparent originality as a poet is merely a glance he took across the English Channel, so his distinction as a critic is that he has very deliberately elected to follow the traditional evolution of English criticism. The difference between the poet Eliot and the poet Matthew Arnold is that Eliot practises what he preaches and Matthew Arnold just preaches. A poem like 'Ash Wednesday' could walk around and hold its head up in almost all of the civilized European countries: it is not insular. But I suspect that even such a supremely beautiful poem as 'The Scholar Gypsy' would suffer all sorts of embarrassing misunderstandings if it went and displayed its beauties at a bull fight in Barcelona. The point I wish to make is perfectly simple. Eliot is catholic. He is not parochial. Matthew Arnold is parochial. He is not catholic. And I am using the word catholic in its secular rather than its ecclesiastical meaning, although I do not think these two meanings can be entirely separated.
It is not a frivolous accident of nature that Eliot is a member of the Anglo-Catholic Church. (I write as a Roman or Real Catholic when I speculate that only his membership of the Anglo rather than the Roman Catholic Church obstructs his complete catholicity.) This is why, when poor Matthew Arnold makes a seemingly innocent remark like: 'Poetry is at bottom a criticism of life', the catholic Eliot seizes it and imposes a theological interpretation upon the most unlikely word in the whole sentence: the word 'bottom' is made to refer to the great Abyss. The explanation, of course, is quite simple. Arnold, for all his conscience and all his ehtics and all his whitewashed morals, was not a man with any great pressure of religious passion. He suffered from an anaemia of the spirit. And this anaemia of the spirit is the counterpart of his intellectual parochiality. His obsession with morals does not arise, like Eliot's, from a conviction that the mad troglodytes of the human passions are so dangerous that they must be kept chained up on moral systems: Arnold's obsession with morals arises from a simple habit of domestication: he likes to see tame animals with tame emotions behaving tamely because it looks much nicer. This is what he would have termed the Hellenic practice of moderation. I sometimes wonder what Arnold's response would have been if, one night as he pulled back the sheets of his bed he had found the incestuous Clytemnestra coiling there. We know what Eliot's response would have been. It is The Family Reunion.
I add a word more about Eliot's religious convictions, because I believe that any comments about him which did not discuss these convictions at some length, would amount to no more than superficial whimsy. At the dead centre of Eliot is a dark confessional into which, as I believe, none of his poems has ever entered and from which, most certainly, none has ever emerged. Because Eliot in no way interchanged the operations of the poem and the operations of the spirit. Poems are very pretty things indeed, but in the presence of the seven great orthodox damnations they take on as little significance as the handful of flowers we sometimes place upon altars. To Eliot, I think, the substitution of poetry for religion (whatever this may mean) could only seem as benighted and as purblind as to venerate the bunch of roses rather than the deity these flowers are placed there to glorify.
It is absolutely no good to try and separate the poet in Eliot from the religious man. One so often-I have so often-overhears young men-usually young socialists-divide Eliot in two parts so that they can admire the poet and deplore the Christian. This can no more be done than you can back the Derby winner but deprecate the fact that the wretched beast is a horse. Eliot is the kind and type of poet he is for the demonstrable reason that his poems arise from his religious convictions. You may be able to establish a distinction between the poet in Eliot and the human being in Eliot, but you cannot establish a distinction between the poet in him and the Christian in him. The poet-in Eliot or any other poet-may be sitting with wings folded inside the human being who is going for a walk or talking or taking a drink. But the moment the poet unfolds his faculties and speaks, then each of his various natures get together, unite, and, in the poem, utter praise.
I said: 'At the dead centre of Eliot is a dark confessional into which none of his poems has ever entered and from which none of his poems has ever emerged.' This is because the poet cannot write without the benediction of the spiritual man, but the spiritual man can pray without the permission of the poet. Somewhere or other, Eliot points out the rareness of good devotional poetry. The explanation, I think, is because the poetic impulse, rare as it is, nevertheless is more common than religious passion. And rarest of all is the meeting of both inside a single skin.
This article is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.