Wednesday, December 8, 2010

T.S. Eliot: Select Critical Concepts

Eliot: His Gift of Phrasing

T.S. Eliot is one of the greatest English critics of the 20th century. His criticism marks a complete break from the 19th century tradition and gives a new direction to literary criticism. His critical concepts are scattered all over his five hundred and odd essays and reviews.

Clive Bell rightly praised Eliot for his gift of phrasing, and this gift is displayed as much in his prose as in his poetry. He has coined a number of memorable phrases, which bite in and strike deep, and hence have gained wide currency. Whatever may be the ultimate value of his criticism—and it is too early as yet to make any final assessment—there can be no denying the fact that he is a great irritant to thought. In order to understand Eliot’s criticism, it is essential to examine some of his critical concepts in some detail.

Objective Co-relative

The phrase, Objective-co-relative, was first used by Eliot in his essay on Hamlet. The phrase has gained such wide popularity that Wimsatt and Brooks write, “the phrase objective co-relative has gained a currency probably far beyond anything that the other could have expected or intended’. In the opinion of T.S. Eliot, emotion can best be expressed in poetry through the use of some suitable objective co-relative. He himself defines ‘objective co-relative’ as, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, which shall be the formula” for the poet’s emotion so that, “when the external facts are given the emotion is at once evoked.” For example, in Macbeth the dramatist has to convey the mental agony of Lady Macbeth and he does so in, “the sleep-walking scene”, not through direct description, but through an unconscious repetition of her past actions. Her mental agony has been made objective so that it can as well be seen by the eyes as felt by the heart. The external situation is adequate to convey the emotions, the agony of Lady Macbeth. Instead of communicating the emotions directly to the reader, the dramatist has embodied them in a situation or a chain of events, which suitably communicate the emotions to the reader. Similarly, the dramatist could devise in Othello a situation which is a suitable, ‘objective co-relative’, for the emotion of the hero. In the Agamemnon of the Greek dramatist, Aeschylus, the situation presented is the exact ‘objective co-relative’ for the emotions which will be aroused in one who actually witnesses a murder. Hamlet is an artistic failure for here the external situation does not suitably embody the effect of a mother’s guilt on her son. The disgust of Hamlet is in excess of the facts as presented in the drama.

The phrase “objective co-relative” has been discussed threadbare by a number of critics, and most divergent views have been expressed. Thus for Cleanth Brooks the phrase means, “organic Metaphor”, for Elises Vevas it is a, “vehicle of expression for the poet’s emotion” and for Austin, ‘It is the poetic content to be conveyed by verbal expression.” What Eliot exactly meant by the phrase is hard to determine. We can only say that it is a way of conveying emotion, without direct verbal expression, by presenting certain situations and events which arouse a similar emotion in the readers. It is the way through which a poet, like Eliot, de-personalises his emotions.

“Dissociation of Sensibility”: “Unification of Sensibility”

Another of the popular cliches of Eliot is the phrase, Dissociation of sensibility and its opposite, Unification of sensibility. The phrase was first used by Eliot in his essay on the Metaphysical Poets of the early 17th century. By unification of sensibility, T.S. Eliot means, “a fusion of thought and feeling’, “a recreation of thought into feeling’, “a direct sensuous apprehension of thought’. Such fusion of thought and feeling is essential for good poetry. Bad poetry results when there is, “dissociation of sensibility”, i.e. the poet is unable to feel his thoughts. Eliot finds such unification of sensibility in the Metaphysical poets, and regrets that a dissociation of sensibility set in the late 17th century; there was a split between thought and feeling, and we have not yet recovered from this dissociation. The influence of Dryden and Milton has been particularly harmful in this respect.

Fusion of Thought and Feeling

In his essay on The Metaphysical Poets T.S. Eliot explains how this fusion of thought and feeling takes place: “Tennyson and Browning are poets; and they think, but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences. The ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

Eliot does not regard Browning to be a great poet, for, no doubt, he has ideas, but he fails to transmute his ideas into emotions and sensations. Merely dry thoughts or logic do not make a great poet. A mature poet can experience or feel his thought as he does the odour of a rose; a bad poet cannot do so.

