Elliot’s Perfect Critic

But you who seek to give & merit fame,
And justly bear a Critic’s noble name,
Be sure yourself & your own reach to know
How far your genius, taste, & learning go;
Alexander Pope

TS Eliot was the last great poet-critic to really get his boots dirty while attempting to fathom the science behind the mystery of the noble art of poetry. He began his efforts at the age of 38 years, the same as I, just passed his mid-thirties, when a man’s mind is working at its optimum peak. The year was 1917, exactly a century after Coleridge – the previous incumbent – had produced his remarkable Biographia Literaria. Elliot admits his own place in the scheme when he writes, ‘Coleridge was perhaps the greatest of English critics, and in a sense the last. After Coleridge we have Matthew Arnold; but Arnold — I think it will be conceded — was rather a propagandist for criticism than a critic, a popularizer rather than a creator of ideas.’ Towards the end of Elliot’s own essay-writing (1920), all of his studies began to distil themselves into his magnificently erratic ‘Wasteland,’ the game-changing poem which went off like a bomb in the cloistered academes of the English-speaking world; changing the landscape of poetry, & all its conventions, forever. A wonderful description was etched by a certain J.M (Double Dealer 5: May 1923), who described it as ‘the agonized outcry of a sensitive romanticist drowning in a sea of jazz.’

I shall be disseminating Elliot’s first two lectures (& his introduction) which appeared in the 1921 collection, The Sacred Wood: The Perfect Critic & the Imperfect Critic. In these he assimilates & extols the purpose & mechanisms of poetic criticism, which are of great importance to any modern poet wishing to proceed along the deeper channels of the Art. We moderns must all become poet-critics; it is not enough these days to just write the stuff, we must understand everything about it as well. We are entering a time of judgement, for the grand old gallery which holds the work of our masters is having a massive paint-job. When Elliot says, ‘once a poet is accepted, his reputation is seldom disturbed, for better or worse,’ it is up to us to challenge such a stiff, textbook attitude, & make our own minds up. Time is progressing; the canon is increasing; the rules are changing. Some of the longest-esteemed poems may find themselves packaged in bubble-wrap & placed in the cellars, while others may be unwrapped & returned to a place of privilege for the world to admire once again. The Age of the Orcs is over – the time of the Accertamento Grande has come.

During my recent skirmishes with the professors of History across the world (I won 3-0 by the way), I found a similar lazy attitude to the past; when the writings of older scholars are treated as unshakeable dogma & rarely challenged. For the budding bard, you must read everything, & read it with a critical intelligence that widens its inherent abilities with the acquisition of every new poem read. Elliot ruminates on the matter with, ‘the new impressions modify the impressions received from the objects already known. An impression needs to be constantly refreshed by new impressions in order that it may persist at all; it needs to take its place in a system of impressions. And this system tends to become articulate in a generalized statement of literary beauty.’ It can be said that one’s critical intelligence exists through an excess of study, followed by the establishment of personal taste after later meditations on the subject matter. ‘When one creative mind is better than another,’ opines Elliot, ‘the reason often is that the better is the more critical.’ Elliot’s statement was improved upon by a real-life critic, Marianne Moore (Dial 70: March 1921) who, while reviewing the Sacred Wood, wrote, ‘the connection between criticism & creation is close; criticism naturally deals with creation but it is equally true that criticism inspires creation.’

Despite criticism transcending appreciation, to criticize we must first be able to appreciate. During the course of your studies, what you will notice is that each poem contains three basic elements; the poet’s personality, the zeitgeist in which it was written, & the great tradition of Poetry to which all poems belong. By analazying these three pillars of criticism, the future poet-critic shall be able to appreciate a poem in its full & proper context. Of the three, the poetic tradition is the most important, when in Elliot’s words we should be able to, ‘see the best work of our time and the best work of twenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes,’ which he bases upon his own, ‘conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.’ You must see a poet not as a ‘dead poet,’ but an ever-living entity whose immortal essence is stored within their individual contributions to the Art. To re-read a dead poet is to resurrect the ghost, so to speak, & to converse with them over a cup of warm ambrosia in your place of study. This leads us quite neatly to these wonderful passages of Elliot’s, which every poet should learn something of by heart;

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year ; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence ; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. 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…and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

{The Critic} will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.

That Thomas Stearns Elliot was a poet of the first rank cannot be denied; the 434 lines of his modernist Wasteland have had as much effect on the world as Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura thro’ the Middle Ages. Inspired stuff, yes, but when we read through Eliot’s essays, we observe his perfidious descent into the parlor-room conversaziones of Virginia Woolfe’s London set. His essays contain, subconsciously, some of the scurrilous psychopomp of the still-living Freud, & on occasion his writings are overwhelmed by an over-active mind, leaving the reader somewhat floating in the middle of the air, grasping for a rope to reel themselves to safety. At certain times, however, Elliot’s vision is so penetrating, lasar-beam thoughts clearing the rubble from the obscurer caves of Parnassus. It is these quintessences I have hoped to capture in this lecture, which I shall conclude with this following nugget of Elliot’s, who definitely possessed…

…the first requisite of a critic: interest in his subject, and ability to communicate an interest in it.

May 1st

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