T.S. Eliot – Selected Essays, 1917-1932
Eliot was born in the U.S., but following grad work at the Sorbonne and Oxford, Europe must have seemed more comfortable, because he stayed there for years. During that time, he began to make his mark as a poet, dramatist, and literary critic. This book contains some of his most provocative literary critiques.
The book begins with Eliot’s view of literary talent and the role of criticism. In these two initial essays, he seems to presage postmodernism in his view that the writer can’t be extracted from his/her culture and literary traditions; nor can the writer thrive without the influence of subsequent criticism. Criticism to Eliot, then, is a traditional/cultural effort to direct the writer from creativity’s blind spots – but first to shepherd him/her into writing’s traditions so as to allow the writing to touch ground there before extrapolating into literature’s future.
Many of the essays following these early two concern his view of Elizabethan drama and the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here, Eliot’s tendency to prefer the traditions of the past, instead of the emerging ones, help depict him as a complex figure – willingly trapped in the literary past but writing some of the most modern poetry of the twentieth century.
With his stay in England, his religious views took a conservative turn, from Unitarianism to the Church of England. Tradition surfaces here, too, in the book’s final essays, in which he takes Irving Babbitt’s humanistic views to task. Babbitt, who seemed to discard religion altogether as a valid human enterprise, dwelt on humanism as a secular substitute. Eliot’s argument, while eloquently put, seems not to understand the evolution of secularism as a social phenomenon, preferring to see humanism (i.e., ethics, morality, et al) as secondary to the mysteries religious faith is determined to perpetuate.
But what of Eliot’s writing? He's eloquent throughout, but his opinions, reflections, and arguments, while witty and full of life, seem longwinded – blather, for the most part. Still he can’t escape the poet and dramatist within himself, and there’s enough here to coach the aspiring poet to a higher level of accomplishment. For that reason alone, the book is worth the read.
My rating: 3-3/4 of 5 stars