Foundations of Modernism: T. S. Eliot's Literary Criticism

Importance of Eliot's Literary Criticism

Eliot's literary criticism, still read and admired, {1} is an extraordinary testimony to one man's determination to present his views on poetry as the unquestionable facts of the age.  Yet a major thinker on poetry, {2} supporting close textural criticism, has not generally had his own essays put through the critical grinder, {3} and academics still quote approvingly what they would not (one hopes) tolerate in their students' essays. T.S. Eliot was an effective advocate of Modernism, even a brilliant one, but there is often more pose and polemic that reasoned argument. This was obvious to contemporaries, and should be obvious now, but the essays can still be treated as articles of faith, beyond assessment, rather than a source of continuing problems in serious poetry. Supporters leap to arms in defending the indefensible, as discussion of Eliot's anti-Semitism illustrates. {4}

Veneration notwithstanding, I look at three key articles, suggesting that a. Eliot's arguments merit detailed examination and that b. misunderstandings arise through Eliot's expositions, which are rather muddled. Put less charitably, the accusation is that obscurities are of Eliot's own making, and paper over what he would have known were weaknesses and over-simplications. None of what follows makes for easy reading, but I hope visitors will persevere because the issues deserve detailed examination.

Tradition and the Individual Talent

The 1920 Tradition and the Individual Talent {5} was the most influential of Eliot's essays and makes two claims. First is that poets belong to a tradition, which supports them and which they modify, allowing past literature to be seen in a modified light. Second is that poetry is not an expression of feelings but an escape from feelings: poets are a catalyst allowing new elements to be combined though they themselves remain unaltered. Both claims are contentious and not well expressed in the essay, but, perhaps because Eliot remains one of the great founders of Modernism, a protective commentary has grown up to explain what its author really meant.

Hennekam, {6} for example, believes Eliot is arguing that a poem has four components: the poet's knowledge of literary tradition and contemporary literature, his knowledge of structural and genre detail, his own personality, emotions and circumstances, and his creative ability. The Wikipedia entry explains that 'What lends greatness to a work of art are not the feelings and emotions themselves, but the nature of the artistic process by which they are synthesised.' {7} The World Heritage Encyclopedia notes 'This fidelity to tradition, however, does not require the great poet to forfeit novelty in an act of surrender to repetition. Rather, Eliot has a much more dynamic and progressive conception of the poetic process: Novelty is possible only through tapping into tradition. When a poet engages in the creation of new work, he realises an aesthetic "ideal order," as it has been established by the literary tradition that has come before him. As such, the act of artistic creation does not take place in a vacuum. The introduction of a new work alters the cohesion of this existing order, and causes a readjustment of the old to accommodate the new. The inclusion of the new work alters the way in which the past is seen, elements of the past that are noted and realised. In Eliot's own words: "What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it." Eliot refers to this organic tradition, this developing canon, as the "mind of Europe." The private mind is subsumed by this more massive one.' {8} The Poetry Foundation's introduction to the essay presents the matter more fairly, adding that 'But Eliot's belief that critical study should be "diverted" from the poet to the poetry shaped the study of poetry for half a century, and while "Tradition and the Individual Talent" has had many detractors, especially those who question Eliot's insistence on canonical works as standards of greatness, it is difficult to overemphasize the essay's influence. It has shaped generations of poets, critics and theorists and is a key text in modern literary criticism. ' {9}

Because the essay is short and available from many sources, readers can readily make up their own minds, but, as I see it, the difficulties rise from three tendencies. First, the key terms are not spelt out sufficiently, and indeed are often used interchangeably. Second, the claims themselves are by no means convincing or novel when seen against the general views of aesthetics. {10} Third, Eliot's breadth of knowledge is presented as a given, automatically assumed. I will try to tease out these elements from what is a closely written and sometimes baffling document.

The essay opens with an exploration of tradition, where matters are overstated in a combative style: 'You can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears without this comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology. . . criticism is as inevitable as breathing . . .' The argument is quite clear, however: tradition is modified by new works of art. Then we have a tenet of Modernism smuggled in: 'To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art.' The implication here is art requires novelty, and, by extension, Eliot's new type of poetry. What is left out of account is what constitutes art, and the nature and extent of novelty possible.

