T.S.Eliot – Theory of Poetry


T.S. Eliot, American-English poet, playwright, editor and literary critic, heralded a new dawn as the pioneer of the modernist movement in literature. His name has become synonymous with modernism and the general change that came about in the realm of imaginative literature and criticism between the years 1910 and 1939. Eliot’s description of himself in his preface to ‘For Lancelot Andrews’ as a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics and an Anglo-Catholic in religion sets the tone for his lifelong commitment to criticism. His five hundred odd essays published as reviews and articles from time to time have exerted a tremendous influence on the critical temper of the twentieth century. As George Watson remarks, “Eliot made English criticism look different but not in a simple sense.” He held very strong and dogmatic beliefs, and  turned the critical tradition of the English speaking world upside down with his revolutionary criticism.

Eliot’s critical works include such books as ‘The Sacred Wood’, ‘Homage to John Dryden’, ‘For Lancelot Andrews’, ‘Selected Essays’, ‘The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism’, ‘Elizabethan Essays’ and  ‘Essays Ancient and Modern’. In 1919 appeared his famous essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ in the journal “The Egoist”. The essay is considered the unofficial manifesto of T.S.Eliot’s critical creed, for it contains all those principles which are the basis of his subsequent criticism. Divided into three parts, the essay gives us Eliot’s concept of tradition in the first part, and in the second part is developed his theory of the impersonality of poetry, the third part being a summing up.

Eliot begins the essay by pointing out that the word ‘tradition’ is a word that is disagreeable to the English who praise a poet for those aspects of his work which are ‘individual’ and original. According to Eliot , this undue stress on individuality shows that the English have an uncritical mind. The best and the most individual part of a poet’s work is that which shows the maximum influence of the writers of the past. To quote his own words: “Not only the best, but the most individual part of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.’

Tradition does not mean a blind adherence to or slavish imitation of the ways of the previous generations.  For Eliot, tradition is a matter of much wider significance. Tradition in the true sense of the term cannot be inherited, it can only be obtained by hard labour. This labour is the labour of knowing the past writers. It is the critical labour of sifting the good from the bad, and of knowing what is good and useful. Tradition can be obtained only by those who have the historical sense.

Historical sense:

The historical sense involves a perception, “not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presence”.  The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones but with a  feeling  that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer down to his own day, including the literature of his own country, forms one continuous literary tradition.  He realises that the past exists in the present, and that the past and the present form one simultaneous order. This historical sense is the sense of the timeless and the temporal, as well as of the timeless and the temporal together. It is this historic sense which makes a writer traditional. A writer with the sense of tradition is fully conscious of his own generation, of his place in the present, but he is also acutely conscious of his relationship with the writers of the past. In brief, the sense of tradition implies (a) a recognition of the continuity of literature, (b) a critical judgment as to which of the writers of the past continue to be significant in the present, and (c) a knowledge of these significant writers obtained through effort. Tradition represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of ages, and so its knowledge is essential for a good writer.

Eliot further points out that no writer has his value and significance in isolation. The work of a poet in the present is to be compared and contrasted with works of the past, and judged by the standards of the past. Such comparison and contrast is essential for estimating the real worth and significance of a new writer and his work. Eliot’s conception of tradition is a dynamic one. According to his view, tradition is not anything fixed and static; it is constantly changing, growing, and becoming different from what it is. A writer in the present must seek guidance from the past, he must conform to the literary tradition. But just as the past directs and guides the present, so the present alters and modifies the past. When a new work of art is created, if it is really new and original, the whole literary tradition is modified, though ever so slightly. The relationship between the past and the present is not one-sided; it is a reciprocal relationship. The past directs the present, and is itself modified and altered by the present. Every great poet like Virgil, Dante, or Shakespeare, has added something to the literary tradition out of which the future poetry will be written.

Impersonality of Poetry

According to Eliot, the artist must continually surrender himself to something which is more valuable than himself, i.e. the literary tradition. He must allow his poetic sensibility to be shaped and modified by the past. He must continue to acquire the sense of tradition throughout his career. In the beginning, his self, his individuality, may assert itself, but as his powers mature there must be greater and greater extinction of personality. He must acquire greater and greater objectivity. A good poem, he must realize,  is a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written. Hence a poet must be  absorbed in acquiring a sense of tradition and expressing it in his poetry. As Eliot says, “the progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”.  In other words, the poet’s emotions and passions must be depersonalized; he must be as impersonal and objective as a scientist.

Eliot compares the mind of the poet to a catalyst and the process of poetic creation to the process of a chemical reaction. When a piece of platinum is introduced into a vapour chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide, the two combine to form sulphuric acid, but the platinum remains unchanged. The poet’s mind is this platinum, the catalytic agent. The emotions and feelings are sulphur and oxygen. The poet’s mind  is necessary for new combinations of emotions and experiences to take place, but it itself does not undergo any change during the process of poetic combination. The personality of the poet does not find expression in his poetry. The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him “will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” There should be an extinction of his personality. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” This impersonality can be achieved only when the poet acquires a sense of tradition, the historic sense, which makes him conscious, not only of the present, but also of the past and its presence.

Poetic emotion

There is always a difference between the artistic emotion and the personal emotions of the poet. His personal emotions may be simple or crude, but the emotion of his poetry are complex and refined. He may express ordinary emotions, but he must impart to them a new significance and a new meaning. Even emotions which he has never personally experienced can serve the purpose of poetry.

