Friday, May 30, 2014

T.S.Eliot, The Sacred Wood, The Perfect Critic and that Hyphen again.

T.S. Eliot was the Poet-Critic in the twentieth century: he’s almost the epitome of that role. While The Waste Land may be one of the defining poems of the twentieth century, his Selected Prose published in 1953 had an initial print run of forty thousand copies.  In April 1956 he lectured to fourteen thousand people at the baseball stadium in Minneapolis on ‘The Frontiers of Criticism”. One popular version of Eliot’s career is summed up by Craig Raine (2006 which supplies the above figures) who having called him ‘The most influential and authoritative literary arbiter of the twentieth century and a publisher of great distinction (p.xii)’, wrote, ‘His status as a poet gave authority to his criticism. His difficult poetry was taken seriously…it was leant authority by the sound judgments in Eliot’s criticism and its dazzling range of reference. The poetry and the criticism were a great double act.” (p127)
Leaving aside that 'sound judgement'.

In the first essay, in his first book, The Sacred Wood,  Eliot laid down the law according to Tom.

He argued that the poet, or artist, made the best critic. At the end of ‘The Perfect Critic’ he stated: ‘The two directions of sensibility [presumably creativity and criticism] are complimentary; and as sensibility is rare, unpopular, and desirable, it is to be expected that the critic and the creative artist should frequently be the same person (p16)’.

In the companion piece, The Imperfect Critic, Eliot wrote, of Swinburne as Critic, that Swinburne was writing not to instruct a docile public, but as a poet writing notes on poets he admired. 'And whatever our opinion of Swinburne’s verse, the notes upon poets by a poet of Swinburne’s dimensions must be read with attention and respect' p.17.  Eliot’s suggestion here, with the typical qualification ‘whatever our opinion’, is that what Swinburne wrote as a critic is worthy of interest because of his stature as a poet. 

At first sight this seems to confirm the popular idea that the poetry validates the criticism, but this was not Eliot’s argument.

Describing Swinburne as a critic in ‘The Perfect Critic’:

‘Swinburne is one man in his poetry, and a different man in his criticism to this extent and in this respect only, that he is satisfying a different impulse; he is criticizing, expounding arranging’ (p.5). ‘…So I infer that Swinburne found an adequate outlet for the creative impulse in his poetry; and none of it was forced back and out through his critical prose’ (p.6).

‘This gives us an intimation why the artist is-each within his own limitations-oftenest to be depended on as a critic; his criticism will be criticism, and not the satisfaction of a suppressed creative wish-which in most other persons is apt to interfere fatally’ (p7).

Therefore, according to early Eliot, because they straddle the hyphen, poet-critics can bifurcate themselves, and put their emotions and creative impulse into their poetry, and turn their intellect and interest to criticism. For the early Eliot the hyphen guaranteed the criticism, not because of the poet’s knowledge and skill as a poet, but because the poet’s creativity could be channeled one side of the hyphen and the poet’s critical faculty, purged of the need to be creative, and not needing an emotional outlet, could focus on the intellectual task in hand.

Less than fifty pages later Eliot would famously attempt to purge the poetry of emotion in Tradition and the Individual Talent, further suggesting the desirability of splitting an already split personality, currently flip flopping (automatically? At will?) on a binary switch between creativity and criticism.

However, the contradictions in his argument don’t concern me.

What intrigues me is that Eliot could not only argue that artists make the best critics, for reasons I suspect most readers brushed aside, but that people were willing to accept the ‘argument’.  That the ideas of a great poet on poetry are worth considering is one thing, though not beyond debate. That the great poet is ipso facto a great critic confuses two separate activities.  What validates criticism should be the quality of the criticism, not the biography of the critic. The irony in Eliot’s case is that the evidence, for example The Waste Land manuscript and his attempts to have the Bolo poems published,  suggests he had a limited ability to be critical of his own writing, at least at a conscious level where it could be verbalized.
Which should lead us to Yeats.

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