[lit-ideas] Re: Looking into the heart of light, the silence

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 26 Sep 2013 05:18:59 -0700

By coincidence I have recently read several critical essays that discuss
Eliot.  Edmund Wilson in his essay "The Historical Interpretation of
Literature" for example; he begins by describing what he will not be
discussing in his essay, and he uses T. S. Eliot as his example:

"To begin with, it will be worth while to say something about the kind of
criticism which seems to be furthest removed from this.  There is a kind of
comparative criticism which tends to be non-historical.  The essays of T. S.
Eliot, which have had such an immense influence in our time, are, for
example fundamentally non-historical.  Eliot sees, or tries to see, the
whole of literature, so far as he is acquainted with it, spread out before
him under the aspect of eternity.  He then compares the work of different
periods and countries, and tries to draw from it general conclusions about
what literature ought to be.  He understands, of course, that our point of
view in connection with literature changes, and he has what seems to me a
very sound conception of the whole body of writing of the past as something
to which new works are continually being added, and which is not thereby
merely increased in bulk but modified as a whole - so that Sophocles is no
longer precisely what he was for Aristotle, or Shakespeare what he was for
Ben Jonson or for Dryden or for Dr. Johnson, on account of all the later
literature that has intervened between hem and us.  Yet at every point of
this continual accretion, the whole field may be surveyed, as it were,
spread out before the critic.  The critic tries to see it as God might; he
calls the books to a Day of Judgment.  And, looking at things in this way,
he may arrive at interesting and valuable conclusions which could hardly be
reached by approaching them in any other way.  Eliot was able to see, for
example - what I believe had never been noticed before - that the French
Symbolist poetry of the nineteenth century had certain fundamental
resemblances to the English poetry of the age of Donne.  Another kind of
critic would draw certain historical conclusions from these purely esthetic
findings, as the Russian D. S. Mirsky did; but Eliot does not draw them."  

These seem impressive achievements, to "have a very sound conception of the
whole body of writing of the past" and to draw the connection esthetically
between the French Symbolists and the metaphysical poetry of the nineteenth
century.  But perhaps at the same time, in the manner of our lowering our
estimation of the skills of a magician once we learn how his trick was
performed, is not our admiration of Eliot's most famous poem, The Love Song
of J. Alfred Prufrock lessened by learning the "self-distrustful attitudes
of Prufrock owe their definition largely to Laforgue, and there the
technical debt shows itself; it shows itself in the ironical transitions,
and also in the handling of the verse."?   

The previous quote is from F. R. Leavis New Bearings in English Poetry,
1932.  Leavis would disagree with my suggestion that Eliot's having been
influenced by Laforgue lessens the Prufrock achievement.  He goes on to say
that this Laforgue influence "has been made too much of by some critics:
French moves so differently from English that to learn from French verse an
English poet must be strongly original.  And to learn as Mr. Eliot leant in
general from Laforgue is to be original to the point of genius.  Already in
the collection of 1917 he is himself as only a major poet can be."   

Leavis seems more generous than Northrup Frye in 1963 (T. S. Eliot) who
writes "Prufrock and Other Observations also appeared in 1917, showing the
influence of Laforgue, most markedly in the lunar symbolism and the use of
ironic dialogue."

Which brings us to the "overwhelming question" why did Eliot who wrote this
poem in 1915 present himself as an old man?  He was only 37 at the time.
The answer may be that the idea of an old man who had measured out his life
with coffee spoons allowed him to present a dramatis persona as he thought
Laforgue might, if Laforgue wrote in English.

Harold Bloom's view, based on his A Map of Misreading might say that T. S.
Eliot has nothing to be ashamed of and his readers ought not to think less
of him for having been influenced by Laforgue.  Every poet is influenced by
some preceding poet - as far as we know - at least in modern times.
Therefore, as Benjamin Franklin might say, "wear your trousers rolled


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Sent: Thursday, September 26, 2013 2:19 AM
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Subject: [lit-ideas] Looking into the heart of light, the silence

125 years ago today (the 26th of September, 1888) T.S. Eliot was born.

Chris Bruce,
still not wearing the bottoms
of his trousers rolled, in
Kiel, Germany

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