22 November, 2009

T.S. Eliot: The Scholarly Conversation

The infamous and to some extent deliberately cultivated difficulty of T.S. Eliot's highly allusive poetry has produced an onslaught of critical attempts to elucidate it in light of one “crucial” insight or another. These attempts have been more or less successful according to the degree in which they actually address the main thrust of his poetic legacy instead of wandering off, as Heaney complains is too often the case, in pursuit of one or another esoteric reference to literary tradition.

The poems are in many respects pastiches of literary reference, and though critics agree on the ubiquity of such references, they disagree about whether a comprehensive understanding of these is necessary to understand the poetry. Gardner and Heaney present compelling cases for initially encountering the poetry on its own ground, an attractively unpretentious approach when one considers the plethora of attempts to read Eliot's entire corpus in terms of some arcane paraphrasing of one dead author or another. Arguments such as Chinitz's regarding the influence of popular song or Lowe's comparison of Raskolnikov and Prufrock—though valuable in some respects—will often give too much weight to a single influence, implicitly suggesting that Eliot's work is intrinsically esoteric, accessible only to the scholars who can chase down such references and solve them as one might work out a puzzle. A reasonable balance is found in the work of scholars such as Moody, Manganiello, and Rogers, who admit the power of the allusions to enrich an understanding of the poetry and believe the major ones to be worth pursuing in consequence, but who stop short of reducing the poetry to the sum of its references.

Having studied with some of the leading thinkers of the early twentieth century at Harvard and abroad, Eliot had a clear set of philosophical convictions, and study of these philosophical influences forms a significant subcategory of Eliot criticism. There is less disagreement on this subject than there is about the importance of allusion in his work. Though Heaney still holds the philosophical underpinnings of the poetry to be potentially distracting, critics from Gardner in the 1950s to contemporary writers such as Moody, Perl and Childs have agreed on the relevance of Eliot's philosophy to a comprehension of the intellectual arc of his poetry. Brooker and Childs, authors well-versed in Bergsonism and Bradleanism, substantially treat Eliot's relation to these thinkers, while Perl hones in on the often overlooked influence of Eastern philosophy, all making welcome contributions to the understanding of Eliot's early poetry. Schneider, Clark, and Thomas Howard (not cited here) treat Eliot's later career, when his thought is more completely his own, verifying his new preoccupation with Anglo-Catholic theological concepts such as the Incarnation as well as his continued interest in the concepts of time, history and change. This area of criticism manifests, perhaps because of the general coherency and clarity of Eliot's philosophical theory, a much greater degree of consensus than is often seen among his critics, and is a fertile area of scrutiny.

Less helpful in general is the movement, born of what often seems a voyeuristic interest in Eliot's (largely exaggerated) psychological neuroses, to interpret his work in terms of these biographical details. Däumer, Chinitz, and Cuda speculate on the effect of Eliot’s “inhibitions” regarding domineering women, romantic assignations, and medical operations to support their interpretations of his work, and the result is generally unsatisfying as a macroscopic explanation, though occasionally interesting in details.

While literary, philosophical, and biographical influences are common focuses, the body of criticism suffers from a relative dearth of comprehensive treatments of Eliot’s prosody. Gardner and Hartman excepted, many critics seem bewildered by the peculiar metricality of Eliot’s “free verse.” When critics such as Rogers, Sanders, and Unger make incidental forays into prosodic issues, the analysis of one will often differ wildly from that of another, and it is often true that allegations that, for instance, a certain passage “is” an abortive sonnet are not backed up and seem presupposed for the sake of the main argument.

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