T.S. Eliot: A Critical Review

Introduction: The Wasteland

T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land {1} was never without its detractors. For some twenty years after its appearance, the poem was the subject of almost incoherent abuse by older men of letters, who saw it as an undergraduate prank or confidence trick. Even Yvor Williams, as late as 1947 {2}, called it 'broken blank verse interspersed with bad free verse and rimed doggerel' — a judgement that made John Press so angry that he said it 'reveals so crippling an insensitivity to the texture and rhythm of verse that one is tempted to disregard any judgement on poetry that he may choose to deliver'. {3} Ivor Brown, drama critic and editor of The Observer called it 'balderdash', all the same, and J.B. Priestley allegedly called Eliot 'donnish, pedantic and cold', adding that 'it would have been better for contemporary English literature if Eliot had stayed in Louisville, or wherever he came from.'

Today the poem is widely accepted as one of the most seminal in twentieth-century literature, and any decent textbook {4} will note the troubling power of the varied imagery, allusion and myth. The Internet alone has many approving and helpful articles, some excellent. {5} But for all its status, and the many thousands of students who must study it every year, is it a great poem? Certainly it's a key poem, iconic of important trends in poetry even today, and one I've read with pleasure off and on for forty years, but calling it a masterpiece I'm not so certain about. Firstly there is the speed at which it was written: three months. Also relevant is Eliot's disturbed mental state at the time: he later described the poem as 'a personal grouse against life'. {6} Finally came Ezra Pound, who drastically cut the piece into a shape that reflected his ideas, i.e. Pound's rather than Eliot's, of what modern poetry should be. Completely removed were allusions to Eliot's own anxieties, the lengthy narratives, the Rape of the Lock parody and traditional forms. {7} Perhaps that was just as well, as much of the original wasn't too good.

'Admonished by the sun's inclining ray,
And swift approaches of the thievish day,
The whitearmed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes'

'The sailor, attentive to the chart and to the sheets.
A concentrated will against the tempest and the tide,
Retains, even ashore, in public bars or streets
Something inhuman, clean, and dignified'

But Pound did retain the sections that were novel and arresting. Older critics believed a poem should be understandable, or largely so. There could be a 'fine excess', to quote Keats, and of course a depth beyond what straightforward prose could reach, as there often is in Shakespearean verse. But what The Waste Land offered was not profundities but lacunae, sections that floated in from heaven knows where and trailed off into other tongues.

In time, of course, the difficulties became great fun. American prosperity after WWII saw a vast expansion of literary studies, and Matthiesson's 1935 book, The Achievement of T.S. Eliot, was soon joined by mountains of critical erudition. Eliot had added notes to the poem, that were, he confessed, as likely to confuse the reader as enlighten. In 1927 he mischievously remarked: {3}

'I admit that my own experience, as a minor poet, may have jaundiced my outlook; that I am used to having cosmic significances, which I never suspected, extracted from my work (such as it is) by enthusiastic persons at a distance; and to being informed that something, which I meant seriously is vers de société and to having my personal biography reconstructed from passages which I got of books, or which I invented out of nothing because they sounded well; and to having my biography invariably ignored in what I did write from personal experience.'

No doubt the students struggling through The Wasteland must have wondered whether such obscurities and lacunae did not extend into the essays collected in The Sacred Wood. It was certainly difficult to know what that dry, all-knowing voice was actually saying. If Eliot was seen as one of the more influential of the new critics — and he certainly climbed the commanding heights of his profession — there could be precious little working put down on the page to see how the master arrived at his ever more imperative distinctions. I'll quote George Watson as his book is now accessible, gratis, on the Internet, and deserves careful study: {8}

'Secondly, "relevance" means relevance to modern poets rather than to modern readers, and Eliot even commits himself openly to this object in the 1935 lecture on Milton: "Of what I have to say I consider that the only jury of judgement is that of the ablest poetical practitioners of my own time." Thirdly, Eliot eschews close analysis in favour of general judgements; his taste and techniques were formed decades before the New Criticism of the thirties, and he never practises the "close analysis" characteristic of that school.'

'These are hardly arguable statements about Eliot's criticism. They go a very little way, however, towards describing what an Eliot essay is like. To do that would require a more impressionistic account, leading to statements that might prove highly debatable, since the rhetoric of his criticism is opaque enough to leave a good deal in doubt.'

But are Yvor Williams' strictures justified? By earlier standards, yes. The lines remaining after Pound's cuts are generally adequate but not overwhelming.

