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Selected Essays by T. S. Eliot

Selected Essays (edition 1964)

by T. S. Eliot

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306136,480 (4.1)2
Title:Selected Essays
Authors:T. S. Eliot (Author)
Info:New York, Harcourt, Brace & World [c1964]
Collections:Literature, Your library, Books
Tags:non-fiction, essays, literature, american_literature, english_literature, poetry, 20th_century

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Selected Essays, 1917-1932 by T. S. Eliot



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[From Great Modern Reading, Nelson Doubleday, 1943, pp. 321-23:]

It is useful to note the facts that T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, graduated at Harvard, and studied at the Sorbonne and at Oxford. He has been a teacher, a bank clerk, an editor, and a publisher. He settled in England in 1914, being then twenty-six, and in 1927 became a British subject. He has written a considerable amount of prose, but his prose is not particularly distinguished. It is not always lucid. He has not often given his essays form, and with one notable exception, the Dante, they give the impression of obiter dicta, drawn out to some length, rather than of accomplished works of art. But he is certainly the most important poet now writing. He has had a marked influence on modern poetry both in England and America. W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Day-Lewis, some of whose verses you will have read earlier in this volume, have been notably affected by it. I look upon myself as very fortunate in that I have been able to give here three of his finest poems.*

I speak of poetry only with diffidence, and now my diffidence is increased by the circumstance that Eliot himself has written of poetry in general with authority, though sometimes with prejudice, and of his own poetry with modesty, reasonableness, and good-humor. One should always accept what a writer says about the art he practices with reservation, for his remarks are apt to be colored by his own practice. We none of us write as we would like to: we write as best we can. It is very natural to make your limitations the cornerstone of your art and because you can only write in such and such a way to decide that that is the best way of writing.

But there is one point that Eliot makes over and over again, and that is one with which I heartily agree. He claims that poetry should be an enjoyment to read. But there are many kinds of poetry, and the sort of enjoyment you get from one kind is different from that which you get from another. You must not ask from a poet something that he does not attempt to give you. I have a notion that there is a poetry that appeals rather to the head than to the heart, the poetry of Dryden, for instance, and a poetry that appeals to the heart rather than to the head, Verlaine, say; and I have no doubt that the greatest poetry of all appeals to both, and here, I suppose, the classic example would be the great speeches that Shakespeare put into the mouths of Hamlet and Othello. But to my mind there is another sort of poetry, one that appeals to what, knowing no other word to express what I mean, I must call the subconscious. There is a poetry that gives you the same sort of thrill, a strange primeval feeling, that you get when on a river in Borneo you hear the drums beating in a distant village, when you walk alone in those silent stealthy woods of South Carolina, or when in the jungle of Indo-China you come upon those vast, those colossal heads of Brahma that form the towers of a ruined temple.

It is just that feeling I get when I read the poems, the later poems of T. S. Eliot. I do not pretend I altogether understand them, though each time I read them I think I understand them better, but that is the emotion I get from them, a peculiar thrill, an anxious animal excitement that I find in the work of no other poet. I do not know whether these poems will ever become part of the heritage of our people as parts of Shakespeare and Milton, certain poems of Wordsworth and Keats, have become, nor whether those who live poetry will carry in their minds single lines like "Nor praise the deep vermilion of the rose," or "The sleep that is among the lonely hills" that rise in the consciousness at odd times, none knows why, and refresh the spirit with their fragrance. That is no business of mine. But there are lines in "Ash-Wednesday" of such beauty, of such magic, of such power to fire the imagination that I think they may well become part of our common consciousness.

Much has been written about Eliot by more competent critics than I. His philosophy has been discussed, and reviled; his technique has been studied. I don't know that anyone has been struck by the incongruities of the personality that his writings disclose. I mentioned his essays a little while ago. They are remarkable for their good sense, but the pleasure one takes in reading them is mitigated by his pedagogic superciliousness. He seems to lecture us with a ruler in his hand with which he is prepared to rap us sharply over the knuckles unless we accept everything he says as incontestable. He is neither indulgent nor persuasive, but harsh, contemptuous and domineering. But when you read his poetry, a very different picture presents itself; you get the impression then of an unhappy, tortured man, but with a humor that is not only grim, but can be gay and impish, of a frustrated man to whom life is sterile, who loathes the vulgarity he nevertheless seeks and who, looking into his heart, finds there only emptiness, hatred of himself, and despair.

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

You read further: you find compassion and even tenderness for the human beings that are struggling ineffectually toward an uncertain goal, faith that clutches with dogged resolve at a straw, and a woeful, weary resignation. So discordant may be the elements that combine to create the plausible harmony that is human character. I must ask you to forgive me if I have written of T. S. Eliot at undue length. I wanted you to read his poems because I think he is the greatest poet of our time, and I thought it might help you if I told you a little of the sort of man I take him, from reading his work, to be.

*Ash Wednesday, The Hollow Man and Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service. Ed.
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To Harriet Shaw Weaver in gratitude, and in recognition of her services to English letters.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0151803870, Paperback)

37 essays in an expanded edition of the author's major volume of criticism.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:00 -0400)

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