Elliot’s Perfect Critic
But you who seek to give & merit fame,
And justly bear a Critic’s noble name,
Be sure yourself & your own reach to know
How far your genius, taste, & learning go;
TS Eliot was the last great poet-critic to really get his boots dirty in attempting to fathom the science behind the mystery of the noble art of poetry. He began at the age of 38 years, the same as I, just passed the mid-thirties, when a man’s mind is working at its optimum peak. This was in 1917, exactly a century after Coleridge – the previous incumbent – had produced his remarkable Biographia Literaria. Elliot admits his own place in the scheme when he writes, ‘Coleridge was perhaps the greatest of English critics, and in a sense the last. After Coleridge we have Matthew Arnold; but Arnold — I think it will be conceded — was rather a propagandist for criticism than a critic, a popularizer rather than a creator of ideas.’ Towards the end of his own essay-writing (1920), all of Elliot’s studies began to distil themselves into his magnificently erratic ‘Wasteland,’ the game-changing poem which went off like a bomb in the cloistered academes of the English-speaking world, & changed the landscape of poetry, & all its conventions, forever. A wonderful description was etched by a certain J.M (Double Dealer 5: May 1923), who described it as ‘the agonized outcry of a sensitive romanticist drowning in a sea of jazz.’
Today I shall be disseminating Elliot’s first two lectures (& introduction) which appeared in his 1921 collection, The Sacred Wood: The Perfect Critic & the Imperfect Critic. In them, he assimilates & extols the purpose & mechanisms of poetic criticism, which are of great importance to any modern poet wishing to proceed along the deeper channels of the Art. We moderns must all become poet-critics : with the Art full come circle, it is not enough these days to just write the stuff, we must understand everything about it. We are entering a time of judgement, for the grand old gallery which holds the work of our masters is having a massive paint-job. When Elliot says ‘Once a poet is accepted, his reputation is seldom disturbed, for better or worse,’ it is up to us to challenge such a stiff, textbook attitude, & make our own minds up. Some of the longest-esteemed poems may find themselves packaged in bubble-wrap & placed in the cellars, while others may be unwrapped & returned to a place of privilege for the world to admire once again. The Age of the Orcs is over – the time of the Accertamento Grande has come.
During my recent skirmishes with the professors of History across the world (I won 3-0 by the way), I found a similar lazy attitude to the past – that what has written by older scholars is treated as unshakeable dogma & rarely challenged. For the budding bard, you must read everything, & read it with a critical intelligence that widens its abilities with the acquisition of every new poem read. Elliot writes, ‘the new impressions modify the impressions received from the objects already known. An impression needs to be constantly refreshed by new impressions in order that it may persist at all ; it needs to take its place in a system of impressions. And this system tends to become articulate in a generalized statement of literary beauty.‘ It can be said that one’s critical intelligence exists through an excess of study, followed by the establishment of personal taste after later meditations on the subject matter. As a poet, the acquisition of such skills can only be of assistance, as Elliot tells us, ‘when one creative mind is better than another, the reason often is that the better is the more critical.‘Elliot’s statement was improved upon by a real-life critic, Marianne Moore (Dial 70 : March 1921), who wrote while reviewing the Sacred Wood, ‘ the connection between criticism & creation is close; criticism naturally deals with creation but it is equally true that criticism inspires creation.’
During the course of your studies, what you will notice is that each poem contains three basic elements; the poet’s personality, the zeitgeist in which they were writing, & the great tradition of Poetry to which they all belonged. Thus armed, ye future poet-critics will be able to appreciate a poem in its proper context . Although criticism goes above appreciation, to criticize we must first be able to appreciate. Of these three pillars of criticism, the poetic tradition is the most important, when in Elliot’s words we should be able to, ‘see the best work of our time and the best work of twenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes,’ which he bases upon his own, ‘conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.’ You must see a poet not as a ‘dead poet,‘ but an ever-living entity whose living essence is immortally stored in their individual contributions to the Art. To re-read a dead poet is to resurrect their ghost, so to speak, & to converse with them over a cup of warm ambrosia in your study. This leads us neatly to these wonderful passages of Elliot’s which every poet should learn something of by heart;
Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want
it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year ; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence ; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.
What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered…and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.
(The Critic)…will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
To contribute something of our own to the Parnassian stream, we modern poets must interpret the grand tradition in our very own ways. Elliot tells us we should, ‘write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think. No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume the dignity of a writer, by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery, and hereditary similes, by readiness of rhyme, and volubility of syllables.’ That Elliot was a poet of the first rank cannot be denied; The 434 lines of his modernist Wasteland has had as much effect on the world as Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura did in the late Middle Ages. Yet, reading through his essays he soon loses the inspired bardic visions into the Art & descends into the parlor-room conversaziones of Virginia Woolfe’s London set. His essays contain, subconsciously, some of the scurrilous psychopomp of the still-living Freud, & on occasion his writings are overwhelmed by an over-active mind, leaving the reader somewhat floating in the middle of the air, grasping for a rope to reel themselves to safety. Still, at times Elliot’s vision is so penetrating, that his lasar-beam thoughts have cleared the rubble from some of the obscurest caves on the slopes of Parnassus. So, let me now close today’s lecture with this following nugget of Elliot, who definitely had;
The first requisite of a critic : interest in his subject, and ability to com-
municate an interest in it.