Monday, 22 March 2010

T.S.ELIOT: A POET AND CRITIC

In the twentieth century, in a new type of literary analysis, the literary work as a “separate entity divorced from extrinsic considerations” becomes the dominant concern of scholars (Guerin 20). This “systematic and methodological formalistic approach” to literary criticism is called ‘the New Criticism’ (74). Although the New Criticism develops independently of the Russian Formalism, calling for a renewed attention to “literature as literature”, distinguishing literature and other kinds of writing from each other, telling about “interrelatedness” and treating the “literary text as an object independent of its author and its historical context” are the fundamental affinities between these two movements. The New Criticism begins with the work of I. A. Richards and T.S. Eliot before the first World War in England and is continued, in the United States during the forties, fifties and sixties, by figures such as John Crowe Ransom, W.K. Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate (Robey 73) who come together originally at Vanderbilt University in the years following the first World War as an informal group to discuss literature. They find the necessary support for their ideas that emerge from their study and writing of lyric poetry when the poetry and critical essays of T.S.Eliot come to their attention (Guerin 75). Many New Critics who look to Eliot as a “guiding spirit” also look to Richards as the “trail-blazer” of the new critical theories. At Cambridge, Richards gives to his students copies of unfamiliar poems on which he asks them to comment freely and lists the responses ranging from “simple incomprehension to inhibition and sentimentality.” The results of this “laboratory” experiment are exhibited in his book Practical Criticism and “the text in isolation is all that matters and the role of the critic is detailed exegesis of the words on the printed page” becomes the norm for later New Critical thinking (Dutton 69). And the New Critics with their view that scholars should concentrate on the work itself, on the text, examining it as art revolutionise the study of literature (Guerin 20). In this paper, first, I will tell about the views of the New Critics and then, about T.S. Eliot as a New Critic, referring to some of his well-known essays such as ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919) and his famous poem The Waste Land (1922).
As mentioned in the beginning the New Critics describe the text as an artefact that is “divorced from contexts and sites of production” and it is supposed to have “all of its essentiality contained within itself”. It is the poem that explores the values and the poet’s only duty is to structure the means by which the poem can exist (Birch 69). For the “literary appreciation” it is necessary to recognise “integrity” in text and “the text as a unified whole cannot be taken apart and put back together again, though its details can be analysed in close reading” (65).
To look for integrity in the literary work is not something new. Before the New Critics, for example, Aristotle’s Poetics suggests an “orderly arrangement of parts” that form a “beautiful whole or organism”. Horace, similarly, wants the “would-be poet’s subject to be simple and unified.” In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the Romantic movement in Europe, analogies between the “life principle” of a work of art and that of living organisms are intensified. Coleridge declares that in a “legitimate poem the parts mutually support and explain each other.” In America, Edgar Allan Poe extends Coleridge’s theory and claims that short lyric poems and short tales maintain “a single, unitary effect” more successfully than can long works like Paradise Lost. Later Henry James also tells about the “intricate, necessary interrelationships of parts and the whole” (Guerin 73).
As Birch writes all that the critics needs to talk about, with regard to the “total meaning” of the text, is contained within the text and this theory of organic unity, “text-in-itself-relevance” does not permit discussion on anything other than the meaning “inherent” in the text (66). Robey shares the same idea and claims that:
· The only history the critic must master is the history of words. He must grasp the full historical meaning of the language used in the text, including all its associations, and of the names to which reference may be made, but only to the extent that their meaning is a matter of public record about the culture in which the text was produced (82).
For Dutton, it is this view that makes New Criticism attractive among the critics (and in schoolrooms). There is no extrinsic material to be learned about authors, influences, historical movements or genres before you start reading the text. What you need here may be just a good dictionary (71) Whereas, some others evaluate ignoring any information not in the work itself as a guilt or a mistake since it can be helpful while interpreting the work (Guerin 20).
The New Critics say that the chief property of poetry is “coherence” but the “harmonisation of conflicting meanings or attitudes”. The wholeness of meaning is established through “internally differentiated form”, “the reconciliation of diverse parts”. The meaning of the text refers to the interaction of both different and similar parts. So, complexity and coherence together constitute the key considerations in the analysis of literary texts (Robey 83). The New Critics are also for the use of irony. As a defining characteristic of poetry, irony is closely related to “paradox” which involves the “association of conflicting elements within the same statement” (Robey 87). But it is claimed that this use of irony (and also ambiguity and nuance) appeal only to people of a certain type of background: “sophisticated, well-read and articulate” (Dutton 73).
