Eliot is one of the long line of poet-critics which stretches right from Ben Jonson to our day, and includes such names as Dryden, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge and Arnold. Though he did not formulate any comprehensive theory of poetry, he was a conscious poet who had thought long and deep about the mysteries of his own art. His critical essays, reviews and editorial contributions and commentaries throw a flood of light on his view of poetry. An understanding of his poetic creed is interesting and desirable, for he is the only critic after Wordsworth who has much to say about poetry and the poetic process. His criticism comes from his “poetic workshop”, and hence its special significance.
Need of Complexity: Reasons for It
The Georgian and Edwardian poetry of England of the first quarter of the 20th century was in the thinned out romantic-pre-raphaelite tradition. It was simple, it was easy, and so it was popular, but it was not great or good. It was Eliot’s reaction to romanticism, “that led to his formulating the literary theories from which all his poetry since has derived”—(Maxwell). For example, the decadent poetry of his age dispensed with all subtlety, metrical, linguistic, intellectual, or emotional. Eliot’s own esotericism—complexity and difficulty—is in part a reaction or revolt to the exotericism (lack of subtlety) of this poetry. Reacting against the popular appeal of the poetry of the day, he voluntarily cultivated subtlety and complexity in the hope of finding or creating an audience which, though small, would at least appreciate and understand. In his essay on The Metaphysical Poets, he writes: “Poets in our civilisation must be difficult. Our civilisation comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, most produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate, if necessary, language into his meaning.” The poet must create new devices, cultivate all the possibilities of words, in order to express entirely new conditions. His own poetry is a new kind of poetry, his technique is new, and this very novelty creates difficulties.
Rejection of Subjectivism: Stress on Objectivity
Eliot’s theory of poetry marks a complete break from the 19th century tradition. He rejected the romantic theory that all art is basically an expression of the artist’s personality, and that the artist should create according to the dictates of his own “inner voice”, without owing allegiance to any outside authority. In his essay on The Function of Criticism he tells us that writing, according to the “inner voice”, means writing as one wishes. He rejects romantic subjectivism, and emphasises the value of objective standards. Reacting against subjectivism of the romantics, Eliot advocated his famous theory of the impersonality of poetry. He recognised the dangers of unrestricted liberty, and felt that granted such licence, there would be only, “fitful and transient bursts of literary brilliance. Inspiration alone is not a safe guide. It often results in eccentricity and chaos.” Moreover, the doctrine of human perfectibility and the faith in “inner voice” received a rude shock as a result of the world war. It was realised that man is not perfect, and hence perfect art cannot result from merely the artist’s following his inner voice. Some sort of guidance, some discipline, some outside authority was necessary to save art from incoherence and emptiness. Thus Eliot condemned the Inner Light as, “the most untrustworthy and deceitful guide that ever offered itself to wandering humanity,” and pointed out that the function of the critic is to find out some common principles, objective standards, by which art may be judged and guided. Eliot rejected the romantic fallacy, says Maxwell, for it, “has resulted in destruction of belief in central authority to which all men might owe allegiance, in objective standards by which men might agree to judge art, and in any inspiration other than the shifting of personality through which adult, orderly art might be created.”
Passion for Form: Unification of Sensibility
Thus Eliot demands an objective authority for art, and in this way his theory of poetry approximates to that of the classics. Rejecting the romantic theory and the romantic tradition, he emphasises that the classics achieved, an elegance and dignity absent from the popular and pretentious verse of the romantic poets. In The Function of Criticism he writes that the difference between the two schools is that, “between the complete and the fragmentary, lie adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic.” This shows Eliot’s appreciation of the order and completeness of classical poetry, qualities which he tried to achieve in his own practice as a poet. The classics could achieve this form and balance, this order and completeness, only because they owed allegiance to an objective authority which was provided to them by past tradition—”stores of tradition”. Another sign of maturity, according to Eliot, is the unification of sensibility—of thought and feeling, of the critical and the creative faculties. Such unification Eliot found in the Metaphysicals, and hence his admiration for them.