Indifferent blank verse:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings

Lines that set up wild goose chases after sources:

Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

Rhymed doggerel:

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag —
It's so elegant
So intelligent

And so on. But more important were three challenges to the poetry that had gone before. Poems were no longer things of beauty, or concerned with beauty. Quite the contrary: Eliot's poetry made a cult of ugliness, contemporaries complained. Secondly, poems did not have to make full sense, and a new breed of critics arose to suggest new depths or dimensions or affiliations in the work, a school led by Eliot himself with his formidable learning and intellect. Thirdly, the emphasis shifted from craftsmanship to theory: poems could accept a good deal of the miscellaneous or second-rate, contemporary semantic rubble, in fact, provided the overall shape or intention accorded with what a 'contemporary sensibility' insisted was important.

Little of The Wasteland would exercise a MFA workshop today. The Waste Land ignores, and happily ignores, that old-fashioned test of good poetry, that nothing is superfluous or unnecessary. We could lose odd lines and sections, I think, without feeling the poem was fatally damaged. But nor can we say, as we often do with contemporary art, that conception is more important than execution, because the conception is rather more Pound's than Eliot's. All the same, however, I'd still prefer to read Eliot's poetry than that of Yvor Williams, carefully crafted though it often is. Why?

The answer has something to do with context, the larger pattern of cultural expectations that the New Criticism regarded as irrelevant. But as George Watson {8} remarked about I.A. Richard's Practical Criticism:

'It seems more natural to suppose that all but the simplest poems exist in traditions which dictate in some sense the significance of the poem, and that poems torn from their historical context tend to mean some other thing, or to descend into the merely meaningless. If this is so, then Practical Criticism and its record of failures in response is not an indictment of English education — justly indictable as that may be — but an impressive body of evidence to suggest that unhistorical reading is bad reading.'

Indeed I'd go a little further and suggest the 'tradition' is something seen through the prism of our own understanding. The composition we were so pleased with one evening commonly proves on the following morning to be a grave disappointment. We have to cut out the bad, regrow the lines, and keep coaxing the thing into life without too much subverting our original intentions.

All poets know this, but those who simply read for pleasure — that vital body on which literature depends — can try a little experiment. Open at random a long poem which was once well known but hasn't been read for a while, and immediately start reading somewhere around the middle of the poem. My experience is generally one of confusion: the lines seem odd and uninviting, and it's only slowly that the poem 'comes back in focus'. Reading is a trained response, and the 'rules' differ between types of poetry.

It may help to switch disciplines and look at modern art. I think Matisse is over-rated, but there's no doubt that standing in front of, say, the Red Studio is a moving experience, quite different to that gained from looking at an old masterwork. Art critics, who belong to the cosy circle of museums and dealers that maintain prices, sometimes assert that Matisse's skills are the equal of the old masters, or that Picasso's drawings rival those of Raphael. This is nonsense, as anyone with a little art training can see for themselves. {9} Other factors apply, one of which may be what I'd call 'granularity', for want of a better term. In dreams we see a world real enough until we take a magnifying glass to it, and find the impressions cannot be looked into further. What we see is what we're given, and, unlike real life, we cannot focus on some aspect to explore it in more detail. Something like this is happening in The Waste Land. The poem as a whole is giving each word or phrase its significance and emotive power, especially when it's something we've known for a long time, when to our response is added those largely buried memories of who and what we were when we first got to know the work.

One of the more illuminating comments on The Waste Land came from Harold Munro, {10} who remarked, 'The Waste Land is one metaphor with a multiplicity of interpretations.' Speaking from within the Modernist camp, John Press {11} added, 'It is his ability to fuse into poetry a multitude of experiences and a wealth of intellectual speculation that gives his verse such range and authority'. It is these two quotes I'd like to develop further.

That range of subject matter probably derives from Propertius, whose 'Odes' Ezra Pound had rendered as Homage to Sextus Propertius, his beautiful but idiosyncratic 'translation' that appeared in 1919. That similarity of intention may have been what Pound saw in the first draft of The Waste Land, which he drastically pruned, of course, continuing to find a home for Eliot's poetic and critical skills: Eliot became editor of The Criterion in 1922, the year in which The Waste Land was published. The sometimes difficult and tangled relationship between the two writers is germane to the discussion, but will lead us into areas I don't want to explore here. Much is unflattering — Eliot's treatment of his wife, Pound's fascism and the mutual promotion of both — but I doubt we shall fully understand who did what exactly till Eliot's private papers are published, if they ever are.

Munro recognized the multiplicity of interpretations, and Press regarded them as 'fused'. Are they?