The author uses the text as a transparent medium for conveying his experience to the reader. It is desirable or possible for the critic to recreate in himself the “mental condition” of the author. There may be some “obstacles blocking the reader’s approach to this mental condition. If you pay the right kind of attention when you are approaching the text, then, you will have no problem with your interpretation and you will be in the same mental condition with the author(Robey 77). Otherwise you will need the help suggested by I.A.Richards in his book Practical Criticism for such a problem.
Though T.S. Eliot is seen as the father-figure of the New Criticism, in his essay ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (1956) he expresses surprise at being called the main progenitor of the New Criticism (Lucy 66). He is not the inventor of the New Criticism but ‘in criticism as in poetry he is one of the first to give expression to the spirit of his time. He provides a compelling example to others by the power and penetration of his work” (67). It is possible to see the theory of the New Criticism in his essays and his poetry may be referred to for practical criticism. In his influential essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, he states that “criticism is as inevitable as breathing” and that “we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it” (Lodge 71). In his essay, ‘The Function of Criticism’ (1923), he refers to criticism as the “commentation and exposition of works of art by means of written words” and he adds that the aim of criticism is to be the “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste” (78). Here, the critic aims to “refine the reader’s sensibility by increasing his understanding” through elucidation (Lucy 45). Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ says that “honest criticism and sensitive appreciation are directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry” and criticism for him, too, means to examine the work of art by turning all the attention on to it (65). However, in ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’, he claims that analyzing a work in isolation, without reference to the author or to his other work, has the “merits of sincerity and single-mindedness” but, it also has the danger of making us think that the poem has only one meaning that is given by the critic or that this meaning is what the poet means to mean (43). So, commenting on the work and making it clear by giving details may help the reader to interpret that work and may ‘correct the taste’ but, this also means to direct the reader’s attention towards the point the critic wants. For instance, in The Waste Land there are some notes used to identify some of Eliot’s sources or to suggest relationships between images or allusions. This prevents the reader from free interpretation. But, for such poems it may also be useful only to show the richness of them through such explanations to those who are not “sophisticated, well-read and articulate” enough. Otherwise it is not necessary for a reader to be in the some ‘mental condition’ with the poet while reading his work.
Eliot tries to rebut the Romantic emphasis on the ‘originality’ and ‘personality’ of the poet as the most important feature of literature (Dutton 67). As Kantarcıoğlu writes:
· For Eliot the most philosophical literary form is poetry; and the essence of poetry is emotion. However, the emotion expressed in poetry should not be personal and be transformed into aesthetic,or objective emotions by the poet who is capable of escaping from personality............ The poet should have a mature mind in order to express his personal feelings in a traditional form. A mature mind is a neutral medium which can reconcile the opposite experiences of man in a synthesis (162).
In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Eliot likens the mind of the poet to the shred of platinum, as a catalyst, causes the combination of gases but is not affected, remains neutral and unchanged. Similarly, the poet tells about the man’s experience but he keeps himself out of the poem. As Eliot says, the progress of the artist is a “continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”. It is not necessary for a poet to write about his own experiences. For Eliot, the business of the poet is to use the ordinary emotions for his poetry, not to find new ones; and “emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him” (Lodge 74).
For Eliot, “no poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” He uses the past poets as judging criteria and adds that the poet must be set among the dead for contrast and comparison (72). But, unlike the Neoclassic evaluation of the dead poets, he is not for mere imitation. Learning about one poet, one period, or about one’s own literature is not enough. He claims that it is the poet’s responsibility to read all the poets from Homer down to the present and to develop “consciousness of the past” (71). Eliot believes that the poet must develop a “historical sense” to appreciate both the pastness and the presence of tradition. This means that tradition is not a mere repetation of the old but both unity and alteration. Every work of literature “both relates to the past and also alters art to be contemporary” (Gültekin 62). In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Eliot argues that if a work does not have something new, then it is not a work of art. In ‘The Social Function of Poetry (1945), he stresses the fact that “the language and culture of a nation get corrupt when the poets of that nation stop creating” (Kantarcıoğlu 167). In the Waste Land, (3.243) Eliot uses the verb “foresuffer” in the line “And I Tiresias have foressuffered all.” Though the use of the prefix ‘fore-‘ to a verb is limited to a small group of items, such as foresee, foreknow, foretell and forewarn, he adds a new one to that group and this strikes us as a novelty, and as a surprising extension of expressive possibilities of the language (Leech 42). Eliot’s “foresuffered” is not just a new word, but the “encapsulation of a newly formulated idea that it is possible to anticipate mystically the suffering of the future (44).
