[lit-ideas] T. S. Eliot on 18th century poetry

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 20 Oct 2006 09:04:03 -0700

This is from a 1930 article* by T. S. Eliot on 18th century poetry:


"Those who condemn or ignore en bloc the poetry of the eighteenth century on
the ground that it is 'prosaic' are stumbling over an uncertainty of meaning
of the word 'prosaic' to arrive at exactly the wrong conclusion.  One does
not need to examine a great deal of inferior verse of the eighteenth century
to realize that the trouble with it is that it is not prosaic enough.  We
are inclined to use 'prosaic' as meaning not only 'like prose', but as
'lacking poetic beauty' -- and the Oxford and every other dictionary give us
warrant for such use.  Only, we ought to distinguish between poetry which is
like good prose, and poetry which is like bad prose. . . ."


"If you look at the bad verse of any age, you will find most of it lacking
in the virtues of prose. When there is a period of good verse, it has often
been preceded by a period in which verse was bad because it was too poetic,
too artificial; and it is very commonly followed by such another period.
The development of blank verse in the hands of Shakespeare and some of his
contemporaries was the work of adapting a medium which to begin with was
almost intractably poetic, so that it could carry the burdens and exhibit
the subtleties of prose; and they accomplished this before prose was highly
developed.  The work of Donne, in a lesser form, was the same.  It has prose
virtues, and the heavy toil of his minor imitators was wholly to degrade the
idiom of Donne into a lifeless verse convention.  Speech meanwhile was
changing, and Dryden appeared to cleanse the language of verse and once more
bring it back to the prose order.  Fro this reason he was a great poet.  


"The idiom of the Augustan age could not last, for the age itself could not
last.  But so positive was the culture of that age, that for many years the
ablest writers were still naturally in sympathy with it; and it crushed a
number of smaller men who felt differently but did not dare to face the
fact, and who poured their new wine -- always thin, but sometimes of good
flavour -- into the old bottles.  Yet the influence of Dryden and Pope over
the middle of the eighteenth century is by no means so great, or so noxious,
as has been supposed.  A good part of the dreariest verse of the time was
written under the shadow of Milton."


And this is from Eliot's concluding paragraph: "Those who demand of poetry a
day dream, or a metamorphosis of their own feeble desires and lusts, or what
they believe to be 'intensity' of passion, will not find much in Johnson.
He is like Pope and Dryden, Crabbe and Landor, a poet for those who want
poetry and not something else, some stay for their own vanity.  I sometimes
think that our own time, with its elaborate equipment of science and
psychological analysis, is even less fitted than the Victorian age to
appreciate poetry as poetry. . . ."



Comment:  I keep thinking I ought to appreciate some poetry from the 18th
century and do try from time to time but have never managed it.  I have the
complete poetry of Dryden, Pope, Crabbe, and selections from others.   I
can't get past the fact that it (en bloc) is "lacking poetic beauty."   The
same thing could be said about much of the poetry written today: it lacks
poetic beauty.  Perhaps Eliot would add that it also fails to emulate good
prose, but even if it did . . . 




* "Poetry in the Eighteenth Century" by T. S. Eliot.  Article appears in The
Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. 4, From Dryden to Johnson, ed. By
Boris Ford.

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