Only with a lot of critical erudition added, and an erudition that older men of letters thought had no place in poetry. Instead of traditional craft skills that led us ever deeper into an understanding of what was superficially attractive and convincing, the new poetry required scholarly work from its readers. It was they, or critics, or theoreticians who had to supply what was missing — an understanding of those allusions Pound built his Cantos of, and the background to those sweeping judgements Eliot generally didn't stoop to explain in his critical articles. Hence the 'granularity' that distinguishes dreams from real life. We can't look deeper into the fabric of the poem because that detail isn't there. Or to put the matter more generously: that's not the way these poems work. They are collages rather than closely-integrated thought.

Many critics see it otherwise, of course, and argue that the traditional skills are self-evident in both writers, a claim that seems to me true of Pound's early work, but less so of Eliot at any time. There are 'traditionally fine' passages in The Waste Land certainly — any literary textbook will point them out — and more so in the The Four Quartets. But there are also lacunae and much imprecision posing as profundity. If that seems harsh, look again at standard interpretations of these poems. {11}. Yes, we can compare:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

To Chaucer's opening of The Canterbury Tales, but there is no compelling reason to do so. We can agree that:

'For Eliot's speaker, this rebirth is cruel, because any birth reminds him of death. The soil out of which the spring plants grow is composed of the decayed leaves of earlier plants. April is the month of Easter, and Eliot is invoking here both the Christian story of the young god who dies in order to give new life to the rest of us and the many other versions of this myth chronicled by Sir James Frazer in his anthropological work "The Golden Bough" and Jessie Weston in her "From Ritual to Romance".' {12}

But again a simpler explanation of 'cruellest' is probably the sense of lost youth. And so on. Of course it's good material for critical exegesis, requiring the wide leaps of logic that much of today's critical industry is built on, and which I have outlined in A Background to Critical Theory.

It is also a technique that tends to superficiality, no doubt producing intriguing poems in a talented writer but pretentious banality in others. Exasperation must be the response of many common readers, and especially those who serve a long apprenticeship in disciplines requiring writers to say exactly what they mean: science, philosophy, the law, etc. Meaning is not a simple matter, as I've laboured in the TextEtc website to show — to the bafflement of many visitors, to judge from comments — but there are still rules and common practices that must apply if the work is to achieve what was intended.

Naturally, it's possible to turn matters on their head, and argue that poetry is precisely a language that doesn't make full sense. Or indeed shouldn't make complete sense. Many contemporary poets probably do believe that. But it's not a doctrine espoused by academic life, and seems doubly unfortunate when many contemporary attitudes are controlled by the mass media, making them shallow and commercially orientated. Little of current journalism speaks 'truth to power', and many ambitious poets are moving their opinions from cautious to invisible in seeking university status. Few of the poets we most read would be so craven: think of Milton, Pope or Byron. Even Shakespeare, who knew very well what he could and could not say in the Tudor state, opened the door to a more generous and sympathetic treatment of human character than did his contemporaries. My suggestion is not that poets shouldn't expand their range and repertoire, therefore, but that many of Modernism's approaches create the anodyne poems that now seem to feature prominently in serious writing. Interesting, intriguing, amusing and a dozen other things, but quite harmless, even at their best. That may be the shape of the world we live in, but we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back for the 'original and challenging' virtues of contemporary literature.

The Four Quartets

Many see The Four Quartets {13} as Eliot's best poem, and the greatest philosophic poem of the twentieth century. {14} My purpose here is not to quarrel with that assessment, but only to note how the difficulties mentioned above with The Waste Land are carried through into this later work.

In case a personal note helps, the poem was one I read endlessly in my youth, happily but somewhat indulgently, without understanding how fundamental were my difficulties with it.

The critical literature on 'Eliot and the Four Quartets' is too large for me to even start doing it justice. Wikipedia has a modest introduction, {15} and more can be found on the Internet. Here I'll simply concentrate on pointing out some examples of critical hagiography, of reading meanings and excellences into the poem that are really not there.

To start with craft matters: the verse is more accomplished and integrated than is The Waste Land's. It's no longer so obviously a collage, though ideas, impressions and description are still pasted in, for purposes that make the standard interpretations of the poem, i.e. it is still the same approach though much more astutely carried out. The verse is in both strict and free verse, or commonly something in between, a generally very pleasing mixture if we don't expect too much from its intuitive patterning. The opening lines of Burnt Norton: Section One show this fusion well:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

But the lines opening Section Two are strict verse, though not particularly distinguished verse, I'd suggest:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.