I can connect
Nothing with nothing
The broken fingernails or dirty hands
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.
In these lines from the Waste Land (III.301-305) the meaning is intensified through the repetation of the word “nothing” and these plain lines reflect barrenness and emptiness of the modern world impressively.
Eliot, in his poem Little Gidding (1942) defines poetry as follows:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning,
The end is where we start from.
.....................
And every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning
Every poem an epitaph.
So, for him, there must be an integrity within a work of art and every part has a significant role to constitute this wholeness. He states that “words, phrases, sentences, images rhythm and meter and rhyme and intonation and the music it creates, in short, all the elements dance to the rhythm of the same music in concentric spheres (Kantarcıoğlu 163), as a component, the words are important in his own works, too. Also, his use of distorted quotations is something that Eliot adds to literature. Through them, he fuses together examples from the past in his poems, which means for him “richness and density” (Matthiessen 19). For instance, the beginning of The Waste Land refers to Satyricon of Petronius (1st century A.D.) which tells about the prophetic old woman of Greek mythology and her wish for death, the title of the first part,” The Burial of The Dead” comes from the Anglican church, in a part from Wagner’s Opera a sailor” recalls the girl he has left behind” (I.30-34),”Good-night, ladies, good-night, sweet ladies, good-night, good-night” are the mad Ophelia’s departing words in Hamlet (II,172), and also the lines “But at my back in a cold blast I hear / The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear” (III. 185-186) show an ironic distortion of Andrew Marvell’s famous lines from To His Coy Mistress: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” (lines 21-22).Such examples exhibit his poetic theory based on the quest for a “shared tradition” that can reflect the past and the present of the whole Euopean culture and may also be the examples for “objective correlative” which is the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art for Eliot. The use of “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events that will be the formula of a particular emotion” is important for Eliot because it is possible to “express human experience with all its dimensions objectively” through this technique. And, this is the most suitable form of escaping from personality while writing (Matthiessen 58).
In this paper, I told about the main concerns of the New Critics, such as looking for integrity in the work of art, leaving the extrinsic material outside the work, keeping the coherence and complexity together in the artwork, and about T.S. Eliot as a major figure in the New Criticism, his way of looking at the critic, poetry and the poet referring to some of his essays and to his poetry to exemplify his views.
Now, without taking any extrinsic material into consideration and thinking each word, each phrase as a component of the whole, let’s try to apply a close-reading to a short story, Cat in the Rain:
When we first loot at the title of the story, we see two opposing elements represented by ‘cat’ and ‘the rain’: ‘the weak’ and the ‘strong’. Using them together reminds us of a cat under the rain in difficult conditions. The words used for the cat and about the cat also support this idea: “a cat was ‘crouched’ under one of the dripping green tables”; “the cat was trying to make herself so ‘compact’ that ........”; “I’m going down and get that ‘kitty’.” Whereas, the rain is preventive here: “In the good weather there (in the public garden) was always an artist with his easel”; “across the square in the doorway of the cafe a waiter stood ‘looking out’ at the ‘empty’ square”. So, both the artist and the visitors of the cafe (and of the war monument) are prevented by the rain. ‘Standing and looking out’ means that the waiter has nobody there to serve. The rain may be thought both to be destructive, harmful, preventive and fertile. But, in this story, nobody gets use of its fertility: “It was raining harder. A man in a ‘rubber cape’ was crossing the empty square to the cafe”; “As she (the American wife) stood at the doorway an umbrella opened behind her”. So, the man and the lady lose the opportunity of having fertility through the rain. When the American wife is outside, the maid comes near her and says, “Come, Signora, we must get back inside. You will be wet”. The lady says, “I ‘suppose so’.” This reply means that she is in need of that fruitfulness.
