In The Social Function of Poetry Eliot tried to negotiate the contradictions. There is an obvious tension in the essay between what he tries to claim for poetry and what his intelligence tells him is the way the world works. Part of this tension may be created by the context of this talk.
He began with a note of caution that could easily have served as an epitaph for every attempt to discuss either “the function of poetry” or “the role of the poet”:
When we speak of the ‘function’ of anything we are likely to be thinking of what that thing ought to do rather than what it does do or has done. That is an important distinction because I do not intend to talk about what I think poetry ought to do. People who tell us what poetry ought to do, especially if they are poets themselves, usually have in mind the particular kind of poetry they would like to write. (SFP p3)
But his history is no better than Pound’s or Shelley’s (this surprised me):
A superior language can seldom be exterminated except by the extermination of the people who speak it. When one language supersedes another it is usually because that language has advantages that commend it, and which offer not merely a difference but a wider and more refined range, not only for thinking and feeling, than the more primitive language”(SFP, 8)
Linguistically, Eliot’s statement date him as badly as Shelley’s do. “There are, however, several widely held misconceptions about Language…The most important of these is the idea that there are such things as primitive languages-languages with a simple grammar, a few sounds, and a vocabulary of only a few hundred words, whose speakers have to compensate for their language’s deficiencies through gestures” (Crystal 2006).
Eliot ironically echoes those scholars who once dismissed English as a language incapable of precision.
He also seems to be willfully ignoring the historical fact that “advantages’ were often political rather than linguistic. Old English did not disappear because Anglo-Norman had a wider and more refined range, but because the English Aristocracy was all but eradicated in three battles in 1066 and from the end of the 11th Century to the middle of the 14th Century French was the privileged language, the kings of England did not speak English, and anyone who wanted to deal with either the law or the administration had to learn French or Latin. Irish and Welsh almost disappeared as native languages not because they were inadequate but because the people in power banned them and refused to communicate in those languages.
Eliot does try to address the obvious contraction: how does original poetry, making demands on its small but elite readership, affect the health of the culture? His answer is confused ( I find it very difficult to write that about T.S.Eliot). It could only work in a “homogenous culture” where the elite readership of the best modern poetry are in fact the cultural elite, the people who matter. Others will want to follow their example, so there will be an inevitable trickle down effect which will eventually spread the influence of poetry throughout society. Gioia states the same argument. Both writers ignore the fact that modern culture is not homogenous (even the England of Eliot in the 1940s wasn’t). Neither reading nor writing poetry in English has guaranteed membership of a cultural elite, apart from the self appointed ones we’ve been studying. Sidney belonged to a cultural elite who others copied because he was born into the aristocracy and connected to some of the wealthiest families in the country. His birth guaranteed his social status: his status validated his poems. Not the other way round. Sir Ernest Gower’s 'Plain words" and I A Richard’s “Practical Criticism” in their own ways underline the limitations of the linguistic skills of the “cultural elite”.
Eliot, like Pound, and Shelley, and Gioia and other s after him, confused cause and symptom and fell victim to his own muddled metaphor. (I find that really hard to write about the first two as well) Language is not an organic plant that flowers if fertilised with great poetry and withers if forced to survive on a diet of ..whichever poet you think is not great. Even if it were possible to define what is good and bad poetry against an objective standard, and avoid the inherent moralizing, it is difficult to believe any culture died because of bad poetry or any language disappeared for Eliot’s reasons.
A language disappears because the people who speak it die out, and according to modern linguists, of the world’s 6,000 or so languages perhaps half will die out in the present century (Crystal 2008 p 336). The disappearance of cultured literary productions may be one symptom of a society more concerned with survival. As Stead also observed, it is impossible to imagine how poetry improves the health of a nation. If Eliot and Pound were right, then given their strictures about the state of English poetry, England should have lost the First world war.
Anyone trying to make this argument is guilty of confusing symptoms with causes and in Rosemary Waldrop’s words acting “ as if there existed nothing but society on the one hand and writing on the other” (Bernstein 1990). Eliot acknowledges this and then ignores the implications, presumably because they would invalidate the claims he is making. Waldrop succinctly points out the obvious objection: The two decades before Hitler came to power were a period of incredible literary flowering, upheaval, exploration in Germany. All the dadaists and expressionists had been questioning, challenging, exploring changing the language, limbering up its joints. So the German language should have been in very good condition, yet the Nazis had no trouble putting it to work for their purposes, perverting it to where what was said was light years from what was meant. So while language thinks for us, there is no guarantee that it will be in a direction we like. (In Bertstein p47)
This destructive wander through the Defences was one way of stripping away the accumulated waffle to see what, if anything is left. I think there’s a great deal, but it doesn’t rely on silly claims for what an abstraction called ‘Poetry’ obviously doesn’t or can’t do now, and never has done in the past.