Sense of Tradition: The Poetic Process
Since the romantic tradition had exhausted itself out and had lost its value and significance, it was necessary to search for some other tradition which may give a correct orientation to contemporary poetry. In his well-known easy, Tradition and Individual Talent, he advocates the acceptance of the European literary tradition as such an objective authority. Eliot views the literature of Europe from Homer down to his own day as a single whole and pleads that English literature must be viewed as a part of that European literary tradition. According to Eliot, two kinds of constituents go into the making of a poem: (a) the personal elements, i.e. the feelings and emotions of the poet, and (b) the impersonal elements, i.e. the ‘tradition’, the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the past, which are acquired by the poet. These two elements interact and fuse together to form a new thing, which we call a poem. The impersonal element, the ‘erudition’, ‘the sense of tradition’, or the ‘historic sense’, must be acquired by the poet. He must, “develop or procure the consciousness of the past, and that he must develop the consciousness of the past throughout his career”. Some will acquire it more easily, while others have to sweat for it. But all must acquire it, for great art is not possible without this sense of tradition. Thus Eliot emphasises painstaking effort through which the poet must equip himself for his task. Inspiration is not enough; perspiration too is necessary. That Eliot regards poetry as a craft, the result of painstaking effort on the part of the poet, is also borne out by his definition of poetry: “Poetry is excellent words in excellent arrangement and excellent metre.” A great part of the poet’s labour is the labour of analysing, selecting and rejecting.
Dynamic Conception of Tradition
Though like the classics Eliot insists that the individual poet must work within the frame of tradition, his view of tradition is not passive, static or unchanging. In this respect, he differs from the classics who believed in a blind adherence to a fixed, and unchanging tradition. According to Eliot, the literary tradition constantly grows, changes, and becomes different: “When a really great work of art is created, the whole existing order is altered. In this way, the past is altered by the present and the present is directed by the past.” The historic sense or the sense of tradition implied that the poet is conscious, “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 down to the present day, and within it the whole of literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”
Impersonality of Poetry
Reacting against Wordsworth’s theory that poetry is, “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” or that poetry has its origin in “emotions recollected in tranquillity”, Eliot advances his theory of impersonality of poetry. He observes, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion, it is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality.’“ The greatest art is objective: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates”. As a matter of fact, the poet has no personality, he is merely a receptacle, a shred of platinum, a medium which fuses and combines feelings and impressions in a variety of ways.
Intensity: The Themes of Poetry
Thus poetry is not concerned with personal emotion. Even imagined experiences will do. The poet’s imagination can work as well upon what he has experienced as on what he had read. Further, Eliot points out that it is wrong to suppose that poetry is concerned merely with beauty. The subject of poetry is life with all its horror, its boredom and its glory. It is the poet’s consciousness of the situation—the human predicament, which has been the same in all ages—which should inspire poetic creation. If the poet’s sense of his own age is intense enough, he will be able to pierce beneath the superficial differences between one age and another, and realise the fundamental sameness of human life in all ages. Then he will realise the horror, the ugliness as well the glory of life, and communicate it to his readers. It is the intensify of the poetic process, and not the romantic spontaneity, which is the important thing.
Objective Co-relative: Depersonalisation of Emotion
Further, Eliot points out that the poet can achieve impersonality and objectivity by finding some ‘objective co-relative’ for his emotions. He defines, objective co-relative as a “set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula”, for some particular emotion of the poet. Thus Milton could find a perfect objective co-relative for the release of his personal emotions in the story of Samson. Eliot himself uses European literature ancient myths and legends, as objective co-relatives in his poetry. Such depersonalisation of emotion is the test of great poetry.
Function of Poetry
As regards the function of poetry, Eliot suggests that the poet is an artist whose primary function is to maintain the pattern of tradition as well as to redesign it by his own creation. No doubt, poetry is a “superior amusement”, but primarily the purpose of poetry is neither to please nor to instruct. The poet is “involved with the past and the future”: with the future because he is assuring the continuance of tradition, and, therefore, of art; with the past because he must explore and study the tradition, as well as modify it, and in this way transmit it to the future. “His search is to discover again what has been found before, and to adapt it to contemporary needs.” Eliot does not totally reject the cultural function of poetry, but in this connection his views have a religious bias.
“Eliot’s impersonal theory of poetry is the greatest theory on the nature of poetic process after Wordsworth’s romantic conception of poetry.”