Rather than give examples — which are not hard to find, incidentally — Eliot then diverts us into a side consideration, drawing the obvious conclusions: what the contemporary artist models himself upon: the indiscriminate whole, adolescent enthusiasms, or a preferred period. Eliot then returns to the main consideration, dismissing the danger that knowledge or pedantry will deaden the poet's art. He ends this first half of the essay with 'What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.'

Taken at face value, the argument is not unreasonable but remains rather theoretical, outlining what Eliot and kindred poets were attempting rather than what earlier poets had in fact done. Poets are only one influence, incidentally, as literary critics can have important insights (e.g. I. A. Richards and F.R. Leavis) without being practitioners of the art they study.

Now we come to the most difficult section, which Eliot introduces with 'The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.' That last word immediately raises difficulties, of course, in that personality is generally seen as inherent quality persisting in an individual, and not therefore something that should or could be extinguished. Nonetheless, Eliot continues with the important statement: 'the mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of "personality," not being necessarily more interesting, or having "more to say," but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations'

That ability to catalyze combinations Eliot illustrates with platinum's ability to create sulphur trioxide from oxygen and sulphur dioxide. The mind', he says, 'of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of "personality," not being necessarily more interesting, or having "more to say," but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.' The catalysis involves elements of two kinds: ' the elements which enter the presence of the transforming catalyst, are of two kinds: emotions and feelings.'

But what are these two kinds? Does emotion refer to the reader's response and feeling to the poet's originating sensation, which is probably the more everyday distinction? Possibly, because Eliot goes on to say: 'The effect of a work of art upon the person who enjoys it is an experience different in kind from any experience not of art. It may be formed out of one emotion, or may be a combination of several; and various feelings, inhering for the writer in particular words or phrases or images, may be added to compose the final result.' But then probably not because Eliot adds: 'Or great poetry may be made without the direct use of any emotion whatever: composed out of feelings solely.' Poetry that evoked no emotion from the reader would be artistically dead, and we must suppose that emotions and feelings both belong to the poet. But perhaps emotion refers to the overall tone of a poem, and feelings to the individual characters portrayed, the protagonists of a play or the implied author of a lyric? But again probably not. Referring to Canto XV of the Divine Comedy, Eliot observes: 'The last quatrain gives an image, a feeling attaching to an image, which "came," which did not develop simply out of what precedes, but which was probably in suspension in the poet's mind until the proper combination arrived for it to add itself to. The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.' Eliot then gives a few examples from literature, ending with Keats' nightingale ode.

We are still in the dark over distinctions between personality, emotion and feelings, however, and remain so in the next paragraph where Eliot quotes a Middleton passage. This balance of light and dark emotions, attraction to beauty and repulsion from ugliness is the 'the structural emotion, provided by the drama.' To this extension of emotion is added: 'It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. . . The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him.'

Notwithstanding Eliot's earlier insistence on there being two kinds of things under discussion, we have to suppose that feelings, emotions and personality are all interchangeable entities, though there is now the possibility that new emotions are created solely by the work of art.

Eliot then attacks the Romantic definition of poetry: 'Consequently, we must believe that "emotion recollected in tranquillity" is an inexact formula.' Recollections and tranquility are then explored a little and we come to the end of the second section of the essay with the famous: 'Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. Naturally, poets still have feelings, possibly stronger than others: 'But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.'

The third section is worth quoting in near totality because it summarizes the argument and adds a third term: significant emotion. 'To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad. There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is an expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.'

Is this convincing when Eliot erects an absolute barrier between what the poem expresses and what the poet is feeling? 'In the Agamemnon, the artistic emotion approximates to the emotion of an actual spectator; in Othello to the emotion of the protagonist himself. But the difference between art and the event is always absolute;' The crux of the matter is this: if the poet is not expressing emotions/feelings/personality in writing his poem, then it is equally impossible for him to escape from feelings etc. through writing poetry. Poetry becomes simply a diversion, a prestigious one no doubt, but no more salutary than taking up gardening or joining a bridge-playing circle. The argument, as Eliot phrases it, falls to the ground.