But different again is what these lines actually mean. Anyone with a little training in philosophy, or even contemporary science, will have a great difficulty with this opening mediation on time. The Buddhist view of reincarnation is usually suggested, but Eliot of course was a devout Christian, and 'If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable' is an odd way of putting matters, if not simply playing with terms. By definition, as a passage of events, no time is only in the present. 'Eternally' is an oxymoron. And 'unredeemable' — the key word in this passage, perhaps the poem as a whole — is not properly addressed: we have collages of instances and truncated thoughts but no sustained treatment. Yes, we can say that if 'all time is eternally present' there can be no future in which redeem our sins', but that's hardly helpful, and plays with distinctions that human beings have found useful. Salvation means very different things in Christian and Buddhist religions, and neither, I suspect, believe that 'we live in a universe that is perfect and that every moment is preordained and predetermined.' {16}

The following lines:

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

Are prose, rather wooden, and originally written for Murder in the Cathedral.

Next comes:

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Which is often glossed as referring to free will, though the reading contradicts the predetermined interpretation earlier: We have free will, which is futile. We can make any choices we want, but they all lead to one inevitable end. {16}

And so on. Let's turn to Section Two:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.

Which the helpful rapgenius site admits is obscure but glosses as: {16}

'In one reading, garlic represents the lower, sensual forms of love and sapphires represent the higher, more platonic forms of love, both of which lie at the feet of the "bedded axle-tree" or the cross.'

But again, why make matters so difficult? And in what way can wars be appeased, particularly if already forgotten? Is it man's propensity for sin or violence that we should brood on? Many important issues are touched on, but not properly addressed, indeed evaded. Poetry is not theology, but nor is it playing fast and loose with the usual meanings of words.

I don't want this to develop into an attack on Eliot, whom I still read with a mixture of pleasure and exasperation, but more a general enquiry into literary tactics: why critics will not ask the obvious questions. So extended and serious a poem surely deserves a comparable assessment, not simple 'commentary' or 'interpretation'.

To go a little further into the poem, Eliot may very well have been searching for the spiritual dimension in writing such things as:

And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at. {15}

But such a response requires 'the eye of faith' and a long apprenticeship. Authorities agree that the further dimensions of the world cannot be learned from books but only through extended exercises under a spiritual master. As it stands, the fourth line comes close to being tautological, of being nothing more than semantic shuttlecock. Such interpretations as: {15}

'The poet like the Creator creates a world that appears real but is always qualified. Only the bird can hear the unheard music because it exists in the same unreal world.'

raise a host of philosophic difficulties, far worse than the vagaries of the line itself. Moving on:

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight

In short, matters so important to the poem's theme — indeed to humanity at large — need more than this teasingly solemn air of about to say something important but then not quite getting round to doing so. Perhaps we do stand on the edge of silence. Eliot was a Nobel prize winner, and is still thought by many to have been the greatest poet of the twentieth century. But writers have more important aims than promoting themselves, I'd suggest, one of them being obligations to their readers, the more so when their work gains wide currency.

No doubt the battles over Eliot have been fought long ago, and if The Four Quartets are still on the syllabus of innumerable schools and colleges, few contemporary poets, I think, are taking the poem as their own departure point. But perhaps the matter is closer to the financial shenanigans of 2008, which came close to wrecking the world's banking systems, and may do so again. Until that point, and the trillions of dollars in bailout money that might have been better spent on America's infrastructure and services, or in helping the millions who'd lost homes and jobs through no fault of their own, most citizens were content to leave banking to its own esoteric practices and suppose the financial community was no less honest and useful than any other branch of business.

A flood of newspaper articles, papers and books, many of them directed at the general reader, have changed that perception, and reform is more widely urged as banking scandals grow more egregious. Deep-rooted troubles seem also present in serious poetry, I'm suggesting, which is treated respectfully by academia and the mainstream press, but seems to rest on very dubious notions. It requires an extensive buttressing of theory, which is often a good deal more entertaining and thought-provoking than the poetry itself, a sort of intellectual packaging that is also, unfortunately, somewhat ramshackle when looked at closely. Theorizing may help critics and poets in their academic careers, but seems not socially productive or even accepted by its originating disciplines. Somewhere, even in these early days, poetry seems to have gone off on its own intriguing but dangerous tracks.

Poet or Critic?

Do we see Eliot as primarily a poet or literary critic? In tone and interests — there is very little of the common touch in the poetry, and still less of the milk of human kindness — I'd have thought the latter.. Eliot is primarily the critic who also wrote poetry, a specialist, self-involved, difficult poetry that often doesn't quite make sense. Unfortunately, as I  try to show in the companion article, Eliot's literary criticism also comes with problems, often creating distinctions that are more clever than real. Poetry doesn't have to be deeply personal or confessional, but does require some sustained and decipherable thought if not to dwindle into a rarefied intellectual game.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's modern poets.