Fusion of Creative and Critical Faculties

Another aspect of this unification of sensibility, is the harmonious working of the creative and critical faculties of a poet. A poet creates in heat, in a moment of inspiration, but he corrects at leisure. The poet must create, but he must also bring the critical faculty to work upon what he has created. He must revise and polish, and thus lick his creation into shape. A great poet must of necessity be a great critic as well, for he must constantly analyse, reject and select.

Eliot’s concept of “Dissociation of sensibility” has been of far-reaching influence in modern criticism.

The Romantic and the Classic

T.S. Eliot was a, “classicist in literature”, and not a romantic, and one of his important contributions to literary criticism is that he strengthened the reaction against romanticism and paved the way for the rise of neo-classicism. The anti-romantic and anti-humanist reaction began in the early 20th century, and its most powerful exponent in England was T.S. Hulme. T.S. Eliot completed the work which he began. The romantics placed an exaggerated importance on the human personality. They believed in inspiration and refused to recognise any authority outside themselves. It was this lack of artistic discipline, this failure to accept an outside authority, which resulted in the vagueness and immaturity of romantic art. Inspiration can result at the most in momentary excellence; romantic art is bound to be fitful and of unequal merit. Eliot, therefore, emphasised the value of tradition, the need and importance of an outside authority for the poet. Allegiance to the, “inner voice”, simply means doing what one likes. The poet must owe allegiance to some authority outside himself; he must learn and practise artistic self-control. He must revise and re-revise what he writes. Mature art is possible only in this way. T.S. Eliot values classical art for its clarity and for its formal perfection. He writes that the difference between the romantic and the classic art is, “that between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic”

Similarly, T.S. Eliot was opposed to romantic subjectivity. It was the uncontrolled expression of emotion which led the romantics into vulgar excess of all sorts. Emotion in poetry must be depersonalised. Artistic self-effacement is essential for great art. The romantics lacked such self-restraint, while restraint is the distinguishing feature of classical poetry.

Eliot’s classical bias appears both in his critical and poetical works. He is against the romantic critics, like Coleridge, who judge a poet on the basis of their personal impressions and feelings. Such impressionism can never be a safe guide. Rather, a poet in the present must be judged with reference to the poets of the past. Comparison and analysis are important tools in the hands of a critic. Further, a work of art must be judged with reference to some principles. For example, a critic must determine if a particular poet has succeeded in de-personalising his emotions, and whether his poetry shows a fusion of thought and feeling or not. Thus ‘objective co-relative’, ‘unification of sensibility’, and adherence to tradition, are the touchstones to measure the greatness of a work of art. Eliot’s plea is for objective standards to judge the greatness of a work of art.

Eliot is a classical critic, but in one important respect he is different from the classical critics of the past, like Dryden, Dr. Johnson, etc. These classical critics were concerned entirely with the analysis of particular works. They did not care to examine the process of creation or formulate a theory of literature. Eliot, on the other hand, has his own theories of poetry and the poetic process, which have been elaborated in essays like, Tradition and Individual Talent. The Function of Criticism, The Frontiers of Criticism, and in a number of other essays.


In his essay On Tradition published in After Strange Gods, T.S. Eliot writes, “Tradition is not solely, or even primarily, the maintenance of certain dogmatic beliefs; these beliefs have come to take their living form in the course of the formation of a tradition. What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits, and customs from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of, “the same people living in the same place”. It involves a good deal which can be called taboo: that this word in used in our time in exclusively, derogatory sense is to me a curiosity of some significance. We become conscious of these items, or conscious of their importance, usually only after they have begun to fall into desuetude, as we are aware of the leaves of a tree when the autumn wind begins to blow them off—when they have separately ceased to be vital. Energy may be wasted at that point in a frantic endeavour to collect the leaves as they fall and gum them into the branches, but the sound tree will put forth new leaves and the dry tree should be put to the axe. We are always in danger, in clinging to an old tradition, or attempting to re-establish one, of confusing the vital and the unessential, the real and the sentimental. Our second danger is to associate tradition with the immovable, to think of it as something hostile to all changes, to aim to return to some previous condition which we imagine as having been capable of preservation in perpetuity, instead of aiming to stimulate the life which produced that condition in its time.