Repeating matters to be clear, Eliot's argument  is this:  The poet's task is to engender  emotions  specific to the poem he is writing. Those emotions are created by combining  disparate elements — events, thoughts, strands of previous traditions, etc. in a particularly sensitive and thoughtful way, an undertaking that requires personal gifts, intelligence and wide reading. That is not a controversial view. But Eliot goes further by entirely separating what the poet feels from the feeling the particular poem produces, the poet's personal feelings from the emotions specific to the poem. The two are not the same. Writing a poem is an impersonal business. But the trouble then is that if the poet is not expressing his feelings, and cannot be, then the writing of the poem has no connection whatever with personal feelings, and therefore can't in any way be an escape from feelings. Or anything involving personal feelings, not even an evasion of feelings. The two inhabit separate universes, and each is immaterial to the other.

For this misfortune, Eliot has only himself to blame, the over-cleverness of his attacking and tangled way of writing. But there is a further problem. Poet do put of lot of themselves into their work, and are commonly seen working a limited number of themes repeatedly, from youth to maturity. We may not want to designate the themes as feelings, emotions or personalities, or suppose they exist independent of their literary work, but an emotional colouring is nonetheless present. The themes come from deep inside the psyche, individual and/or communal, and one can't imagine Eliot writing something like Fern Hill, for example. Eliot can therefore be as impersonal and tight-lipped as he wishes, surely so, but should not be basing theories of poetry on what are only personal preferences.

If, however — which is why I have repeatedly searched for distinctions between Eliot's terms — emotion were the reader's response, feelings the originating emotion and personality an inherent part of a poet's character, then this impasse could be avoided. In Bredon Hill, for example, we could note the sorrow evoked in the reader as emotion, Housman's feelings as immaterial, since he was not heterosexual, and pessimism as Housman's inherent personality.

In fact there are better ways of dealing with Eliot's thesis, but I will delay discussion until we get to the third essay discussed here: Hamlet and his Problems.

Reflections on Vers Libre

Similar difficulties appear in the 1917 essay Reflections on Vers Libre, {12} where Eliot is arguing for prosodic freedom. Once again, Eliot is proselytizing for his brand of poetry, and the examples — 'Both of them I quote because of their beauty' — are by T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound. The first starts with hyperbaton and a trivializing excess of alliteration: 'Once in a finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy'. The second ends with the problematic line 'A broken bundle of mirrors . . ', where the poet who remarked that the writer must have its wits about him at all times seems not to have realized that medieval ladies were not beset by bundles of mirrors, broken or otherwise. In fact, the fragile glass and silver-backed mirror appears only in Renaissance Florence. Small points. But what is important is the whole tenor of the argument, which inserts one half truth into another. 'What sort of a line that would not scan at all I cannot say' remarks Eliot, knowing perfectly well that scansion, how we represent the pattern of stress, half-stress and no stress (I am simplifying) is not equivalent to a line 'scanning', where we expect some regularity of pattern. That 'some' can be very general, of course, something only vaguely sensed behind the written line, as Eliot himself notes: 'the ghost of some simple meter should lurk behind the arras in even the "freest" verse'.

But why be so categorical? (In fact, as later poets were to demonstrate, it is also possible to write lines in prose, which do not scan in any generally accepted way.) Then we have one of those glancing blows that Eliot was so fond of delivering, here directed at Swinburne: ''Swinburne mastered his technique, which is a great deal, but he did not master it to the extent of being able to take liberties with it, which is everything.' Is it? And no liberties in 'Seals, whales, storks, elephants, bears, monkeys, geese, / And more, can all be made by young and old. / Menageries on your own mantelpiece!' (Menageries {12}). Again, the example is unimportant, except to emphasize the unwisdom of giving hostages to fortune in these unneeded asides.