In the story, the struggle between culture and nature is represented mostly in two characters; the husband and the wife. The husband, reading all the time, also represents individualism. “Motor-cars”, “war-monuments” and “painter” are also in his group. Whereas, “sea”, “palm-trees”, “gardens” and “rain” are in the woman’s group. Another contrast is exhibited between the hotel –owner and the husband. When the hotel-owner is being talked about, we all the time hear “she liked”: “The wife ‘liked’ him. She ‘liked’ the deadly serious way he received any complaints .............. she ‘liked’ the way he wanted to serve her .......... ‘Liking’ him she opened the door, etc.” But, when the husband is addressed the verb changes: “I ‘wanted’ that poor kitty”; “I ‘want’ to pull my hair back tight”; “I ‘want’ to eat at a table with my own silver”, etc. The word ‘like’ used about the padrone makes the wife’s interest in him clear and the word ‘want’ represents the wife’s unfulfilled wishes by the husband or the husband’s insufficiency. When the lady goes out to get the cat, the maid who looks after their room brings an umbrella to keep her from the rain. Since it is the husband whose insufficiency is implied in the story it would have been more suitable to think him as the sender of the umbrella to keep her away from the rain – the fertility – but the hotel – owner is said to have sent it: “ ‘Of course’, the hotel keeper had sent it”. This may, also, mean that she expects interest from the hotel – owner but not from her husband.
In this story, the word ‘kitty’ means ‘hope’ for the wife. When the wife is outside with the maid, the conversation between them is very telling:
The maid – “Have you lost something, Madam?!
The wife – “ There was a cat.”
The maid – “A cat?”
The wife – “Yes, a cat.”
The maid – “A cat in the rain?”
This last sentence implies that what the wife wants is impossible to get. The deep meaning for the ‘kitty’ may be a child because it means ‘cat or kitten’ but is used by or ‘to’ young children. Maybe that the maid means you want that ‘kitty’ but, if you ask me, it seems impossible due to the lack of love or interests between you and your husband.
If we notice the beginning of the story, it tells about being alone or alien; “There were ‘only’ two Americans stopping at the hotel.” The couple’s being alone in a foreign country may mean the alienation, also, between themselves. They are the “only Americans” at that “hotel”. In a hotel nothing belongs to you and this may also refer to alienation between themselves. They share nothing, neither an object nor love there. Similar to the setting “being the only Americans in Italy”, “knowing nobody there”, and “having an empty square to watch” add more pessimism in terms of relation. There is distance all the time between the wife and the husband. The wife is “near the window” or “before the dressing table”. Only one time she goes near the husband and “sits down on the bed”. Though she feels the padrone close to herself, he is also away from her, “behind his desk in the far en of the dim room.”
When we pay attention to the woman’s way of saying her wishes and also the husbands replies, the lack of connection between them is clear. She tells her wishes but does not insist on them or does not try to convince her husband that she is right. She tells everything immediately as if her aim is just to tell them, but not to have them, maybe she doesn’t have any hope that these may be realised so she only tells and feels comfortable or she just wants to get the attention of her husband. She does not look for consistency: “And I want to eat a table with my own silver and I want candles. And I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.”
With his words and actions, the husband shows that he is not interested in his wife. He uses mostly imperatives while addressing her. For instance, “Don’t get wet” or “Shut up and get something to read.” If we read the husband’s replies to his wife we see decrease in his interest: The wife wants to grow out her hair. He ‘looks at her’ (this is a good beginning!) and says “I like it the way it is. After some questions or statements his replies respectively are:
“I like it the way it is” (he looks at her)
He changes his position in the bed.
“Yeah?” he says from the bed.
“Shut up and get something to read” he says.
He was reading his book again. He was not listening.
What is strange here is that after this point the lady goes to the window, she ‘never complains’ about her husband’s indifference directly. Then, she sees the ‘light outside’ and the maid brings ‘a cat’ from the padrone. And, the ‘light’ outside may foreshadow the approaching ‘hope’.( This story was written by Ernest Hemingway.)
Works Cited
· Birch, David. Language, Literature and Critical Practice: Ways of Analysing Text. London: Routledge, 1989.
Dutton, Richard. An Introduction To Literary Criticism. New York: Longman, 1986.
Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” 20th Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Lodge, David. New York: Longman, 1972.
Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches To Literature. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1986.
Gültekin, Lerzan. “A Quest For Tradition and Novelty: T.S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry As Reflected in The Waste Land’.” C. Ü. Fen – Edb. Fak. Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi 14 (1991): 61 – 76.
Kantarcıoğlu, Sevim. Literary Criticism: The Major Literary Movements in Western Literatures. Ankara: Hatiboğlu Yayınevi, 1997.
Leech, Geoffrey N. A Linguistic Guide To English Poetry. London: Longman Group Ltd., 1969.
Lucy, Sean. T.S. Eliot and the Idea of Tradition. UK: Aberdeen U.P., 1978.
Matthiessen, F.O. The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An Essay on The Nature of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP , 1947
Robey, David. “Anglo – American New Criticism”. Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction, eds. Jefferson, Ann and

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