It is not of advantage to us to indulge in a sentimental attitude towards the past. For one thing, in even the very best living tradition there is always a mixture of good and bad, and of much that deserves criticism, and for another, tradition is not a matter of feeling alone. Nor can we safely, without a very critical examination, dig ourselves in stubbornly to a few dogmatic notions, for what is healthy belief at one time may, unless it is one of the few fundamental things, be a pernicious prejudice at another. Nor should we cling to tradition as a way of asserting our superiority over less favoured peoples. What we can do is to use our minds, remembering that a tradition without intelligence is not worth having, to discover what is the best life for us not as a political abstraction, but as a particular people in a particular place, what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected; and what conditions, within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desire.

These remarks make it clear that Eliot’s conception of tradition is an enlightened and dynamic one. A sense of tradition is essential, for it makes us realise our kinship with, “the same people living in the same place”. But we must remember that the conditions of life which produced some particular tradition have changed, and so the tradition, too, must change. Tradition is not something immovable, it is something constantly growing and becoming different from what it previously was. Thirdly, we must learn to distinguish between the essential and unessential, the good and the bad, in a particular tradition, and only the good and the essential must be followed and revived. Fourthly, while we should justly be proud of our own tradition, this should not make us look down on other peoples who are not so lucky in this respect. In short, tradition must be used intelligently, changes in the conditions of life must be taken into consideration, and only the best should be preserved and fostered.

In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot regards the whole of European literature from Homer down to his own day as forming a single literary tradition. This tradition is not a dead one; it continues and lives in the present. When a really great work of art is produced, this tradition is modified to some extent, however little. A great poem or a great work of art can be possible only when the poet or the artist has a sense of this literary tradition. Great artists modify the existing tradition and pass it on to the future.

The Critic and Criticism

Eliot’s views on the nature and function of criticism, and the qualifications of a critic, have been elaborated in such essays as, The Perfect Critic, The Imperfect Critic, The Function of Criticism, The Frontiers of Criticism etc. From a study of these essays the following significant views emerge:

1. The function of criticism is the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste. A critic must place the facts of a work of art before his readers, point out the good in it, and thus promote enjoyment and understanding of literature.

2. To discover the nature of poetry and the process of poetic creation.

3. To preserve the living literary traditions and reveal the good in them.

4. To judge works of art by sound literary principles whose value has been tried and established.

5. To turn the attention of the reader from the poet to his poetry.

6. Comparison and analysis are the chief tools which the critic uses to perform his function. He must, therefore, know what to analyse and compare; sound scholarship is necessary for a critic.

7. A good critic must have a sense of fact, for opinion and fancy corrupt, but facts cannot corrupt. The critic must know all the facts about a work of art,—and not merely about the artist,—and place them before the readers. He must not judge on the basis of his personal feelings or emotions but on the basis of solid facts revealed by a close study of the work concerned.

8. In his essay on The Frontiers of Criticism, Eliot points out certain limits which, a critic must not cross. No doubt, a critic must have a knowledge of other subjects like history, sociology, philosophy and others, but he must take care that his criticism does not become a mere commentary on these subjects. Secondly, criticism must not be merely impressionistic; it must be based on sound facts. But this knowledge of facts, too, must not be carried too far. Exaggerated importance attached to scholarship vitiates criticism, as it does in the case of J.L. Lowes’ book The Road to Xanadu. Both Arnold and Coleridge are imperfect critics. The one is too impressionistic, and the other is too dry and intellectual. Eliot holds out Aristotle as an outstanding example of a perfect critic.

9. According to Eliot, the right type of criticism is, the workshop criticism, i.e. the criticism of a poet of his own poetry and that of others. But even this criticism has its own limitations and Eliot is fully conscious of them.

10. While Eliot stresses the close study of a poem for the purpose of elucidation and interpretation, he is against the, “lemon-squeezer school of criticism”, those who analyse a poem stanza by stanza and line by line, and extract, squeeze, tease,’ and press every drop of meaning out of it. A good critic must avoid extremes of this kind

11. According to Eliot, the qualifications of a perfect critic are: “Sensitiveness, erudition, sense of fact, sense of history and generalising power.”

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