Then we pass to the early seventeenth century, to John Webster, 'who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare.' In The White Devil, Webster forgoes regularity in the moments of highest intensity, the irregularity being further enhanced by the use of short lines and the breaking up of lines in dialogue. Perhaps so, though whether Webster is the more cunning technician than Shakespeare is debatable. Shakespeare can also take great liberties with key lines, and his verse becomes more 'intuitive' in the later plays. {13} But license is not a law of nature. Pope maintains a variety in regularity, and some great poets, Racine and Pushkin, for example, write remarkably regular lines throughout. Nor are the examples Eliot that provides those of intense emotion. The argument so far is not over-convincing, I'd suggest, and is certainly not helped by the erudition, or seeming erudition, which only complicates matters.

A comparison of Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology) with George Crabbe follows, which finds Crabbe's verse is 'the more intense of the two; he is keen, direct and unsparing. . . Mr. Masters requires a more rigid verse form. . .' Indeed he does. Much seems to be prose, or close to it, which is hazardous to Eliot's case that all poetry can be scanned:

Have you seen walking through the village
A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?
That is my husband who, by secret cruelty
Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty; {14}

Next appears the gnomic 'So much for meter. There is no escape from meter; there is only mastery.' But since metre is a systematic regularity in rhythm, which the Masters example does not display, it is difficult to know what Eliot is arguing. That the verse of the then popular 'Spoon River Anthology' lacks mastery? Possibly, but then it would help to say so. And to find some other poet than Crabbe with which to compare Masters since centuries of sensibility separate the two.

Passing on, we come to two sections of verse, one by H.D. and the other by Thomas Arnold, where to me, a century after Eliot's claiming 'What neither Blake nor Arnold could do alone is being done in our time', Arnold's seems the more 'modern'. Again, this is unfortunate: Eliot is summoning as evidence what seems to undermine his argument that there is no vers libre as such, only a better understanding of verse generally, which his and contemporary poetry exemplified.

The last two paragraphs deal with rhymeless verse, arguing that the removal of rhyme throws other verse devices into higher relief. No one could object to the thesis but, unfortunately, once again, we have the Eliot love of paradox. 'Rhyme removed, ' he declares, 'the poet is at once held up to the standards of prose.' Prose, with its strong emphasis on making discursive sense? Eliot continues, 'Rhyme removed, much ethereal music leaps up from the word, which has hitherto chirped unnoticed in the expanse of prose.' Leaps up? Chirps? Perhaps this is humour, or the master is playing with his readers. But probably not: the essay ends soberly with 'we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.'

By now the conscientious reader should be feeling restless. Important distinctions have been thrown away, and only Eliot and his like-minded poets are to deliberate on aesthetics, which, on the examples given, and in the absence of clear rules, or any rules at all, seems a very dubious proposition.

Hamlet and his Problems

With Hamlet and his Problems {15} (collected in The Sacred Wood, 1921) Eliot is even more dismissive of earlier critics, including Goethe, Coleridge and Pater, but allows contemporaries the credit of moving in the right direction. Hamlet is not solely Shakespeare's creation, but a reworking of material from Kyd and others. Being cobbled together in this fashion, the play is also an artistic failure. It has unnecessary scenes. The verse style is inconsistent. Hamlet's feelings towards his guilty mother make an impossible theme for drama. Because these repressed feelings can't be dragged into the light, moreover, the only avenue left open is the 'objective correlative', defined as: 'in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked'. Other plays, like Macbeth, are more successful in this regard. 'The artistic "inevitability" lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet.' Hamlet has to escape into madness, a ruse on Shakespeare's part that leaves the unmentionable matter untreated.

More than this, Eliot does not say, which has allowed later writers to expand the term into a general symbolic device. {16-19} Contemporaries were less convinced, however, as my page on Ezra Pound indicates {20} and it seems unwise to make speculations as to what Shakespeare could and could not do into support for the concept of objective correlate. Not all critics see Hamlet as an artistic failure, moreover.

