Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eliot as a Classical Critic

Stress on Facts: Objectivity

It was in 1928, that Eliot made his famous declaration that he was, “a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion.” Thus in his own trenchant way, Eliot emphasised the value of order and discipline, of authority and tradition, and of organisation and pattern.
The cardinal point of his classicism is his insistence on fact. A poem must be judged on the basis of facts and it is the critic’s duty to place these facts before the readers. He rejects impressionistic criticism as worthless, and insists that a work must be judged by certain accepted principles and standards. He believed that the true basis of poetry lies in the organised labour of intellect, rather than in the accidents of inspiration and intuition. Says Maxwell, “In this intellectual bias, in the belief that authority rather than liberty is the guide to truth, and in his regard for formal details, is Eliot’s kinship with Augustan classicism.”

Rejection of Subjectivism: Advocacy of Order and Discipline

Eliot’s classicism arose in part, at least, out of his reaction to the exhausted and thinned out romantic tradition. The romantics believed in inspiration and intuition. They believed in the poet’s following his own “inner voice”. But inspiration is fitful, a matter of chance and accident, and unrestrained liberty in the hands of lesser men is likely to degenerate into chaos and licence. The evil consequences of such romantic fallacies were well-illustrated by contemporary English poetry which was degenerate and which indulged in trivialities. Reacting sharply against this state of affairs, Eliot emphasised that the classical school achieved, “an elegance and a dignity absent from the popular and pretentious verse of the romantic poets.” In the essay on The Function of Criticism, he points out that the difference between the two schools is that between “the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic.” This shows that Eliot appreciated the completeness and formal perfection of classical poetry, and the classics could achieve this order and balance, only because they followed some discipline, some authority outside themselves. Perfection results only when the ultimate guide for the artist is not his own self, but some objective authority. Thus he makes fun of Middleton Murry’s reliance on the inner voice, and says that following the inner voice merely means doing what one likes. He calls it whiggery.

Poetry as Organisation

Poetry is not merely inspiration, it is also organisation. The maturity of the artist is seen in his ability to organise ‘disparate experiences’ into a single whole. In mature art there is ‘unification of sensibility’, of the intellectual and the emotional, the creative and the critical. This can be achieved only by an exercise of the powers of the intellect. The poet, in order to achieve perfection, must be painstaking: ‘‘‘The larger part of the labour of an author is critical, the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, and testing.” Eliot recommends the ideal of Horace and Virgil, that the poet should create in heat, but correct at leisure, and lick his poems into shape. In his own practice, Eliot followed this ideal. He revised and re-revised till his work acquired the finish of classical poetry. He was a conscious, painstaking artist in the noblest tradition of classical art.

Conformity with Tradition

Eliot emphasised the importance of tradition, which represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of the ages. The traditional elements in a work of art are of greater significance than the so called individual and original. In his essay Tradition and Individual Talent, he views European literature from Homer down to his own day as a single whole, and pleads that English literature must be viewed as a part of this literary tradition. The poet must accept it as the outside authority, and only such acceptance can save English poetry from disorder and chaos. New works of art must conform to this tradition. In his own practice, Eliot accepts this literary tradition as his poetic background. It is this background of literary tradition which provides, “the objective corelative” in Eliot’s poetry. He goes to this very tradition for comparison and elucidation of individual poets and their works. His use of literary tradition may be more involved and complex than that of the Augustans, but it is basically the same.

Economy and Precision: Wit and Irony

Classical art is concise, and precise, while romantic art suffers from diffusiveness and blurring of outline. Eliot also advocated this preciseness of classicism. His critical prose has the epigrammatic terseness and economy of classical art. He has the same gift of phrasing. Another important feature of classicism in its satiric wit, and a vein of mockery and irony runs through all critical writings of Eliot also. Often he does not answer argument by argument, but dismisses it with devastating irony. Eliot’s wit is the result of his classical predilections, for wit requires, brevity, careful phrasing, and clarity of thought and expression—all qualities of classical art. It also indicates a view of life similar to that of the Augustans, i.e. a moralist’s concern for human frailties, and an ironical treatment of them.

Classical Ideal of Phrasing

Like the classics, Eliot aspired for formal perfection and achieved it painstakingly. He was a conscious artist, and his prose, as well as his poetry has a marked intellectual tone. He achieved verbal precision and felicity of phrasing through constant sifting, selecting and ordering of material. He polished and re-polished what he wrote and his revisions show his predilection for economy and precision in expression. His classical ideal of phrasing is described in Little Gidding:

The Common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together.

The emphasis is on exactness and precision. It is the same ideal as that of Pope:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

Only Eliot envisages a wider field of choice, he admits “the common word”. He constantly revised, and his revisions and excisions show an, “intellectual rather than an instinctive, emotional approach”. Form and content are refined by the shaping power of the intellect, till his meaning is conveyed clearly and precisely.


Such is Eliot’s classicism. There is a close similarity between his theory and practice and that of the Augustans. Each accepts an existing framework of tradition, the rules of an objective authority, and makes conscious effort to work within that framework. Satirical wit plays an important part in both, and with it goes a concern for the necessity of cultivating precision of form and word. This requires an intellectual rather than an emotional, instinctive approach to the task of selecting words, of relating them to each other, and to the whole.

Eliot’s classicism is seen in his impersonal theory of poetry, in his insistence on artistic self-restraint and depersonalisation of emotion and adherence to some outside authority, in his emphasis on ‘facts’, and in his advocacy of the classical ideals of art. However, he differs from the classicists in one important respect. He did not enunciate any theory of poetry, while he has much to say on the nature of poetry and the poetic process.

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Asha said...

Nice post

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