Of the four "appreciations of individual authors" in which the central argument is the failure of equilibration between some structure of doctrinal thought and the feelings and emotions it once successfully conveyed, perhaps the most graphic—and famous—illustration is "Arnold and Pater." Matthew Arnold, in his extensive writings on the unraveling of ties between Christianity and Culture, was engaged in waging, according to Eliot, a "religious campaign," and the upshot of this succession of field operations was to "affirm that the emotions of Christianity can and must be preserved without the belief," an affirmation whose inevitable consequence was the "divorce" of that special sensibility possessed by "religion," with its heights and depths of feeling and emotion, from its superstructure of doctrinal "thought." One outcome of this resulting imbalance—indeed severence—between emotions and belief where dogma no longer can function adequately to...
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he twentieth century is still the nineteenth, says Mr. Eliot, remarking (in his essay on Dryden) on the persistence of Victorian misjudgments, "although it may in time acquire its own character." What that character will be and what the correspondences in literature, we can only guess. It may strive to continue the romantic individualism of Mr. Middleton Murry, which Mr. Murry is finding it hard to continue himself. It may follow the classicism of Mr. Eliot. Or it may (what is difficult to believe) surprise us into a line of action for which we seem to have no preparation. Of one thing, however, we may be sure: that its poetry and criticism (if they are to persist) will be profoundly affected by the poetry and criticism of T.S. Eliot and that this book is likely to be the chief document in whatever reevaluation we make of our literary tradition and present time. Indeed, readers of "The Sacred Wood," or "For Lancelot Andrewes," or of one essay and another in The London Criterion, may well be surprised at the vigorous challenge that the book in it totality comes to mean. The essay on Blake, for instance, sounds, in "The Sacred Wood," thin, questionable, and perhaps even querulous: here, in this context, coming after the essays on Dante, Dryden, and Marvell, it seems right and reasonable; at the least, we can recognize that Eliot could take no other position. We recognize, too, that it needed courage and conviction as well as scholarship to defend this position -- that if Blake had been educated in a better tradition he would have been a better poet.
It is a remarkable book, remarkable in the range of its interests and in the flexibility and stamina of Mr. Eliot's mind as he moves from theory to demonstration, from comment to elucidation -- from "The Function of Criticism" to an elaborate introduction to the poetry of Dante, from an observation on Marie Lloyd of the old music hall to a brief analysis of the problem of "Hamlet" -- an analysis that has reduced a literature on "Hamlet" to a ptolemaic system. This variety is refreshing in a book of such sustained critical reasoning. It has a further value, however. It illuminates, from this point or that, the still more remarkable centrality of Mr. Eliot's thinking and the integrity of his mind.
The essays are more than a stimulation to enjoy the fruits of others' experience. They are essays in order, exercises in the discipline of facts and the precision of thinking and feeling. They are essays in conduct as well as essays in criticism. The center, as well as the range, of Mr. Eliot's mind is here. If her is right -- and it is important for other writers to discover if he is right -- his mind, as a reflecting instrument, should be close to the tradition of literature (and culture) on which we rely for the renewal of the principles of reality, coherence and mental health. But first we should be clear about the primary service of these essays, which is to remove the confusion and impurities that prevent recognition of these principles. It is in this work that the charge might be made that Mr. Eliot makes over tradition to suit himself. His views seem new and radical. They are radical but not new. What may be new is not the criticism but the conduct that might follow. To say that "more can be learned about how to write poetry from Dante than from any English poet" is not to say anything new, for English poets from Spenser to Swinburne have defiantly writ a language that allowed no imitation. "The language of Dante is the perfection of a common language." But if English writers went to school with Dante instead of with Keats or Browning or Hopkins, that would be new. To say "I can see no reason for believing that either Dante or Shakespeare did any thinking on his own" may startle us for a moment, but would hardly startle Ben Johnson, who knew Shakespeare; whereas we can readily imagine how startled Johnson would be at the thought of Wyndham Lewis's machiavellian Shakespeare, or Middleton Murry's messianic Shakespeare. If English critics were less concerned with their own image in the poet and more concerned with the fact of poetry, that would be new. This distinction between one's self and what is outside (the work of art and the tradition into which it fits) is the first critical distinction. The tradition, though Eliot understands it because it has made him what he is, must be clarified by a radical analysis and seen by its own light.
Mr. Eliot is better, or at least this book shows itself to be better, at demonstrating the vitality of tradition than at defining it. The essay on Dante is no doubt the best in the book; it is a much more confident essay then "The Function of Criticism." The theoretical essays, except where they are engaged in confuting romanticism or revelationism, are overcautious and hesitant. The fault probably lies outside the essays, in the confusion of our language and logic. But in commenting from page to page on the "Divine Comedy," or in drawing a portrait of his friend, Charles Whibley, or in staging the dispute between Bramhall and Hobbes (and Bertrand Russell and I.A. Richards), or in the masterpiece of witty polemic in the first half of "Thoughts After Lambeth," or in the too truthful predictions of a bad end for Mr. Babbitt's philosophy, or in the information that he gives us of the Elizabethans. Mr. Eliot is a master of critical exposition.
If the function of criticism is not exactly defined, or defined by terms of too many meanings whose meanings it is not Mr. Eliot's business to fix, it is clearly enough seen. Given the tradition -- whose classicism Mr. Eliot has attempted to clarify in these essays -- one may lean by the constant use of comparison and analysis to avoid the ordinary inflations and deflations of literary opinions and to prevent mere eccentricity from making a grotesque of the work of art. And it would be surprising if this ordering of our feelings about literature, achieved through tradition, training, askesis, were not to help in steadying the general tenor of life.
In the practical matter of reading and writing, at all events, Mr. Eliot's direction can do nothing but good. His classicism is healthy, supple and, in the coarsest sense, tough; it can stand up to anything.
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