But we don't need to blunder into these theoretical tangles. One way of dealing with emotional expression is to understand how poets work. Writing is a two-way process, where the poet is continually switching between creator and audience, from 'does this really express how I felt or could now feel?' to 'will this work for the reader?' A poem is a dialogue between what the poet has so far written, and what the piece suggests could be its eventual achievement. Art is not simply skill in expressing emotion, therefore, but also a skill in evoking the appropriate emotion in the reader. Into that appropriate emotion come many other matters as well: traditions, readers' expectations, genres, rhetorical devices, imagery and metaphor, scansion, aesthetic detachment and shaping, etc. The successful poem is a fusion of these elements, where the whole is self-referencing and therefore larger than the sum of its ingredients. {10}

Eliot the Man

Eliot surely knew this. His training was in philosophy, moreover, which will have covered some aspects of aesthetics. Why set off such wild goose chases after meaning unless it was not clear exposition Eliot was after, but status, for himself and the poetry he espoused? He was extraordinarily productive under very difficult circumstances — money troubles, failing marriage, long hours as a bank official — and the hundred odd essays published between 1916 and 1923 {21} point not only to someone unusually ambitious but also tormented and self-driven. There are many successful poems in Prufrock, but their ambiance is distinctly strange, forbidding even. In short, was not Eliot a deeply troubled man, to which later events only testify: The Waste Land, The Hollow Men, religious conversion, personal papers kept out of circulation by his second wife?

Why, moreover, did poets and the reading public submit to this posturing and air of invincible authority? Were they cowed by the erudition? Did they seek publication in the avant garde world over which Eliot presided? Or did they simply not want to give up the time to matters that seemed tangential to poetry?

Eliot's criticism was therefore both salutary and unfortunate. He made criticism the subject of serious study and more than genial rambles in personal taste. But he also made the subject unnecessarily partisan and abstract. To personal preferences were added personal neuroses, though of course Eliot was not alone in the despair widespread after the horrific slaughter of WWI. Scrutiny and other journals provided the New Criticism with useful technical audits of literature, valuable to writers as to general readers, but the theoretical aspects once more gained the upper hand in the critical theory that followed WWII. Matters had once been fairly straightforward. Prose aimed for discursive clarity, and poetry for the infinite shades of meaning, emotive force, tone and implication that are possible, perhaps unavoidable, in language used in its wider remit. Now the positioning was reversed, and critical evaluation became far more astute and interesting than the poetry it purported to explain, for all that both, unfortunately, could be wondrously wrong-headed. Much of the muddled thinking in literary criticism {22} seems to have begun with Eliot's over-clever essays. 


1. Wikipedia authors. T.S. Eliot. Accessed 14 February, 2018.
2. Hennekam, EJ "One significant, consistent and developing personality": A Study of T.S. Eliot's Criticism. McMaster Univ. 1985. References.
3. Wetzsteon, R. Some Reflections on Eliot's "Reflections on Vers Libre": on Verse and Free Verse. Poets.Ord. February 2005.
4. Julius, A. T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. C.U.P., 1996. Many reviews in the mainstream press.
5. Eliot, T.S. Tradition and the Individual Talent. 6. Hennekam, 1985. Main text.
7. Wikipedia authors. T.S. Tradition and the Individual Talent. Accessed February 16, 2018.
8. World Heritage Encyclopedia authors. Tradition and the Individual Talent: Content of the Essay.
9. Poetry Foundation authors. Essay on Poetry Theory: Tradition and the Individual Talent by T.S. Eliot. Accessed February 16, 2018.
10. Holcombe, C.J. (2016/2018) A Background to Literary Theory. Ocaso Press. Chapter 12.
11. Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays 1917-32.
12. Algernon Charles Swinburne.
13. Wright, G.T. Shakespeare's Metrical Art. 1988. Univ. California Press. Berkley.
14. Masters, E.L. Ollie McGee. Spoon River Anthology.
15. Eliot, T.S. (1921) Hamlet and his Problems.
16. Gingerich, J. (2012) Understanding the objective correlative. Accessed February 16, 2018.
17. Study.Com authors T.S. Eliot's Objective Correlative: Definition & Examples. Accessed February 16, 2018.
18. What is the Objective Correlative? Accessed February 16, 2018.
19. Eves, R. (2015) Writing with the Objective Correlative. Accessed February 16, 2018.
20. Holcombe, C.J. (2018) Ezra Pound and the Cantos. 21. Perkins, D (1976) A History of Modern Poetry, Vol. One, 514.
22.  Holcombe 2016/2018. 426-510.