Eliot compares the poet’s mind to a  receptacle in which are stored feelings, emotions in an unorganised and chaotic form till, “all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” Just as a chemical reaction takes place under pressure, so also intensity is needed for the fusion of emotions. The more intense the poetic process, the greater the poem. The poet is merely a medium in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. In the poetic process, there is only concentration of a number of experiences, and a new thing results from this concentration. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may find no place in his poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may have no significance for the man. Eliot thus rejects Romantic subjectivism and Wordsworth’s theory of poetry as emotions recollected in tranquility. He concludes: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Eliot does not deny personality or emotion to the poet. Only, he must depersonalize his emotions for, ‘the emotion of art is impersonal’. This can be done by the use of a  set of conceptual symbols or correlatives which endeavour to express the emotions of the poet.

Objective Correlative

Eliot’s doctrine of poetic impersonality finds its most classic formulation in the concept of the ‘objective correlative’ which he first used in his essay on “Hamlet and his Problems”in his first book of criticism “The Sacred Wood” (title borrowed from Frazer’s Golden Bough). According to Eliot, the poet cannot communicate his emotions directly to the readers; he must find some object or medium suggestive of it to  evoke the same emotion in his readers. This ‘objective correlative’ is “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” so that “when the external facts are given the emotion is at once evoked.”  It is through the objective correlative that the transaction between author and reader necessarily takes place. The reader responds to the object or medium and through that, to the work of art.

For example, in Macbeth the dramatist has to convey the mental agony of Lady Macbeth and he does so in “the sleep-walking scene”, not through direct description, but through an unconscious repetition of her past actions. Her mental agony has been made objective in the burning taper, so that it can as well be seen by the eyes as felt by the heart. The external situation is adequate to convey the emotions, the agony of Lady Macbeth. Instead of communicating the emotions directly to the reader, the dramatist has embodied them in a situation or a chain of events, which suitably communicate the emotion to the reader. Similarly, the dramatist could devise in Othello a situation which is a suitable objective correlative, for the emotion of the hero. But in Hamlet there is no object, character, situation or incident which adequately expresses the inner anguish of the Prince of Denmark. His suffering is terrible, but the full intensity of his horror at his mother’s guilt is not conveyed by any character or action in the play. The disgust of Hamlet is inexpressible because it is  in excess of the facts as presented in the drama. In other words, Shakespeare has failed to find a suitable ‘Objective Co-relative’ for the emotion he wanted to convey. Herein lies the artistic failure of Hamlet.

Wimsatt and Brooks write that “the phrase ‘objective correlative’ has gained a currency probably far beyond anything that the author could have expected or intended.” It is generally agreed that the term ‘objective correlative’ was probably borrowed from Washington Allston’s Lectures on Art. Cleanth Brooks interprets  ‘objective correlative’ as “organic metaphor”, Eliseo Vivas as a ‘vehicle of expression for the poet’s emotion’, and  Allan Austin as ‘the poetic content to be conveyed by verbal expression’. Eliot’s concept of the objective correlative is based on the notion that it is not the business of the poet to present his emotions directly but rather to represent them indirectly through the ‘objective correlative’ which become the formula for the poet’s original emotions. It  is a kind of summation of what Eliot, along with Hume and Pound, derived from the theory and practice of the French symbolists and the writings of the French critic Remy de Gourmont..

Dissociation of Sensibility

Another of the popular phrases of Eliot is ‘Dissociation of Sensibility’ and its opposite, ‘Unification of sensibility’,  first used in his essay “The Metaphysical Poets” from Homage to John Dryden.   By unification of sensibility, he means, “a fusion of thought and feeling’, “a recreation of thought into feeling’, “a direct sensuous apprehension of thought’. Such fusion of thought and feeling is essential for good poetry. Eliot finds such unification of sensibility in the Jacobean dramatists and the Metaphysical poets.  He  Eliot explains how this fusion of thought and feeling takes place: “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences. The ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary… in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” Another aspect of this unification of sensibility, is the harmonious working of the creative and critical faculties of a poet. A great poet must of necessity be a great critic as well, for he must constantly analyse, reject and select. Only a  poet-critic does criticism proper while others can indulge in creative or historical types of criticism at best.

Bad poetry results when there is, “dissociation of sensibility”, i.e. the poet is unable to feel his thoughts and there is a split between thought and feeling. According to Eliot, in the late 17th century a dissociation of sensibility set in with the onset of rationalism.  The result was a decline in poetic quality. The influence of Milton and Dryden and Pope who composed their poetry from their wits and not their souls has been particularly harmful in this respect. There are attempts at unification of thought and feeling in Keats and Shelley. But the Victorian poets fail to transmute ideas into emotions and sensations. As Eliot writes, “Tennyson and Browning are poets; and they think, but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.” A mature poet can experience or feel his thought as he does the odour of a rose. In other words, there is a sensuous apprehension of thought in good poetry. Merely dry thoughts or logic do not make a great poet. A poet’s function is not to versify ideas but to transmute them into sensations. Eliot’s concept of “Dissociation of sensibility” has been of far-reaching influence in modern criticism.

The entire criticism of Eliot deals with poetry or poetic drama which he tried his best to revive and defend. His “Three Voices of Poetry” deals with this gamut – lyric the first voice, dramatic monologue, the second and drama, the third voice. He held the view that the language of poetry must approximate the spoken language and advocated the use of free verse. To sum up,  he helped in correcting the taste of the poetry  reading public; he re-evaluated English poets; and he initiated a critical theory of his own. His concept of the impersonal theory of poetry, unified sensibility, his emphasis on the perfection of the spoken idiom for poetry, and his formulae such as the ‘objective correlative’ are all invaluable aids to the understanding and appreciation of poetry. Thus, in many ways, Eliot has proved himself to be the most important critic of the twentieth century.